Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III

Geography IIIGeography III by Elizabeth Bishop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my review of DeLillo’s Libra, I noted the 20th-century tendency among novelists and poets to “[warn] against the dream of absolute knowledge.” Elizabeth Bishop contributes masterfully to this tradition, every element of this, her final book, participating in it.

The title and cover/frontispiece illustration evoke a textbook; and the first epigraph quotes from one, “First Lessons in Geography” in Monteith’s Geographical Series of 1884 (the period of high imperialism), a set of questions and answers in which one imagines children being drilled in an exercise in rote education. One exchange is the following:

What are the directions on a map?
Toward the top, North; toward the bottom, South; to the right, East; to the left, West.

The collections second epigraph, authored seemingly by Bishop herself, mocks the textbook’s assurance that geography has representational authority:

In what direction is the Volcano? The Cape? The Bay? The Lake? The Strait? The Mountains? The Isthmus?
What is in the East? In the West? In the South? In the North?
In the Northwest? In the Southeast? In the Northeast? In the Southwest?

As the questions proliferate, the absent answers will require more and more detail, until the representation—the map—becomes as complex and chaotic as the territory itself. Therefore, geography, the writing of the earth, is a construct that is at least semi-arbitrary; and since the arbitrary involves choice, human volition, it belongs to the realm of art as well as science—especially since art is needed from time to time to remind science that its maps are not the territory, that its questions, especially as they bear on culture and society, could be answered otherwise. This is a lesson for the advanced student of geography, however: hence our collection’s title advertising the third course of study in the subject.

The volume’s famous first poem, “In the Waiting Room,” continues this theme with its depiction of the poet’s formation of identity through an encounter with a representation (in National Geographic) of other people in other places, the poem’s child character overwhelmed by physical and cultural difference until she feels washed over by black waves, which we may associate with the blackness of the naked women she encounters in the magazine. But the poem is not complacently racist; rather it dramatizes the formation of cultural identity, observes its contingency—

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?

—and warns of its potentially violent consequences—

The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

The poem that best expresses Geography III’s values is a translation (from a Spanish original by Octavio Paz) of an ode to Joseph Cornell, whose celebrated boxes contain various found objects. Note the nested transpositions, generic and geographical: American cultural detritus becomes American visual art object becomes Mexican poem in Spanish becomes American poem in English. And what Paz praises in Cornell’s art also characterizes Bishop’s:

Minimal, incoherent fragments
the opposite of History, creator of ruins,
out of your ruins you have made creations.

Theater of the spirits:
objects putting the laws
of identity through hoops.

Geography as the opposite of history: suspending teleological narrative to question identity via art.

And these poems, printed in large letters amid such an expanse of white space, call attention to their own Cornell-box qualities: they are small containers for overlooked fragments of world experience. The huge margins have a way of emphasizing the narrow poems; they instruct us to pay very close attention to Bishop’s language.

All the poems in this collection are superb, and many are very well-known, like the villanelle “One Art” that begins with the unforgettable tragicomic litotes, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The ekphrastic “Poem” turns both painting and memory into, well, a poem, and “The Moose” dramatizes an encounter with otherness that exceeds the cultural and extends to the natural; its counterpart, “Night City,” turns the cultural as mediated by technology (the speaker views the city from an airplane) into an enchanting hellscape that suggests natural history, animal and mineral:

Diaphanous lymph,
bright turgid blood,
spatter outward
in clots of gold

to where run, molten,
in the dark environs
green and luminous
silicate rivers.

My favorite is perhaps “Crusoe in England,” a long bravura piece in which the speaker, Robinson Crusoe, attempts to set the record straight by recalling the hallucinatory quality of his island sojourn, its hissing turtles, his dreams of “islands spawning islands,” his real relationship with Friday—kindly (“Friday was nice”) and even queer (“he had a pretty body”)—until he finds himself back in England:

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?

Authority makes geography; poetry may make it otherwise.

And my other favorite is the witty “12 O’Clock News,” in which the poet’s desk is redescribed as a rebellious and strange country that the evening news reports upon—I imagine that the Vietnam War is an important part of this poem’s background. The poet, in other words, belongs with those that conventional geography, the geography of 1884, the geography of National Geographic, finds unintelligble and threatening, construes as a target.


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