Setting detail is sometimes relegated to the background of a poem, perceived as mere “atmosphere,” but one of the many things I learned from Elizabeth Bishop is that in the right hands, detailed description can provide a framework for thought, can be a way of both seeing and knowing. Perhaps the best example of this is “At the Fishhouses,” where place and thought are inextricably (and explicitly) bound together by the poem’s final simile, where the speaker equates “the cold dark deep and absolutely clear” Atlantic with knowledge or at least with something “like what we imagine knowledge to be.” In this famous formulation, both place and thought are equally mysterious. The speaker can only try to imagine what they must be like.
Sometimes descriptions of place in poetry give us a glimpse of the exotic,* or a look at the unfamiliar customs of another culture—the “frail, illegal fire balloons” from “The Armadillo,” for example. But the familiar can be equally enticing. Often we’re most fascinated by the places we know best, a phenomenon Bishop explores in “Poem,” about a “little painting…a minor family relic” passed down to the speaker through the generations. After describing the painting (and the artist’s technique**), the speaker comes to an unexpected realization:
Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It’s behind—I can almost remember the farmer’s name.
His barn backed on that meadow.
Bishop first claims to “know” the place, but quickly undermines this notion by forgetting the farmer’s name.*** In “Poem,” she acknowledges that the villages of the past are always half-remembered, half-imagined, corrupted by nostalgia, distance, time, and mixed up with a longing for our younger selves. Here at least three versions of Nova Scotia are competing. The present place (“it must have changed a lot”), the painter’s version, and the speaker’s memory of the “small backwater” where she grew up, which she claims she “looked at long enough to memorize.”
Of course even the smallest locales are far too complex and protean to know by heart, even for as detail-oriented a mind as Bishop’s. Her remembering here is, as Milan Kundera says “not the negative of forgetting,” but “a form of forgetting.” Or as Bishop puts it in the final stanza, “life and the memory of it [are] so compressed / they’ve turned into each other.”
Like the Nova Scotia of the great uncle’s painting, and the slightly different Nova Scotia of the poem, the places of our lives are always made up of many layers. The genius of “Poem” is that Bishop includes so many of these layers in a few stanzas, including several distinct moments in time. The poem stretches back to the years before Bishop was born—the cows and geese in the painting, the speaker says, “are naturally before my time”—and ends in the present with her rediscovery of the painting, this message in a bottle from another era, another mind.
Bishop’s poetry seems especially poignant in a period when the individual character of our towns and cities is being swallowed up by the corporate homogeneity of Wal-Mart, Target, Applebee’s, etc., and perhaps equally eroded by all the time we spend online. After all, the Twitter interface looks the same whether you’re viewing it from a cabin in the Adirondacks or a basement in Central Indiana.****
So maybe it’s more important than ever to attempt to memorialize (or memorize) the places dear to us—both in our lives and in literature—since as Bishop says, our memories of these places represent “the little we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust.”
“Not much,” she says, but enough to be worth preserving.
*The exotic being, of course, a highly subjective concept—we recently hosted two Japanese exchange students who would excitedly pull out cameras every time a squirrel ran across our yard, and who also took numerous giddy photos of the interior of the local Steak n’ Shake.
** “a water meadow with some tiny cows, / two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows” and “a wild iris, white and yellow, fresh-squiggled from the tube” are two of my favorite examples.
*** and with the phrase “that meadow,” which is awfully vague for Bishop.
****As a native Midwesterner, I worry this particular region is especially susceptible to homogenization, since the cultural markers here are more subtle than those that mark, say, the Pacific Northwest or the deep South.
Photo by Dennis Jarvis