BISHOP’S VISIONARY SEASCAPES

BISHOP’S VISIONARY SEASCAPES

 
An image of a beach, grassy bluff, beige sand, and low blue waves.
A Windy Day on the North Shore, Nantucket Island, Mass,” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

 

The sea is a fixture of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, from the early poems in A Cold Spring (1956) to the final collection published during her lifetime, Geography III (1976). Though more than twenty years passed between the publications of these works, it is evident that many of the same questions and images remained pressing in Bishop’s mind. Two particular poems, “The Bight” and “The End of March,” cast light upon an invisible line that connects her earlier work to her later work. The themes and landscapes are not dissimilar, and it is fascinating to perceive the ways in which the passage of time has potentially influenced Bishop’s poetic sensibilities. Both poems are immensely visual; Bishop, who was a painter as well as a poet, characteristically highlights color and visionary imagery in her poetry. Both poems are concerned with the future, encapsulating a meditation on the speaker’s current place in her world and where she may find herself next—this is where perspective of time makes itself apparent, and the two poems in conversation together have a profound resonance.

The title of “The Bight” refers to the geographical feature of the coastline, where it bends or recedes from the sea. The poem begins almost in medias res, throwing the reader into the scene: “At low tide like this how sheer the water is.”1 One is compelled to envision that water the speaker references, by the force of the phrase “like this,” directing the attention immediately to the conjured image. There is no easing into the scene, only an abrupt flash of light and vision, like a sun glare off the sea. These images only become more vivid, engaging all the senses of the reader. In further describing the water in the bight, Bishops writes that it is

the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.2

In these three lines, three separate senses are invoked. Bishop begins with color, as she tends to do: but it is not as simple as saying the water was blue. Rather, the blue of the bay is that bright, vibrant, always-surprising blue of a low flame on a gas stove. This leads to the next sense, which is the smell of this gas-stove sea. But then, under the guise of literary reference (to the poet Baudelaire, whom Bishop adored), smell and sight become sound. All of these unusual analogies—marimba music makes some sense, but gas stoves are rarely a go-to metaphor for the ocean—combine to create a distinct sense impression for the reader.

The subtitle of the poem, “On my birthday,” indicates that it is occassional poem. The forward-looking yet uncertain, almost foreboding tone of the poem is imbued with personal significance. The speaker is paralyzed, gazing out at the perpetual motion of the waves crashing into the shore. The poem is entirely in the present or present progressive tense, which communicates a kind of unending quality to the actions: The pelicans are now and will forever “crash” into the water; the “frowsy sponge boats keep coming in” to shore, and always will, with their “obliging air.”3 Those boats seem to the speaker to be “torn-open, unanswered letters,” and she emphasizes this point: “the bight is littered with old correspondences.”4 The past seeps in, even in her observance of an everyday landscape. The scene is given greater significance because of the day of observance: It is a turning point, a day marking the poet one year older. The final lines following this underlying preoccupation with the past is ambiguous in tone, paradoxical (and self-consciously so):

Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.5

The “Click. Click.” of the scooping of the sea sediment is onomatopoetic, another sensory affect upon the reader. It is also akin to the ticking of a clock; an omnipresent reminder of the passage of time, continuous. The final line articulates the poem’s tone exactly: awful, but cheerful. The scene is occasionally ominous, darkening, but never without some kind of brightness. Not quite cheer but forward motion, like the ever-shifting sea itself.

In “The End of March,” the speaker returns to the sea. Bishop herself has gone from a woman of thirty-eight to one in her mid sixties. Instead of considering her childhood or young adulthood that has definitively ended, she seems to be something like two-thirds of the way through life, which provokes again a questioning of the self and what may be to come. The title is important: it proclaims, at first glance, the time of year. Marking the close of winter, the hope of spring is just beginning to bud. But the poem itself is set in the mind of the speaker as she walks down another rocky New England beach (a similar setting to “The Bight”), and this is also a “March” of sorts. Not only a procession down the beach, physically speaking, but the movement towards the end of life.

Rather than the crashing waves of “The Bight,” which is defined by the rush and vitality of the place where the sea meets the shore, “The End of March” paints a picture of a world in retreat: “Everything was withdrawn as far as possible, / indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken.”6 Just as the poetic speaker is at a distance, so too is the landscape. But the poem is involved deeply with sensory experience; it is not cold or unfeeling, though the seaside may seem to be so. The speaker articulates how “The rackety, icy, offshore wind / numbed our faces on one side;” and mentions walking in large rubber boots on the wet sand.7 These physical sensations draw the reader into the poem, particularly as they are placed in the first two stanzas. The scene is real, with these palpable feelings providing that realism.

But a shift begins to occur in the middle of the poem. The seascape slowly becomes more and more unreal, until it resembles a kind of dreamscape. The speaker sees in the distance “my proto-dream house, / my crypto-dream-house,” which begins a monologue.8  The surrounding three stanzas (two before, one after) are of comparable length, but this third stanza contains more than double the number of lines of any other. She imagines her life in this dream house,

that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of—are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)9

Bishop’s use of color, once again, is unique and evocative. The green of the house is greener than a boiled artichoke—sight becomes mingled with other senses with the metaphor of food or plant life, bringing in smell and even taste. The uncertainty in the final line only further emphasizes the dreamlike nature of the description. A whole possible life is conjured with just the mention of the artichoke-green house. The speaker’s retirement to the little askew cottage would be comprised of doing “nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms,” a vision of a serene, calm, and above all quiet existence. However, the recognition of this impossibility shakes her back into reality:

And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.10

But the understanding that the house and its attendant fantasies are inaccessible does not seem desperate or hopeless, just as the ending of “The Bight” is neither desperate nor hopeless. Perhaps another day, when the wind dies down, she will manage to make it to the end of the beach. The poem gives us reason to believe so: In the final stanza, the sun emerges, if only for a moment. The world shifts again, if only to her perceptive eye:

For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored.11

The gray, cold beach for a moment becomes iridescent, shining in the sunlight. Vitality returns; the “lion sun” (59) is playful and lighthearted, a reminder of youthful ease.12 The speaker is looking both backward and forward at a life, from carefree games with kites to the gloriousness nothingness of retirement. Both phases of life expect little of the life-liver, emphasizing instead simple experience for experience’s sake.

“The Bight” and “The End of March” feel very much like bookends to one woman’s life. It is not that the speaker’s life begins or ends with either; “The Bight” marks a new phase of life, continuous from the previous but distinct in perspective, while “The End of March” pauses at another significant life change, but does not stop completely. This paradoxical stillness and shifting is perfectly embodied in Bishop’s often returned to image of the sea. It is a fixture of her poetic world, a landscape her poems fill out so distinctly and expressively. This visionary capability breaks the boundaries between the inner and the outer world; the speaker’s thoughts burst forth, out into the ocean tide, and the seaside activity becomes an extension of the mind at work.

  1. Elizabeth Bishop, “The Bight,” Poems, Prose, and Letters, Edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: The Library of America, 2008), 46; 1.
  2. Bishop, “The Bight,” 6-8.
  3. Bishop, “The Bight,” 11; 20.
  4. Bishop, “The Bight,” 31; 32.
  5. Bishop, “The Bight,” 33-36.
  6. Elizabeth Bishop, “The End of March,” Poems, Prose, and Letters, 167; 3-4.
  7. Bishop, “The End of March,” 6-7.
  8. Bishop, “The End of March,” 24-25.
  9. Bishop, “The End of March,” 25-31.
  10. Bishop, “The End of March,” 49-51.
  11. Bishop, “The End of March,” 54-56.
  12. Bishop, “The End of March,” 59.
 
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