Elizabeth Bishop very infrequently presents an uncritical or one-sided examination of any idea; her poems are filled with slight contradictions, subtle reversals, and moments of irony that force the reader to engage intimately with the material being described in order to find meaning.
Elizabeth Bishop very infrequently presents an uncritical or one-sided examination of any idea; her poems are filled with slight contradictions, subtle reversals, and moments of irony that force the reader to engage intimately with the material being described in order to find meaning. In “Arrival at Santos,” Bishop places these ironic contradictions throughout the poem with such careful nuance it is difficult to determine how to read into each line of the poem, much less understand how they interact together. Given that the title of the poem indicates an “arrival,” it is fair to suggest that the pervasive flux between the ironic and the genuine within the poem are concerned with the fears that come along with traveling to a new location. In particular, the ironies within the poem reveal a self-consciousness on the part of the speaker, a feeling of being an outsider, of being on the exterior. This feeling of exteriority is exemplified throughout the poem, comprised of ten quatrains in the form of ballad stanzas, through the use of diction and syntax in descriptions of Santos, the hectic movement of the form, and the wild use of enjambment in creating conceptual distance between locations and ideas. Bishop then engages the reader with this exteriority through the multiplicity of possible readings that exist within the poem; the reader “arrives” at the poem as the speaker arrives at Santos, and both locations seem filled with boundless room for examination and discovery, while also seeming, at times, frighteningly impenetrable.
Bishop begins “Arrival at Santos” with an immediately clear statement of location. The title having given the reader the name of the location being arrived at already, Bishop places the reader immediately into the scene with the line: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor; / here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery.”1 The anaphoric repetition of the word “here” creates a sense of active placement (i.e., the reader is “here,” the sentiment has been repeated thrice, there can be no contest or other location in mind) but also hints at a subtle displacement, or confusion of location. As “here” can only mean one location or scene at a time, but is then used in repetition with reference to the coast, harbor, and surrounding scenery: at which “here” is the reader? This question is further complicated by the equally important repetition of the verb “is” after each “here.” The coast does not “lie” there, the harbor does not “stand,” or anything of the sort; each location simply “is.” This, combined with a lack of adjectival description of the coast or harbor, crafts the sensation of Santos as something of a blank palette. The first line could therefore be read as having a resistant, uncharacterizable quality to it, as though the speaker is unable to craft a meaningful description because they are unable to engage with the newness of the terrain; alternatively, it could be read as a description of a free, open space where one might transform it into anything they please. These two readings, one of impenetrability and one of unbound freedom, create a duality within the poem that lingers throughout: on one side, a reverence and awe at the arrival, with a sense of the impenetrable nature of a new land; on the other, a somewhat grand, oversimplified, perhaps ironic, projection of autonomy over the land at which one is only just arriving, as a tourist or otherwise. Despite the difference in tone, both of these readings create a similar sense of exteriority. Through either the speaker’s genuine failure or contemptuous assumptions, Bishop creates a sensation of misunderstanding or being unable to determine the true nature of the place at which one has arrived.
Bishop further develops the notion of exteriority through the formal elements and critically intoned descriptions of the terrain. In that first line—“Here is a coast; here is harbor;”— there is an almost sterile symmetry of clause-length and punctuation, as though the scenery could be artificially bound by the speaker’s stopgaps of semicolons. The following line then begins to wrench itself free of this containment, stating, “here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery.” Bishop allows a prepositional phrase to disrupt the symmetry that the previous line put forth and does so with a phrase that brings a distinctly qualitative adjective in “meager.” Suddenly, the syntax and diction start to reveal personality: The syntax becomes hectically offset by injected phrases, and the diction becomes unsatisfied, unimpressed, wanting. These aspects are only heightened in the following line describing the scenery as, “impractically shaped and—who knows? —self-pitying mountains.”2 The words “impractically” and “self-pitying” here imbue the scenery with a sense of being subjectively judged, and negatively at that. “Self-pitying,” in particular, reads as a projection, as mountains cannot self-pity without a sense of self, and this slight instance of personification therefore reads more as a reflection of the speaker than the mountain. Through the form and diction of these lines, the speaker seems to be trying to claim the authority to not only judge this new land, but to take ownership of it, to become one with it.
That being said, Bishop interrupts this meditative description rather violently through the dash-offset question of, “Who knows?” This rhetorical question expresses that the speaker is not wholly sure how to describe the terrain, nor can she think of one who might describe it. In one sense, this might add to a reading of the speaker as rather self-important: reading the speaker as a tourist suggesting that no one has the vocabulary to describe a visited land reveals a rather poignant dismissal (or at least, lack of consideration) of those who live there. Further, as discussed above, after dismissing that no one would know how to describe the scenery, the speaker decides to use reflective, personal language in describing the mountains, which might be read as assuming ownership of said mountains through this language. In a different reading, however, one might suggest that this question is not rhetorical, but genuine, and the speaker is in the active pursuit of the knowledge and vocabulary to discuss this new land; this reading is supported by the urgency of the dashes that inject the question into the line—the question is not a lackadaisical rumination on the concept of knowing, but a rushed, desperate plea for understanding. In this case, as above, it is immensely difficult to support one side of this engagement unqualified. The speaker is dismissive yet attentive, oblivious yet inquisitive, restrained yet free, all within the same lines, the same words. In between these two readings, one finds a desperate self-consciousness in the speaker’s voice concerning the position of a tourist, and through this struggle, a multitude of question arise as to what it means to travel, to have come from somewhere else, to have arrived.
The speaker’s struggles with exteriority continue to resurface throughout the poem, particularly in the enjambment between and the syntax within stanzas. Bishop seemingly uses these stanza breaks as an opportunity to shift the tone or focus of the lines in order to reflect on the nature of the content being discussed. For example, moving from the second stanza to the third, Bishop writes, “Oh, tourist,/ is this how this country is going to answer you// and your immodest demands for a different world.”3 The lines from the second stanza are rather melodramatic and imposing but might be read as the makings of a genuine question; however, once the third stanza introduces the “immodest demands” that the tourist has, the question becomes complicated by a sense of irony. It is again a question that oscillates between two positions, and this oscillation continues with each following line of the third stanza: “and a better life, and complete comprehension/ of both at last, and immediately,/ after eighteen days of suspension?”4 The “immodest demands” at the beginning of the stanza are now softened by the implication of people journeying for “a better life,” only before being made unreasonable once again by expecting “complete comprehension/ of both at last, and immediately,” but the ridiculousness of this expectation of immediacy is then once again mitigated by the following line’s allowance that eighteen days have already passed. Once again, Bishop leaves no claim unqualified, and the sentiment of any line becomes immediately and purposely confused by each of the following lines. The constant altering of position and quick pace teeters on the edge of comprehensibility, which in turn forces the reader to stop, reread, and examine exactly what is being said, while simultaneously creating the sensation of hectic movement. The syntax then accentuates this movement by varying wildly in length, from the long, comma-filled sentence that filled this stanza, to the sudden stop of the line, “Finish your breakfast,” which immediately follows, as the start to the fourth stanza. 5 This hectic movement is paired with the consistent ABAB rhyme scheme of the ballad stanzas, creating a distinct sense of motion within the form itself, possibly a representation of the back-and-forth motion of the waves upon the coast. All of this motion and fluctuation creates a barrier of comprehensibility for both the reader and speaker: the reader struggles to determine exactly what is going on while the speaker is prevented from long ruminations by the quick-paced nature of the form (and, perhaps, the ship.) The constant motion also produces figure of the traveler as one that is presented as always in flux, always in motion, unable to stop until a destination has been reached.
This position of the traveler is further elucidated by the continued enjambment. In the transition between the sixth and seventh stanzas, Bishop writes, “Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s// skirt! There!” 6 Here, Bishop uses a stanza break to divide the person, Miss Breen, from the clothing which she wears, the skirt. Considered from the position of the traveler, this break suggests one considers what is left behind when moving to a new land. The break in stanza here becomes the gap between the self and what is owned; that which is owned becoming literally caught on a boat hook, caught by the process of travel. It is only after this divide has been raised, that Bishop places the reader “There,” rather than “here.” Not only that, but the exclamatory declaration of “There!” acts as an expression and exclamation of the success at freeing Miss Breen from the hook: it is explicitly through an act of freeing that the reader moves from “here” to “there.” Definitively, distance has been made. Read this way, one might understand the process of arrival to be one of freedom, be it freedom from a past life, from possessions, or simply even freedom from life on the boat on which one traveled in on.
The enjambment between the seventh and eight stanzas carries this idea even further. Bishop, writing about Miss Breen, writes, “Her home, when she is at home, is in Glen Fall// s, New York. There. We are settled.”7 The stanza break between these lines separates not only Miss Breen from her home of New York but goes even further to suggest that the very idea of home is somehow altered by this distance by separating the “s” from the end of Glenn Falls. The location becomes broken apart and changed by the distance—as though a simple consideration of home or a return to home has become impossible. Then, Bishop grants the reader a second “there.” This time, it has no exclamation point and is not a product of the hectic scenario of separating Miss Breen from a boat hook. It is only after Bishop uses the form to separate the speaker and Miss Breen fully from the idea of a previous home that the speaker states, “There. We are settled.”8 It is here, after engaging with the terrain, after the hectic travel on the boat, after being separated definitively from the concept of home, that the speaker finally arrives in Santos. The sentence, “We are settled,” also provides a brief moment of possible reflection. Being settled could mean both that one is comfortable, but it also has the implication of a colonizing, settling force upon new territory. In using the phrase, “We are settled,” Bishop creates a small yet important reversal, where it is not the speaker who has settled the land, but the land that has “settled” the speaker. Now, having been distanced from the locations dubbed “home,” it is possible to be newly settled. The syntax is simple, declarative, and confident; for this moment of arrival, there is peace.
This peace is short lived, however, as flowing into the next stanza, the syntax once again devolves into one long sentence, filled with commas and a dash, bringing the reader toward the final stanza. The final stanza engages with the hectic duality of the poem as well as with the notions of exteriority that have persisted throughout this reading. Bishop provides an image of postage stamps slipping off letters written on the boat and states that this is, “either because the glue here is very inferior/ or because of the heat.” 9 This either/or statement engages with the duality of the tourist figure that the poem began with: either the tourist expresses judgment that the land or the resources they have traveled to are “very inferior,” or they may be stifled by the seemingly impenetrable nature of the land to which they have traveled, in this case becoming overcome by heat. It is important to note as well that these factors are impeding the sending of mail—they impede communication with a place outside of Santos, as though, having arrived, the speaker is forced to be present within the land, and can no longer communicate with the exterior that she has just left. The final lines corroborate this idea of abandoning the exterior, as the speaker states, “We leave Santos at once;/ we are driving to the interior.”10 Santos is now framed as an explicitly exterior structure due to how it is placed in opposition to the “interior.” The port of Santos now acts as a gateway to the literal interior of the country, in the same way this arrival in a new land acts as a lens through which the speaker must engage with her own interiority. With this added context, the hecticness of the preceding stanzas, coupled with the occasional intentional moments of clarity, display the troubled self-consciousness of the speaker’s concerns over how to engage with this new location; however, these attempts at engagement have all come from when the speaker was literally on the exterior. Through these lines, there is a suggestion that one must actually enter a space in order to engage with it, and that all attempts of engaging from the exterior will be wrought with ironies or halted by that which seems impenetrable. The final line is markedly shorter than those that precede it, as if the hectic movement of the poem has now all stopped short, as though the incomprehensible ruminations have suddenly gone silent. The final line does not even need the full length of a line to capture its intent.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “Arrival at Santos,” provides an often difficult-to-interpret framework of exteriority. This difficulty stems from a variety of causes, ranging from (what seems like) accidental enjambment to widely varying syntax and diction to a sometimes-ironic tone that never quite reveals its secrets; however, this places the reader in a similar position to that of the speaker: facing the unknown, impenetrable terrain of a new location and seeking desperately for understanding. The notion of being a traveler or tourist is presented in this poem as a somewhat self-conscious position on the part of the speaker, where the speaker’s anxieties over whether or not they might lay claim to an interpretation dovetail with the reader’s upon engaging with the poem. Then, as soon as the speaker arrives at Santos, she leaves “at once” – after spending all of that time reaching Santos (the focus of the poem being the arrival), she departs immediately, without a second thought, for the interior. This, too, perhaps aligns with the perspective of the reader, who, in turn, upon completing their own “Arrival at Santos,” attempts to dive immediately towards its meaning and interiority.
- Elizabeth Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” Poetry Foundation, 1-2.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 3.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 7-9.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 10-12.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 13.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 24-25.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 28-29.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 29.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 38-39.
- Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” 39-40.