Written with grace and flow that paints an alarmingly clear picture of more than just the obvious words, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry depends upon the use of adjectives and other literary devices to develop a voice. Not only do these devices enable the poet to develop a story focused upon the question of identity, but it is through these devices that the life of the poet emerges, making statements of alienation, isolation, and frustration even while discussing something as innocuous-seeming as the moon. Not scrimping on the use of extended metaphors to express her ideas, Bishop is a master of lyrical phrases. Using everyday events, scenes, and actions, Bishop reflects on the personal elements of her life and exposes the postmodern condition of the greater population at the same time. By looking at poems such as “The Man-Moth,” “The Fish,” “Filling Station” and “Pink Dog,” one can get a sense of how the use of adjectives within her poetry provides Bishop with the power to capture life experiences of the postmodern age in allegorical settings.
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“The Man-Moth” is actually a poem that arose out of a misprint in the New York Times for the word “mammoth.” (Rzepka, 2001). For Bishop, this was a perfect example of the New York persona and an irresistible opportunity to poke a little fun at The Big Apple. Despite the teasing tone of the piece, with such phrases as “when the Man-Moth / pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface” and “The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way / and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed”, this poem provides a glimpse into the postmodern feelings of isolation and alienation that had become associated with the big cities of the modern world. The “postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. The rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for” (Lyotard, 81). Here, the Man-Moth “cannot tell the rate at which he travels backward” and “does not dare look out the window”. Through this descriptive language, Bishop indicates the motion of individuals trapped within the city’s subways and patterns are not traveling forward, yet are not exactly traveling backward either. That the individual doesn’t have the nerve to look out the window indicates they are fearful of what they might find, even should it be nothing more than their own reflection, which has now become alien to them. Finalizing her poem, Bishop capitalizes her statement regarding the emptiness of the Man-Moth in her description of his eye. “It’s all dark pupil, / an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens / as he stares back, and closes up the eye”. There is no individual here, no subjectivity. When one attempts to establish a connection, they are met with a tight stare before the eye is closed against them.
In “The Fish,” Bishop describes the perfect catch of a venerable old fish as she observes him hanging from her line. The fish hasn’t fought at all to prevent being reeled in and his skin hangs in strips “like ancient wallpaper” (11), the pattern reminding her of “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age” . These images conjure up thoughts of the family home, old and empty now that the children are grown and gone, maintenance no longer a priority in this advanced age. In this, Bishop imagines a shared community with her readers that is examined by Anderson, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each life the image of their communion” . The fish is coated with barnacles, lime, and sea-lice, with strings of seaweed attached to his underside. Through this imagery, Bishop is not only telling us about the ancient nature of the fish she caught, but also about the nature of the outer life, in which an individual can sit around gathering all this coating about them, yet still remain nothing more than a fish. In describing the various parts of the fish, Bishop indicates just how average he is, containing “coarse white flesh”, “big bones and the little bones”, “shiny entrails” (31), and a “pink swim-bladder”. This fish is not an individual, he is a sum of his parts and nothing more. However, this fish has a surprise for her in the five strands of fishing line seen dangling from its jaw. “This fish, with his hook-filled mouth, emerges as a symbol of pain, an occasion for the speaker to confront that which is normally repressed and unseen. But with her elaborate, lyrical description, the speaker can be read as an artist who is able to translate this anguish into a ‘five haired beard of wisdom.’ As she celebrates her mastery over the fish, the poem ends triumphantly with the paradoxical suggestion that creativity is produced through destruction: suffering, Bishop concludes, can be the impetus for the imagination” (“Elizabeth Bishop”, n.d.).
Like the deliberate play on the typography mistake in the New York Times that led to the development of “Man-Moth,” “Filling Station” is a playful exchange on how words that sound the same but have different meanings can lead one into much deeper thoughts than the surface seems to indicate. After describing the very dirty conditions of this family filling station in which everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency”, she finally arrives at some comic books that provide a little color as “They lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret”. The repetitive nature of the dirty and oily theme has the reader progresses through the poem in a rather sing-song sort of way. “When Bishop proceeds to the metaphysical question – ‘Why, oh why, the doily?’ – the very question seems generated by the literal pattern of the poem: ‘doily’ includes ‘oily.’” (Blasing, 1987). This doily has been “Embroidered in a daisy stitch, / with marguerites, I think”. Bishop makes the observation that someone had to embroider the daisy, someone had to water the plant that sits next to it, yet that someone doesn’t seem to be affected by the overwhelming pervasiveness of the oil surrounding these things, even going so far as to arrange the oil cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO – SO – SO – SO / to high-strung automobiles”. The postmodern idea of the individual arising from the objectifying influences of the city can be read into these lines as the flimsy embroidered doily does its best to hold up under the weight of the metropolis’ dirt and grime and the people work not to make the environment comfortable or clean, but simply to meet the needs of the “high-strung automobiles,” reducing humanity to nothing more than the tools with which the mechanics of modern society repairs breakdowns in the system. The final line of the poem, “Somebody loves us all,” serves to neatly sum up this experience in the idea that although we are all alone in trying to deal with the dirt, perhaps there is someone out there leaving small traces of their actions, echoing Bishop’s own internal struggle to believe in a higher power.
In “The Pink Dog,” Bishop offers a stance on the ability of the individual to survive in modern society. Bonnie Costello describes the dog as a dehumanized image of the physical body (1991). By advising the dog to cover itself with a Carnival costume, the speaker in this poem is acknowledging that one cannot remain completely subjective in the modern-day world. Instead, it is necessary to take on the form and shape of the surrounding culture or “go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (Bishop, pp. 17-18). The costume is necessary “for the sake of its survival in a culture that wishes to deny the mortal body” (Costello, 1991). Without the costume, the reality of the individual proves too frightening for most as Bishop describes: “Of course, they’re mortally afraid of rabies, / You are not mad; you have a case of scabies / but look intelligent” (Bishop, pp. 7-9). Any action that is different from the culturally prescribed action of the modern is viewed as crazy, different, bizarre, and undesirable. One simply cannot allow any differences to show if they are to be a part of the culture around them. The surface levels of this poem reveal a playful stance on the triplet rhymes throughout and the joyful ideas of the Carnival, yet the descriptive adjectives and metaphors are what bring the heavier meaning and philosophical questions to bear.
Without the availability of adjectives and metaphors, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry loses a great deal of its underlying meaning and surface appeal. It is with the adjective that she paints a picture to be seen with the mind’s eye that can then be translated into more specific, metaphysical considerations. While she entertains our vision, Bishop works to expound on the inequalities of life as she sees them, namely the isolation and alienation she has found in the modern city. Carey suggests this sort of communication should not be considered merely a process of transmission, but also “as a ritual, the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and community” (Carey, 1975: 18). Although she supposedly has the right to do and be what she wants to be, Bishop demonstrates in poetry like “Pink Dog” that she knows to truly allow one’s subjective self to show through in everyday society will accomplish nothing but get one thrown into the tidal rivers. Despite these feelings of isolation, Bishop continues to seek a protective higher power in poems such as “Filling Station,” perhaps not so caring anymore as the only traces left are a plant, a trebuchet, and an old, oil-stained embroidered doily. She continues to seek the points of connection and attempts to reach out. However, the cans are all ordered neatly to speak to the cars, so perhaps this benevolent being that takes such care isn’t gone but is merely overwhelmed. Meanwhile, examples of strength and accomplishment can come from unexpected places, such as the capture of a fish on a warm afternoon and noticing that he has five fishing lines trailing out of his mouth from previous catches that he’s managed to evade as in “The Fish.” These moments of triumph and recognition are what help us maintain our individuality even in the mind-numbing constrictions of everyday life. Her lyricism and imagery as seen in “The Man-Moth” could not be excluded and still retain its subtlety of meaning and graceful allusions.
- Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, (1983, 1991).
- Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.
- Blasing, Mutlu Konu. “The Re-Verses of Elizabeth Bishop.” American Poetry: The Rhetoric of its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Ch. 6, pp. 107-108.
- Carey, James W. “A Cultural Approach to Communication.” Communication. Vol. 2, (1975), pp. 1-22.
- Costello, Bonnie. “Attractive Mortality.” Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. Ch. 2, pp. 85-86.
- “Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’: A Psychoanalytic Reading.” n.d. Bedford St. Martin’s. 2008.
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff.
- Rzepka, Charles. “The Honourable Characteristic of Poetry”: Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads.” 2001. Boston University. Web.