Elizabeth Bishop

January 30, 2007

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(1911-1979)

Only child, father died when she was eight months old, her mother was in and out of mental institutions until she was diagnosed insane and permanently institutionalized
Taken in by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, but soon prooted by her father’s wealthy family to Worcester, Massachusetts and then to Boston with her mother’s sister
Suffered from asthma and allergies and spent time in bed memorizing poetry
Attended Vassar College where she made important literary friendships, most notably with Marianne Moore
Sailed to Brazil on a planned trip around the world in 1951 suffering from depression- fell ill after eating fruit and fell in love with her care taker, Lota de Macedo Soares
Returned to the US 15 years later after Soares’ health deteriorated; Soares joined her in New York only to commit suicide
Began teaching at Harvard in 1970
Published relatively few poems, was a perfectionist
Fame and influence has mounted steadily since her death
One of the central progenitors of contemporary poetry
Masters and remakes inherited lyric models
Poetry is precise in its descriptive language and rigorous in its discretion; inspects the physical world closely
Feelings of grief, tenderness, terror and desire are vividly present within Bishop’s rhythms, metaphors and forms

Quotations:

Here, above, / cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight. / The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat. / It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on, / and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon. / He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties, / feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold, / of temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
But when the Man-Moth / pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface, / the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges / from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks / and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings. / He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, / proving the sky quite useless for protection. / He tremples, but must investigate as high as he can climb.
Up the facades, / his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him, / he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage / to push his small head through that round clean opening / and be foreced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light. / (Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.) / But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns / to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits, / he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains / fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly. / The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way / and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed, / without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort. / He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must / be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. / Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie / his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window, / for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, / runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him, / hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil, / an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens / as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids / on tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips. / Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention / he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over, / cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

-The Man-Moth (in whole)

Bishop notes Man-Moth is a “newspaper misprint for ‘Mammoth'”

I caught a tremendous fish / and held him beside the boat / half out of water, with my hook / fast in the corner of his 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 ireises backed and packed / with tarnished tinfoil / seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass. / The 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, andweaponlike, / 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.

-The Fish (in whole)

This is the time of year / when almost every night / the frail, illegal fire balloons appear. / Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint / still honored in these parts, / the paper chambers flush and fill with light / that comes and goes, like hearts.
Once up against the sky it’s hard / to tell them from the stars- / planets, that is- the tinted ones: / Venus going down, or Mars,
or the pale green one. With a wind, / they flare and falter, wobble and toss; / but if it’s still they steer between / the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
receding, dwindling, solemnly / and steadily forsaking us, / or, in the downdraft from a peak, / suddenly turning dangerous.
Last night another big one fell. / It splattered like an egg of fire / against the cliff behind the house. / The flame ran down. We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up / and up, their whirling black-and-white / stained bright pink underneath, until / they shrieked up out of sight.
The ancient owls’ nest must have burned. / Hastily, all alone, / a glistening armadillo left the scene, / rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out, /
short-eared, to our surprise. / So soft! -a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! / O falling fire and piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!

-The Armadillo (in whole)

Dedicated to Robert Lowell

 

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