From Maps to Monuments: Elizabeth Bishop's Shoreline Poems

By Ellis, Jonathan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2003 | Go to article overview

From Maps to Monuments: Elizabeth Bishop's Shoreline Poems


Ellis, Jonathan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


An emphasis on spatiality rather than temporality has been one of the main criteria used to differentiate the postmodern from the modern, both in architecture and literature. As Tim Woods states, "discussions of postmodernist architecture inevitably overlap with experiences and conceptions of space in the late twentieth century. [ ... ] In fact, some theorists like [David] Harvey, Edward Soja and [Fredric] Jameson have argued that whereas the modern era was preoccupied with temporality, the postmodern era is dominated by spatiality" (117). Woods implies that history and memory do not figure prominently, if at all, in postmodern art, and that the postmodern is in fact a movement away from modernist obsessions. This seems to me a rather unstable thesis, grounded in the assumption that shifts in culture can be charted through simple binaries, in this case a movement from time to space, for surely the most innovative works have always combined a preoccupation with memory with an acute awareness of space. Postcolonial writers and theorists have recently highlighted the problems inherent in locating culture, writing from the borderlands and margins of previously dominant discourses. Though, as Terry Eagleton argues, "marginality in literature goes back a long way. The great 19th-century English novel wasn't exactly the work of hobos and jailbirds, but neither did it spring from the privileged and powerful" (8). Writers have been exploring the politics of space to undermine the centre ground for at least two centuries. The lines were drawn when Jane Austen began criticizing the big houses on which English society rested. Conrad, Wilde, and Woolf continued the demolition, always on their toes to pull apart ideological certainties. An awareness of space, then, seems a condition of literary language rather than a particular feature of postmodern culture.

Elizabeth Bishop writes at the threshold between so-called modernist and postmodernist practices. Her various friendships indicate as much (she was a close friend of poets as diverse as John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, and Marianne Moore). Yet critics have never quite known where to place her work. While the early poems appear Eliot-like in atmosphere and setting (particularly those located in France), they are equally at home in a metaphysical or Romantic bracket. The later collections, on which Bishop's reputation rests, sound more spatial, with titles such as Questions of Travel and Geography III (Complete), yet these are also her most personal works, preoccupied as they are with the relationship between memory and place. In fact, Bishop's whole career offers us a paradigm of the limitations of labels when speaking about art and life, space and time, geography and history, for art seeks to evade such distinctions even as the cultural and literary theorists wind new boundaries around it.

In this essay, I concentrate on Bishop's early shoreline poems and stories, tracing the connections between landscape and memory. As Gaston Bachelard puts it in The Poetics of Space, the poetic house "is not experienced from day to day only. [ ... ] Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the traces of former days" (5). Or, as Bishop herself suggests, public poems and stories repeatedly house private "family monuments" (Vassar 72, A3:31), certain key images and metaphors leading back to one or two childhood experiences so that, in Bishop's writing, the imagination of space is continually haunted by the memory of those who lived there. Such an experience might appear to represent the transition between the modern and the postmodern world some time in the 1940s and 1950s, the very historical period in which Bishop was writing. Yet the collision between space and time can be read more profitably as simply a consequence of good writing, in whatever form and in whatever period.

Bishop's first association with the shoreline seems to have been terrifying, though it took fifty years for her to face up to it in writing. …

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