A Dripping Jawful of Marl (TPR #11 redux)

Elizabeth Bishop.  I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop since early December.  Perhaps I will keep reading Elizabeth Bishop until late November.  But today, finally, today, I felt I could adequately begin again this post on the amazing and beautiful words of Elizabeth Bishop.

I had worried, you see.  I had not been enjoying my time with her even as I knew I loved her writing.  What was happening?  So, I stopped reading and decided not to write about her for a bit.  I felt I owed her at least that.  And whatever it is that time does, it has once again done it with me.  I sat this morning with Bishop's The Complete Poems and fell in love all over again.  See, Bishop's prose was at times interesting, but more often tiresome, and I couldn't wrap my mind around that lack.  I used to teach "The Farmer's Children," and I love it still, but many of her prose pieces were utterly forgettable to me.  Once I thumbed back through The Collected Prose, though, I was reminded of how thought-provoking and delicately fragmented "In the Village" is.  According to the introduction by publisher Robert Giroux, Bishop did not like "The Farmer's Children," probably for its maudlin quality, and "In the Village" is considered by some to be her "best" prose effort.  Her story is almost autobiographical as it recounts the experience of a child dealing with a mother's mental illness, the very thing Bishop experienced until age five when her mother was permanently institutionalized.  This story has such a poetic sensibility; consider the following passages:
The dressmaker was crawling around and around on her knees eating pins as Nebuchadnezzar had crawled eating grass.  The wallpaper glinted and the elm trees outside hung heavy and green, and the straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay. (252)
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. (253)
There is the observant power of the poet in those descriptions and much to admire and savor.  So, I'm glad to have encountered Bishop's collected prose, though I am still convinced it was not her prime medium.

I also listened to a podcast interview with Helen Vendler regarding the friendship and correspondence between Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Vendler provided a lovely complement to the letters between the two (found in their entirety in Words in Air) that I sampled in One Art (her selected letters published by Giroux).  I did not read this collection in full (it is over 600 pages in length), but enjoyed dipping into it for little flavors at different times.  I am thinking I'd like to have Words in Air, so I can have more leisure to continue this practice.  Like Bishop, I love letters.  I love to reread old letters (those I've received and those I've written), and I love what letters tell us about an author, balancing the intimacy of the journal with the veiled openness of publication.  Here, I offer only one of many examples of the treasures to be found in these correspondences:
And one thing more - what on earth do you mean when you say my perceptions are "almost impossible for a woman's"?  "Now what the hell," as you said to me, "you know that's meaningless."  And if you really do mean anything by it, I imagine it would make me very angry.  Is there some glandular reason which prevents a woman from having good perceptions, or what? (12)
No.  Apparently, you need one more:
What I meant about Shakespeare: it was he who gave that beautiful, slightly sad lilt to the sonnet form, the impressiveness of first lines and the importance and finality of last lines - an atmosphere easy to crawl into without really having the right to be there, and a pillow for any number of weary ideas. (13)
But enough of that business. The poems are what we came here for.  It is what she came here for.  The collection I read spans 30 years, but it stops at 1969.  Though she died in 1979, she was productive in those final years, so the true "complete" poems is the one that is subtitled 1927-1979.  And because of this lack, my collection doesn't have one of the finest poems of its kind: "One Art."  You can read it here, and you should.  It is a villanelle, and though I am not typically a fan of the strict forms, I find this poem to be astonishingly good in the way it uses that rigid form to say something so transparent, so seeking, so provocative.  It is so fine.

In the collection I hold, there are many such instances of finery.  From "The Map": 

These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger                                                                       like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Or from "A Cold Spring": 

and the blurred redbud stood
beside it, motionless, but almost more
like movement than any placeable color.

And the poem from which I take my post's title: "The Bight"

Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

Bishop was a perfectionist.  She would work a poem until she felt certain it was what it needed to be, and as a result, she was not a highly prolific writer.  But her patience provided some lasting evidence of the necessity of observation, the sadness of lyric, and the power of the unexpected word.  I'm glad I finally returned to her work and returned to my senses.


  1. Great post! Despite having studied Bishop as part of a modern poetry course in college, "One Art" is the only poem of hers I've really FELT at a gut level, but your appreciation of her here is contagious and convinces me that I should try her again at some point. And those letter fragments are totally delightful!

  2. Thanks, Emily. There are actually numerous Bishop poems that don't speak to me, but when they do, they hit just right. "One Art" is definitely one of those for me. She is not my favorite poet of all time, but I am glad to be reassured of her unique and powerful voice.