Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Bishop’ Category

Sunday, 4 a.m.

An endless and flooded
dreamland, lying low,
cross- and wheel-studded
like a tick-tack-toe.

At the right, ancillary,
“Mary” ‘s close and blue.
Which Mary? Aunt Mary?
Tall Mary Stearns I knew?

The old kitchen knife box,
full of rusty nails,
is at the left. A high vox
humana somewhere wails:

The gray horse needs shoeing!
It’s always the same!
What are you doing,
there,beyond the frame?

If you’re the donor,
you might do that much!
Turn on the light. Turn over.
On the bed a smutch —

black-and-gold gesso
on the altered cloth.
The cat jumps to the window;
in his mouth’s a moth.

Dream dream confronting,
now the cupboard’s bare.
The cat’s gone a-hunting.
The brook feels for the stair.

The world seldom changes,
but the wet foot dangles
until a bird arranges
two notes at right angles.

Certain cultures believe that when you dream, your soul becomes a moth that travels the world. 

For this reason, some African tribes don’t allow cats where they sleep because their souls may be captured before they wake. This is what comes to mind when I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Sunday, 4 a.m.

This poem was written in Brazil in 1956, the year Bishop won the Putlizer for her book North & South. She had been in Brazil for five years, arriving there from New York in 1951 to visit friends Mary Stearns Morse and Lota de Soares.

She’d met the couple in New York in 1942 and arrived in Brazil for a visit, intending on staying only a few weeks. After several delays, she decided to remain indefinitely.

Soares later became Bishop’s partner, and Bishop remained in Brazil off and on for the next 20 years. When Soares died in 1967, Bishop and Morse were the two heirs to the Soares’ estate.

In this poem, we see the world of Bishop’s Brazilian house. I imagine her looking around her room and seeing the tick-tack-toe scenery of Brazil through her window. She later paints the landscape as a puzzle of squares, crosses and dots.

She wakes in the early morning light and sees a statue of the Virgin Mary in a recess of the wall. The image of Mary in her blue robes reminds her of a crucifix and the cross- and wheel-studded landscape out the window. In earlier drafts of this poem, the landscape is crucifix- and nail-studded.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

With the crucifixion in mind, she thinks of a knife box full of rusty nails in the kitchen, and from somewhere outside the window someone yells, It’s always the same. There’s so much work to be done and you’re off doing who knows what. The horse needs shoeing! Can’t you at least do that much! The old kitchen knife box is full of rusty nails, rusty thoughts, the way we speak to one another, our nagging concerns.

A few lines later the cat enters the poem with the moth in its mouth. The word moth brings to mind the 1946 poem by Bishop called The Man Moth. In that poem, a nervous, flittery man moth tries to fly to the moon but remains trapped on earth.

Draft One, Sunday, 4 a.m. from the Bishop papers
in the Vassar College Libraries

In Sunday, 4 a.m., the moth is caught in the mouth of the cat. This is how this poem works. From one image to another, we follow the mind of the speaker as she lies in bed in a half-dream state. She is in that thin place between worlds in the early morning hours.

This kind of poem, phanopoeia, varies from logopoeia, which follows a storyline. In phanopoeia, we receive layer after layer of image: landscape, crucifix, Mary, knife box, horse, cloth, cat, moth, brook, stair, bird song. There is no plot, narrative or sequence of events for the reader to follow.

Bishop also uses rhyme scheme in this poem. Rhymed words determine where the poem goes. She needs a word to rhyme with stair and decides on bare. In her first draft, a picture is bare instead of a cupboard. It later changes to cupboard, which is more specific and reminds us of the knife box in the kitchen.

Dream dream confronting—
& now the picture’s bare.
The cat has gone a’hunting.
The brook feels for the stair.

Draft Two

In the second draft of the poem, we see the words:

and gray mind nails brokenspaces


Before dangles, the handwriting is mostly illegible, but with a magnifying glass I can piece together the words:

where the (illegible) a stair

This is where the poem opens for me. I begin to see what lies behind the images. A gray mind tries to nail down broken spaces but dangles, is incapable of nailing down the gray places in her mind.

Draft Three

These words aren’t published but show up beneath the surface of the text. The reader can sense them in the way the words are structured, in the style of poem chosen, in the voice and tone of the poet.

These broken spaces dangle in the mind. The word gray appears in the poem earlier. The gray horse needs shoeing, the gray horse needs nailed down. It’s always the same!

What is there beyond the frame of the mind, beyond our eyes. What is it we think when we turn inward and detach from our surroundings?

Surrounding the poem is the idea of subordinance, of people under the rule of the church and government. She uses the words vox humana, the voice of mankind, in line 11, to suggest Latin chant in a Catholic church service.


Brazil currently has the largest concentration of Catholics in the world. More than 73 percent of the population is Catholic. This could have been true in the 1950s as well. She must have been surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes.

We are thinking of the nails in the hand of Christ on the cross, we are thinking of nails in the mind of people confronted with the price for their sins.

If we look at the beginning of the poem, we see that dreams are lying low. It’s hard to piece together the broken places in our mind if what we think is secondary to the whole.

The cloth has been altered, the dreams have been altered. Mary’s close and blue, like the sky.

In draft two, we see the words that will become the final stanza:

Where the gray dark mind rises
(while) it’s foot dangles
above a bird places
two notes at right angles.

In the gray, dark mind of this poem, a bird appears. Its song rises at right angles in a two-note chorus. It later becomes:

The world never changes
the wet foot dangles
and a bird arranges
two notes at right angles

The poem ends at right angles. On our right, we see Mary Mother of God, on our left is the old kitchen knife box. We turn from right to left in the bed, we turn from the woman lying next to us to a statue of a woman in a recess of the wall. The wet foot dangles in the waters of this life, in this culture, in this home, in a world it is trying to be part of, in a place confronted with dreams.

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I’m not trying to do anything specific
in my poetry — only to please myself.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Below are excerpts from an interview with Elizabeth Bishop by Alexandra Johnson, published in the Christian Science Monitor (23 March 1978, 20-21) and later in the book Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro and published in 1996:

Geography of the Imagination

Why do you write poetry? What about it, as a genre, appeals to you over other writing forms?

Well, who knows really? I began when I was very young, about eight. I was very isolated as a child and perhaps poetry was my way of making familiar what I saw around me. Many things probably contributed to this. For example, my Nova Scotia grandmother was a great hymn singer. I grew up with those sounds, and, in fact, still have hundred of them floating around my head. My aunt, like so many Victorians, belonged to the village’s poetry society and she recited a great deal to me — Longfellow, Browning, Tennyson. So obviously I memorized a lot and it soon became an unconscious part of me.

Poetry has always seemed the most natural way of saying what I feel. I never intended to “be” a poet, as I think people set out to do today. I never wanted to think about any label. It’s far more important to just keep writing poetry than to think of yourself as a poet whose job is to write poetry all the time. What do such people do during those long, infertile periods? Poetry should be as unconscious as possible.

Does a poem begin for you with a sound, an image or an idea?

It differs with every single poem. Some poems begin as a set of words that you aren’t sure what they apply to, but eventually they accumulate and become lines, and then you see some pattern emerge. Sometimes an idea haunts me for a long time, though poems that start as ideas are much harder to write. It’s easier when they start out with a set of words that sound nice and don’t make much sense but eventually reveal their purpose. Again, the unconscious quality is very important. You don’t ask a poem what it means, you have to let it tell you.

How long do you carry a poem in your head before committing it to paper? 

From 10 minutes to 40 years. One of the few good qualities I think I have as a poet is patience. I have endless patience. Sometimes I feel I should be angry at myself for being willing to wait 20 years for a poem to get finished, but I don’t think a good poet can afford to be in a rush.

One thing I love about your poetry is its ability to render the ordinary extraordinary, to make us look again and again at the familiar. Is this a conscious motive on your part?

I’m not trying to do anything specific in my poetry — only to please myself. The greatest challenge, for me, is to try and express difficult thoughts in plain language. I prize clarity and simplicity. I like to present complicated or mysterious ideas in the simplest ways possible. This is a discipline which many poets don’t see as important as I do. Complexity, I think, often obscures fuzzy thinking or verse masking as poetry. If poetry isn’t disciplined then probably the eye which observed or the mind which translated the experience lacked a certain discipline.

One senses that you are not observing an object for the first time, but rather returning to it again and again to capture its “otherness.” Will you comment?

I am very object-struck. Critics have often written that I write more about things than people. This isn’t conscious on my part. I simply try to see things afresh. A certain curiosity about the world around is one of the most important things in life. It’s behind almost all poetry.

I am very fond on painting and this may account for some of my interest in observing things closely. My aunts sketched and painted watercolor and this may have subtly influenced me. In fact, I often wish I had been born a painter rather than a writer.

Bishop’s writing studio in Samambaia, Brazil.

What sources feed you?

Inspiration is a very curious word. When I was living in Brazil, I had a study on the side of a mountain that overlooked a waterfall and a small pool beneath it. Around it was a clump of royal bamboo. When visitors came, many of whom had never read a single line I had written, they would point to the bamboo and say, “So this is where you get your inspiration!” I thought at one point of pinning a sign on the bamboo saying, “Inspiration.”

This mysterious thing we call inspiration isn’t that easy to pinpoint. But it’s the strange and wonderful thing about writing poetry — you can never predict where or when or even why something moves you to write a poem. That’s what I mean when I said a poem comes in many guises. A poem may be inspired by something that happened 20 years ago but until I’ve written it, I may not have realized that at the time I was greatly moved. I think you have a trust that the eye and mind are constantly recording, and be patient enough for them to reveal what they have observed….

Your poems employ extensive imagery of maps and geography. Could you discuss why?

Well, my mother’s family wandered a lot and loved this strange world of travel. My first poem in my first book was inspired when I was sitting on the floor, one New Year’s Eve in Greenwich Village, after I graduated from college. I was staring at a map. The poem wrote itself. People will say that it corresponded to some part of me which I was unaware of at the time. This may be true.

Geography III, in part, concerns itself with the search for and definition of home. Is writing poetry your way of finding or having that home?

Interestingly enough, many of those poems were written when I decided to leave Brazil where I had lived for a long time. This may have contributed to this feeling. I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. He carries it within him….

You have resisted almost every temptation to which both good and bad poets yield today — such as confessional or obscurely structural poetry. Have you always had a true sense of your poetic voice?

No, I haven’t This used to worry me a great deal and still does. In my first book, I was worried that none of the poems went together, that there was no discernible theme. I feel this about everything I’ve ever done. But apparently this is a consistent voice. I am grateful but astounded to hear this.

Yet in almost every poem one hears the calm, consistent voice of Elizabeth Bishop. Does this happen naturally, then?

Well, I’m not calm, but it’s nice to hear! I never think of any tone when writing. It just comes, I guess….

A final question: What one quality should every poem have?

Surprise. The subject and the language which conveys it should surprise you. You should be surprised at seeing something new and strangely alive.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The painter does not paint in order to fill the canvas with colours, any more than a poet writes to fill a page with words. — René Magritte

There are things in each of us as humans so fragile they exist nowhere except in ourselves. These watercolors by Bishop seem like fragile pieces of the poet, each a small poem in a way, providing some glimpse into the interior of her life. In 1977, she wrote in a letter to some friends, How I wish I’d been a painter . . . that must really be the best profession — none of this fiddling around with words — there are a couple of Daumiers at the Phillips that make me feel my whole life has been wasted.

Bishop had been the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, a Pulitzer prize winner in 1956, and a Neustadt prize winner in 1955, and yet she could say she was a “poet by default.”

The paintings in this post are from the book Exchanging Hats, published in 1996. The text in parenthesis by the title is from the editor, William Benton.

Nova Scotia Landscape (watercolor and gouache, 5 1/4 x 8 inches)

Nova Scotia Landscape: What interests me about this painting are the colors she chooses. The pale blue of the waves seem to be diffused with light. By painting the lake in the foreground, she gives us a sense of space, a wide area of water and a landscape that expands out from that. The lake dominates the foreground as a living, working cluster of brushstrokes crowded together to form its own sky. The water gives a sense of time and motion, splinters in time and the illusion of movement.  She uses flat, overlapping strokes to form the water as Van Gogh sometimes does.

Vincent Van Gogh. Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889

Bishop claimed to be a primitive painter. By definition that is art with an awkward relationship to the formal qualities of painting. Difficulties with drawing and perspective result in an awkward and charming vision, strong use of pattern, unrefined color and simplicity rather than subtlety of tones. But however primitive Bishop’s paintings are, in looking at them we begin to realize a painter was at work when she wrote her poems. An example of this can be seen in the second stanza of “Poem”:

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
-that gray-blue wisp-or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)

41 Charles Street (watercolor, gouache, and ink 8 1/4 x 6 3/4 inches)

41 Charles Street (A candidate for Bishop’s earliest-known painting. In 1934, she lived at 16 Charles Street in New York’s Greenwich Village – a block away from number 41.) In many of Bishop’s paintings we see layers of bricks. The repeated patterns here train our eyes on the painting in the same way the brush strokes do on the lake in Nova Scotia Landscape. Repeated patterns in painting as in poetry give the image a sense of rhythm. They remind us that patterns are everywhere in the shapes and figures around us and that familiarity gives our world a sense of balance.

Sha-Sha (1937, watercolor, 9 x 6 inches)

Sha-Sha (Sha-Sha is the nickname of Charlotte Russell, a Florida friend of Bishop’s. It would be nice to know the story behind the silly arithmetic 1 + 4 = 7; although something of the same spirit exists in the relation between the loosely handled figure and the fancy realism of the wood grain, complete with mildew.) I’m not sure what Charlotte Russell looked like, but I know how difficult it is to paint a human figure. Once again, we see a pattern in her sweater and in the wood grain.

Sha Sha is set against the wavelike pattern in the wood, as if she’s not part of the natural world. When you paint a person, you want to communicate some level of experience you have with them. Sha Sha seems only a decorative part of this world set against the shifting patterns behind her. Even though this painting seems partly doodled because Bishop didn’t finish the arms, the light complexion of Sha Sha and the spring-like color in her clothes set against the dark complexity of the wood suggest to me the relationship between the two women, light and dark.

Bishop painted Sha Sha  during two months she spent in Keywaydin camp in Naples, Florida, with her friend Louise Crane in 1937. According to Brett Millier in her biography about Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, the poet met “Charlotte (Sha Sha) and Red Russell, newlyweds spending their honeymoon at the camp, who remained her friends for forty years . . . . She discovered her love for fishing on that trip to Florida and pulled in a sixty-pound amberjack days after she arrived. Her notebooks show lines and images that later became the poem The Fish.” (p. 113)

Palais Du Senat (1938, watercolor and gouache, 5 1/2 x 9 inches)

Palais Du Senat (Henry Miller, a fellow watercolorist, wrote ecstatically about his discovery of Chinese white. Bishop uses it off and on in her work, here perhaps for the first time.) When I look at Bishop’s paintings, I often question what perspective I would use if I were doing the same one. Here she paints the tops of these buildings against a pale sky. The Chinese white makes the buildings more three-dimensional than the figure of Sha Sha is. To paint roofs and windows and walls and solid spaces in contrast to a washed open sky, you must know how to build up the surface of the building to make it look powerful enough to stand on its own. Contrasting white with black gives any painting a sense of detail and structure.

Sleeping Figure (watercolor and gouache, 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches)

Sleeping Figure (The figure here is Louise Crane, with whom Bishop traveled in Europe and lived in Key West. They were lifelong friends.) Louise Crane met Bishop at Vassar in 1930. The two traveled extensively in Europe and bought a house together in Key West in 1937. Crane’s father was a millionaire and her mother founded MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She and Crane toured many art galleries together while they were in Europe, and this may have contributed to Bishop’s desire to paint.

Bishop’s paintings don’t have shadows or contrasts in delicate grays or blacks. They are point blank tone color next to tone color. There are no mists in Bishop’s paintings or the difficult graduating of tone. One central figure usually dominates the image. She paints Crane here asleep in a bed. Crane looks small and distant in the patterns of the blanketed wood-framed bed and not as sturdy as the wooden panels surrounding her. She seems impossibly small in relation to her heavy surroundings and almost untouchable. She lies in contrast to the horizontal lines of the blanket, stuck and unmovable, not going with the flow but firm-lipped and stolidly wrapped in her robe and scarf.

When I look at this painting, I think of a car accident Bishop was in with Crane and Margaret Miller, another friend of Bishop’s. Crane was driving fast at about five thirty in the afternoon through the Burgundy countryside of France when a passing car forced them off the road. The car rolled and all three women were thrown out. “At first I thought we were safe,” Bishop wrote. “Then we realized simultaneously, I think, that Margaret’s right hand and forearm were completely gone.” (Millier, 124) Bishop was traumatized by Margaret’s injury, not only because this happened to such a close friend but because it meant the loss of the right arm to an aspiring painter. From the apartment on the Ile St. Louise near the Quai d’Orléans where they stayed after Margaret left the hospital, Elizabeth wrote Quai d’Orléans and dedicated it to Margaret. The poem ends:

We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
their interview.
“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
I want to tell you,
“as it does itself–but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.”

E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine (undated, watercolor, 10 x 8 inches)

E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine (The rainbow arc at the top of the picture – resembling the handle of a suitcase – bears the legend “The Dream.” In the diagram of the slot machine the notations read: “Crystal Ball; spark: handle; opening in glass case.” The two sets of numbers are: 2 3 8 10 7 1 and 3 2 5 4 1.) This is one of the most fascinating paintings by Bishop. How is a slot machine a dream? A dream is a response within us in search of new ways to respond to our emotions. But this is a thing made of metal and wood, a strange surreal house with a crystal ball. This hollow image with its openings and closings is assembled in the center of the painting. It isn’t three dimensional but flat and square. The contraption is an expression of opportunity, the different ways numbers can fall and are woven with fate. This dream is a simply constructed machine, but it enjoys the challenges of effort and numerous directions our lives can take.

Interior With Calder Mobile (watercolor and gouache)

Interior with Calder Mobile (The interior of Samambaia, the house built by Lota near Petropolis, in the mountains outside Rio de Janeiro, where she and Bishop lived. Rosinha Leao, to whom it is inscribed, was a friend of theirs in Brazil.) Lota de Soares was Bishop’s domestic partner for 15 years. Another thing that interests me about Bishop’s paintings is what she chooses to paint, interior and exterior landscapes. Her book titles also reflect this same relationship to space: North & South, Questions of Travel, Geography III. This painting celebrates the warm interior space around a stove. The placement of the stove is juxtaposed with a mobile, the desire in the painting and perhaps in the painter for imagination and spontaneity. Life isn’t all solid and stable. Part of it is out of control. The mobile represents a more abstract part of Bishop’s mind, one that isn’t grounded in reality. It’s not furniture, it’s not flowers, it’s not bricks, it’s a floating, evolving object, like planets revolving in space.

Red Stove And Flowers (1955, watercolor and gouache)

Red Stove and Flowers (The inscription reads: May the Future’s Happy Hours/Bring you Beans & Rice & Flowers/April 27th 1955/Elizabeth. This is one of the very few pictures composed as an explicit symbolic statement. It contains a poem – and a formula of proportion – for domestic balance. The stove is “magic”; and against a wall of blackness, the aggregate whites voice an impassioned reassurance. All underlined by one of her specialties: wood grain.) This painting like the last centers around a stove. The stove is the same size as the vase of flowers and proportionally incorrect. I think of the small stove in Bishop’s poem Sestina, which begins:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

Some of Bishop’s paintings have softer edges than others. Red Stove and Flowers, emphasized by a black background and a red brick box is very simple to take in visually. Red box, blue circle, two pans with opposite facing handles. It’s a study in balance. Everything has its place. All the shapes fit in a space inside the puzzle. It’s a simple, strong painting about the most important things in life, food for our bodies and beauty for our souls.

Red Flowers On Black Devil's Paintbrush (gouache, 9 1/2 x 6 inches)

Red Flowers on Black Devil’s Paintbrush was painted in Maine a year or two before Bishop’s death. I have made numerous attempts to paint red flowers and appreciate that Bishop came up with a way to do it using a black background to give the petals a sense of delicacy. Alienating the slender flowers in the black space brings out the intention of the flowers and how we are to relate to their fragility. Our eyes are drawn to the arch of the stems. In this painting as in all of Bishop’s paintings, she recreated the images as authentically as her skill allowed. Magritte said, “The language of authenticity ‘gives the word’ to words by making them say what they never said.” In other words, representing something as authentically as we can gives it all the depth and mystery it needs.

Pansies (1960, watercolor and gouache, 12 1/2 x 15 inches)

Pansies (Ambitious in its realism, it is also, as far as we know, Bishop’s largest painting 12 1/2 x 15 inches.) These pansies in contrast to the red flowers are surrounded by patterns. The weave in the basket and the vertical and horizontal lines in the tablecloth give our eyes a lot to take in. The circular shapes of the flowers contrast the square patterning in the cloth and the books. When I look at a painting, I ask myself what I would add or delete if I were painting the same thing. There are no unwanted objects in this painting, and the objects find relief by being placed inside patterns as the subjects often do in Bishop’s poems.

Brazilian Landscape (watercolor and gouache)

Brazilian Landscape There are so many places for the eye to go in this painting, it’s hard to take it all in at once. Thick and thin strokes, short and long lines end up on top of each other. This is a painting almost entirely about movement and about efficiency of space, fitting in a landscape so that all the surfaces meet each other at the right places. It’s made more complex with dots and a rich mix of colors. No particular object dominates the painting. It’s a package of details.

When I look at this painting, I think of Japanese prints of waterfalls and mountains with a tiny human figure in the foreground to show the insignificance of man in the scheme of things. There aren’t any humans in Bishop’s Brazilian landscape either, and they are rarely central in her poetry. She never did a self-portrait that I know of, but all her paintings are self-portraits in a way, with well-designed, rhythmic spaces where little is exaggerated and everything seems slightly understated. We can hear the painter at work again in her poem about Brazil. It begins:

Brazil, January 1, 1502

… embroidered nature… tapestried landscape.

Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a stain under leaf turned over;
monster ferns
in sliver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.

Graveyard With Fenced Graves (watercolor and gouache, 5 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches)

Graveyard with fenced Graves The Poinciana Tree in Key West, also called The Flame Tree, is said to be one of the world’s most colorful trees. When I see this painting by Bishop, I think of the Japanese woodcut by Hiroshige that Van Gogh made a copy of. When Bishop painted her poinciana tree, she must have had the Hiroshige/Van Gogh plum tree image in mind.

Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left) to its copy painted by Van Gogh

In looking at both Bishop’s paintings and poetry, I have been trying to discover more about the person behind the work. There are no sensuous surfaces in either her paintings or poems but reality made in thin brush strokes. These paintings represent an intuited need in Bishop to express the limpid fluidity of her own life. She stands back away from her subjects and regards them, not with thick heavy brush strokes or harsh outlines but with a close embrace of details and a strong sense of composition. In many paintings, I see a woman not surrounded by a whorl of activity but a woman sitting alone in a room, trying to discover her place in the space she finds herself in. She painted what presented itself to her in dimly lit rooms. She was a watercolorist, and all these paintings of rooms and islands and flowers and horizons originally lived in water, something that’s never solid. There’s a mutability about watercolor we don’t have with oil. I think flowers are anchored better in water than they are in oil. It suggests the vulnerability of the image. The 42 paintings in Exchanging Hats represent their own form of lyrical interludes in Bishop’s life. It was a new way for her to absorb the details around her.

Tombstone For Sale (undated, watercolor, gouache and ink, 6 x 9 inches)

Lillian Hellman said in the opening of her book Pentimento: “Old paint on canvas as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines. A tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento, because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it is as well to say that an old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

What interests me about both the poetry and paintings of Bishop is that underneath the surface of her text or her paint seems to be something else waiting to reveal itself, another poem, another painting. In her art, whatever form it takes, are things, objects, places she manages to save on paper and beneath the surface of each lies a mystery. I read one of her poems and think, there must be something I’m missing. So I read it again, searching for what lies beneath the exterior, a song of love or of pain or of some vision she had of life, some truth about the human condition. I search to find the dress, the child, the dog beneath the open sea.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) won the Pulitzer for her book: North & South

The Weed

I dreamed that dead, and meditating,
I lay upon a grave, or bed,
(at least, some cold and close-built bower).
In the cold heart, its final thought
stood frozen, drawn immense and clear,
stiff and idle as I was there;
and we remained unchanged together
for a year, a minute, an hour.
Suddenly there was a motion,
as startling, there, to every sense
as an explosion. Then it dropped
to insistent, cautious creeping
in the region of the heart,
prodding me from desperate sleep.
I raised my head. A slight young weed
had pushed up through the heart and its
green head was nodding on the breast.
(All this was in the dark.)
It grew an inch like a blade of grass;
next, one leaf shot out of its side
a twisting, waving flag, and then
two leaves moved like a semaphore.
The stem grew thick. The nervous roots
reached to each side; the graceful head
changed its position mysteriously,
since there was neither sun nor moon
to catch its young attention.
The rooted heart began to change
(not beat) and then it split apart
and from it broke a flood of water.
Two rivers glanced off from the sides,
one to the right, one to the left,
two rushing, half-clear streams,
(the ribs made of them two cascades)
which assuredly, smooth as glass,
went off through the fine black grains of earth.
The weed was almost swept away;
it struggled with its leaves,
lifting them fringed with heavy drops.
A few drops fell upon my face
and in my eyes, so I could see
(or, in that black place, thought I saw)
that each drop contained a light,
a small, illuminated scene;
the weed-deflected stream was made
itself of racing images.
(As if a river should carry all
the scenes that it had once reflected
shut in its waters, and not floating
on momentary surfaces.)
The weed stood in the severed heart.
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
It lifted its head all dripping wet
(with my own thoughts?)
and answered then: “I grow,” it said,
“but to divide your heart again.”

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About the size of an old – style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
—this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free, it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic
handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
—that gray-blue wisp—or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)
A specklike bird is flying to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It’s behind—I can almost remember the farmer’s name.
His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
titanium white, one dab. The hint of steeple,
filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,
must be the Presbyterian church.
Would that be Miss Gillespie’s house?
Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time.

A sketch done in an hour, “in one breath,”
once taken from a trunk and handed over.
Would you like this? I’ll probably never
have room to hang these things again.
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he’d be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R.A……..

I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided—“visions” is
too serious a word—our looks, two looks:
art “copying from life” and life itself.
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

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Robert Lowell (1917-1977) won the Pulitzer for his book: Lord Weary's Castle

Skunk Hour

For Elizabeth Bishop

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

Bishop and Lowell met at a dinner party in 1947 when she was 36 and he was 30 and corresponded for the next 30 years. Bishop said, “I remember thinking that it was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry — and thinking that it was, that it could be, strangely easy. Like exchanging recipes for making a cake."

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love . . . .’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody’s here–

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

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The Moose

for Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts.  The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering.  Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night.  Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores.  Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative.  “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r‘s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

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for Elizabeth Bishop

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon,

Where is?—I’m here?—an upward inflection in
Query and in response, a genetic libretto rehearsed
Tens of thousands of years beginning to leave its indelible trace,

Clawprint of language, ritual, dense winged seed,
Or as someone were slowly buttoning a shirt.
I am happy to lie in the grass and listen, as if at the dawn of reason,

To the clear communal command
That is flinging creaturely will into existence,
Designing itself to desire survival,

Liberty, companionship,
Then the bird near me, my bird, stops inquiring, while the other
Off in the woods continues calling faintly, but with that upward

Inflection, I’m here, I’m here,
I’m here, here, the call opens a path through boughs still clothed
By foliage, until it sounds like entreaty, like anxiety, like life

Imitating the pivotal move of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle,”
Where the lovebird’s futile song to its absent mate teaches the child
Death—which the ocean also whispers—

Death, death, death it softly whispers,
Like an old crone bending aside over a cradle, Whitman says,
Or the like the teapot in Elizabeth Bishop’s grandmother’s kitchen,

Here at one end of the chain of being,
That whistles a song of presence and departure,
Creating comfort but also calling for tears.
by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

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In this video clip from Helen Vendler’s Voices and Visions series, you can hear Marianne Moore reading her poem, “The Fish.” Both Moore and her protege Elizabeth Bishop wrote poems entitled “The Fish.” Below is correspondence between them on Bishop’s fish poem.

The Fish
by Marianne Moore (published 1921)

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron throught the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it

The Fish
By Elizabeth Bishop (published 1940)

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of its mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
— the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly —
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
— It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
— if you could call it a lip —
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels — until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Correspondence on “The Fish”

1. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: January 14, 1939

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 79.

2. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 5, 1940

I have one Key West story that I must tell you. It is more like the place than anything I can think of. The other day I went to the china closet to get a little white bowl to put some flowers in and when I was rinsing it I noticed some little black specks. I said to Mrs. Almyda, “I think we must have mice” – but she took the bowl over to the light and studied it and after a while she said, “No, them’s lizard.” …

I am so much longing to see some of your new poems. I am sending you a real “trifle” [“the Fish”]. I’m afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway! I left the last line on so it wouldn’t be, but I don’t know …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87.

3. Marianne Moore to Louise Crane: February 14, 1940

[Bishop was romantically involved with Louise Crane and shared a house with her at Key West.]

I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago, which I am thinking of having tattooed on me – in which she tells of Mrs. Almeyda’s identifying certain little specks in a white bowl, as “Them’s lizard.” And she enclosed a very valorous and concentrated poem about a fish. I thought of your somewhat pensive statement, “Elizabeth is writing some poems: she is working hard and will have more things” – when we were pondering the probability of enough to make a book; I wondered where th fish had begun to be written, and if I have missed any companion piece to it.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 397.

4. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 19, 1940

I have been reading and rereading your letter ever since it came … And thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on “the Fish.” I did as you suggested about everything except “breathing in” (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was. “Lousy” is now “infested” and “gunwales” (which I meant to be pronounced “gunn’ls” ) is “gunnels,” which is also correct according to the dictionary, and makes it plainer. I left off the outline of capitals [for the first word of each line], too, and feel very ADVANCED.

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87-88.

5. Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop: March 17, 1940

I am glad the Partisan Review wants the article, and since the canoe trip gives a picture of Florida, you could surely send it. And if you ask if I “could bear” to see it again and if I “have the time” to read it, I’ll tell you a fib and say when I said I liked “The Fish” that I meant merely the title, not the poem itself. I don’t feel I am any real help to you and should so like to be. But in anxiety to protect the work I scrutinize every detail.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 398.

6. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: March 14, 1940

Partisan Review has asked me to write a “Florida Letter.” … They are printing “The Fish” this month, I think.

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 89

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Breakfast Song

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.
Before the poet Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979, she wrote this poem for her partner Alice Methfessel, who died last week on June 28. Here’s the article on Methfessel published in the Boston Globe this morning: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2009/07/10/alice_methfessel_66_muse_to_poet_elizabeth_bishop/

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