Geographical Questions: The Recent Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

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Elizabeth Bishop's latest volume Geography III has as an epigraph a section from a textbook published in 1884 by A. S. Barnes and Company in Monteith's Geographical Series entitled First Lessons in Geography. For an understanding of the intention and direction of Miss Bishop's volume it will be well to quote the epigraph in full:

   LESSON VI

   What is Geography?
   A description of the earth's surface.
   What is the earth?
   The planet or body on which we live.
   What is the shape of the earth?
   Round, like a ball.
   Of what is the Earth's surface composed?
   Land and water.

   LESSON X

   What is a Map?
   A picture of the whole, or a part, of the Earth's surface.
   What are the directions on a Map?
   Toward the top, North; toward the bottom, South; to the right,
   East; to the left, West.
   In what direction from the center of the picture is the Island?
   North.

The passage concludes with a series of questions to which there are no answers:

   In what direction is the Volcano? The Cape? The Bay? The
   Lake? The Strait? The Mountains? The Isthmus?
   What is in the East? In the West? In the South? In the North?
   In the Northwest? In the Southeast? In the Northeast? In the
   Southwest?

Are these final questions really part of the lesson or are they Miss Bishop's own additions? In any case, they are questions of the sort that Elizabeth Bishop has been asking herself since she began to publish poetry more than forty years ago. It is with the location, both factual and spiritual, of places that her poems often begin. It is with journeys, real and imaginary, to these places that they develop. Her definition and consideration of herself as a rational being, and her reaction as a sensitive instrument to her surroundings, to her place in the world and in the universe, have been, and continue to be, the central concerns of her poetry.

Geography III refers, I take it, to elementary geography at a grade-school level--but it must bear the added reference to the fact that this is Miss Bishop's third book of geographical exploration, the first two being North & South and Questions of Travel.

It was in 1935 as a college freshman that I came on Elizabeth Bishop's poems for the first time. A group of them appeared in an anthology entitled Trial Balances, edited by Ann Winslow, who had organized, from the University of Wyoming, the College Poetry Society with branches in colleges and universities throughout the country. The anthology is a significant one because it contains selections of a number of poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Josephine Miles, all written while they were college students and accompanied by appreciations by older poets. Trial Balances printed "Three Valentines" by Miss Bishop, which had first appeared while she was a student in the Vassar Review. The poems present some lively metaphysical playfulness that came as a breath of fresh air amid the heavy poems of social consciousness that were then in vogue:

   Love with his gilded bow and crystal arrows
      Has slain us all,
   Has pierced the English sparrows
   Who languish for each other in the dust,
   While from their bosoms, puffed with hopeless lust
      The red drops fall.

It contained also "The Map," which later became the opening poem of North & South. In her Valentine poems Elizabeth Bishop is contemplating Cupid as the seventeenth-century poets might have done, and poking fun at him and at them at the same time. In "The Map" she is looking at a map as those same poets in an age of fresh exploration and discovery might have looked at it. But to their astonishment at finding new countries outlined for the first time she has added a twentieth-century vision and vocabulary:

   The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
   The names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
   --the printer here experiencing the same excitement
   as when emotion too far exceeds its cause. …