Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mothers and Marimbas in "The Bight": Bishop's Danse Macabre

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mothers and Marimbas in "The Bight": Bishop's Danse Macabre

Article excerpt

The impact of Elizabeth Bishops maternal loss on the symbolic order of her poetry is well established. Victoria Harrison (1993) pays attention to the various appearances of Bishop's mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, in unpublished drafts such as "A mother made of dress-goods" and "Swan-boat ride" and in the short story "In the Village." Susan McCabe approaches Bishop in light of Freud's thinking about the fort-da game and Lacan's meconnaissance to argue that the lack of close parental relationships, particularly with her mother, was fundamental to Bishop's writing: "Bishop's vision and language ... are molded by the events of loss" (1994, 8). Marilyn May Lombardi finds in Bishop's elegiac works "the uncanny power to evoke the absent mother and the inexpressible pain of her loss" (1995, 19). Dissenting from the view that Bishop was grief-stricken by early trauma, Diana Fuss does acknowledge that Bishop's mother's death was formative in other ways, writing perceptively about "One Art" as "not a lament over loss but a desire for it" (2013). Most recently, Sandra Barry has argued that Bishop's mother "hovers over, haunts, and inhabits published poems" as well as peripheral works, proposing that "Gertrude was time. Gertrude was voice. Bishop learned about ebb and flow, now and then, sound and silence from her mother" (2014,108,109).

Important as it is to investigate Bishop's poetic representations of the maternal, such approaches often downplay the ways her work is informed by literary models. Barry's sweeping statement, for example, renders invisible how Bishop's conception of time also is shaped by her readings of other poets' work--as an essay, published in her college years, entitled "Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry" (1934) suggests. Attributing the development of Bishop's sensibility and aesthetic primarily to her mother (or her childhood, or her lesbianism, or her alcoholism) is symptomatic of a problematic separation of the lyric "I" from lyricism itself in many critical approaches to Bishop. In "Elizabeth Bishop's Impersonal Personal" Bonnie Costello contends that critics like Harrison have focused too much on the influence of real-life history in Bishop's poems, oversimplifying the complex influence on her work of literary history: "Bishop's critics have celebrated her subversive relationship to 'the Western tradition' rather than emphasizing the many ways in which that tradition, by no means unitary, might haunt her and shape her, or recognizing how the 'I' of her poems might emerge as a site of cross-identifications and cultural yearnings rather than as a coherent self" (2003, 335-56). Rather than viewing Bishop's poems as "cloaks" for personal experience, Costello encourages us to consider them as "masks" instead, "designed for symbolic expansion, and engagement with the 'generality' (to use Adorno's word) of language" (343). Costello's corrective position is especially compelling. But I wonder if it is nonetheless in danger of perpetuating the same separation of the lyric "I" from lyricism. Countering what she sees as the exclusion of tradition from the conversation about autobiography, Costello seeks to exclude autobiography from the conversation about tradition. Offering my own corrective to her corrective, I thus argue that Bishop's poetics produce "site[s] of cross-identification" among literary history, cultural pressure, and experience.

"The Bight" is in this regard a particularly rich site for investigation. A canonical Bishop poem in which the maternal can be detected, "The Bight" has also formed the basis of significant critical discussion about Bishop's relationship with Charles Baudelaire and the symboliste aesthetic, but these two critical strands have taken too little account of one another. It is my contention that the maternal presence in "The Bight" is intimately connected to the poem's engagement not simply with Baudelaire but with the seven-hundred-year-old tradition of danse macabre that Baudelaire reimagined, and that exploring this connection will provide a corrective illustration of how Bishop's literary-historical engagement and her exploration of maternal themes coalesce into sophisticated literary forms that exploit a vast range of musical, tonal, and symbolic effects. …

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