Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich

Article excerpt

As the two most prominent women poets of their generations in the United States, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich embody sharply contrasting attitudes toward poetry and its cultural roles. Most critics have tended to approach Bishop as an aesthete, essentially private in her concerns and vision, while viewing Rich as an activist, strongly committed to the use of poetry as an instrument of social change.(1) The facts of the case are not quite so neat, however. Rich's early poetry explores much of the same thematic terrain as Bishop's - domesticity, travel, memory - and even in its later phases her work continues to take individual experience as the base from which to mount its political critiques. Conversely, as a number of critics have shown, including Rich herself and most recently Betsy Erkkila, Bishop's poetry is far from indifferent to issues of social and economic justice.(2) The real locus of difference between them, I want to argue, is not politics but history. The two poets disagree not so much over questions of action as questions of knowledge, which necessarily precede and inform action. More specifically, they disagree over the extent to which the poet is capable of gaining unmediated access to the truth of history, even when that history may be suppressed, silenced, or submerged.

Two of their most familiar and oft-anthologized poems - Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" and Rich's "Diving Into the Wreck" - reveal some surprising affinities of trope and language while casting into relief the fundamental differences between the poets, which revolve around questions of knowledge, history, and, in a key metaphor for both poems, immersion. Most prominently, both poems allegorize the sea as a medium of pure knowing wholly distinct from the compromised, constructed world above. Bishop famously says of the icy water off Nova Scotia that "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown" (66). "Historical" in this final line assumes a double meaning: Our knowledge is necessarily historical inasmuch as it occurs in time and is therefore subject to the transience of all temporal things, "flowing and flown"; but it is also knowledge of history, of the lives and events that precede our own and give it meaning. Thus the history of this particular Nova Scotia fishing village proves to be closely bound up with Bishop's own painful childhood and its formation of her present self. The old man the speaker meets near the water "was a friend of my grandfather," she tells us, and like the "ancient wooden capstan" with its "melancholy stains, like dried blood," his presence speaks of a past beyond recovery. "We talk of the decline in the population," she reports dryly, her euphemistic language failing to obscure that the real subject of their conversation is death - her grandfather's included, as the "was" in the preceding line poignantly attests.(3)

Rich's allegory is no less clear-cut than Bishop's, but she is not quite as explicit in her association of the sea with knowledge, choosing at first to characterize it by negation: "the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element" (Fact 163). The world of the "sun-flooded schooner" with its "sundry equipment" of ladders, knives, books, and masks is governed, like the human world at large, by the will to power, the effort to master and subjugate one's environment. But the sea does not yield to such efforts, requiring a different approach, gradual, patient, "without force." As becomes clear in the course of the poem, this is because the sea marks a dimension beyond the reach of change, action, or intervention. Like memory, the sea preserves traces of past traumas that can only be inspected, acknowledged, and laboriously brought to light, never revised or effaced. …

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