- Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop
For Anne Colwell the essence of Bishop’s poems lies in their performative exploration of the dichotomy between “the visible body and the invisible life force within it,” which she commonly registers as a split between the social self and the life of the imagination, and between self and other. Central to Bishop’s poetics, then, is her depiction of the physicality of bodies and their transactions with both the immaterial life inside them and the otherness of the physical world, manifested in the creatures of nature, other human bodies, places, objects, and the bodily form of poems. Such a view instantly calls to mind a range of Bishop’s poems, from “The Fish” and “The Man-Moth,” to “Sestina” and “In the Waiting Room,” to “Crusoe in England” and “The Moose,” for example. The ritual of travel as a mode of exploration and an expression of isolation is a further embodiment of the split world of the me and not-me in Bishop, and it is no wonder that she cited “The Sandpiper” as descriptive of a kinship between herself and that solitary bird. Colwell argues that Bishop embraces the virtues of opposition and refuses to answer the paradoxes of embodiment as she finds them. The strength of her poems lies in their willed ambiguity, evasiveness, and refusal of answers—qualities that give her poems their intellectual poise and aesthetic pleasure. My summary account of Colwell’s approach will not suggest a dramatically original way of reading Bishop: in part, Colwell seems to situate the poet in a belated relationship to modernist anxieties and the uneasy contract between inner consciousness and the social self. Yet Colwell’s achievement is impressive in its tone, argumentation, subtlety of analysis, and, thus, in its persuasive power. The effect of the book is to make us feel we are reading something very familiar for the first time. Colwell insists on the seriousness of Bishop’s ambiguities where the lucid surface of her work shadows “frightening depths,” and she reads Bishop’s creative undecidability as integral to her search for truth. Colwell properly repudiates earlier views of Bishop that see her achievement as modest, domesticated, and largely apolitical, a poetics without visionary status, though I think Colwell is ungenerous to some of her predecessors, such as Robert Dale Parker and Thomas Travisano. Inscrutable Houses develops conventionally with a chapter on each of the four collections and a brief afterword. Colwell reads North & South as Bishop’s [End Page 593] most experimental work, in which she develops her own language to express the parameters of human perception, and she sees A Cold Spring as a complex response to the pressures of relationship with other bodies where issues of connection and annihilation dominate. In Questions of Travel, Bishop’s oppositional response to human and poetic embodiment is in full play in poems whose forms “leap their own boundaries” or undermine their own structures, while Geography III brilliantly extends Bishop’s preoccupation with connection, loss, isolation, and relation. This book will please and instruct all readers of Bishop.