Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Elizabeth Bishop

The Reclamation Of Female Space

If and when I reach the rock, I shall go into a certain crack there for the night. The waterfall below will vibrate through my shell and body all night long. In that steady pulsing I can rest. All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.

(‘Giant Snail’)

Like ‘The Sandpiper’ whose habit of ‘running along the edges of different countries and continents “looking for something”’, Elizabeth Bishop admitted resembled her own life and behaviour, the ‘Giant Snail’ seems to be another version of a self-portrait. Like Bishop it is a poet/artist who leaves ‘a lovely opalescent ribbon’ as a mark of its progress and discoveries. Like Bishop it is an explorer who paradoxically longs for a home: who more specifically has a fantasy of going back to the womb, of finding a space that is confined and dark and secure where it will be lulled by a sound like the ‘steady pulsing’ of a heartbeat. In the prose-poem this remains a dream in the future. However, there are three poems – ‘The Fish’, ‘Filling Station’ and ‘The Moose’ – in which, I want to argue, Bishop creates versions of wombscapes not just as imagined retreats, or resting places from the difficulties of her life as woman and poet, but as actual spaces that becomes spaces of transformation and/or revelation. They are spaces that like the crack in the rock also bear a physical resemblance to a womb. They are spaces that are also characterised by rhythmical patterns that echo the ‘steady pulsing’ of the heart-beat, or the introduction of non-verbal sounds, or the kind of ‘slippages’ of language and meaning that - like the chora of Kristeva’s semiotic - erupt within and disrupt symbolic language. They are spaces where, I would suggest, Bishop reclaims not just the female space from which she was ejected at birth, but the psychic female space lost to her in early childhood through her mother’s severe mental illness and subsequent incarceration in an asylum. Paradoxically, they all are spaces created not, as one would expect, in the female interiors of the home but in the traditionally male domains of a boat, a garage, and a bus.

The traditionally female space of the home is almost always in Bishop’s work a place of pain and loss, of psychic and actual chill. The ‘cold cold parlour of ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, for example, is the place where Jack Frost has visited the corpse of cousin Arthur, painted a ‘few red strokes on his hair’ and ‘dropped the brush/and left him white for ever’. The house in ‘Sestina’ is cold despite its Little Marvel Stove. There are attempts at normality. The grandmother cuts bread and says ‘It’s time for tea now’, and the child, like a normal child, ‘draws a ‘rigid house with a winding pathway’. But the man she puts in the house has ‘buttons like tears’. The grandmother’s teacup is ‘full of dark brown tears’. The child’s obsession with seeing tears in everything – ‘tears’ is one of the repeating end of line words of the form – overwhelms all efforts to pretend there is nothing wrong, to conceal, what is never stated but is nevertheless understood, that her actual father and mother are missing. The only house that can be called a ‘a home’ – a house with hot food (‘one fried fish spattered with burning scarlet source’) and children’s clutter, and battered beloved objects (‘an old French Horn repainted with aluminum paint’) - is a man’s house, ‘Jeronimo’s House’. Even that is fragile, ‘perishable’, a ‘grey wasps’ nest/of chewed up paper/glued with spit’, a ‘shelter from the hurricane’.

This split between the anxiety associated with the conventionally female space of a home and the relative security of a male domain is most obvious in Bishop’s autobiographical story ‘In the Village’. Here the grandparents’ house is a place of broken off conversations, of ominous and ‘awful’ words. It echoes with the scream of a mad and unpredictable mother who comes and goes and finally never returns. Nate’s forge, in contrast, although potentially a dangerous place with its coals that ‘blow red and wild’ and ‘tub of night-black water’ where the horseshoes ‘drown… hissing, protesting’, appears to the child to exude security and comfort. It’s smelly and filthy. Nate is ‘sweating hard’ and has ‘a sooty black face’ and there are ‘black and glistening piles of dust in every corner’. But everyone feels ‘at home’; even the horse – manure piling up behind him – is ‘very much at home’. It is a place associated with sounds rather than with language: ‘the creak of bellows’, the horse stamping its foot. From a distance the clang of the hammer on the anvil sounds ‘pure and angelic’: a sound that ‘turns everything else to silence’, even the mother’s ‘frail almost-lost scream’.  It radiates from a space that in its blackness and warmth seems to have implanted itself in Bishop’s imagination as a kind of home/womb, a substitute space of maternal nurture; a space in which substances like tar and horse shit and dust and soot become sanctified. It’s a version of this space, I will argue, that Bishop constructs in the three poems I want to consider.

The location of ‘The Fish’ - a boat on the open sea - couldn’t apparently be less homely or feminine. Bishop sent the poem to Marianne Moore with the deprecatory warning: ‘I am sending you a real “trifle”. 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…’ It shows Bishop not just ‘taking on a man’s subject’– the capture of a huge fish - but also the already legendary writer who dominated the big game genre.  The poem’s opening boast, with its emphasis on size, seems to deliberately mimic the beginning of a fishing yarn:

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

It’s rather like the cock’s crow of ‘Roosters’, a poem Bishop wrote at the same time – just after the outbreak of World War Two – that relates even more directly to the desire for domination and possession.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea wasn’t published until 1951, eleven years after the Bishop’s poem. But its story of an old man whose open boat was dragged out to sea for two days and two nights behind a huge marlin was contained in an essay Hemingway published in Esquire in 1936 and may well have provided inspiration for the poem. The five hooks embedded in Bishop’s fish’s jaw reveal the history of a fish equally determined to evade capture. But while Hemingway’s emphasis in the essay is on the heroic battle between man and fish, particularly on the endurance of the fisherman, the emphatic denials of Bishop’s poem deny her narrator any possibility of heroic action:

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.

Bishop had first-hand experience of fishing - she’d just been on a canoe trip with a harpoon through the 10,000 Islands. But her narrator is far less concerned with describing the capture of the fish than with describing its appearance and the response to it. After the initial active verb ‘I caught’, all the verbs attached to the ‘I’ of the poem are concerned with seeing and meditation: ‘I thought’, ‘I looked’, ‘I stared and stared’. The poem’s main source seems to be Bishop’s habit of precise observation and note taking. In a letter, written to Marianne Moore, just before writing it, she described a parrot fish she caught as ‘ 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’.   The letter went on: ‘Mrs A. is confronting a huge fish in the kitchen right now – Red Snapper, but it is gilt-rose.’ The poem focuses not just on the exterior of the fish but on the painterly yet unsqueamishly accurate details of its interior anatomy. The dramatic reds and blacks/Of his shiny entrails, And the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony’, for instance, could only have been described by someone who had given close attention to gutting a dead fish.

The poem also owes something to Marianne Moore’s animal poems. It is both a homage to Moore’s fish that ‘wade/through black jade’ and a kind of dare, an assertion of difference, a challenge from a rebellious literary daughter to her literary mentor/mother. Whereas Moore’s fish  are generic, and held at a distance by the decorative language, Bishop’s fish is confronted in the flesh, a ‘grunting weight’. He is infested with lice. (Moore had objected to the plainer, more direct word ‘lousy’ in an earlier draft.) Bishop’s narrator literally holds his life in her hands as she hauls him out of the sea, ‘element bearable to no mortal’, and into her element that is death to him, where he can only suffer - ‘breathing in the terrible oxygen’.

In a sense the poem is about capture. Bishop tries to hold the fish within the framework of her poetic psyche, to contain his alien being within imagery borrowed from house and home that, as Helen Vendler has shown, is her way of domesticating the strange. She begins almost sentimentally by describing him as ‘battered and venerable and homely’. But the pursuit of noting precise visual detail reveals his body as a palimpsest where she cannot avoid reading ruin (‘his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper), and nature’s attack on the weak (‘it’s ‘infested with tiny white sea-lice’), and the vulnerability of flesh (‘the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly’). There is a witty surrealism in a fish skin that resembles a pattern of full-blown roses on wall-paper, or fish flesh packed in like feathers in pillows, but the effect is far more to emphasise the otherness of the fish than to render it familiar. He is in fact not ‘homely’ at all. When she looks into his eyes - ‘irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass’ – she confronts doubly insuperable barriers to the return of her gaze. ‘The most satisfaction,’ Hemingway argued in his essay, ‘is to dominate and convince the fish and bring him intact in everything but spirit to the boat as rapidly as possible.’ But though physically Bishop’s fish doesn’t put up a fight, his spirit remains intact.

He is utterly resistant to her gaze. His ‘eyes shifted a little, but not to return my stare’.

The fish refuses to be contained in a domestic feminine world, so Bishop shifts the metaphorical frame to the masculine world of war:

I admired his sullen face,

the mechanism of his jaw,

And then I saw

That from his lower lip
– if you 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 meals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-hiared beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw.

The body of the fish now becomes the site where she can read his history as soldier. In recording the evidence of his survival instinct and courage - the ‘weaponlike… five big hooks’ and their trailing pieces of fish-line and wire leader and swivel that have ‘grown firmly in his mouth’ – she combines the metaphoric skills of the poet with forensic eye of the pathologist. Ironically, the fish is finally ‘captured’ in language that discovers a human equivalent for his record of breaking free from capture. The hooks and broken lines are ‘like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom’. The fish’s victory is also the poet’s victory.

What Bishop admired reading Darwin, she wrote to Anne Stevenson, ‘was the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless, heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic – and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels that strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eye fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown'. It couldn’t be a better description of what happens at the end of the ‘The Fish’ when Bishop’s eye suddenly slides away from the recording details of the fish to the interior of the boat:

            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,

                                    and gunnels – until everything

            was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

                                    And I let the fish go.

There is no doubt that the passage draws on a conscious, allusive and sophisticated, verbal wit. The rainbow, appearing as a sign of God’s covenant with Noah when the waters of the Flood receded, is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, of a bridge between this world and heaven. It is also visually witty: an oily film literally creates an all-over rainbow sheen. But in the sudden linguistic slippage by which ‘victory’ becomes identified with the oil there is also a sense of it operating on a level that is half unconscious, of Bishop ‘sliding giddily off into the unknown’. The hollow interior of the boat - one of Freud’s dream symbols of for the uterus, literally a ‘vessel’ - becomes a fluid ‘wombscape’ where the oil from the bilge, normally in the context of boats, a substance with negative associations, is sanctified by its association with rainbow. It becomes holy oil, spreading its rainbow on each object, named in turn, to each appended a description of the damage of age and use, like a kind of blessing. ‘Nothing mundane is divine’, Marianne Moore asserted. As if Bishop was proving the opposite, the list of mundane objects in the interior of the boat becomes charged like the language of prayer. The litany of words that touch each other with assonance and strings of repeated ‘l’s and ‘r’s - ‘filled’, ‘oil’, ‘bilge’, ‘pool’; rented’, ‘rainbow’, ‘around’, ‘rusted’, ‘orange’, ‘cracked’, ‘thwarts’, ‘oarlocks’, ‘strings’, ’everything, ‘rainbow’ – slows the rhythm almost to a standstill. The final repetition of ‘rainbow, rainbow, rainbow’ breaks into the poem as a radiance of both colour and ‘pure sound’, a repeated rhythmic pulse like the clang of the forge, spreading out into space and time. The passage moves the reader, it could be argued, because it has a jouissance that is in excess of logical meaning; because it is taken over by a beat that is more primitive and instinctual than the artificial metres of poetry that resembles the rhythmic flow of sounds heard by the baby in the womb.

The final line of the poem, ‘And I let the fish go’, deliberately reverses the expectations of first line. Bishop transforms a narrative about possession and domination and death into one about sympathy and survival and the triumph of love. It is interesting to set the poem alongside the work of two other women writers who tackle the subject of masculine aggression. For instance, in her poem ‘Fishing Off Nova Scotia’ Sharon Olds also employs domestic imagery (‘hooks jerking/ like upholstery needles through the gills’) and implies feminine values opposed to the ‘blood culture’ of the male. But unlike Bishop’s boat that is transformed into a womb/shrine where the only possibility is to let the fish go, Olds’ womb/boat remains a place of torture and slaughter, where the instinct to kill is passed onto the next generation. It is the site of a massacre where Olds’ voice is silenced by ‘the steel cracking of those clenched jaws, the bright glaze of blood on the children’.

 The other comparable writer is Stevie Smith. Bishop’s process of coming to know the fish - allowing him the dignity of his otherness, but also placing him in a discourse that respects his achievement in human terms and acknowledges his history as an individual - is the exact reverse of the process by which Smith’s protagonist in her pre-war novel Over The Frontier summons the necessary detachment to kill one of the enemy. She has to dehumanise him – transforming him from individual to just another ‘rat-face’ seen in a crowd: ‘the nostrils splayed and broken at the edges, the flat nose, the saliva dripping from too slackly open lips, the teeth, long, yellow, filthy, like dog’s fangs’.

In her poem ‘Fish, Fish’, Smith, like Bishop, acknowledges the fish’s otherness that resists human attempts to ‘catch’ him: ‘Underneath the brook dim/ Sits the fish,/ He sits on the hook/ It is not in him. But her encounter with the fish is really an excuse for an escapist fantasy. She wants the fish’s freedom: to leave her entrapment in this world to go to him, to be ‘happy… in the watery company of his kingdom’. The fish is another of her incarnation of welcome death. The encounter with the fish enriches Bishop’s world. It provides her with an emblem of heroism and survival. It helps her recover a sense of the oneness that is lost at the moment of birth, and reach out to a sense of a nurturing power within and beyond the material. It counters her aggressive instincts – the desire to dominate and possess – with sympathy and understanding. The last sentence of Smith’s novel is: ‘Power and cruelty are the strength of our life, and in its weakness only is there the sweetness of love’. In ‘The Fish’ Bishop comes to a radically different conclusion. Power in the poem resides not in capturing and killing a fish but in releasing it and letting it live. What triumphs is the feminine instinct towards life.

‘The Filling Station’ is a much lighter poem but it also ends with a transcendent sense of maternal nurture and love. Like ‘The Fish’ it is located in a place traditionally occupied by men: a space that is not just ‘dirty’ – the word is repeated three times in the poem - but potentially dangerous:

Oh, but it is dirty!
this little filling  station,

oil-soaked, oil permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.
‘Be careful of that match!’

The final warning reinforces the illusion, achieved partly through the use of the present tense, that we are there with the poet, making the same discoveries. The over-all oiliness is reminiscent of the boat in ‘The Fish’. It also connects with the forge of ‘In the Village’. Like Nate, the blacksmith, with his ‘sooty black face’, the ‘Father and ‘several…greasy sons who assist him (it’s a family filling station)’ are ‘all quite thoroughly dirty’. The garage is filled with things that would normally be in a home. These objects have all become impregnated with oil and dirt - ‘a set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy’. But as with the forge, the blackness and dirtiness seems to contribute to the feelings of homeliness and comfort.

The more the narrator elaborates the details of what she sees – ‘a big hirsute begonia’, comic books lying on ‘a big dim doily’ that on closer inspection is ‘embroidered in daisy stitch/With marguerites… and heavy with gray crochet’ – the more strange, even bizarre are her discoveries. In this normally unquestionably male space, permeated with grease and filth, there are not just the necessary objects of domesticity but those objects that are ‘extraneous’ to it, that are part of the inexplicable human desire not just to create shelter and comfort but to be ‘at home’.

In a wonderfully witty last stanza, Bishop draws the conclusions from the evidence the poem has presented that

                        Somebody embroidered the doily.                       

Somebody waters the plant,

                        or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:

            ESSO-SO-SO-SO

            to high-strung automobiles.

                        Somebody loves us all.

Of course it is a joke that in such an oily place somebody maybe oils the plant. It is a joke that the cans of oil are placed in such a way as to read ‘ESSO-SO-SO-SO’ – the phrase, Bishop explained that ‘people use to calm and soothe horses’. It is a witty continuation of this line of humour that the automobiles, like thoroughbred horses, are ‘highly strung’. But, as the surprising last line of the poem conveys, it is also serious. ‘Somebody loves us all’ has meanings on a range from the most banal to the most profound. ‘Somebody’ could be anyone from ‘a mum’ to a supernatural power. The poem is ambiguous. There is certainly no mention of a mother. But there is a sense of maternal nurture. ‘The Filling Station’, although the domain of the male, is gendered as female space – through the domestic details but also by less overt features that I would argue help create a sense of a wombscape. The oiliness of the poem operates like the oiliness in ‘The Fish’. It touches and sanctifies everything like ‘holy’ oil. The ‘ESSO-SO-SO-SO whispered by the cans – that sound that soothes horses – a sound already prepared for in the sibilant repetitions of ‘someone’ - is like the comforting ssshushing to sleep sound made to small child.

There’s a painting of a filling station by the American painter Edward Hopper – ‘Gas’ (1940). It is set on a lonely road that is bordered by a forest of close-packed firs. The only human figure is the pump attendant but the light coming from the pumps and from the illuminated sign and the windows of little white clapboard building with its unnecessarily decorative red roof suggest a welcoming homeliness. It’s almost as if Bishop had entered that filling station and set her poem there. I mention it because the final poem I want to look at, ‘The Moose’ also connects with Hopper’s image of rural mid-twentieth century America. Its moment of epiphany occurs at the moment that the moose emerges onto the road from an ‘impenetrable wood’ that I imagine as being exactly like the forest in the painting.

Again the subject of the poem – a journey on the open road – is ostensibly a male one. Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, published in 1957, was just a development of the quest/journey theme that is a constant in male literature from The Odyssey onwards. However, the emphasis in Bishop’s poem, begun in the 1940s but not finished and published until 1972, is not on the heroic or picaresque adventures of the poet, or the growth of the poet’s mind, but on the ‘immediate, intense’ sensual experiences of the journey. This is not a pilgrimage or spiritual quest. It is the everyday journey of a provincial bus: the record of Bishop’s actual return journey from a visit to the Great Village of her childhood in 1946. If it ends with a sense of revelation, of having discovered something as amazing as the Holy Grail, it is simply because Bishop has stuck to her process of ‘endless heroic observation’.

There are many commentaries on the poem. I intend only to focus on what interests me most in the context of this paper: the element of female space. From the moment, at one of the bus’s stops, a woman is glimpsed shaking ‘a tablecloth out after supper’ a sense of female experience as central begins to creep into the poem. Another woman ‘climbs in/with two market bags,/brisk, freckled, elderly.’ We hear her voice: ‘“A grand night. Yes, sir,/ all the way to Boston.” – a voice that uses a word like ‘grand’ in the colloquial sense and context in which it would never be used in literature. Then we hear ‘Snores. Some long sighs.’ Then

                                    A dreamy divagation

                                   begins in the night,

                        a gentle, auditory,

                                    slow hallucination…

As in the previous poems there is a womb-like space (in this case the dark capsule of the night bus), and a sense of sound that is rhythmical, incantatory, outside logical discourse. Again there is a sudden slippage, a transformation by which the overheard murmur of the passenger’s voices become ‘Grandparents’ voices/ uninterruptedly/ talking, in Eternity’, discussing the tragedies and disasters of life: ‘deaths, deaths and sicknesses;’ and the things that particularly blighted Bishop’s life, alcoholism and madness:

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).”

That ‘yes’ - the affirmative ‘yes’ to life of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the ‘yes’ that here isn’t even a word (that doesn’t belong to language of lack and desire) but is just ‘a sharp indrawn breath’ - somehow redeems the catalogue of human sorrow. As Bishop revealed in a letter to James Merrill, it is the reassuring sound characteristic of the Nova Scotia voice that she had remembered from childhood:

But one thing struck me – calling on the woman who now lives in my grandparents’ house. She was entertaining the lady who runs the village telephone switchboard for tea – so there were five ladies, with my aunt, cousin and me. They ALL, except me, did that queer thing with the indrawn breath, saying “ye-e-es” to show sympathetic understanding. I wish I could imitate it better – it is almost an assenting groan.  

It is typical of Bishop’s skill as a poet that she could incorporate this ‘indrawn breath’ into her poetic, subverting but also enriching it, creating a sense of rhythmical trance, of a secure space in which it is ‘all right now/even to fall asleep’.

It is just at this moment that ‘the bus driver/stops with a jolt,/turns off his lights’ and the moose appears:

                                    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.

                       

 In a poem where the language is of the utmost simplicity the word ‘impenetrable’ stands out, halting the narrative almost as much as the emergence of the moose. ‘Impenetrable’ implies the physical denseness of the wood. But it also implies a space that it is impossible to enter: a space of unfathomable mystery. It’s a ‘wood’ rather than forest because of the rhymes with ‘road’ and ‘hood’. But ‘wood’ anyway is the simpler word, the word that Freud associated with women in dreams, that for Jung was the symbol of the Great Mother, the word for the place that in our culture and literature is a space of darkness and mystery and also of transformations and enchantments.

The moose that emerges from this female space is ‘Towering, antlerless,/ High as a church,/Homely as a house/(or, safe as houses). In phrases that show our dependence on and need for the reassurances of language that is repeated until it is almost meaningless the moose is given both sacred and homely associations. It is huge, appearing as much larger than it in fact is: like the imago of a parent in a child’s psyche, like a god, or goddess it turns out – ‘Look! It’s a ‘she’! someone ‘childishly, softly’ exclaims.

It’s interesting to compare Bishop’s account of the appearance of the moose in her letter because it reveals how important it was to her that the creature in the poem was female:

Early the next morning, just as it was getting light, the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. She walked away very slowly into the woods, looking at us over her shoulder. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine. “Very curious beasts,” he said. 

The extraordinary image of the bull moose smelling the engine- a creature’s negotiation by smell and touch - was too good to miss out. But in one of the few instances in Bishop’s poems were ‘the facts’ can be seen to be altered, the detail was transposed to the cow moose.

The sense of childish wonder is not confined to a few of the passengers. As the moose, ‘taking her time,… looks the bus over,/ grand, otherworldy’, the poet asks ‘Why, why do we feel/ (we all feel) this sweet/ sensation of joy?’ Significantly, ‘grand’ repeats the word of the woman passenger who earlier applied it to the night. It is a word from colloquial speech that can’t be directly translated but that implies ‘wonderful’. It’s used here in a sense that takes on as well the multiple meanings in the dictionary: ‘of the most or great importance’, ‘imposing’, ‘impressive’, ‘great and handsome’, ‘dignified’. ‘Otherworldly’ might strike us a farfetched if it wasn’t that it has already been established that the moose has emerged from an ‘impenetrable wood’, a place of mystery, that her scale is ‘out of this world’. But why the sensation of joy? Bishop doesn’t answer the question. It’s left to hang in the air until the quiet driver comes in with the more down to earth comment - “Curious creatures…Look at that would you” - that Bishop ‘lifted’ from her letter. What follows are more ‘pure sounds’ - the driver ‘rolling his r’s’, the shifting gears - rather than rational explanations. To try and answer the question, the poem suggests, is as impossible as it is to enter ‘the impenetrable wood’. I don’t know either: except perhaps that there is a sense of a ‘visitation’ from another world. A creature greater, grander than us has stopped the bus, a creature that is female (but with none of the pejorative associations of lack, or inferiority  associated with the female), and has done it at a point when already – in the lulling whispers of the night bus - Bishop has created a sense of the nurturing and redeeming power of female space.

Finally, as the bus moves on the moose is left behind on the ‘moonlit macadam’. All that is left is ‘a dim/smell of moose, an acrid/smell of gasoline.’ It could be argued that the ‘acrid smell of gasoline’ is introduced as a way of bringing the poem back from the ‘otherwordly’ to an unpleasant reality. But I would argue, that as with the oil and grease and dirt of the other poems, a smell that might normally be repugnant here becomes sanctified by association with the female smell of the moose. Bishop leaves us with the smell because it is one of the strongest aids to memory. As incense is used in a church, the lingering mingled smells of moose and gasoline allow the ‘sweet sensation of joy’ to go on.

‘The settings, or descriptions, of my poems are almost invariably just plain facts - or as close to the facts as I can write them’, Bishop wrote. But she prefixed this statement by the acknowledgment: ‘It takes an infinite number of things coming together, forgotten, or almost forgotten, books, last night’s dream, experiences, past and present – to make a poem.’ What I have tried to do in this paper is to suggest ways in which the ‘plain facts’ of these poems are assembled in a way that is not just determined by language and form, or the ostensible subject, but, as Bishop recognised, by the coming together of other things, ‘forgotten, or almost forgotten’.  I have tried to show how Bishop, half consciously, or maybe entirely unconsciously - constructs a space within a traditionally male domain that in various aspects – shape/sound/the emphasis on touch – is a kind of wombscape.

It is a space in which Bishop achieves what she described in an early notebook, in relation to Marianne Moore’s work, as ‘using the poet’s proper material, with which he’s equipped by nature, i.e., immediate intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything – to express something not of them – something I suppose, spiritual’.  It is a truly creative space: a space of transformation. No new image is involved: just a way of seeing or interpreting what is already there – ‘the plain facts’, or material evidence – in a way that changes the image from the material to the marvellous and in doing so generates transcendent emotions of sympathy or joy or love.

The three poems, ‘The Fish’, ‘Filling Station’ and ‘The Moose’, are poems that both reassure and shake up received values. They question the nature of heroism and love and the relation between human and animal. They blur the boundaries of male and female space and of feminine and masculine characteristics and subvert limited phallocentric divisions of gender. The emphasis on oil and grease and touch conjures the experience of a child before it is introduced to language and challenges culture-bound classifications of ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ substances. They are poems of healing: of restoring the rift between infant and mother that occurs at birth, and again in acquiring symbolic language. For Bishop - who never saw her mother after the age of eight when she was committed to an asylum and whose early experience of home was traumatised by her mother’s madness - they are poems in which she is able to reclaim the nurturing space of the lost mother, even perhaps, in ‘The Moose’, the mother herself.

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.

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;

                        And there’s a dim

                        Smell of moose, an acrid

                        Smell of gasoline.

 Acceptance speech for the 1976 Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

2 Letter dated February 5, 1940, quoted in Bishop, Elizabeth, One Art: Letters Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, p87.

3 In a letter to Robert Lowell from Key West , dated January 1, 1948 (One Art, p153), Bishop thanked him for sending her Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler, commenting ‘it is wonderfully soothing reading & wonderfully “precious” reading here in the land of big game fish and Hemingway.’

4 , ‘On the Blue Water’ (quoted in Stephens, Robert O., Hemingway’s Nonfiction: the Public Voice, University of North Carolina Press, 1968, p312). It is even possible that Bishop was told the story. She visited Hemingway’s ex-wife Pauline several times as is revealed in a letter to Marianne Moore, May 21, 1940, One Art, p90.

5 January 14, 1939. One Art, p79.

6 ‘I did as you suggested about everything except “breathing in” (if you remember that) which I decided to leave as it was. “Lousy” is now “infested”…’. Letter to Marianne Moore, February 19, 1940, One Art, p88.

7 ‘Domestication, Domesticity, and the Otherworldly’, Part of Nature, Part of Us, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 1980,

8 Quoted in Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop, New York: Twayne, 1966, p66.

9 ‘Boxes, cases, chests, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships, and vessels of all kinds. Rooms in dreams are usually women; if the various ways in and out of them are represented, this interpretation is scarcely open to doubt…’. Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, London: Penguin, 1976, pp. 470-73.

10 ‘“Avec Ardeur”’, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, London: Faber (1967), p237.

11 A similar effect is created at the end of ‘The Sandpiper’ where looking for ‘something something something’ (again the rhythmical repetition) in the ‘shifting grains’ of sand, the bird is rewarded by a vision of the drab beach transformed into a jeweled pavement: ‘The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray, mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst’.

12 I can’t help comparing the ‘casual perfection’ of this passage with Luce Irigaray’s attempt to describe the inter-uterine birth of colour in her critique of Merlot Ponty:

(Color) pours itself out –stretches itself out, escapes itself…imposes itself upon me as a recall of what is most archaic in me, the fluid. That through which I have received life, have been enveloped in my prenatal sojourn, have been surrounded, dressed, fed, in another body. That by the grace of which I could see the light, could be born, and moreover, see: the air, the light…’.

(‘The Invisible of the flesh’, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, translated from the French by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, London: Athlone Press, p158.)

13 The Sign of Saturn, London: Secker & Warburg, 1991, p13.

14 London: Virago, 1981, p250. First published 1938.

15 The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, London: Penguin, 1986, p453

16 Letter to John Frederick Nims, October 6, 1979. One Art, p638.

17 Bishop describes the trip in a letter to Marianne Moore, August, 29, 1946. One Art, p139-141.

18 Oct 12, 1972. One Art, p573.

19 ‘Wood seems, from its linguistic connections to stand in general for female “material”. The name of the Island of “Madeira” means “wood” in Portuguese’. Interpretation of Dreams, p472

20 Jung claims that ‘tree is a symbol of the Great Mother’ ( Jung, Carl Gustave, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, London: Collins and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, p239) and that ‘The forest , like the tree, has mythologically a maternal significance.’ (Psychology of the Unconscious, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1919, p169).

21 I find Patricia Yaeger’s essay ‘Toward a Female Sublime’ (Gender & Theory, ed Linda Kauffman, Oxford Blackwell, 1989), in which she discusses both ‘The Fish’ and ‘The Moose’, in general very illuminating. But I don’t agree with her description of Bishop’s wood as ‘the “impenetrable forest” of masculine discourse’. I prefer to think of it as another ‘female space’ – a ‘sacred wood’ not of phallocentric logic but of a mystery that is much more instinctual and primitive.

22 Letter to Marianne Moore, August 29, 1946. One Art, p141.

23 Letter to Jerome Mazzaro, April 27, 1978, One Art, p621.

24 Quoted in David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet, London: The Hogarth Press (1989), p15.

PAGE 

PAGE  17

 Acceptance speech for the 1976 Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

 Letter dated February 5, 1940, quoted in Bishop, Elizabeth, One Art: Letters Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, p87.

 In a letter to Robert Lowell from Key West , dated January 1, 1948 (One Art, p153), Bishop thanked him for sending her Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler, commenting ‘it is wonderfully soothing reading & wonderfully “precious” reading here in the land of big game fish and Hemingway.’

 , ‘On the Blue Water’ (quoted in Stephens, Robert O., Hemingway’s Nonfiction: the Public Voice, University of North Carolina Press, 1968, p312). It is even possible that Bishop was told the story. She visited Hemingway’s ex-wife Pauline several times as is revealed in a letter to Marianne Moore, May 21, 1940, One Art, p90.

 January 14, 1939. One Art, p79.

 ‘I did as you suggested about everything except “breathing in” (if you remember that) which I decided to leave as it was. “Lousy” is now “infested”…’. Letter to Marianne Moore, February 19, 1940, One Art, p88.

 ‘Domestication, Domesticity, and the Otherworldly’, Part of Nature, Part of Us, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 1980,

 Quoted in Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop, New York: Twayne, 1966, p66.

 ‘Boxes, cases, chests, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships, and vessels of all kinds. Rooms in dreams are usually women; if the various ways in and out of them are represented, this interpretation is scarcely open to doubt…’. Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, London: Penguin, 1976, pp. 470-73.

 ‘“Avec Ardeur”’, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, London: Faber (1967), p237.

 A similar effect is created at the end of ‘The Sandpiper’ where looking for ‘something something something’ (again the rhythmical repetition) in the ‘shifting grains’ of sand, the bird is rewarded by a vision of the drab beach transformed into a jeweled pavement: ‘The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray, mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst’.

 I can’t help comparing the ‘casual perfection’ of this passage with Luce Irigaray’s attempt to describe the inter-uterine birth of colour in her critique of Merlot Ponty:

(Color) pours itself out –stretches itself out, escapes itself…imposes itself upon me as a recall of what is most archaic in me, the fluid. That through which I have received life, have been enveloped in my prenatal sojourn, have been surrounded, dressed, fed, in another body. That by the grace of which I could see the light, could be born, and moreover, see: the air, the light…’.

(‘The Invisible of the flesh’, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, translated from the French by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, London: Athlone Press, p158.)

 The Sign of Saturn, London: Secker & Warburg, 1991, p13.

 London: Virago, 1981, p250. First published 1938.

 The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, London: Penguin, 1986, p453

 Letter to John Frederick Nims, October 6, 1979. One Art, p638.

 Bishop describes the trip in a letter to Marianne Moore, August, 29, 1946. One Art, p139-141.

 Oct 12, 1972. One Art, p573.

: ‘Wood seems, from its linguistic connections to stand in general for female “material”. The name of the Island of “Madeira” means “wood” in Portuguese’. Interpretation of Dreams, p472

 Jung claims that ‘tree is a symbol of the Great Mother’ ( Jung, Carl Gustave, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, London: Collins and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, p239) and that ‘The forest , like the tree, has mythologically a maternal significance.’ (Psychology of the Unconscious, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1919, p169).

 I find Patricia Yaeger’s essay ‘Toward a Female Sublime’ (Gender & Theory, ed Linda Kauffman, Oxford Blackwell, 1989), in which she discusses both ‘The Fish’ and ‘The Moose’, in general very illuminating. But I don’t agree with her description of Bishop’s wood as ‘the “impenetrable forest” of masculine discourse’. I prefer to think of it as another ‘female space’ – a ‘sacred wood’ not of phallocentric logic but of a mystery that is much more instinctual and primitive.

 Letter to Marianne Moore, August 29, 1946. One Art, p141.

 Letter to Jerome Mazzaro, April 27, 1978, One Art, p621.

 Quoted in David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet, London: The Hogarth Press (1989), p15.

Copyright Vicki Feaver

Re-produced by permission of the author