Shards of Childhood Memory, a study on Elizabeth Bishop
Critical Essay: A Study of Elizabeth Bishop-Published in Pembroke Magazine, Pembroke University,
North Carolina – 1990
“…we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” (12) The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
“Bishop’s practice offered Lowell a model of how to take intensely imaged shards of childhood memory and assemble them in both prose and poetry.’ (421) Helen McNeil, Voices and Visions, Edited by Helen Vendler
Loss and memory earmark much of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose with a particular poignancy that transcends the personal. Spurred by a heartfelt longing for home, for loved ones, for roots she was deprived of through separation from her parents at an early age, Bishop takes both herself and the reader on board a train that travels the span of her life—the geography of her observations. And because she never wallows in self pity or generates work out of an elaborate display of emotion, her subtlety of tone gives the work a refined finish. For Bishop, childhood itself is loss, is separation. The child is catapulted into a larger world, thereby leaving that which was safe and familiar behind. Bishop recreates those early experiences that so indelibly mark her work with their shards of memory.
As though restraint shields her from too much intimacy, too much intensity, Bishop shares her world with quiet reserve in The Collected Prose. Here she paints a vivid portrait of her grandparents:
From where I lay, across the room, stretching my tiny bones on what they called a sofa, I peered at them in dumb wonder as they reclined, head-to-foot, in their dramatically lit, mysterious, dark-green-curtained niche. I can look back on them now, many years and train trips later, and clearly see them looking like a Bernini fountain, or a Cellini saltcellar: a powerful but aging Poseidon with a small, elderly, curly Nereid. But that night I was dazed, almost scandalized. I had never seen either of them en deshabille before, not even in bed. In fact, I scarcely knew them (14).
What is interesting to note is Bishop’s sense of removal. She longingly looks upon what can only be recreated in more ideal terms through her art. It is as though she were dwarfed in her “tiny bones” by those people to whom she refers as “them” and “they”. She scarcely knew them as a child, and knew them no better as an adult. Many trips later she claims to see them clearly, although she never portrays their inner beings to any depth, but rather paints their exteriors in the likeness of “a Bernini fountain, or a Cellini saltcellar”. Perhaps, as a perpetual outsider, Bishop has no way to enter the other, for that would entail too many dangers: the biggest danger being the loss of her perspective as an observer.
Grandparents often crop up often in Bishop’s work—they, and other relatives, were her caretakers, yet seldom is there a display of affection for them or from them. In “The Moose” she hears her “grandparents talking (171). She lets the reader in on their conversation, which is so plausible as to be real. It is Bishop’s strength as a writer that returns the familiar to us:
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. (169)
This putting away of Amos is also a haunting reference to her mother who was committed to a sanatorium after the early death of Bishop’s father in 1911. Bishop was keenly familiar with long absences. Hospitalized on several occasions, Bishop’s mother was finally committed to a hospital for life and the five-year-old Bishop saw her for the last time.
Elizabeth Bishop lived from 1914 to 1917 in the coastal town of Great Village in Nova Scotia. After that she was pulled by grandparents back to the place of her father’s birth in Worcester. “The front of the house looked fairly familiar, very much the same kind of white clapboards and green shutters that I was accustomed to, only this house was on a much larger scale, twice as large, with two windows for each of the Nova Scotia ones and a higher roof” (17). She was uprooted and allowed to spend only her summers in Nova Scotia until she was thirteen.
Despite the upheaval of place, David Kalstone says in Five Temperaments: “She sees with such rooted, piercing vision, so realistically, because she has never taken our presence in the world as totally real” (26). Memory was the only constant for Bishop in the unpredictability of changing events and circumstances—the sanctuary to which she returns time and again for solace and creative source. Out of the remains of the past, the artist is forced into creating herself/himself. From the anvil of longing, she forged an artistic identity that was truly unique.
Brought to Worcester “against her wishes with a surprising extra set of grandparents” the young Bishop was plummeted into a “strange and unpredictable future” (17). The house in this new land seemed ominous to her, and something foreboding hung in the air. Bachelard says: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace” (6). After that move Bishop became a wanderer in search of home. Both imagination and memory eventually became her home. “There exists for each one of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory” (15). If the house, as Bachelard suggests, is our first world, our first real universe, then how difficult those formative years must have been for Bishop as she was shifted from one household to the next. In her new home “the cats were ugly, orange and white; they lived in the barn and ran away from me—not like my black nanny in Nova Scotia” (19). How unsettling this new place must have seemed; the foundation of her world had been wrenched from her. She longed for the more pastoral setting of Nova Scotia.
To sustain her stay with this “new set of grandparents” she re-images Nova Scotia throughout “The Country Mouse.” There, even “The soldiers, some of whom I actually knew, wore beautiful tam-o-shanters” (28). Intense longing must arise when one is propelled into a place that does not meet with one’s previous experiences—it is from this longing that imaginative seeding can sometimes take root. As Helen McNeil notes: “Bishop used the circumstances of her life as the occasion of her poems; her lyric ‘I’ is usually autobiographical. Yet, while it is possible to see moments in Bishop’s life in her poems, it is not appropriate to attempt to derive an intimate biography from them. Bishop’s interest was not in her self but in the human knowledge gained from the self’s experience” (415). Her past informs both her prose and her poetry, becoming the impetus behind many of her images.
In Worcester her loneliness grew when Agnes, the maid (one of her few friends) leaves for Sweden to marry. For Bishop this was another goodbye in a long chain of farewells. With this new trauma she underwent a series of health problems: “First came constipation, then eczema again, and finally asthma. I felt myself aging, even dying. I was bored and lonely with Grandma, my silent grandpa, the dinners alone…at night I lay blinking my flashlight off and on, and crying.” Helen McNeil states, “Elizabeth got eczema, asthma, and bronchitis—illnesses of the lost child” (417). To re-imagine her past was the only alternative for the “lost child”. “In the Waiting Room” evokes this sense of being uprooted:
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
—Aunt Consuelo’s voice—
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me;
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn’t look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen (160).
Details become the land upon which Bishop stands, and the form of this poem spills as though it too were “falling, falling”. What anchors both poem and its writer are the vivid details: “…Naked women with necks/wound round and round with wire/like the necks of light bulbs” (159). Near, the end of the poem there’s a greater sense of identification and recognition of what’s around her:
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us just one? (161)
The familiarity of everyday things: boots, hands, the National Geographic holds Bishop’s world together. The poem is about forging an identity—creating, in fact, Bishop’s very own identity. This becomes evident is the questioning self: “I scarcely dared to look/to see what it was I was…/why should I be my aunt/or me, or anyone?” (159) Although these questions seems to negate the importance of a self, that questing is implicit in the very questioning. And again, near the end of the poem, the same quizzical turn: “How had I come to be here, /like them, and overhear/a cry of pain that could have/got loud or worse but hadn’t?” (161) These lines are reminiscent of the scream that hangs over “The Village.” Perhaps Bishop’s questions are the most compelling moments in the poem.
Still, the picture is bleak because “In The Waiting Room” she “was sliding/beneath a big black wave/another, and another” (161). Even looking into the outer world brings no relief— having left an internal world where the self is tossed about, only to step outside where “the war is on” and everything is “night and slush and cold” (161), is little consolation. There seems no solace in either the external or internal world. Nothing, finally, seems completely knowable. Yet, because Bishop has communicated this experience, there is an indication there is some grounding found in language itself. Exorcised by the poem, she is able to surface.
A similar questing for identity is found near the end of “The Country Mouse.” Here Bishop says: “You are you…how strange you are, inside looking out. You are not Beppo [the family dog] or the chestnut tree, or Emma, [the maid] you are you and you are going to be you forever” (33). It is interesting to note the removal of self—Bishop does not say “I am me and I am going to be me forever.” No, in her eight uses of “you” she places herself outside herself. Even though she claims “you” as meaning herself, she is on the outside looking in. Such distancing speaks of the urgency this recall claimed, and Bishop compares this awareness to “coasting downhill”. She is left with a tantalizing question at the end of this childhood portrait: “Why was I a human being?” (33)
There are no answers to such questions in Bishop’s work, except perhaps in the
geography of things and even here one’s grasp is illusive because everything passes,
changes into something else, as can be seen in “Crusoe in England,” where islands spawn islands, “like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs/of islands” (165). It is this notation of illusive life around her that prevents her from developing a completely nihilistic viewpoint.
Even with these inner tensions at play, Bishop the artist never loses her empathetic eye or wallows in self pity. Looking at Beppo she notices: “He jumped nervously at imaginary dangers, and barked another high hysterical bark. His hyper-thyroid eyes glistened, and begged for sympathy and understanding” (21). In her “At Home With Loss” Joanne Feit Diehl says: “Experience of loss can yield to mastery” (179). It can also yield to an emphatic eye—to the quiet acquiescence attributed mostly to masters of a spiritual discipline. Bishop’s mastery was gained through the tutelage of those early losses. She transformed her sense of homelessness into a form of knowledge which found its expression in her poetry.
This acquiescent consent to life is most evident in the villanelle “One Art.” Here Bishop looses everything—keys, a watch, houses, cities, rivers, a continent, and finally a mysterious “you,” who is someone significant to her:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster (178).
There is a sense of forcing herself to say “write it” that makes one suspect that particular loss, that mysterious “you,” was a disaster, and that word loudly echoes by the end of the poem. Also, it is interesting to note how loss in this poem begins with domestic items and moves into a more universal collection of losses before swinging back.
A magical and incantatory effect can be found in the villanelle—the very qualities of childhood itself as is evidenced in nursery rhymes and their memorable appeal. And perhaps it is finally the simplicity of the poem’s tone that makes “One Art” so believable and seamless: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster” (178). There is an element of understatement here and obvious control—as though such a matter-of-fact acceptance endowed one with power, or possibly released one from remorse. As Diehl says in “At Home With Loss”: “In her late poem ‘One Art’ (whose title conveys the implicit suggestion that the mastery sought over loss in love is intimately related to the control she maintains in her poetry), Bishop articulates the tension between discipline in life and the force of circumstance” (178). Clearly Bishop plays the role of the survivor in this poem—strip everything away and she will “miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” It is through restraint that events do not become a “disaster”. Having relinquished much in childhood, the habit of loss becomes Bishop’s method of creating a personal vision.
There is a sense of acquiescence to the inevitable in Bishop’s poems. This acquiescence in turn graces life because “…so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster” (178). If things have their own intention, then Bishop implies that they are beyond human control; there is no other way to be in the world, except to surrender. Losses, renunciation, “the art of losing,” are all variations of the same theme. Perhaps loss, like the emptying of self, occurs because “Life and the memory of it so compresses/they’ve turned into each other” (177), as Bishop says in the “Poem” printed just before “One Art.” Everywhere present in this writer’s work is the mutability of things. What appears as one thing quickly dissolves into another, and given her history, she lived those alternations in her work. As Bachelard says “…we cover the universe with the drawings we have lived” (12).Bishop’s friend, Robert Lowell, said of Bishop in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art: “I am sure no living poet is as curious as Miss Bishop. What cuts so deeply is that each poem is inspired by her own tone, a tone of large, grave tenderness and a sorrowing amusement…when we read her, we enter the classical serenity of a new country” (206). Not only is Lowell’s reference evident in her poetry, but it is also visible in her prose as well. And a great “sorrowing amusement” is readily felt “In the Village,” as well as tenderness.
Here the landscape echoes form anvil to bell to the sea, and finally to her mother’s scream remembered in Bishop’s childhood. Nonchalant, nearly unobtrusive, her mother’s scream “hangs…in the past, in the present, and these years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps” (251). Yet, this scream so permeates the atmosphere that all one has to do is “flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it” (251).
The scream itself is unobtrusive in the work because of Bishop’s subtlety. Never does the fear of that scream intercede between reader and experience. She employs understatement to convey memory. There is a tenuous quality to the “perhaps” as she speculates that it might not have been loud to begin with—only grew louder in recollection. In order to distance herself, Bishop weaves this portrait in the third person—again she’s become the spectator looking through the train-window of her past. Similarly, in “In the Village,” Bishop’s mother’s “dressmaker was crawling around and around on her knees eating pins as Nebuchadnezzar had crawled eating grass. The wallpaper glinted and the elm trees outside hung heavy and green, and the straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay” (252). But in this seemingly domestic scene the “clang” from the blacksmith’s shop transmutes into a scream; each becoming the other, suffusing this story. Where innocence reigns, terror lurks: “The dress was all wrong. She screamed” (253).
To Bishop’s credit, the child never allows the scream to consume her, because she never fails to keep an outward gaze upon the world. Her writing has a celebratory quality because of this: “Outside, along the matted eaves, painstakingly, sweetly, wasps go over and over a honeysuckle vine” (253). Only an eye that credits the world with a certain endearment reads the minute details of something as small as wasps. Bishop does this over and over again in her work.
Octavio Paz remarked of Bishop’s work: “The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop has the lightness of a game and the gravity of a decision” (212). There is a similarity between this statement and Lowell’s observation of her “sorrowing amusement.” What appears done in the light-heartedness of a game actually carries the weight of a powerful and conscious decision: to portray her past with economy of language and emotion. Bishop’s is the writing of reticence, as Octavio Paz says. Even though Bishop has her own sorrow, she does not fail to sometimes see the suffering of others: “My grandmother is sitting in the kitchen stirring potato mash for tomorrow’s bread and crying into it. She gives me a spoonful and it tastes wonderful but wrong. In it I think I taste my grandmother’s tears; then I kiss her and taste them on her cheek” (259). This is a time where a sign of affection is shown by the child—it is as though the display of too much emotion might upset the balance of the speaker.
In the background, the family is in perpetual wait for a “scream.” “But it is not screamed again, and the red sun sets in silence” (260). Here, the use of “it” has an ominous quality. It is as though that sound emanated from far beyond the earth’s atmosphere; as though any fear were so vast, its origins must stem from elsewhere, perhaps even beyond the scope of human understanding. Yet, counterbalancing this seriousness is a child-like perception: “She has a bosom full of needles with threads ready to pull out and make nests with. She sleeps in her thimble” (258). This portrayal of Miss Gurley the dressmaker has a child’s playful point of view. This child’s vision of the world, one that sees little differentiation between things, (or the unity and inter-connectedness of all things) can also be felt in Bishop’s view of the animal world. In tow with Nelly (the family’s cow) on the way to pick mint, Bishop says: “We both take drinks…her [Nelly’s] nose is blue and shiny as something in the rain. At such close distance my feelings for her are mixed…she gives my bare arm a lick, scratchy and powerful, too, almost upsetting me into the brook” (265). What a lighthearted moment this is.
Yet, the scream from childhood never fails to break through the atmosphere, always bearing with it a certain solemnity. As though in anticipation of its arrival, Bishop says: “But neither of us is really listening to what he is saying; we are listening for sounds from upstairs, [Her mother stayed in a bedroom upstairs.] but everything is quiet” (271). It is her mother they are listening for, but the mother has been committed to a mental hospital. The young child feels shame about her mother’s confinement: “Every Monday afternoon I go past the blacksmith’s shop with the package [food, clothing, books—things the grandmother has prepared for Bishop’s mother] under my arm, hiding the address of the sanatorium with my arm and my other hand” (273).
A sense of nervous anticipation permeates the air so that by the end of this childhood sketch the reader is returned to the sound which opened the speaker’s memory. In the beginning of “In The Village” Bishop’s lines read: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over the Nova Scotian Village” (251). By the end of this portrait she asks: “Oh, beautiful sound, strike again!” (274). Even though she is referring to the blacksmith’s “clang,” both that sound and her mother’s scream have become so intertwined they are interchangeable. Even the sea bespeaks that sound. So indelibly pressed within her, the memory will not disappear. And since she says “Oh beautiful sound” Bishop has recognized the inextricable twinning of sorrow with its parallel, beauty.
In her eerie “Sestina,” a child is frozen in rhyme; as though this stance of form could arrest time, its perpetual flux that ensues with its passing. But as Helen McNeil notes: “Bishop is not a poet of the self [though her work generates from self] and self-representation like Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath or the later Lowell; the autobiographical in Bishop tends to be submerged or displaced until late in her career” (397). In this poem we don’t even know the sex of the child, as though that removed Bishop from too close a biographical identification, although one can conclude the child is a girl from the visual objects that the child notices in the poem: the little Marvel Stove, buttons like tears, and the flower bed in front of the house that the child drew. This distancing enables Bishop to keep the reader from suspecting she is the subject of the poem; a sign of that “reticence” Paz attributes to her. It is interesting to note the stove’s name, Marvel, for that is the quality of childhood itself; a state where wonder and amazement freely exist.
The “almanac” in this poem becomes a guide as it disperses information. Perhaps, for Bishop it even becomes the lost father: “It was to be, says the Marvel Stove./ know what I know, says the almanac” (123). This sounds like a stern father addressing one of his offspring: I simply know what I know and that’s that, the almanac seems to be saying. “Time to plant tears” (124), says the almanac” in the last stanza. This too is a directive statement. When rain beats on the roof of the house, it becomes symbolic of an inner struggle. Willard Spiegelman states: “We don’t normally think of Bishop as a poet of struggle; the tension in her poems is mostly internalized, and confrontations, when they occur, are between the self, traveling, moving, or simply seeing” (169).
In “Sestina” tea becomes tears, rain becomes tears, buttons become tears, and “the house feels chilly,” and there’s nowhere to turn except toward the imagination. In order to compensate and to survive her own tears as well as her grandmother’s, the child draws a “rigid” house and a winding path leading to it—as though rigidity could become form, or possibly become one’s home. An unbending house will at least contain her after the arduous task of getting there has been accomplished:
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house. (124)
In the end, truth remains enigmatic. But it is “time to plant tears” and that is resolution, however a tenuous a conclusion it may seem.
Transmutable as Bishop’s seeing is, even the visible testimony of poems could become tears, could become home. “The house we are born in is physically inscribed in us…it is a group of habits” Bachelard says (14). Bishop’s “Sestina” is full of the habits of her childhood experiences: the repetition, the poem’s sense of control is nearly rigid, as though that might stabilize the flux of change in the outer world. Her pain and her joy can then become the reader’s own lament for what is lost in childhood. The tercet ending this poem seems to be saying, time to get on: “Time to plant tears.”
Perhaps a sorrowing amazement would better describe Bishop’s poetry than Lowell’s “sorrowing amusement.” Everywhere prevailing, everywhere suffusing her work, is the awe, the wonder that belongs to childhood. This perhaps arises from an acute sense of isolation, from what was lost in Bishop’s past. Robert Pinsky; says in E.B. & Her Art:
“She wrote so well about people and places because she had a powerful motive, embattled; that motive, in nearly all the poems, is to define oneself away from two opposing nightmares: the pain of isolation, and the loss of identity in the mass of the visible world.” (156)
Sensing that much is worn away with time, she is perhaps urged by an inner need to capture the ephemeral moment: “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty/from unnumbered fish with that old black knife,/the blade of which is almost worn away” (65). This is where Bishop finds roots. She must have the anchoring of an individual vision, because as she later says in the same poem: “…me a believer in total immersion” (65). One who dares go under needs such grounding.
Separation is law in the continuum of life; the suffering resulting from it can lead to transcendence. Elizabeth Bishop knows renunciation. It is implicit in the history of her life which has been recorded in her prose. With acquiescence she accepts loss, not as something that will entangle her, but that puzzles and then finally informs her. Here she speaks of the ephemeral:
All those other things—clothes, crumbling postcards, broken china; things damaged and lost, sickened or destroyed; even the frail almost-lost scream—are they too frail for us to hear their voices long, too mortal? (274)
Perhaps those early losses made Bishop yearn to cast words into form; perhaps her poetry and prose re-parented her orphaned past. Having left what was safe and familiar behind, Bishop retrieves the shards of her childhood memories and gives them a final home in the geography of her art.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics Of Space. Boston, Beacon Press. 1964.
Bishop, Elizabeth, The Complete Poems/1927-1979. New York, Farrar. Straus.Giroux,1983.
Bishop, Elizabeth, The Collected Prose. New York, Farrar, Straus. Giroux, 1983.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. Modern Critical Views/Elisabeth Bishop. B. Harold Bloom, New York,
Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Kalstone, David, ed. Five Temperaments. New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.
McNeil, Helen. Voices & Vision/The Poet In America. Ed. Helen Wadies. New York, Random House. 395-425, 1987.