A Poet’s Personal Mythology: Bishop, Minus Elizabeth

One of Elizabeth Bishop’s most well-known and adamant poetic techniques is her ability to place deliberate distance between real events of the poet’s life and the life of the speaker on the page. In the unpublished poems, “The Drunkard,” and “For Grandfather,” Bishop’s surreal settings and events show the faultiness of memory, the effects of fear, and the frigidness of death, all the while maintaining a distance between her imagined scenario and her actual life through personal mythology. Personal mythology is the layering of memory and interpretation of events to form a manipulated, but no less true, account of the speaker’s experience. The factual aspects of an event, and the way in which a speaker remembers it, are two very different things in this case. Memory and emotion combine to create a scene that has been morphed by the passage of time and the speaker’s associations. In “The Drunkard,” the speaker has constructed one memory out of several, which is shown by a key inconsistency in the events which she claims took place the night of the Salem fire. “For Grandfather” is an imagined event that uses pieces of truth from the speaker’s life. Both poems take characters, emotions, and images that are factual in the past of the speakers and create from them a personal mythology that is not fact, but is just as truthful in their emotional lives.

The use of surrealism in both of these poems serves the purpose of personal mythology, and Bishop’s insistence on separating the poet’s life from that of the speaker. When dealing with a painful or frightening event, surrealism underscores memory’s faultiness, and provides a gray area between fact and imagination in which it can exist. For the poet, surreal or unlikely events cue the reader that this is not something that happened “in real life” and places a border between biography and myth.

As private as Elizabeth Bishop was in her life and her poems, her attempt at maintaining distance between her art and her life has become moot. Bishop’s published poems are so widely known, as is her biography, that the book of her unpublished poems, Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke Box, is surrounded by a sense of revelation, of discovering the private life that inspired the poems. The book that brings us Bishop’s unpublished poems contains pages of notes, researched and written by the book’s editors, which take nearly as many pages as the poems themselves. These notes do not define difficult words or illuminate references like notes often do, but pull every detail of Bishop’s biography out of the choices she makes in the poems. Every name is explained, each setting nailed down to a place in her life. The notes place the poems, as closely as possible, in the order in which they were written, and assign the poems and their significance to her personal life at the time. While the book was a labor of love, and was assembled by editors who admire and respect Bishop’s work, the approach in the notes is detrimental to the poems themselves. This article is an attempt to pull two of those poems out of the timeline and guest book of Bishop’s life. In the poems, surrealism creates a fantastical quality, morphing the narrative from the speaker’s personal account, to personal mythology.

Bishop’s poem, “The Drunkard” constructs the foundation of the speaker’s personal mythology. Surrealism serves here to remind the reader that the events in the poem are taking place in the speaker’s memory, and are therefore flawed and affected by the passage of time and long-lasting obsession. This serves to subvert the reader’s sense of reality, and shift the focus of the poem from the larger scene to the seemingly minute detail that changes the speaker’s life. As the poem moves forward, Bishop’s choice of details, namely the black stocking, throw doubt upon the veracity of the events in the poem in the “real life” of the speaker, but at the same time amplify the impact the events had on the speaker’s adulthood.

The role of surrealism in “The Drunkard” is to overlap images and emotions to form one cohesive memory, whether they happened at the same time in the life of the speaker or not. For most of the poem, the reader thinks the poem is “about” the Salem fire and that experience in her childhood memory. In the literal timeline of the poem, the speaker is a child watching the Salem fire from her bedroom, while her mother is helping the victims outside, not paying attention to the child speaker. The story is told from the perspective of the speaker as an adult, who confesses to a “permanent thirst” that results from that night. In the end, the thing that is just as harmful to the speaker’s psyche as the fire, that contributes just as heavily to the speaker’s permanent thirst, is a moment of reprimand and neglect from the mother.

Bishop’s use and manipulation of tone and color, the way she chooses to reveal information through the poem, contributes to the tension of the scene, and reveals where the real emotion lies. The poem begins with a strongly indexical first line. The first line, and in fact the first two sentences, ground the reader immediately in the circumstances of the poem. “When I was three, I watched the Salem fire. / It burned all night (or then I thought it did) / and I stood in my crib & watched it burn.” We know the setting, the danger, and the perspective of the poem, or we think we do. The details she chooses to use, and the matter-of-fact tone, lead the reader to the fire as forefront in the speaker’s thoughts. Through the parenthetical statement, Bishop signals that the speaker is reflecting back on her childhood with an awareness that it is flawed and affected by a great difference in time. The imperfections of memory are an important aspect of this poem. It forms a shroud of the unlikely that, combined with the dream-like descriptions in the rest of the poem, cast doubt on the veracity of the events.

After the first three lines, the speaker is set up as a watcher, a passive observer. The sentence begun in this line is never grammatically completed. This choice of punctuation, ending the sentence with a dash instead of a period, gives the description a breathless, halting quality, as though the speaker has gotten caught up in her memory. The lack of end stop also suspends the scene in time, unending. The repetition of ‘red’ in this section enhances the danger that is juxtaposed with the speaker’s unfrenzied tone. The red insists itself on the text while the speaker is distracted by her mother’s dress and the physical boundary of the crib. In the next stanza, which begins with a new sentence, the narrator has an unaffected tone that suggests both a dreamy reflection, and the effects of trauma.

The first signal of fright is deliberately muted, “I felt amazement not fear / but amazement may be / my infancy’s chief emotion.” She admits feeling ‘amazement not fear,’ and right afterwards universalizes that feeling as applying to her infancy in general. The emotion she felt watching this fire, through Bishop’s linguistic subversion of fear, extends to her entire childhood.  The language that follows this statement brings a hint of the unlikely into the description, and makes the scene both dire and capricious. The hoses are “playing” on the roofs, and the sky is filled with red motes, a surreal image. The last line of the excerpt shows even further how numbed the speaker is by the experience. The “bigger things” she describes as being “scorched black burnt” could be homes, trees, or even people, but she negates any drama that may come from such diction by leaving out the specifics and placing the “bigger things” beside the surreal and almost comical image of the flying, playing water.

The description continues with the same distance in the speaker’s voice, brings back the parenthetical awareness of the speaker, and inserts some very telling references, “The water glowed like fire, too, but flat. / I watched some boats arriving on our beach / full of escaping people (I didn’t know that).” The surreal visual of a flat body of flaming water, and boats arriving on its shore, suggest a hell-like environment. The speaker’s memory focuses fully for a moment on the escaping people, which reminds the reader that one of those escaped people, though she didn’t use a boat, is the speaker herself. Next, she adds a note of history and whimsy to the scene, comparing people on the boats to Washington Crossing the Delaware. Turning a vision of hell into a historical painting uses surrealism not only to place distance between the narrator’s present and the event, but to highlight the shifting quality of memory. The two images are not even separated into two sentences. This shows that the fire is an event that has had an enormous effect on the speaker, that she obsesses over. The speaker has layered so many interpretations and thoughts onto this event in her mind over time, that they are all blending together. This pushes further the speaker’s skewed perspective, and speaks to her mental stability in the present tense of her life, to be revealed in the final stanza of the poem.

The speaker’s distraction lifts when the mother comes into play. The language of fear, which, was lacking in the description of the fire, enters the speaker’s voice when she becomes aware of the mother’s neglect, “I was terribly thirsty but mama didn’t hear / me calling her. Out on the lawn / she and some neighbors were giving coffee / or food of something to the people landing on the boats – ” Again, a sentence is ended with a dash, adding a sense of temporal loop, as if it replays over and over without stopping in the speaker’s memory. In a moment in which the speaker needs a protector most, the mother is protecting other people. In fact, everybody, not just the mother, neglects her. In this section, the language betrays the speaker’s priorities. Her thirst is “terrible,” but three lines down, the morning after the fire is “brilliant.” In the first stanza, the speaker could see her mother and the scene well enough to call her dress specifically “rose-red,” but from the same distance, she can’t tell coffee from food. This signals what part of the memory is the priority in the speaker’s mind: the mother over the fire.

The description in the third stanza hints at denial; the child’s state of mind has undergone just as much destruction as the beach has. Bishop repeats the word “terrible,” but not lightly, “strange objects seemed to have blown across the water / lifted by a terrible heat, through the red sky? Blackened boards, shiny black like black feathers – / pieces of furniture, parts of boats, and clothes – ” The heat of the fire is the only part of the event that has touched the speaker. It has moved across the water to her position. More importantly, it caused the “terrible” thirst that made the speaker call to her mother only to be unheard. The question mark at the end of the first sentence is a strong reminder of the speaker’s perspective. She doesn’t know for sure if the cinders and blackened objects arrived that way, she is only guessing from her adult point-of-view many years later. The repetition of black in the final lines of the stanza reminds the reader of the repetition of red in the first, the dark disaster of the fire is emphasized without the speaker having to describe it too fully.

The next stanza does get more specific because it is directly linked to the crux of the memory, the thing that makes this whole event significant in the speaker’s life, “I picked up a woman’s long black cotton / stocking. Curiosity. My mother said sharply / Put that down! I remember clearly, clearly –” The first line of this excerpt breaks the line so that it lands on the word “stocking.” It is placed directly next to “Curiosity.” This placement signals the importance of the stocking: it is the object that comes closest to the speaker in the entire poem, and it carries a lot of weight. It is black like the burned objects, and it is sensual and feminine, makes the speaker curious. Making “curiosity” its own sentence right in the middle of the line draws to it more emphasis. It is a caesura in the form of a word. The stocking sparks an interest in the speaker, in this thing that women wear, that grown-up women wear, that may have been worn by someone who is now dead or injured. The stocking is a thing that is worn against the skin, it is probably still warm. It has had a closeness to someone that the speaker is not getting from her mother. Her mother denies the speaker proximity to herself, and to the stocking. The speaker uses the phrase “I remember” for the first time in this stanza, and it has nothing at all to do with the fire, and everything to do with the mother’s scolding comment. The stanza, once again, ends in a dash, not a period, and the repetition of “clearly, clearly” puts an urgent insistence on the reprimand.

What all of the dashes and unending sentences culminate to is the unreliability of memory. The stocking brings that aspect to the forefront because it is the strongest indicator that the story is not being told as it truly happened. We were told in the opening of the poem that the speaker was watching the fire and its aftermath from her bedroom window, behind the bars of her crib. The adult speaker is now asserting that she, a child small enough to still sleep in a crib, made her way outside and picked up a piece of debris, which means she cannot be inside looking out anymore. Either the speaker has transported herself at some undisclosed time physically out of the house and picked up that stocking outdoors where her mother reprimands her, or this is another memory entirely, imposing itself on this one. With this uncertainty, the reality of the speaker in the poem is skewed. The surreal images previously described in the poem are accentuated by this doubt. This is where personal mythology enters the poem. The memory of the stocking may be an actual memory from another time, but it has been superimposed onto the memory of the fire. The reprimand, too, may have happened at another time altogether. The two events, reprimand and fire, are linked by the level of trauma inflicted on the speaker. They belong together in her mind, and their emotional proximity blended them together in the personal mythology of the speaker.

The final stanza and final line of the poem push into the present of her life, off of the page, into the arena of art and biography. We didn’t need to be told that the reprimand was the most significant part of the story, but the speaker elaborates the effect it has had on the rest of her life.

But since that night, that day, that reprimand

I have suffered from abnormal thirst –

I swear it’s true – and by the age

of twenty or twenty-one I had begun

to drink and drink – I can’t get enough

and, as you must have noticed,

I’m half-drunk now…

And all I’m telling you may be a lie…

This ending shows the rest of the poem in a new light. The first line break lands in a very important place. The line hinges on the phrase, “I have suffered,” which reveals the severe impact of the events of the poem. The sentences that trail off have a new explanation, as does the sometimes unspecific and distracted descriptions of the fire. They enact the drunken voice of the speaker. The title of the poem has been there all along, hiding in plain sight until now. Into the forefront comes the adult herself in all her flaws, along with one of their possible causes. To enhance the flaw highlighted in this stanza, drunkenness, Bishop uses dashes more often, and uses ellipses twice. There are, once again, no end stops. This punctuation choice gives a stammering quality to the voice of the speaker.

The final sentence both undermines and enhances the poem. The entire story is compromised because it could be a lie, but whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter. The attitude expressed in the line, and the fact that the speaker took that time to tell the story, true or not, about this particular instance of neglect, are still significant to the character of the speaker. This line, standing on its own, disconnected from the final stanza, enhances the anger and loneliness of the speaker.

This final line pushes the poem past narrative and into the category of ars poetica. Bishop’s inclusion of the final stanza, and the line that closes the poem, do not only reveal the present state of the speaker in the literal story of the poem, they comment on the importance of truth in the poem. Bishop has done something very clever here, because if we read this poem with her biography in mind, we would have thought she was referring to her own drinking problem that she experienced in her life, and of her early loss of her mother. We would have been distracted by it. If we shift the way we read the poem away from her life story, though, it becomes a comment on confessionalism disguised in personal mythology. In a very tricky way, the poem says in the end, who cares if the story is true in real life, as long as its significance exists and feels true on the page?

Personal mythology is played out in “For Grandfather” through an invented experience in the speaker’s life. The speaker takes real emotions and real characters, and creates a story for herself out of them. Even though the event is contrived from the speaker’s imagination, it still encapsulates an important and very real discovery, the fear of the speaker’s own inevitable death, in an image she can visualize and interact with, her grandfather.

The invented scenario in Bishop’s poem, “For Grandfather,” relies heavily on the surreal setting to put across its impact. Like “The Drunkard,” the events of the poem are not true to the speaker’s real life, but they are true to her interpretation of it. This poem uses the surreal setting to underscore the imagined encounter, and to lend urgency and danger to it. Bishop sets up tension between a sweet relationship between granddaughter and grandfather, and a chilling encounter with death, which the speaker fears in the end of the poem. The setting of the poem is an icy, arctic place between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The speaker and the grandfather are alone there, but the speaker can’t quite catch up to the grandfather. In the beginning she wants to catch up with him, and by the end there is a turn that makes her want him to stop.

The speaker begins with a question, trying to place her grandfather in a geographical location even though he is dead.  We don’t know for sure he is dead until the last line of the stanza, but the scene has an ethereal quality to it that gives the sense of the supernatural, and the icy whiteness contrasted with the colors in the sky make the scene otherworldly, “trudging on splaying snow shoes / over the snow’s hard, brilliant, curdled crust… / Aurora Borealis burns in silence.” The inclusion of the Aurora Borealis in this stanza brings to mind the poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Auroras of Autumn,” which has a very informative effect on Bishop’s poem. In Stevens’ poem, the speaker is in the evening of his life, and sees in the Aurora Borealis a terrifying thing, “This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless. / His head is air. Beneath his tip at night / eyes open and fix on us in every sky.” Stevens introduces the Auroras with the image of the serpent, a very loaded image of evil and stealth. His term “the bodiless” gives the grandfather in Bishop’s poem a ghostly and haunting aspect. Stevens continues in the second section, “A cold wind chills the beach. / The long lines of it grow longer, emptier, / A darkness gathers though it does not fall // and the whiteness grows less vivid on the wall.” Stevens’ poem echoes in “For Grandfather” the loudest in section four, “He opens the door or his house // on flames. The scholar of one candle sees / an arctic effulgence flaring on the frame of everything he is. And he feels afraid.” While this is but a small snapshot of Stevens’ poem, the image of the Auroras and their impact on the speaker carry over to Bishop’s poem. The fear in “The Auroras of Autumn” isn’t prevalent in Bishop’s poem until the end, but with this reference, it is living beneath it.

With this in mind, the second line of Bishop’s poem is enhanced: the speaker is physically almost close enough to see her grandfather, and so is near to death. The description of the lights on his bald head is also a telling detail in this regard: she is close enough to the dead to see the lights reflected on his head. The last three lines of the stanza are extremely dark: the speaker is looking for familiar features of her grandfather that she cannot find, “Where is your sealskin cap with ear-lugs? / That old fur coat with the black frogs?” Concrete details of the grandfather when he was alive provide a link to the real life of the speaker, and the anchor of the personal myth in the speaker’s memory. The objects themselves as visuals, the sealskin cap with ear-lugs and a fur coat with black frogs on it, give us an image of the grandfather as a living person. The fact that the speaker cannot see them on the grandfather tells us that he may not really be himself, or the person she remembers. The absence of these objects of clothing lead to a very severe realization, the line “You’ll catch your death again.” She literally writes that if he doesn’t have his coat on he’ll die all over again.

The final stanzas play even more with the tension between life and death with further descriptions of the grandfather and the surreal setting. The conditional Bishop sets up in the second stanza takes the image of a young girl kissing her grandfather on the cheek and turns the grandfather into a frightening figure covered in ice. Along with the terrifying image, the possibility, “If I should overtake you,” is followed by an unstated but clearly present end-result. If the granddaughter catches up with the grandfather, she is dead too, which leads to the intense fear in the end of the poem.

Bishop’s use of language, not only syntax but punctuation and sentence structure, the visual cues of language, all come together in the final stanza to give a very disturbing effect. The italicized “Creak, creak”, especially with a comma in between for pause, adds a sense of danger in an icy setting that is suddenly flat, lifeless, and devoid of shadows. Bishop’s use of the exclamation point in the final line is a jump-start – up until this point the language has been quiet and muted, full of lots of “o” sounds and a few harsh consonants. The urgent realization of the speaker that she wants to turn back, that she does not want to follow the grandfather, leaps off of the page visually, as do the short sentences. The only other sentences that take up a line or less are “Aurora Borealis burns in silence,” and “You’ll catch your death again,” both of which, along with the final line, are the largest contributors to the tension of the poem.

In “For Grandfather,” as in “The Drunkard,” the layering of surreal images and multiple memories is not arbitrary. The mysterious and otherworldly setting of “For Grandfather” has an enormous impact on  the effect the poem has on the reader and on the speaker. If Bishop had set the poem on a street with the narrator trying to catch up with her grandfather, the poem would lose an essential piece of the speaker’s realization. The reference to Stevens also adds a very strong undertone to the poem that would be lacking without the surreal arctic setting. Bishop was a great admirer of Stevens, so it is reasonable to surmise that she was familiar with his long poem. In “The Drunkard,” the memory of being reprimanded, layered on top of the memory of the fire, adds urgency and danger to the reprimand and builds a stronger foundation for the speaker’s present life as a drunk. In both poems, the emotions attached to each piece of the constructed memory fit together and strengthen each other.

At present, the trend in new literature and entertainment is the true story. Memoir and real-to-life stories are the big sellers. In order to appreciate these poems and do justice to their craft, we must change ourselves as readers. It doesn’t have to be true in real life to be true on the page, and in the emotional spectrum of the speaker or character presented. The construction of a personal mythology that is built around ‘real’ places and events allows for a gray area in which art can exist without biographical scrutiny. Both “The Drunkard” and “For Grandfather” can be applied to places, names, and events in Bishop’s life, but they don’t have to be in order to stand on their own as poems. The intense truths that they come up against are real without a biography to support them. Bishop said about confessional poetry, “Now the idea is that we live in a horrible and terrifying world, and the worst moments of horrible and terrifying lives are an allegory of the world…. The tendency is to overdo the morbidity. You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves”.  Like in her published poem, “The Weed,” the poems confront terrifying and traumatizing events and emotions. Surrealism bends the perspective of the speaker as well as the reader, which brings the poems partially, and sometimes wholly, away from the realm of real life and into the realm of art and imagination. In this light, it doesn’t matter if the reader is aware or not of Bishop’s biography, as long as he or she is invested in her imagination, and  her ability to execute it in pursuit of the truth as she understands it.

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