“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In its final stanza, “Poem” starts to pick up steam.

           I never knew him. We both knew this place,
           apparently, this literal small backwater,
           looked at it long enough to memorize it,
           our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
           or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
           Our visions coincided—“visions” is
           too serious a word—our looks, two looks:
           art “copying from life” and life itself,
           life and the memory of it so compressed
           they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?
           Life and the memory of it cramped,
           dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
           dim, but how live, how touching in detail
           —the little that we get for free,
           the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
           About the size of our abidance
           along with theirs: the munching cows,
           the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
           still standing from spring freshets,
           the yet to be dismantled elms, the geese.

Even the downward revisions—from “it” to “its memory,” from “vision” to “looks,” “Not much”—feel freeing. The poem accelerates out of the turns. Clearing the poem (and, since the poem is called “Poem,” clearing the implicit case about poems themselves) of loftier, less personal ideals establishes a landscape, and an encounter, intimate enough for Bishop to abstract and enlarge….

And then, at the final moment, it goes flat. A regular iambic pentameter in the last line sets up an expectation the poem won’t meet. The last word, “geese,” reaches back six lines to the word “free,” creating a half-rhyme just audible enough at that distance to sound insufficient. And the list runs out; the omitted “and” that should precede “geese” leaves an air of incompletion, the poem stopped, or abandoned, as if incapable of adding up. The graceful marker of the landscape’s eventual demise (“yet-to-be-dismantled elms”) yields to unmodified, unresonantly rendered geese, imparticular—the creatures she told us earlier were “miniscule,” and which shared a sentence and a scene with “a slanting stick”—made even more generic by the halfhearted definite article that seems to imagine more for them than is there.

So many of Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying. Even the conclusion of “The Moose”—a poem that achieves a remarkable air of patience, an unruffled evocation of a world of mostly familiar beauty and sorrows to which ordinary human language might say “yes”—tilts into insufficiency at the close.

           For a moment longer
           by craning backward,
           the moose can be seen
           on the moonlit macadam;
           then there’s a dim
           smell of moose, an acrid
           smell of gasoline.

The first sentence distorts its own grammar as it slips into the passive voice, eliding the presence of anyone who might do the craning. Another list runs out. Another attenuated rhyme reaches back half-heartedly.

It’s there—that orchestrated sound of someone not doing anything much to make the poem sound resolved—at the end of her self-mocking self-portrait as a bird in “Sandpiper”:

           Poor bird, he’s obsessed!
           The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
           mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

It’s there in “The Fish,” which ends by pulling back from its longish, exclamatory, next-to-last sentence. The flat, final, short, declarative sentence ends by echoing the final, unstressed syllable of the triple “rainbow” in the line before (which reaches back to the terminal “rainbow” from seven lines before) in a noisy not-rhyme:

           I stared and stared
           and victory filled up
           the little rented boat,
           from the pool of bilge
           where oil had spilled a rainbow
           around the rusted engine
           to the bailer rusted orange,
           the sun-cracked thwarts,
           the oarlocks on their strings,
           the gunnels—until everything
           was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
           And I let the fish go.

(At one moment in the longer sentence, Bishop seems to be setting up another list to run out the poem: “to the bailer rusted orange, / the sun-cracked thwarts, / the oarlocks on the their strings, / the gunnels…,” but then she lifts off into the run of “rainbow”s before yanking the poem back to its watery portion of earth.)

It’s there at the end of “In the Waiting Room,” with its retreat into a place and date, and more pointedly in the final stanza of “Chemin de Fer,” where the closing rhyme’s slight misstep confirms the failed echo. It’s there at the end of one of her last published poems, “Santarém,” and it’s there at the end of “The Iceberg,” the second poem in her very first book, where another list just runs out while the last word merely gestures toward a rhyme:

           Icebergs behoove the soul
           (both being self-made from elements least visible)
           to see them so: fleshed fair, erected indivisible.

The poem before that, “The Map”—the one that opened her first book—seems to err in the other direction, though it continues the poem’s intermittent, deflating pattern of surrounding two lines that rhyme with lines that merely end with the same word or phrase:

           Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
           —What suits the character or the native waters best.
           Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
           More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

The last line feels false, in a way Bishop almost never is: didactic, stretching for more meaning than is there. It ends a playful poem with a statement that leaves no room for play. Its overreach seems analogous to something she describes earlier in the poem, drawing a serious idea out of the poem’s play: “as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.” In the case of the poem’s conclusion, it’s meaning that exceeds—or, to make the parallel more accurate, that exceeds too far. Refusing all excess, she playfully suggests, would be excessive too.

In a letter to Robert Lowell, Bishop apologized for what she called her “George Washington-handicap. I can’t tell a lie even for art, apparently; it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts.” Here, too, she was downplaying things—trying to take the sting out of some of the corrections she was making to a poem Lowell had sent her. But accuracy was a kind of bedrock for her—a condition of virtue and a protection against excess. When Lowell not only pilfered from but altered Elizabeth Hardwick’s anguished letters to him for his poems, she was outraged: “art just isn’t worth that much.” She described the alterations as “infinite mischief.” They messed with something—someone—real.

All those flat endings feel like an argument made by mimesis, Bishop the artist enacting an allegiance with reality, willing to stand against art if needed—so much so, once you start to line them up, that reality risks subservience to the proposition of her art. But they aren’t insincere. And though they never, to my ear, do justice to the writing that precedes them, they still cast light on her best work. And they may reveal something about art’s potentials, too.


What is Bishop handing off into incompletion at the end of “Poem”? What aspiration or ideal does it so audibly not achieve?

Bishop begins the poem in description, and she ends there, too, but her attention has mostly slipped through the painting by then, into the scene it describes. Up to that point, Bishop mostly presents the scene along with the artifice that renders it:

           Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
           It’s behind—I can almost remember the farmer’s name.
           His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
           titanium white, one daub.

Just before that turn of recognition, Bishop introduces a nearly comical moment of uncertainty:

           A specklike bird is flying to the left.
           Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

It’s the only other false note in the poem. Everywhere else, Bishop is remarkably agile in rendering painting, scene, and the individual mind encountering it, as well as a fourth presence—the writer herself, recorded in the available pleasures of making something that means and speaks and sees and sings. She’s written into it a vitality that stays fresh:

           Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
           —that gray-blue wisp—or is it? In the foreground
           a water meadow with some tiny cows;
           two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
           two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
           back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.

The two pairs of hard stresses in the first line (“Elm trees, low hills”) then the run of three in “thin church steeple”; the pattern picking up again in “gray-blue wisp” and then loosening in the subsequent pairs of adjective and noun—“water meadow,” “tiny cows”; the interlocking repetitions of “cows” and “two”: A little bit of dancing, pleasure, play. Someone’s here—not visible in her own right, but recognizable in something like the way the great uncle is to her.

You can recognize a human intention in the “flyspeck” lines above, too. But the intention there, as in the ending, feels askew from the poem’s more compelling pulse. It seems to be there, in fact, primarily to interrupt that pulse so that (in this case) she can rediscover it as something new in the moment of recognition. Which she does—does beautifully. And in so doing seems to find a freeing potential for meaning that might not require anything forced or false—and therefore might be portable into the world outside the poem, a place where someone might, to borrow from Bishop, abide.

The last stanza begins by pulling back: “I never knew him.” And then something small but confident, building—“We both knew this place.” Even then, though, she pulls back, starting the next line: “apparently.” These moments are their own illusion, rendered in service of reality and art. Bishop is forever introducing evidence of a mind at work into her poems. “It’s behind—I can almost remember the farmer’s name.” “Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple / —that gray-blue wisp—or is it?” “Our visions coincided—‘visions’ is / too serious a word—our looks, two looks.” She uses the same move in the little bit of dialogue that leads into the last stanza: “Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George, / he’d be your great-uncle.” A mind is made apparent in its self-corrections, in its attempts to get things right. And so often that mind is catching itself making too much of things.

In that final, long acceleration Bishop is lining up a serendipity—art, life, and the memory of life. And the climactic moment, the one in which she keeps reopening the list, hungry to say more, is one in which they are not only aligned, but to scale:

           —the little that we get for free,
           the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
           About the size of our abidance
           along with theirs

This, it seems, is the ideal, a surging, lyrical enactment of something that might be sufficient—and it’s the surge, I think, as much as the sufficiency. It’s the room to sing. But of course that’s not the poem’s final word. If she’s making a case about art, she’s unwilling to give it over entirely to that ideal. “They”—the ones we abide with—are gone. (“Those particular geese and cows / are naturally before my time.”) The painting that she introduced as “Useless and free”—setting up one of the half-dozen or so echoes she’ll write into the final lines—has fallen away, and the scene itself has nothing else to say. The coincidence of art and experience has run out. When, a few lines from the end, she added, “Not much,” she seemed to be sustaining the ideal, but in the final line, with “free” echoing clumsily from above, it doesn’t seem like enough. The impulse to not make too much of anything, the one that freed her up to move as gracefully as she did, has made things less than they might be.


“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’” Bishop complains near the end of “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” And then that poem lifts off, too—command and query, lament, a little undermining irony in the penultimate line, which ends the list but maintains the momentum:

           Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
           Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
           of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
           Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
           this old Nativity while we were at it?
          —the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
           an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
           colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
           and, lulled within, a family with pets,
          —and looked and looked our infant sight away.

The uninterrupted, self-altering lyricism of those final moments, after the poem’s prolonged listing of so many scenes that never added up to anything, is about what didn’t happen, what, she suggests, couldn’t happen—but, paradoxically, that singing into insignificance makes those earlier moments meaningful; it redeems them, not by altering them, but by giving them a role in the poem’s movement. They now add up to this durable, memorable moment of frustrated singing. Whereas the disappointment at the end of “Poem” is a refusal, in “2,000 Illustrations” it feels like something she’s found—and can share.

Those moments are redeemable only because she got us here; if the poem persuades that they didn’t add up, it nonetheless finds some other potential in them, a shifting combination of irony, metaphor, sonic play, and apparent precision. The opening charge—“Thus should have been our travels”—wanders with her through the book itself, with its “foreign,” sometimes-racist biblical illustrations that “all resolve themselves,” and then the details of “our” travels, with the implied beloved lodged somewhere in her disappointment, another aspect of the poem’s emotional stakes. Bishop and the beloved are still apparently aligned at the end—neither was able to look her “infant sight away”—but Bishop has mostly moved on from her by then.

It’s never been clear to me—how exhausting their “infant sight” would have improved their travels. Surely it wouldn’t have made the experiences, as in the poem’s opening wish, “serious, engravable.” My best guess is that it would, instead, have freed them from such aspirations. The long, penultimate stanza, the one that describes their travels, ends with “what frightened me most of all: / A holy grave, not looking particularly holy.” The “trough,” as she calls it, was “half-filled with dust, not even the dust / of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.” Perhaps Khadour, looking on “amused” in the stanza’s last line, has already looked his infancy away—or perhaps Bishop is suggesting that her delusion is a particularly Christian one, her persistent infancy aligned with the one in the “old Nativity.” I’m never sure. There’s a moment early in the poem, though, that sticks with me. Just before she introduces, thick with sarcasm, the glaring bigotry of the book’s depiction of “Arabs,” she writes:

           The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
           and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
           innumerable, though equally sad and still,
           are foreign.

Bishop draws out the adjectival phrases following “other scenes” so that an entire line separates subject from verb, and the poem then falls heavily on something that shouldn’t bear that much weight: “are foreign.” She uses that arrangement in other poems, too—for example, in “The Fish”: “his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper”—to deaden some impulse. Here, though, that hard landing sounds resonant, as if, for the speaker, at least for now, “foreign” is a sufficient answer to whatever has become “tired”—if only you could sustain it.


“What childishness,” Bishop writes in “Questions of Travel”:

                     is it that while there’s a breath of life
           in our bodies, we are determined to rush
           to see the sun the other way around?

The scene in the painting from “Poem” is Bishop’s original home—the one place she lived without the awareness that she once lived somewhere else. She was pulled out of it early: her mother locked away for the rest of her life, her father already dead, her wealthier relatives in Boston took her away from Nova Scotia, from the family she loved, to give her a better life that made her miserable. She described her abrupt exile in “The Country Mouse”: 

I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, insanitary school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r’s of my mother’s family. With this surprising extra set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than named, a new life was about to begin. It was a day that seemed to include months in it, or even years, a whole unknown past I was made to feel I should have known about, and a strange, unpredictable future.

Along with enduring misery—rooted in part in her uncle’s sexual and physical abuse, which she later documented in her letters to her longtime psychoanalyst; in part in the loveless superiority she sensed in this new family; and maybe also in part by the awakening of a sexuality that made her ever-stranger in both places—the experience implanted in her a knowledge she could never stop compounding: that the world was divided among mutually exclusive conditions which would never add up to anything whole.

At the end of “Questions of Travel,” a “traveler,” who seems to be another version of Bishop, “takes a notebook and writes,”

           “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?”

Narratively, these concluding stanzas never leave the exquisite scene of “a sudden golden silence” in which the traveler feels compelled to write. These jottings are physically there, written down in that moment. But they also gain a measure of ironic distance—their energetic, agile declarations of uncertainty softened by being handed off into someone’s hand.

The presence of something else—somewhere else—even if it’s just a notebook tucked inside the scene, makes space for a fullness other of her poems can’t in good conscience allow. The concluding question reaches back easily to rhyme with the negated “free”—the same word that “the geese” echoes so flatly and faintly at the end of “Poem.” (It also rhymes less forcefully with “society,” in keeping with the until-then attenuated aaba rhyme scheme of the concluding stanzas.) These intellectually-and-emotionally-unresolved but sonically-complete declarations fulfill the poem’s movement and become habitable; they impart an air of completion, a sense of something shapely. Bishop can let them do so, I suspect, because they oppose—they pass through the originating experience while orbiting some other sun, which gives them, for Bishop, the ring of truth.

“At the Fishhouses” also ends with all its bells still ringing, even as Bishop gives the last word to the limits of its ecstatic, annihilating immersion. The vision is authorized by all that resists it; first, the long, intimate rendering of a shimmering, practical, disappearing human world that connects her to her grandfather—to that original world in which a very different version of her was once at home, and part of her, but only part, still is; and then her own hesitancy, still rooted in that practical world of survival that is running out. She pulls back twice before she finally, fully imagines baptism in something transcendent and terrible. And even then, the ecstasy slips, amid its incremental, overlapping steps down and down, from a scene witnessed by the speaker (“I have seen it”) into something speculated about in the actions of an impersonal “you”—and then, via simile, into a collective mind:

           I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
           slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
           icily free above the stones,
           above the stones and then the world.
           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.
           If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
           then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
           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.

Here, too, the poem feels fulfilled. (And here, too, the word “free.”) It redeems its doubts, uncertainties, and dissatisfactions, rather than inflicting them. But I sometimes wonder if, in this case, they aren’t so altered by that redemption as to cease to be themselves. Bishop gives the last word to the idea that even this imagined transcendence is contingent, proper to the same world of expiring realities that led to her own first exile and to the subsequent expiration of the lives and ways of life in that lost paradise. But the idea is still caught up in the current that brings her there—so much so that I have to go back to the rest of the poem to remember what the last word means. The poem’s motions hardly know what the speaker, in that last word, says.

I’m ok with that. The poem has brought me pleasure and surprise over decades of reading and rereading, teaching and writing. Its hard-earned ecstasies, and the intricate, agile movement through the scene Bishop has to slip free of (but not erase) in order to break into full-throated singing at the end, have delighted me. And maybe the counter-knowledge the poem’s music overwhelms is most important here because it allows that music. But it also reminds me of all the poems Bishop seemingly went out of her way to undermine in their final moment—and how much it took for Bishop not to do that here. In her George Washington letter to Lowell she wrote, “it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts.” I suspect one such fact—the fact that life never really adds up—was at the root of her compulsion to mar the final moment of her poems, bringing them closer to the untranscendent disappointments of the divided world in which she lived, uneasily, aware that wherever she was, there was always somewhere else.


“Art just isn’t worth that much.” Part of the appeal of Bishop’s art, for me, is its felt allegiance to something other than art, a world of actual lives and places and things art was just one part of—and its ability to make that allegiance agile, to move with grace and insight within those apparent confines. The reality she loved enough to represent with such exquisite fidelity often let her down. But Bishop also loved art. An unbeliever, she cherished the memory of singing hymns with her grandparents in the undivided—though also grief-struck—world of her early years, and she continued to sing them with what Robert Giroux describes as “unselfconscious pleasure” throughout her life. She cherished paintings and put serious effort into her own paintings, watercolors, and Cornell boxes. And art mattered enough for her to give years—decades—to trying to get a poem right, and to her faith that such rightness was there to find. Lowell asked, in one of his poems on her:

           you still hang your words in air, ten years
           unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps
           or empties for the unimaginable phrase—
           unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?

Accuracy didn’t mean explicitness or inclusion. Neither did rightness. Experiences like childhood sexual abuse never appear in the poems, neither is there any explicit mention of the alcoholism that so shamed her or the queerness that sometimes made life unsafe and risked, for her, a kind of categorization she was desperate to refuse. Instead, Bishop seemed to reach for a place where the multiple allegiances of a poem—to the materials and events (sometimes fantastical, more often exactingly real) it described, to the mind it evoked in describing them, to the potentials for sonic pleasure in syntax and the sounds of words, and for intellectual pleasure in the play of attitudes and ideas—could move independently as one. Lowell talks about making “the casual perfect,” and while that’s an apt description of many moments in many of Bishop’s poems, I think it oversimplifies.

The mind that Bishop renders and records in so many poems is often a divided one. It is conscious of social mores and drawn to the consoling potentials of the “Grandparents’ voices” that conjure a drifting eternity in “The Moose,” of the quiet bus driver whose “’Curious creatures’” is name enough for the marvel that walks out of the “impenetrable wood” and stops them all before they must resume. But it is drawn, too, by something wilder, an ecstatic potential in herself and in the world that she mostly stitches into her poems as a counterforce, uneasily contained. And it is aware, in both, of the potential for loneliness. Her eccentrics are almost always outcasts; her delighted ironies always keep them at arm’s length.

Bishop was lonely. For all her friendships and loves, loneliness was always there. She was, I suspect, the kind of person who fears loneliness enough that loneliness was sure to come—she was too busy making sure she was worthy of the person’s company to experience much companionship. Her letters are a good read, but you can feel the effort in most of them, the work of being a good correspondent, which is also the shape of her remove. She’s often more host than companion. Something impersonal creeps in.


How much redemption can something undergo before it ceases being itself—and so slips beyond the reach of redemption? Given Bishop’s insistence on hiding her queerness, a certain amount of conversion was necessary. In “The Shampoo,” a small, sweet love poem she feared was ”indecent,” she goes to such lengths in covering up her sexuality that the coverup reveals; she refers to the beloved, gender-not-specified, as “dear friend.” But there’s more to it than that. Representational art is by nature transformative, an alternative to that which it portrays that simultaneously points us back to its real or imagined origin and gives it to us altered or added to, new. To merely reproduce would be nearly pointless, if it were even possible.

“Crusoe in England” is a self-portrait by other means. It’s also a poem in which those other means make their own demands on Bishop’s imagination, creating new opportunities for it. Crusoe is supposedly answering the world’s misconceptions about his life. At the outset, having read news of another new island being discovered and named, he laments: “But my poor old island’s still / un-rediscovered, un-renamable. / None of the books has ever got it right.” Later, as he introduces Friday, he complains, parenthetically, “(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)” Tellingly, Crusoe never corrects the accounts. Within the perimeter of what he can say, that’s all there is, and his meaning instead leaks out in statements that seem both guarded and obvious: “If only he had been a woman!” “—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.” And having gone that far, Crusoe turns away until the poem’s sudden, sad, final two lines.

Amid those corrective impulses, Crusoe also reveals the impossibility of getting it right—but as he’s doing that, Bishop does something remarkable. She manages to evoke, in the same voice, and the same descriptions, both the terrible insufficiency of everything that was available to Crusoe in his life of isolation and the abundance that he can describe, accurately, only in retrospect. He could not have seen it that way at the time, even if the old knife, as he claims, “reeked of meaning” then. (He never actually mentions the knife in his descriptions of his island life.) No more than he can manage to see anything marvelous in his new isolation, not even the old objects that returned with him to this other island. Reading lines like the following, I feel no desire to trade places with Crusoe-as-he-was watching the waterspouts, even before he sentences all of it, including beauty, to insufficiency, but neither do I feel any desire to leave his rendering of the scene behind:

           And I had waterspouts. Oh,
           half a dozen at a time, far out,
           they’d come and go, advancing and retreating,
           their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
           of scuffed-up white.
           Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
           sacerdotal beings of glass … I watched
           the water spiral up in them like smoke.
           Beautiful, yes, but not much company.

Throughout the description, but most so in that last sentence, Crusoe feels real, and though his loneliness is not assuaged by naming it, I find companionship there. And I wonder if Bishop found something like that, too—the words turning her own knowledge of loneliness and disappointment into a rightness, something accurate and alive enough to imply an audience, conjuring someone else who might hear that same alignment of rhythm, voice, situation and sense that she had been listening for among those hanging words.

Before finally returning his attention to Friday, Crusoe complains of the objects that “the local museum” has asked him to leave them—those souvenirs of his minor renown: “How can anyone want such things?” He then leaves their insignificance behind, shifting to Friday’s long absence.

Crusoe tries to present it as just another in the long list of reasons for his current dissatisfaction, a little like the loss that gradually emerges from Bishop’s catalog of losses in “One Art”—the one that looks like disaster (and, paradoxically, proves her mastery). After a dash at the start of the line, Crusoe connects—“And,” that word Bishop omits from so many endings—as if this could be merely the last item in a long sequence of complaints: “—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” It’s almost too neat, a little too mechanical an enactment of a psychoanalytic-style repression revealing itself. Except here, too, Crusoe’s voice feels credible, his mix of near-precision and imperfect reserve rendering him and redeeming grief11 It would be easy to make too much of the fact that Bishop’s beloved Lota, with whom she lived in Lota’s native Brazil for 15 years, killed herself while visiting Bishop in the U.S. and Friday died after being taken to Crusoe’s native England, but it’s hard to ignore once you notice it—especially given that Friday’s death from measles calls attention to his having been displaced by a colonial power.—grief, which is also a way of losing one’s ability to feel at home in the world, an allegiance to the world as it was and can no longer be—as something proper to human experience and alive in the interpersonal transit of art.


Among the less-than-a-handful of poems Bishop published between the release of her last book and her death in 1979 is “North Haven,” her elegy for Robert Lowell, whom she once imagined memorializing her: “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Lowell left the world two years before her, compounding her loneliness.

Bishop opens the poem with an italicized stanza, separated slightly from the rest of the poem. I tend to read it as Lowell’s words to her, but it’s at least as likely that they are Bishop’s. Either way, there’s an eerie isolation to the seeing they describe:

           I can make out the rigging of a schooner
           a mile off. I can count
           the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
           the pale bay wears a milky skin, the sky
           no clouds, except for one long, carded horse’s tail.

Whoever speaks here is describing a place the two poets shared, but the stanza floats above the poem, imagining a silence in which only one of them remains to either describe or hear about the landscape’s latest self-revisions. A solitary “I” stands exposed at the outset: “I can….” “I can….” The second, suspended briefly above the following line, conjures something childlike before a direct object changes its meaning: “I can count.” Lowell can’t. The act of seeing and describing and altering the description (“no clouds, except…”), belongs, like all of Lowell’s acts and all his words, to the past.

The poem proper speaks to Lowell, and so echoes with his absence. Two losses move as one: Bishop’s loss of an essential friend, and Lowell’s loss of the ability to go on revising his poems and life. If Bishop’s art was, at least in Lowell’s imagining of it, a function of extraordinary patience and a belief in perfection, or even just rightness, Lowell’s was driven by infinite alteration. Where Bishop wrote a changing mind into her poems, Lowell changed his own unstable mind—and changed his poems—over and over again. In “New Haven,” it’s Lowell’s lost perspective that shapes her attention: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does: / repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.” Her own sense of change—as complication, fissure, as atomizing force—is only there in the precipitating fact that the world has changed from one in which Lowell existed to one in which he doesn’t and won’t.

Here, too, Bishop imagines freedom (and suggests its unreality). After the unmoored italicized stanza, she begins updating Lowell on the world without him:

           The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
           even if I like to pretend they have
          —drifting, in a dreamy kind of way,
           a little north, a little south or sidewise,
           and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

The actual changes to the scene are modest (“The Goldfinches are back, or others like them”), too small to mirror the profound change in Bishop’s life, small enough to allow a feeling of continuity. Ultimately, it’s unfreedom that carries the scene. She starts the last stanza, telling Lowell about his absence, “You left North Haven, anchored in its rock.” And then, a change in the way the scene changes from year to year: “And now—you’ve left / for good.” The line break calls attention to the similarity: Lowell, like Bishop, left this summer vacation spot at the end of every visit. His absence now could almost be another instance of one being there without the other, and her speaking to him, as if writing another of the letters that they sent each other over decades, keeps that illusion in view.

The last four sentences are all negation—four verbs that “can’t,” “won’t,” and “cannot” happen, along with the parenthetical refusal of nature to honor the loss:

                     You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
           your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
           The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

There’s a richness in Bishop’s closing catalog of lost capacities, all of which add up to a kind of metonymy of the loss—of his life, his being—in its entirety. Rather than trailing off, withering the poem’s body in an attempt to embody the despair it represents, the last lines gather force on their way to the essential fact22 Here, as well, I hear an echo of the last stanza in “One Art,” but I find this version more evocative of an actual mind and voice, and therefore more compelling.. At first, she seems to be continuing an old disagreement: she describes his habit of revising old poems as deranging before pulling back into something gentler, and the loss of an old honesty creeps in as another register of what’s lost. And then, in the parenthetical, not yet fluent in this new mode, as she seems to stumble for something more decorous, she’s unable to avoid compounding the first indiscretion; moving, by association, back to their shared landscape, she just makes it worse.

The last line, which stretches out—six beats—reaching for the solid, sealing final rhyme, finally achieves a properly elegiac tone. But the first sentence isn’t quite sufficient. His words, while essential to their friendship and his life, are not him, and the sentence feels like a refusal to name the fundamental loss—of life. She has to complete the circuit of subjects, returning to Lowell: “You can’t,” “the Sparrows can,” “The words won’t,” and, finally, undoing the contraction, “you cannot.” “Sad friend,” she says, still speaking in the present tense, so that it’s hard to tell if she’s referring to a life of sadness, now ended, or a sadness she projects onto him now, as he hears the news she breaks to him—knowing that an inability to change would break his broken heart, even though it’s this final change that has brought her grief.

Even here, you can feel Bishop’s determination not to get carried away. Or maybe “determination” isn’t the right word. It feels more instinctive than that—habit held so long that all your habits have grown around it. Her restraint gives the ending much of its power. But I’m more interested in the way Bishop makes presence out of absence, the way she makes something whole out of something broken, without, to my mind, misrepresenting it. That’s not unique to this poem, or to Bishop. It’s presumably among art’s oldest functions. But I can imagine a version of this poem where Bishop deliberately refuses that consolation. For example, with just a slight reordering and a minor cut, she could have written this:

           You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
           afloat in mystic blue… And now—you’ve left
           for good. Sad friend, you cannot change.
           You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
           your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)

Just as a tiny change could have altered the ending of “Poem” to make it feel resolved:

           —the little that we get for free,
           the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
           About the size of our abidance
           along with theirs: the munching cows,
           the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
           still standing from spring freshets.
           The yet to be dismantled elms.
           The annually departing geese.

My versions are naturally inferior to hers, but I wish she’d done something along those lines in the latter case. Even more, I’m glad she didn’t do something like that with “North Haven.” You could make a case for that ending—it insists on seeing the loss of one human as a small thing in a large world while also turning that insistence into an added register of the grief. Tucking the last sentence inside parentheses gives it something of the quality she gets at the end of “Five Flights Up,” where a concluding parenthetical carries frightening weight. But it’s a lonelier poem if it ends with “(But the Sparrows can their song.)” It places a thumb on the side of the scale marked “reality,” where “reality” means something smaller than life—a version of life looked at without the possibility of sharing it, making something of it. It turns away from Lowell, remembering him as his absence. And in its mimetic impulse, it argues against the art it’s making, and all that art might imply.

Lowell’s death seems to have inspired some more immediate allegiance. However modestly, “North Haven” ends still signing, gathering its elements, including the other awareness contained in that parenthetical; including her stumbling transit from Lowell to the sparrows to his words and finally back to him; including her loneliness; including her disappointment; including the small changes she rings along the way—“can’t,” “can,” and “won’t,” opening out into “cannot”; the pattern of opening each sentence with subject and verb yielding to her complex direct address: “Sad friend”; the elongated last line and the ways the two sentences inside it echo each other; the simple, secure rhyme of “re-arrange” and “change”—including her allegiance to her lost, sad friend; into a single, complex motion that says, implicitly: this, too, belongs to our potential for sharing, for pleasure, that we mortals might meaningfully, honestly, unselfconsciously sing, knowing what we are bound to know. “Not much,” she insists in “Poem,” and, in fact, it’s not—often, for her, it couldn’t be. “but how live,” she writes, just before that, “how touching in detail.”

In “Sandpiper,” Bishop calls the frantic bird “a student of Blake.” She’s alluding to the opening line of “Auguries of Innocence,” “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” Bishop’s sandpiper, like Bishop, doesn’t. Each grain is different, and the small bird’s relentless looking, though too narrow to comprehend its own circumstance, can never get narrow enough to encompass anything. It is “looking for something, something, something,” she observes, and her incomprehension seems to be his, too. (The obvious fact that he’s looking for food mostly serves as a reminder that this is really about herself.) Of course, the world wasn’t only disappointing for Bishop. There was love. There were friends. Poems, paintings, stories, music, travel. Amusement. Acclaim. And Bishop wasn’t just after one thing. There’s the hunger for grandeur that takes so long to break loose in “At the Fishhouses.” There’s the hunger for belonging and restraint that for so much of that same poem keeps the impulse toward grandeur under rein. There’s the allegiance with accuracy, fact; the desire for stability and order. The play and imagination that manifests itself in surreal visions and sometimes-playful, sometimes-vicious jibes. A sense of safety in small things and the sense that there was more to it than that—more world, more kinds. And there’s the rightness she was willing to wait so long for.

The poems and parts of poems by Bishop that matter most to me make those impulses into a single, living thing, as capacious and alert as the 36-line sentence that opens “The Moose”: a sentence in which the grammatical core is just “a bus journeys… and waits.” It took two decades for Bishop to arrive at the rightness that finally completed that poem. But after all that, part of the rightness, for Bishop, included a deliberately off note at the end. I’m amazed that so much waiting or working didn’t result in something leaden. And I’m struck that she chose to work a bit of lead into the poem’s final moment, as if what went right would otherwise be untrue. It seems sad to me, and it’s a sadness different from the one that I feel at the end of “North Haven,” where sadness seems to be part of our earthly trust. It suggests something more tangled, translatable only into absence—something she needed to say, over and over again, even though her only way of saying it was to forego, audibly, publicly, what she could more meaningfully share.

1 It would be easy to make too much of the fact that Bishop’s beloved Lota, with whom she lived in Lota’s native Brazil for 15 years, killed herself while visiting Bishop in the U.S. and Friday died after being taken to Crusoe’s native England, but it’s hard to ignore once you notice it—especially given that Friday’s death from measles calls attention to his having been displaced by a colonial power.

2 Here, as well, I hear an echo of the last stanza in “One Art,” but I find this version more evocative of an actual mind and voice, and therefore more compelling.

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of PoemsHe teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, NC.


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