Elizabeth Bishop, eminent American poet and short-story writer, was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, a builder, died when she was an infant. Her mother became mentally ill and was institutionalized in 1916, after which Bishop lived with her maternal relatives in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she began to develop her extraordinary talent for observing the natural world in all its complex detail. This period of her life, suffused by the warmth of her maternal family and the beauty of the land, had a profound effect on her writing. She sought to recreate Nova Scotia in both prose and poems, some of which were not published until near the end of her life. “The Moose” (1976), a poem she composed over two decades, revisits a bus trip from Nova Scotia to New England after the funeral of her aunt. The bus stops when a moose steps into the road, “towering, antlerless, / high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses)” (Bishop 173). To the poem's observer, the moose is “otherworldly” (173) and comes out of an “impenetrable wood” (172), exemplifying the natural world's power to interrupt human analysis and recollection just as it interrupts the bus ride. This interruption is a source of joy for the passengers; for a moment, nature's inscrutability relieves the pressures of memory and loss. One of Bishop's lifelong concerns was the human tendency to see the nonhuman world in terms of its own structures — high churches, safe houses — and to seek in natural objects a reflection of subjective experience. Sometimes, her poems “us[e] natural encounters and landscape to sift and clarify individual memory and pain” (Kalstone 96), but almost always, the domesticating impulse of the human observer is seen as problematic.
In “Brazil, January 1, 1502” (1965), for example, the contemporary traveler is compared to European colonists of the sixteenth century who “ripped away into the hanging fabric” of nature's tapestry, behind which its native inhabitants are “always retreating” (Bishop 91-92). Here, as in many of Bishop's poems, a journey to a strange land is also a journey into the self, and an opportunity to explore the unsettling relationship of description to mastery. For Bishop, the representation of nature always raises questions about the nature of representation. Like the partially obscuring fog that emanates from the forest in “The Moose,” the analogy between writing and conquest signals Bishop's investment in indirect ways of seeing, and raises the possibility of less invasive types of travel.
Bishop made her own journey to Brazil in 1951, where she settled with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, who would be her partner until Macedo Soares's death in 1967. Until that point, Bishop rarely spent more than a year in one place. When she was seven, her paternal grandparents gained custody of her and moved her back to Worcester, where she received her first formal schooling. John Wilson Bishop was a successful building contractor, and the Bishop family was, by her account, distressed to find their granddaughter living so close to the earth in Great Village, a town without electricity or plumbing, “running about the village in bare feet” (Kalstone 27). After moving to Worcester, Bishop was often homesick for Nova Scotia and chronically ill. Out of the disruptions of her childhood evolved many of the recurrent themes in her work, among them homesickness, dislocation, and divided selfhood.
After graduating from Vassar College in 1934, she lived briefly in New York City and then traveled to Brittany, Paris, London, North Africa, Spain, Provence, and Italy, among other places. In 1938, she bought a house in Key West with Louise Crane, a college friend, but remained a restless traveler, taking trips to Nova Scotia, North Carolina, and Mexico. Although she was a lifelong itinerant, “travel in her poems largely remains the idea of travel,” as Lorrie Goldensohn puts it, and her poems speak mainly of places where she settled (Goldensohn 102).
Among those places, Florida is evoked brilliantly in her writing. She loved Florida for its ramshackle beauty as well as its ugliness, and described it as a place that was “about to become wild again” (Kalstone 63). Her letters from the period are full of descriptions of the natural wonders she found there; she often sent her friend the poet Marianne Moore, who lived in New York, bits of shell and specimens she collected from the sea. She wrote a series of celebrated landscape poems including “Florida,” “Cape Breton,” and “At the Fishhouses,” which look outward at specific places in order to gaze inward at imagination and memory. The language of these poems is sharply attuned to organic growth and decay, and Bishop often discovers frailty and flux in the landscapes she studies, a dilapidation that seems tentatively to reflect human states and spaces. In “The Fish,” similar patterns of deterioration are observed on the eponymous creature and in domestic space: “Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper: / shapes like fullblown roses / stained and lost through age” (Bishop 42). These poems often pit the scale of nature against the scale of human life. As David Kalstone writes, “her Florida is itself an organism, living and dying on a scale beyond human memory. It has its own geological and biological economy” (73). In “Cape Breton,” the speaker remarks, “Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been / abandoned” (Bishop 67). Thus, travel challenges the imagination's totalizing tendency.
Because of her minute attention to the details of the natural world, Bishop is often considered one of the major pioneers of descriptive poetry in the twentieth century. But her work is also interested in the psychological possibilities of observation, and critics have often noted her tendency to “interiorize” physical descriptions (Kalstone 46-7). Her work asks repeatedly what relationship the physical world has to the spirit. More often than not, the possibility of harmony between nature and mind or of epiphany through natural observation is foiled, emphasizing the distance between human knowledge or vanity, and nature. Bonnie Costello observes that for Bishop, “modernity's Nature … doesn't have a human face or voice, does not confirm our personhood” (Costello 349-50). Though Bishop once wryly referred to herself as a “minor female Wordsworth” (Letters 222), her sketches of the natural world often implicitly reject the Romantic tendency to personify or subjectivize nature (Costello 349). As her Robinson Crusoe says in “Crusoe in England,” the waterspouts on his island are “beautiful, yes, but not much company” (Bishop 163). Not only does nature resist personification, its sublimity was for Bishop — unlike Words-worth — “most powerful not when the natural object is vast but when it is small, when it appears that the observer can own or possess it, hold it in her hand” (Rosenbaum 82). She wrote that nature's power to ignite the imagination was in its minutiae: “Reading Darwin one admires the beautiful and solid case being built up out of his endless, heroic observations … and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels that strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown” (83). Her interest lay at the juncture of observable detail and the unfathomable.
Brazil, where Bishop spent most of her adult life, also provided a wealth of material for her work, including a number of translations of Portuguese poetry. She took a memorable trip down the Amazon River in 1960, which is partly described in the poem “Santarem.” In the Brazil poems published in her penultimate collection, Questions of Travel (1965), tropical geography offers a lens on her childhood in Nova Scotia. “What I'm really up to,” she wrote, “is recreating a sort of deluxe Nova Scotia all over again in Brazil” (Kalstone 152). The strangeness of Brazil enables her to return imaginatively to her equally strange childhood, as geographic scale shifts into temporal scale and globe-travel gives way to timetravel.
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