Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel

Questions of TravelQuestions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Bishop went to Brazil in 1951 and stayed for 15 years, living with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. The first half of this 1965 volume of poetry, her third, variously documents this extended sojourn: titled “Brazil,” it includes not only lyrics that record her impressions of the country, such as “Squatters’ Children” or “Song for the Rainy Season,” but also excursions into literary forms inspired by it, like the fable “The Riverman” and the ballad “The Burglar of Babylon.”

As the volume’s title tells us, travel provokes uncertainties, as it both expands and emphasizes the limits of the self and the localities that formed it. Bishop’s queries begin with this volume’s first piece, “Arrival at Santos,” wherein our itinerant poet comes to Brazil for the first time and reflects on the ethics of her motive:

                                                               Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

As if foretelling the Goodreads reviewers who will in the second decade of the 21st century chastise her for her white woman’s imperial arrogance, she mocks her own absent-minded surprise that things there are not altogether different from things here, even if “here” is only the set of often ignorant expectations one carries everywhere:

So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.

For the title poem, our subjectivity so gets in the way of encountering anything outside itself that we might as well not even move ourselves in space at all, since we will only find our desires projected onto an impenetrable mask of otherness, which we have no right anyway to penetrate:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?

On the one hand, the poem’s epistemological questions are exemplary enough that they might lead off some anthology’s selection of “postmodern poetry.” On the other hand, Emerson, the presiding spirit of the American lyric, wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “Traveling is a fool’s paradise” because “[m]y giant goes with me wherever I go”—the “giant” being the self. The poem concludes, after a catalogue of all the Brazilian experiences it would have been a “pity” to miss (“Never to have studied history in / the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages”), when the “traveller” writes the following in her notebook:

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

Note the two characteristic postmodern gestures here: 1. the metafictional one of calling attention to the poet as writer and the poem as language when the lyric’s thus-far stately inquiries finally show their provisional origin in notebook jottings; 2. and the political one of deconstructing the putatively natural or stable or organic concept of “home” given that we don’t choose where we’re from and that all places are equally imagined.

Bishop may have been an independently wealthy white woman, but she wasn’t stupid. See also “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” wherein Bishop explicitly likens her arrival in Brazil to that of the Portuguese colonizers:

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’ Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

Bishop’s sympathy is perfectly if not voluntarily poised between the armored European men out to extract this utopia’s resources (what else is Bishop there for if not to acquire something?) and the indigenous women who protectively disappear behind the mystifying curtain of extravagant nature and inscrutable culture (as the anti-confessional poet vanishes into the intricacy of her verse). Better this honest, unsentimental, and unapologetic self-appraisal than the behavior in fashion now: a lot of ineffectual hand-wringing about privilege by people who couldn’t divest themselves of it if they wanted to (and they don’t).

Bishop’s self-awareness will not excuse for many contemporary readers the other poems in the “Brazil” section, the ones that today would be dismissed as appropriations: neither the jaunty, poignant ballad of “The Burglar of Babylon” nor the remarkable magic-realist fable, based on Amazonian lore, of “The Riverman”:

When the moon burns white
and the river makes that sound
like a primus pumped up high—
that fast, high whispering
like a hundred people at once—
I’ll be there below…

And certainly not “Manuelzinho,” a dramatic monologue spoken by a “friend of the writer.” Bishop is here using “friend” the way my grandmother tended to use it, as a euphemism for a gay person’s partner: the speaker is the rather aristocratic Lota de Macedo Soares, and the subject is her eponymous live-in servant with his maddening, quirky ways:

And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you’d been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word “potatoes”
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.

She resolves at the conclusion to love him and implicitly to treat him with more personal respect, though I reflect that even Tolstoy tried to improve material and educational conditions for the peasants of his estate, not just to change his own frame of mind:

You paint—heaven knows why—
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, “Manuelzinho,
one thing; be sure you always
paint your straw hat.”
One was gold for a while,
but the gold wore off, like plate.
One was bright green. Unkindly,
I called you Klorophyll Kid.
My visitors thought it was funny.
I apologize here and now.
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or I do?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

While Bishop could be read as mocking the high-handed speaker as much as the object of this speaker’s arrogant derision and even more arrogant sympathy—such a send-up is a customary use for the dramatic monologue—even this just reinforces the smug superiority of the poem’s humor. It’s not my favorite in the collection.

The second half of the volume, called “Elsewhere,” leaves Bishop’s Brazilian present for her past, largely in Nova Scotia, where she spent her childhood raised by her grandparents after her father’s death and her mother’s institutionalization. Like the poet’s notebook writing that concludes “Questions of Travel,” the end of the book roots its early abstractions and excursions in the poet’s own contingent circumstances.

If Bishop had earlier written, “home, / wherever that may be,” we begin to understand why when we read the volume’s strangest piece, the autobiographical short story “In the Village.” This prose narrative recounts a childhood idyll spent away from home: home is where her mother, losing her grip on sanity, screams—a scream that haunts the whole reminiscence and the whole of Bishop’s childhood (“A scream…hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies”). Her taste for travel, we realize, begins in this escape from disintegrating maternity, this forced expulsion from the nest, with her energetic errands all around the village.

These early travels bring her into contact with the warm physicality of animal life and with the many vital and inspiriting varieties of earthly labor in contrast to her mother’s neuroticizing immurement in finery. I think particularly of Nate the blacksmith, the ring of whose hammer on metal Bishop plays in counterpoint to her mother’s scream: the defense against madness’s noise is the clear ring of craft and the mystery of art.

In the blacksmith’s shop things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things, and there are black and glistening piles of dust in each corner. A tub of night-black water stands by the forge. The horseshoes sail through the dark like bloody little moons and follow each other like bloody little moons to drown in the black water, hissing, protesting.

(A later corollary in the collection is “Sestina,” another portrayal, this time in a most demanding poetic form, of the poet’s surreally chaotic childhood: “Time to plant tears, says the almanac.”)

“In the Village” is an ars poetica in prose. Yet as prose it calls on fictional as well as poetic tradition: it reminds me of the earlier stories in Dubliners that grew out of Joyce’s epiphanic vignettes, or of Katherine Mansfield’s great, montage-like autobiographical stories of a New Zealand childhood in “Prelude” or “At the Bay,” or even, closer to home, Hawthorne’s genial but shadowed sketches of New England village life.

To conclude, the unease in the whole volume, perhaps its chief question, comes from those imbalances of gender and class identification evoked again and again. The poet sympathizes now with Portuguese colonists, now with the village blacksmith, and yet she recoils too from a laboring masculinity that signifies at once salvifically conscientious craftsmanship and acquisitive global tyranny.

The critique of masculine imperialism is welcome, but, as with “Manuelzinho,” when the female spectator looks down on her male social inferiors, we are reminded that a host of anticolonial and postcolonial thinkers linked feminist politics or female literature to imperialism, from James Joyce’s observation that Daniel Defoe invented both feminism and imperialism in his two most famous protagonists, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, to Edward Said’s censure of Jane Austen and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s rebuke to Charlotte Brontë and Jean Rhys.

Nowhere is Bishop’s ambivalence more evident in Questions of Travel than in the charming and disgusting late piece “Filling Station.” This poem expresses the speaker’s campily exaggerated abhorrence at the filth of the titular locale and the males who work there and her appreciation of the silent female labor that maintains whatever aesthetic standards the dirty place manages to evince:

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.

Real genius is always tasteless and troubling, and so with the last line. It brings the speaker’s distanced-from-the-poet (because so overwrought) hauteur to a punchline climax. But it also makes a sincere feminist protest against the invisibility of female labor that subtends everyday life. In linking this creative labor to God (who “loves us all”) it further portends female divinity and allies the poet, silent maker of the poem, to the cosmic Creator.

Yet its only half-ironic afflatus puts working men in their place; it is so like a certain strain of obtusely elite bourgeois feminism—I think of a celebrity feminist writer who notoriously berated a McDonald’s employee for reinforcing the gender binary when he asked her if she wanted a boys’ or a girls’ Happy Meal—that I don’t know whether to marvel or to throw the book at the wall.

I marvel. I’m no poetry expert, but of the so-far canonical midcentury American poets I’ve read (Lowell, Berryman, Ginsberg, Plath, etc.), Bishop has always struck me as the only unambiguous great. Like all the greats, she is, as the kids say, problematic. Moral and political rectitude is always an oversimplification of this incorrigible world, so it is only given to lesser lights.

Bishop knows it. Questions of Travel ends with “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s,” a nursery rhyme on the model of “The House that Jack Built” about Bishop’s sojourns to see Ezra Pound in the mental hospital where he was held in lieu of being shot for treason. The poem’s escalating and repeating motifs build to an astonishing thunder. Adjectives Bishop attaches to Pound, “the poet, the man,” throughout: tragic, talkative, honored, old, brave, cranky, cruel, busy, tedious, wretched. While I have no sympathy for Pound’s particular form of transgression (Bishop didn’t either), I want that list on a T-shirt, or my tombstone.

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