Role of Space + Geography in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry

Endeavouring to examine the role of space and geography in the entirety of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic catalogue, would result in a sprawling, ill-focused argument.  Rather, by narrowing the focus to ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’, a more specific understanding of the function that space and geography play in her poetry can be appreciated, which can then serve to explain and illuminate her wider body of work.  This analytical movement, from a more limited scope of greater detail towards a broader understanding of the context that space and geography hold in her poems, is entirely appropriate, as it mirrors the movements of the subjects in both poems.

In both ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’, the reader is presented with a speaker who appears somewhat removed and distant from their general surroundings and environment, an observer; but by actively engaging in a detailed inspection of their immediate space they are initiated into a more expansive understanding of the world and their broader surrounds.  ‘In the Waiting Room’ depicts a disinterested young girl in a dentist’s room, who, while waiting for her Aunt Consuelo, examines a National Geographic magazine.  The scrutiny of the magazine and its photographs leads her to the surprising realisation that she is part of a much bigger world, and that she is directly united and connected with others, “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one too?”[1]  The date on “…the cover / of the National Geographic, / February 1918”,[2] powerfully emphasises the direct and contemporaneous link with her own reality.  Similarly, in ‘At the Fishhouses’, Bishop employs a distant observer to provide, in detail, the appearance of the fishhouses and fishing equipment:

…but the silver of the benches,

the lobster pots, and masts, scattered

among the wild jagged rocks,

is of an apparent translucence[3]

But this observer too, comes to physically engage with their surroundings:

…One seal particularly

I have seen here evening after evening.

He was curious about me. He was interested in music;

like me a believer in total immersion,

so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.[4]

In these poems, each speaker’s engagement with their geography and surrounding space brings them knowledge and signals the dissolution of the erected physical and mental space that exists between them and the environment.  This is a common development in Bishop’s poetry: a close focus on details, space and geography, leading to a different understanding of the wider world and an altered perspective for the subject.  However, the knowledge they gain from this inclusion is limited, and not necessarily beneficial; in gaining it they become more weathered or unsettled.  Their new knowledge is not complete, nor does it provide any answers to their existence, it merely signals an awareness of their insignificance in the history of the world and the cycle of seasons and human life.

Although not a Confessional poet, like her contemporary and friend Robert Lowell, Bishop’s poetry does include some autobiographical content.  The North-Eastern United States and Canadian settings of many of her poems, including ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’, provide a direct link to her own childhood.  Indeed the opening line of ‘In the Waiting Room’, “In Worcester, Massachusetts,”[5] identifies her hometown and the young girl is called Elizabeth, and ‘At the Fishhouses’ is set in Nova Scotia where she lived as a young child.  Other poems such as, ‘Paris, 7 A.M. and ‘The Burglar of Babylon’, respectively draw content from her years in France and Brazil.  But the link between autobiography and her poetry is generally obscured and buried in abstraction.  To the uneducated reader, the locales depicted are meaningless, and while an informed reader may understand these places as correlating with periods of Bishop’s life, eliciting conclusive evidence that her poetry includes more intimate autobiographical elements remains difficult.  Ironically, it is this ambiguity that most keenly reflects the rootlessness of Bishop’s well-travelled life; and importantly, the rootlessness that appears frequently in her poems.  Her poems reflect a search for a knowledge of place and a connection with geography of the wider world, and it is this aspect of her poetry that forms in large measure the autobiographical inclusions within her poems.  Rootlessness derives from a lack of ongoing connection with a particular space or place, and reflects a state of distance and disenfranchisement of spirit.  In Bishop’s poetry, this disenfranchisement manifests itself in detailed, but distant and stative, descriptions of space and geography.  As in ‘At the Fishhouses’ andIn the Waiting Room’, her subjects, or narrators, initially seem to be removed and distant observers of what is occurring around them rather than participants, and their active engagement with the world is precluded – although, this is eventually broken.  This mental and physical space between the speaker and the physical world, mirrors the space Bishop inserts between her autobiographical details and the reader.  Bishop acknowledged that she was shy, “Exile seems to work for me,”[6] and this raises the question of whether Bishop herself is the speaker.

Both poems are based in the geography of Bishop’s past, and the atypical inclusion of her own name in ‘In the Waiting Room’ provides reasonable assurance that she is the speaker.  While the speaker’s identity in ‘At the Fishhouses’ remains inconclusive, the poem’s setting and Bishop’s inclusion that the old man “was a friend of my grandfather”[7] make it highly likely that the speaker is, in fact, a young Elizabeth.  Bishop’s presence in these two poems is not unusual and does occur in other poems, such as ‘The Burglar of Babylon’ and ‘One Art’.  Bishop may well be the speaker in the poems, but their revelations may not actually reflect her own journey seeking context and meaning in the world.

For Bishop, the vehicle by which any individual finds meaning and context is by establishing their place in their immediate surroundings and the wider world.  This is why geography and space are central to her poems: meaning and knowledge are only directly derived from a detailed knowledge of them.  For anyone to find context and meaning in the world requires them to understand their place in it.  This understanding can only be achieved in detailed and layered observations of the physical geography of one’s surrounding.  Goldensohn asserts that space in Bishop’s poems reflects “the urge to move and see around a thing in context, to place and measure through multiplying perspectives.”[8] Bishop’s poetry, including both chosen poems, is replete with physical descriptions of place, geography and full of depictions of “natural surfaces, the raw stuff of geography.”[9]  In fact, she “…create[s] her poetry using descriptions of place through full, loving, naturalistic detail.”[10]

Goldensohn’s reference to Bishop’s search to find meaning and context though multiplying perspectives is an interesting and informative observation, as it easily links with the idea of rootlessness.  By travelling and wandering, a broader, first-hand experience of space and geography can be attained.  This in turn provides multiple perspectives and context through which greater meaning and knowledge is attained.  This may explain Bishop’s peripatetic life, as being, in part, a roving search for her own context and meaning, and that by experiencing many places and a wider sweep of space, she may achieve a more profound knowledge.  ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ are both examples of how Bishop’s poetry reflects this search for meaning through an understanding of space.  However, greater experience and context does not always confer greater knowledge.  It could be argued that the rootlessness and distance of the speakers in her poems indicate that they have failed to find meaning or context, or have not yet understood or realised their place, or have yet to find a proper and nourishing sense of belonging geographically.

However, for Bishop, just possessing first-hand experiences of geography and place is not adequate; the context that is important is how the speaker interacts with that geography.  For her, knowledge is derived from a personal and individual understanding of how anyone fits into space and the wider world.  However, to achieve this, there must be an understanding not only of place, space and geography, but a corresponding understanding of self.  To understand place and how you fit in it requires a knowledge of yourself, a sense of what you yourself are.

‘In the Waiting Room’, the speaker, a young girl, is just realising that her life has a broader connection to the world than the narrow confines of a dentist office in New England.  The images within the National Geographic magazine deliver this realisation – the name of the magazine itself reinforcing that for Bishop it is geography and space that bring understanding and context.  The photographs of “the inside of a volcano,”[11] of “Osa and Martin Johnson/ dressed in riding breeches”,[12] of “A dead man slung on a pole”,[13] and “black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs / Their breasts were horrifying”[14] cause a jarring realisation that these images form a part of her world, that they are a part of who she is, and that she, her aunt, and they, are connected in one reality, one world, one place:

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, February, 1918.[15]

The young girl’s new sense of place and the broadness of her connection to it is unsettling.  She realises that there is a bigger geography in which she needs to find her place:

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.[16]

The speaker is youthful, six years old, and is just beginning her search for place in the world.  She is at the start of her journey for knowledge and the limited boundaries of her world, her limited geography, have been made apparent.  She grasps that she will need to explore and understand this new, greater sense of space and how she connects with it; she is moving from childlike exclusion to an adult inclusion with the world:

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities– 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 all just one?[17]

The sense of geography and place in ‘At the Fishhouses’, similarly acts to confer knowledge, but in contrast to the jarring realisation of a wider world and the sense of expectant engagement felt by the young girl in ‘In the Waiting Room’, place and geography have a different feel.  This time the speaker is more detached from the setting, and there is a sense of weariness and decay.  From the opening line “…the poem sets us into a deserted and distant place, and… its world of seaside decay…”[18]  The decline and decay of the seaside village and its fishhouses is explicitly, and most vividly, depicted in the old man, who the speaker informs us:

…was a friend of my grandfather.

We talk of the decline in the population

and of codfish and herring

while he waits for a herring boat to come in.[19]

There exists an overwhelming sense that time has worn things away and that space and geography assert a dominance and authority over the characters in the poem, that the geography and space that surrounds them cannot be changed.  Robert Parker posits, “‘At the Fishhouses’ and the place-obsessed poems of Bishop’s middle career grant or submit to the authority of external place.”[20] And “Bishop’s presence will not change it, at least not for the fisherman or his world, which goes on, however fadingly, regardless of her.”[21]

The old man’s engagement with this overbearing and irresistible geography is signified by a fishing knife.  The fisherman’s knife repeatedly and directly engages with the surrounding environment and is dulled by this, “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away”,[22] and the fisherman’s shuttle is “worn and polished”.[23]  Similarly, the old man is altered by his engagement with the surrounding geography.  He has gained physical trappings of the encompassing ocean and the fish he engages with.  But the “…sequins on his vest and on his thumb”,[24] are more than fish scales hanging on his skin and clothes, they suggest his actual resemblance to a fish and that he has found his natural place in the world.  He has been transformed by the environment, as have “the small old buildings with an emerald moss / growing on their shoreward walls.”[25]  Unlike the young girl starting to understand her space, the old man is nearing the end of his journey, he has found his geographic context and connected with his space; he understands all the myriad details that Bishop uses to describe his world and through it has gained a knowledge of his place and geography.

Bishop, though, does not consider geography and space to be fixed and immutable.  With age comes more experience, more details, and more of Goldensohn’s ‘multiplying perspectives’.  Knowledge and understanding are gleaned from journeying through space and geography, and accordingly they change as one’s journey progresses.  Hence the different perspectives of space and place of the fisherman and the young girl.  Bishop often represents age as weariness and wearing down, and this is prominent ‘At the Fishhouses’, illustrating a nexus between ignorance and youth, and knowledge and maturity, which derives from a relative knowledge of space and geography.  This knowledge of geography and space is not necessarily beneficial or joyful, it can be unrelenting, it can tire and wear away.  The knowledge gained by any individual might be that their role in the wider world will be small and insignificant, and the child-like expectations of a young girl may be eroded and diminished with age.

There is, therefore, a complex interdependence between age, an understanding of space and geography, and any sense of inclusion, immersion and connection that this knowledge may bring.  Knowledge springs from experience, and experience requires time; consequently, “knowledge is ‘flowing, and flown’; subject to change and decay, knowledge is temporal.”[26]  Bishop closes ‘At the Fishhouses’ “by articulating the notion of historical understanding on which her poems, early and late, come to rest.”[27]  Her own history has formed her understanding of space, and it “…has grown out of where she and her people have been.”[28]

Irrespective of form, the speaker in Bishop’s poems is often younger, and consequently, less weathered and immersed in physical geography than the adult figures who actively engage in the world, such as the bare-breasted black women in ‘In the Waiting Room’, and the old man in ‘At the Fishhouses’.  It is interesting that the figures who are most engaged with their geography, are animals, such as the ancient wallpaper skinned fish in ‘The Fish’, the seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’ and the man-moth in ‘The Man-Moth’.  The seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’ represents a complete integration with the surrounding environment, a context that the speaker seeks: “like me a believer in total immersion”.[29]  The seal returns “evening after evening”[30] and in ‘The Man-Moth’ “Each night he [the Man-Moth] must / be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent / dreams.”[31]  This repetition imbues these figures with a sense of timelessness, just as the five hooks in the jaw of the fish in ‘The Fish’ conjures images of five passed generations of men, while the fish continues to survive.  That animals are the most purely engaged with geography follows logic – they are unsheltered from the elements, they do not have to adapt to their environment, it is their natural home.  The human adults who are more aligned and aware of their geography are described through detailed natural imagery, such as the old man in ‘At the Fishhouses’.  In the same poem, the speaker is of middling age and is described as still discovering, interacting and experimenting with her natural environment and geography:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,

slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,

icily free above the stones,

above the stones and then the world.

If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn[32]

While of the young girl, who is only just starting to seek knowledge, we know little.  We form a better picture of her aunt and other adults in the waiting room than we do of the girl herself.  This suggests that Bishop employs natural images to emulate the acquisition of knowledge.  The greater geographic knowledge, and sense of space, that a character possesses, the more Bishop shows them engaging with the world and employs more developed natural imagery; with animals representing a complete immersion in space, geography and the earth.

Therefore, in Bishop’s poetry, immersion in geography brings knowledge, and that through ageing, a human gains a broader and more detailed knowledge of their space and geography.  For her, timelessness and full knowledge is only achieved by complete immersion in, and understanding of, geography and space.  From this perspective, it is possible to posit that because the foundation of geography is the physical earth itself, that as humans age and inevitably die, they are interred in the earth and achieve this knowledge and timelessness.

Sources:

Bishop, Elizabeth, ‘At the Fishhouses’, Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition, vol. 2 (1998), pp. 2474-5

Bishop, Elizabeth, ‘In the Waiting Room’, Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th edition (2005), pp. 1521-3

Doreski, C.K., Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Goldensohn, Lorrie, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1992)

Longenbach, James, Modern Poetry After Modernism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

McCorkle, James ‘The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection’, Five Postmodern American Poets (University of Virginia Press, 1989)

Michaud, Jon, ‘Eighty-Five From the Archive: Elizabeth Bishop’, The New Yorker <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/backissues/2010/05/eighty-five-from-the-archive-elizabeth-bishop.html> [accessed December 20, 2013]

Robert Dale Parker, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (University of Illinois Press, 1998)


[1] Elizabeth Bishop, ‘In the Waiting Room’, Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th edition (2005), pp. 1521-3, ln. 60-63

[2] Bishop, ln. 51-53

[3] Elizabeth Bishop, ‘At the Fishhouses’, Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition, vol. 2 (1998), pp. 2474-5, ln. 15-20

[4] Bishop, ln. 49-53

[5] Bishop, ln. 1

[6] Jon Michaud, ‘Eighty-Five From the Archive: Elizabeth Bishop’, The New Yorker <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/backissues/2010/05/eighty-five-from-the-archive-elizabeth-bishop.html> [accessed December 20, 2013]

[7] Bishop, ln. 33

[8] Lorrie Goldensohn, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1992) p.104

[9] C. K. Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop The Restraints of Language (Oxford University Press, 1993) p.18

[10] Goldensohn, p.101

[11] Bishop, ln. 17

[12] Bishop, ln. 21-22

[13] Bishop, ln. 24

[14] Bishop, ln. 28-31

[15] Bishop, ln. 44-52

[16] Bishop, ln. 54-59

[17] Bishop, ln. 75-83

[18] Robert Dale Parker, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (University of Illinois Press, 1998) p. 77

[19] Bishop, ln. 33-36

[20] Parker, p. 78

[21] Parker, p. 77

[22] Bishop, ln. 38-40

[23] Bishop, Ln. 6

[24] Bishop, ln. 37

[25] Bishop, ln. 19-20

[26] James McCorkle, The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets (University of Virginia Press, 1989) p. 44

[27] James Longenbach, Modern Poetry After Modernism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 29

[28] Longenbach, p. 30

[29] Bishop, ln. 52

[30] Bishop, ln. 50

[31] Bishop, ln. 35-37

[32] Bishop, ln. 67-73

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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