Bachelor of Arts
Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Geography
Geography III, the title of Elizabeth Bishop's last book of poems prepares her readers for both a passage through familiar territory and an exploration of unmapped terrain. A return to the northern landscape of A Cold Spring and the southern landscape of Brazil is promised at the same time that a third and entirely new landscape is hinted at; we can find the Nova Scotia of "At the Fishouses" and "Cape Breton" in "The Moose" and "The End of March" and we can find the tropics of "Song for the Rainy Season" and "The Armadillo" in "Crusoe in England", but the third landscape is not as easily discovered, since it is not a place, but a new quality of openness and ease that runs throughout these late poems and makes them both more personal and more accessible than much of Bishop's earlier work.
One of the ways that Bishop creates this quality of openness and ease in Geography III, is through the use of a new type of poem that sandwiches the speaker's account of a liminal, magical, or in some sense extraordinary experience between a description of an ordinary action: a dream between the start of a bus ride and the sighting of a moose, a recollection of a lost island between two scenes set in England, a moment of vertigo between an arrival at and departure from a dentist's office, a vision of a magical house between a walk up and back down a beach. In these middle sections the boundaries between self and other, past and present, adulthood and childhood, waking and sleeping, tend to break down; the oppositions and polarities that we use to navigate our way through the contradictions inherent in everyday existence blur and overlap. After passing through these moments where the world is suddenly stranger and/or more wonderful than one expected, the speakers seem more fully human, wiser, yet more painfully aware of doubt and uncertainty. While Bishop's earlier poems often trace the growth of the speaker's understanding or the expansion of their perception, none of them deliniate the unfolding or opening up of the speaker's consciousness to the extent that these "sandwich" style poems do. Part of the interest and excitement of reading Geography III lies in hearing how the speakers' outlooks expand to accommodate the mystery and ambiguity that literally lie at the center of these poems.
Soalt, Jennifer, "A New Topography: Elizabeth Bishop's Late Poems" (1985). Honors Papers. 623.