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Visibility Is Poor: Elizabeth Bishop's Obsessive Imagery and Mystical Unsaying

Written by

Katie Ford
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While a whole change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of surrounding words. Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness. —Fanny Howe, from "Doubt"

The trodden paths within a poet's mind are of two sorts—those made out of routine habit and those made out of troubled obsession. Habit of thought wants only to be left alone on its chosen route. Obsession, however, is pedagogical: It wants to instruct, correct, and warn against the dangers, or at least lazy thinking, of habit's easy routes. The engine of obsessive, repetitive thinking is there to drive the habits of the mind into dislodgement, pressing habit out of its mental "groove," as Emily Dickinson says:

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
'Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

Although Dickinson here seems to warn against letting a "Splinter swerve" a current of thought, the poem can also be read as an explanation of how the brain works. And from what we know of Dickinson's mind, she certainly did not seek, poetically, intellectually, or spiritually, to keep the mind "even" or "true." I'd say she'd rather be a part of the flood of new thought, the flood brought on by one splintering thought. A thought that won't let the others stay put. Something turned over and over in the mind.

Most poets have obsessions—perhaps because obsessive thinking is intrinsically musical, (it is a refrain, after all, playing itself again and again in the mind), perhaps because the images that make up our individual lives are not endless, and so they must repeat out of compositional necessity, or perhaps because once an image is used several times in a manuscript, each usage resonates with the prior usage, stacking meaning upon meaning upon meaning. It is pleasurable—obsession in poetry—and almost always interesting because of the question of what troubles a particular mind. What bothered Emily Dickinson? What could John Donne not bear? What would Marianne Moore not allow? I like to read with these questions in mind. Of course, readers also love questions of pathological obsession, however flawed or anachronistic those questions might be: Emily Dickinson's isolation, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath talking of methods of suicide over a Boston coffee, John Berryman insisting he is not, in fact, not, strange Henry. It is more helpful, however, to think of poets not so quickly as sick, but, more interestingly, as sickened. Even better, troubled. I mean that in a very literal way: Poets tend to become troubled by tired thoughts, outdated thinking. Poets are after epiphany, and epiphany doesn't come from habit of mind. It is the absolutely new, the surprising, and the sublime that poets desire. Epiphany: It can come in just one word, if it's the right word.

Imagery that repeats itself often divulges exactly what troubles a poet. If an image can act as corrective for that trouble, the poet will use it again and again until the wrongly said is unsaid, until the obsessive trumps the habitual, dislodging it, acting as a "splinter." Elizabeth Bishop is the poet I'd like to focus on specifically, as I believe her repetitive images have this splintering effect in mind. What does she repeat? The map. The moon. The sudden animal. Oil. Gasoline. And, perhaps most famously, colors.

According to Bishop, it is by habit that we name things inaptly and dimly, as she asserts in "Going to the Bakery." This poem is set in Rio de Janeiro—a city, at that time, of war-rationings and disease. What does bread look like at this time, in this place? What does it mean to describe it with aptness? She says, "the loaves of bread / lie like yellow-fever victims / laid out in a crowded ward." What a strange thing to say about bakery goods, but it turns out this poem is full of images described in terms of their historical moment. But it isn't the bread of the day that is of the highest concern for Bishop, it's the words on the speaker's own lips. Just how rationed bread is baked with flour cut with cornmeal—giving it that yellowish tinge like the fever victims—even language is adulterated, even language is a ration gone bad. The man she passes outside her apartment house, who shows her his bandaged side, "speaks in perfect gibberish." But she, making absolute sense in the tongue of the dominant power, gives "him seven cents in my / terrific money, say[s] 'Good night' / from force of habit. Oh, mean habit! / Not one word more apt or bright?" In a time of rationed bread, crowded wards, and diseases held back by vaccine in Bishop's America, habit of speech is not benign; it is of moral import. And here Bishop feels the guilt of habit.

Habit's opposite? For Bishop, it is the word that correlates to the given reality in the most apt and bright way. The ravaging of the mind for this word is the activity that defines a poet's obligation to accuracy. However, what we have deemed as accurate is, at times, not precise enough. The argument in Bishop is paradoxical: She at once seeks to be accurate with a fierce eye for minutia while she also debunks the category of empirical "accuracy" altogether. This paradox can be traced in her obsession with two things: maps and colors:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, the masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls. . . .
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.

This segment is from "At the Fishhouses," a poem moved by the speaker's impulse to come close to the scene of the inhuman. It is a type of "encounter poem" typical of Bishop's compositional decisions, situating her within one primary source of the lyric. The poem progresses from the realm of the absolute to the particular: from "All is silver" to "blue-gray stones." This progress is driven by the senses' ability to distinguish an object farther and farther into its physical, and ontological, peculiarity. Here Bishop's "color judgment," as I will call it, mimics the action of what will judge her: "one seal particularly . . . He was curious about me. . . He regarded me / steadily."

The encounter poem manifests the speaker's desire to bring the self into the presence of what is capable of judgment. Its predicament, once it is placed in the secular realm (we're at the fishhouses, not the house of worship), is that there is no absolute power outside of the self to bring judgment upon the speaker. So the seal has to judge. The moose has to judge, as we'll see later. Bishop has a deep desire to be "regarded," even as the poet regards all that is around her. So "all is silver," but translucence or fineness is still up for debate, and the speaker corrects herself through her obsessive observation of color and its spectrum: some silver is opaque, "but the silver of the benches . . . is of an apparent translucence." Even this specificity, however, now that it is discovered, is spoken with a mode of accuracy that conditions itself, admitting to its subjectivity, an admission absent in the initial judgment. Things are apparently so, not absolutely so.

Does this observation carry Bishop into deeper accuracy? Yes, possibly, or perhaps it carries her into a deeper subjectivity, a more translucent revelation of what this speaker does and does not want done to her in the act of observation. Perhaps this could be summed up as saying, Don't make absolute statements about me, and I won't do that to you. The golden rule of Bishop: Don't say "all is" about me. Instead, as in the pivotal moment of "In the Waiting Room," please regard her closely, with particularity: "you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth." And so, by the end of "At the Fishhouses," the cataloguing of colors has reached its most unstable form; the colors are now "associating with their shadows," as Bishop associates with her own shadows through the honing of vision down to its most particular—but also most indecisive—"bluish."

Bishop's challenge to the concept of fixity, derived at by speaking into the given world of objects, animals and humans, joins a long tradition that finds its uncertainty growing as its intensity of observation grows. Alongside that uncertainty, the need to undo or correct prior statements becomes prominent. Similarly, it is the impulse of many mystical traditions to unsay what has just been said, knowing it would be a great act of misspeaking (bad judgment) to use language to assert an ontology—human, divine, and otherwise. So speech must turn itself back on its former statements, undoing them. It is a linguistic of self-suspicion, of essential doubt that language is in a one-to-one relationship with "reality." Michael A. Sells has written a captivating book on the subject, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, in which he distinguishes between apophatic and kataphatic modes of speech. Apophatic language enacts the process of "unsaying," a process that negates what has just been spoken. It is paired with kataphatic language, or the language of affirmation, declaration, and saying, because an apophatic statement presupposes a kataphatic one. In other words, something must be declared before it can be un-declared. Said before it is unsaid:

Apophatic language could include the Mahayana Buddhist Vimalakirti Sutra, which asserts that 'all constructs are empty,' and then playfully turns that statement back upon itself with the assertions that 'the construct that all constructs are empty is empty,' and 'the construct that the construct that all constructs are empty is empty is empty.' It could also include more recent writings that engage explicitly the dilemma of saying the unsayable.

Apophasis, I propose, appears in Bishop, and leaves its imprint most clearly in her obsessive imagery. Why obsess over what is clear? It is the difficult, the incomprehensible that turns over and over in the mind as the mind's effort to purge itself of a thorny content or question.

It is a popular view, although incorrect, to associate mysticism with some kind of special knowledge of or personal experience with the divine, grounded not in the commonplace but the supernatural. Although mystics tend to be withdrawn in some ways from the authoritarian givens of their tradition, they do not withdraw from the things of the world. As Sells reiterates:

Eckhart is the most explicit in countering the notion of mysticism as something extraordinary and removed from everyday reality. In a distinctive version of the dialectic of transcendence and immanence, he states that the most noble, the most extraordinary of all events . . . is the most common.

Bishop's poetics does not insist that it be considered "mystical." Surely not. Nor have I ever heard of her described as a mystical poet. And, to be clear, that is not what I am asserting here. But I do think her poetry believes that the apophatic impulse to undo, revise and resay one's vision of the world is most fitting in light of the given mysteries of the world. It is also the impulse most appropriate when considering the limitations of the flawed eye and flawed language. Her paradox is that the inaccurate is more accurate than the "accurate." As it is with the mystics, Bishop seeks not a functional ontology, but a disontology. In other words, it is not appropriate to the shifting, borderless geography of human life to name its ultimate realities, nor to have an unshakeable theory of being. Rather, we are to revise our theories and ourselves, knowing they will need further revision all our lives.

This is most clearly shown in Bishop's common use of map imagery throughout her work, and through the metaphoric map-making of her looking. In "The Map," a poem that begins with, "Land lies in water; it is shadowed green," there is a central reservation concerning just how suitable topography is to the activity of the earth's surface and depths. There is no telling, in this poem, whether the land on the map represents "shadows, or are they shallows," whether the land is "tugging at the sea from under," or "does the land lean down to lift the sea from under"? Certainly the land, represented through the subjective hand of the cartographer, not only "lies in the water," but is the telling of a lie, a particular lie that thieves the agency from the subject at hand—the ever-changing terrain—and places it in the hand of the observer, as the poem asks, "Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?" And then, in a statement that seems to relinquish the topographer's culpability in displaying "accurately" that which is, by nature, inaccurate, Bishop states, "Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West." And yet, for North to be as near as West, there must be a denial of perspective, of the situated nature of the particular topographer. The mapmaker has disappeared, and along with him, the opportunity to criticize the specific eyes through which the map was crafted. Bishop, writing this poem in 1946, precedes the now-established feminist-critical movement in which suspicion of historians and scholars asobjective began to dismantle the given canon of scholarship. Scientific objectivism, a mode of discourse claimed by historians for ages, denied that the historian's own socio-political bias, rhetoric, and ethic came into play within their field of inquiry. Essentially, the scholar was able to disappear through claims to objectivity. The flaw within this method is that all crafts, writings, and studies do indeed have argument, rhetoric, and, most importantly, a human being behind them. This suspicion, seen in Bishop's "The Map," dovetails with her suspicion of the "accurate" eye. Her arguments against claims to accuracy and objectivity bloom from the same stem.

In "Crusoe in England," Bishop speaks in the voice of literature's most famous marooned sailor, saying: "A new volcano has erupted, / the papers say . . . They named it. But my poor old island's still / un-rediscovered, un-renameable. / None of the books has ever got it right." In a sense, Crusoe has the desire for his island to be on the map of the other—not just any map, but a map continuously corrected. He wants someone to chart not only geographical islands, but also the islands of the mind:

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I'm old.
I'm bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf—
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle . . .
Now it won't look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

A thing of the world—here, a knife—is asked to look at the speaker. But it won't, for it is no longer what it was when Crusoe was stranded. Its meaning has been stripped away by the boredom bred by luxury and safety. So, too, Crusoe passes his eyes over it, even as his island is left unregarded and passed over.

Bishop, through her obsession with the map, articulates her central poetic contradiction: The map is inaccurate, and the eye is as well. Yet there is a human desire to be found and to be seen, as well as to find and to see. So what are we to do? She summarizes this dilemma in her prosaic poem called "12 O'Clock News": "Visibility is poor. Nevertheless, we shall try to give you some idea of the lay of the land and the present situation." The necessity, I think, is to acknowledge our limited visibility—our sources of light give very little light. The full moon, seems, indeed, to "be dead" in this poem. Once the recognition is made that our poetry and scholarship is written according to a limited, subjective cartography, we are able to continue more honestly with our projects.

Who knows? Inside of this recognition, suddenly a moose might appear—the sublime!—and we might be looked at in a wholly new way:

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church, homely as a house
(or, safe as houses). . . .
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy? . . .
For a moment longer,
by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam . . .

Why do we feel joy? Why are we joyful when the moose—utterly in control of the situation, dictating its parameters—looks us over in grand otherworldliness? We are not being mapped at this moment, we are being seen. That, perhaps, is a kind of joy: Our mystery is taken into account. Nothing is said. Bishop has let what troubles her dislodge the habits of thought and language. We are inside a poem. We don't know why we feel this joy.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
Franklin, R.W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994