This Week: April Bernard on Elizabeth Bishop

April Bernard offers this beautiful reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” in a review of new editions of Bishop’s poems, prose, and editorial correspondence.

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

Here, at the outset, is the breathtaking surety of the voice that dares to offer apparent unsureness, inviting the reader to wonder along with it, in a kind of simulation of “real time,” as if the poem were being composed under our very eyes. Here is the understatement, the precise diction that looks deceptively casual; the verbal conflation of “shallow” with “shadow”; the noun “land,” given the verbs that would go naturally with its invisible rhyme “hand”—”lean down to lift,” “drawing,” “tugging.” Here is the characteristic modulation of English iambics, gently adapted to a speaking voice that holds the line without buckling into any awkward rigidity. Here are Bishop’s unobtrusive rhymes, including the hypnotic effect of words that rhyme with themselves. (She did not always rhyme in her poems, by any means; but when she did, the English language’s lack of rhyme resources never bothered her; she often rhymed on a slant, and never let the rhymes nail down the lines too tightly. She rhymed so playfully, so variably, it was as if she were adding little waving gestures to a dance.)

The poem goes on, for two more stanzas, to study and ponder the map, to speculate about the excitement of the map’s maker, to wonder about the colors chosen for different countries, finally subsiding to a characteristic close:

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Almost imperceptibly, Bishop has opened our vision out from the close contemplation of an object to the greater vision of the world itself, in thrall to history and time and their implicit violence. We are to appreciate the delicacy of the map itself in light of the cruder world for which it stands as imperfect, because too beautiful, emblem.

We are gratefully reminded that a poet’s decisions about what to finish and what is finished are, among the thousands of decisions that bring forth a work of art, not least.  See Bernard’s full review here.

Read her dazzling story, “The Fixed Idea,” in Little Star #2.

Robert Giroux’s original editions of the 1980s remain available (prose and poetry), harkening more attentively than appears to be the custom now to the wishes of the poet. I still cherish my earlier edition of the poems, with its simple blue triangle of sea and its ample supporting quotes from Lowell and Jarrell, and remember years ago hearing Jamaica Kincaid say at a reading that it was Geography III that told her how to write. I can’t find this edition for you on line, but its ISBN is 374-5156-6 0770.

Mr. Giroux characteristically concluded his introduction to the prose with these words: “Let me close by paraphrasing a notice to readers written in an earlier era: ‘It had been a thing worthy to have been wished that the Author herself had lived to have set forth and overseen her own writings. But since it hath been ordained otherwise, and she by death departed from that right, I pray you do not deny her Friend the office of his care and pain to have collected and published them.’”


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