On Elizabeth Bishop

George Estreich

BG-Art-of-Sentence-dc2Every medium has its limitations, and the central limitation of writing is that readers can only apprehend one word at a time, in order. Because of this, we are denied the grand simultaneities permitted to other arts. A symphonic chord, with its dimensions of harmony and tone color and dynamics and duration, can be heard all at once; a landscape, with its dimensions of form and color and scale, can be seen in an instant. But we have to talk a world into being. Ours is a spare art, an art of losses, and even our grand monuments are built one brick at a time.

Our response to this limitation is to resist it. One way we do so is through echoes: a text moves forward, but a repeated element moves backward. In a poem, for example, a rhyme can reach backward across a stanza, a later image echo an earlier. Against the linear, forward rush of the text, a positive charge arcs backward, illuminating a landscape under construction.

Another way we resist the forward, linear motion of texts is to exploit the radial possibilities of language. Even though readers can read only one word at a time, each word can radiate in multiple directions. Through context and figurative speech, writers put pressure on words so that they radiate, rising above the Flatland of the page.

What simultaneities we have, then, are the residue of a strict ongoing: landscapes of meaning and meaningful landscapes, constituted word by word in the reader’s mind, with the reader’s help. It follows, then, that the pleasure of reading is not just that of entering a world of meaning, but of seeing that world being built, and participating in the construction.


In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses,” for example, repetition is an undertow against the stately forward motion of the poem: words (“fishhouses,” “silver,” “iridescent,” “stones,” “water”) and lines, repeated, develop a precise and not-quite-static scene:

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,

element bearable to no mortal,

to fish and to seals…

. . . .

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,

the clear gray icy water . . .

. . . .

. . .The water seems suspended

above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.

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

slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,

above the stones and then the world.

The effect is incantatory, a disturbing lullaby. The world is seen with, and sung about, with absolute clarity, and it is recognized as something other, nonhuman: element bearable to no mortal. Near the end of the poem, Bishop transforms this clarity. Extending the image, and repeating the words that have echoed through the poem, she both extends and interrupts her incantation; what was a lullaby becomes suddenly, intensely wakeful:

If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn

as if the water were a transmutation of fire

that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

. . .

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free. . .

A landscape of meaning, a meaningful landscape. What I love about Bishop’s poem is the way that she makes her landscape stand for the human—but that, in so doing, she does not domesticate the landscape so much as make the world, and the people in it, seem even more strange. To truly perceive the world is to be burned by it; and human knowledge itself is strange, can only be approximated by metaphor. Note Bishop’s elegantly skeptical hedge: It is like what we imagine knowledge to be.

What is crystallized, in this moment, is the way in which Bishop’s poem enacts and embodies its idea. The shift to the second person—unusual for Bishop, who is always at once deeply intimate and restrained, a poet of private reverie more than direct address—places the reader’s hand in the water. (With typical circumspection and grace, Bishop does not command, but present an option.) It is the reader’s hand that burns with knowledge, with a surreal fire that “feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame,” in a world that is once sensual and abstract: knowledge has a salt taste, it is freezing and burning at once, it is experienced by the entire body.

So to read, then, is to experience embodied knowledge (in the shape of the poem) with one’s entire body; and to do so is to blur the very lines between inside and outside. The poem is a world where those lines are blurred: where knowledge is an ocean, where to thrust one’s hand in is to taste in a way that is both powerful and uncertain.


Bishop’s poem illuminates one writer defying the linear with metaphor. The equivalence of “knowledge” and “ocean,” is elaborated through the poem, built upon by repetition. But the sound of the poem, too, the varied yet static lapping of the lines, enacts the oceanic image. I have always been skeptical of the idea that we like iambic pentameter because it sounds like the heart, but in Bishop’s case the poem’s sound embodies its meaning in a nontrivial way.

So the poem blurs the lines between reader and poem, writing the reader into place, asking her to dip her hand in a textual ocean, telling her what it might feel like. (By this point, of course, the delicate If you should dip your hand in is ironic: we are already submerged in Bishop’s ocean, with its salt clarity.) That merging of reader and poem, world and body, is crystallized by the poem’s conclusion:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world, derived from the rocky breasts

forever, flowing and drawn, and since

our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The world is a body, speaking to us with its cold hard mouth, nourishing us with its rocky breasts; the poem negotiates between the world and the person perceiving the world; and the poem is a body itself, a form in time. It has to end. The poem, like us, lives forward and looks backward: it mulls over its accretion of experience, through repeated words, cold dark deep and absolutely clear, which seems different each time.

Bishop’s irony is that by repeating the idea of absolute clarity, she shows this is something we desire but cannot achieve. We may imagine knowledge to absolutely clear, but it isn’t; we may imagine it to be “utterly free” and “derived from the rocky breasts forever,” free of context and time, but in fact it is situated, and it escapes us: “our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.” The flow of knowledge, like the flow of language, has to end.


George Estreich’s memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye, won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His prose has been published in The Oregonian, Salon, and The New York Times. He lives in Oregon with his family.