"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bishop Bit by Bit: a Gratitude

Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving yesterday made me think how grateful I am for Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. I thought I would like to express that gratitude by beginning a new project for the EB100 Blog: reading Bishop's poetry, but reading it slowly, bit by bit, and describing what runs through my mind in the process. I hope this will prompt readers to make their own comments on the poems.

I'd like to begin with the first poem in North & South.

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.

There is a tremendous step between the title and the beginning of the first line. When I first read the poem I think I misjudged that step, and leapt directly from 'The Map' to 'land as depicted on a map,' without even noticing that the word beginning the body of the poem is simply 'land.' The title exerts such a powerful tug upon my imagination -- right from the get-go I have visions of Vermeer's maps, or the Rand McNally maps that hung in my childhood classrooms -- and this tumble of images is so vivid that at first reading they almost entirely replace the places being mapped. But the first phrase of the poem is 'Land lies in water.' And now, aware of the leap the title tripped me into making, it suddenly occurs to me that it would be equally true to say that 'water lies in land.' If it hadn't been for that title-shoved leap, I don't think I would have become aware of the possibility of a different assignment to land and water of the roles of figure and ground, any more than I ever thought to question why North is depicted at the top of maps, and South at the bottom, until I stumbled across discussion of Eurocentrism back in the early 1980s, and saw a map of this sort for the first time:

The questioning of the roles of figure and ground that I am now engaged in, of course, makes a second reading of "Land lies in water" possible: taking the phrase to mean that the land tells lies in water. This brings to mind the way in which water and air have different indices of refraction, so that when we reach for the land that lies beneath water our reach exceeds our grasp. That in turn raises the questions "but why should we say the land is telling falsehoods? Isn't it our misunderstanding of the world that is at work? And isn't blame or guilt something that neither land nor water partake of?"

The second moment I pause when reading the poem to the end of its first line is at the word 'it.' At first I think that 'it' refers to 'land', but after rereading provides the first phrase with its multiple meanings , it occurs to me that the 'it' in 'it is shadowed green' might equally well refer to 'water.' There is a tug-of-war of sorts going on between two 'rules' in my head -- (1) 'it' refers to the subject of the immediately preceding clause or sentence, (2) 'it' refers to the latest-mentioned noun preceding the occurrence of 'it', irrespective of the syntactic function of that noun. I think Bishop was well aware of this potential ambiguity, since she attempts to avoid it by italicising the word 'it' in two poems, "The Moose" (in the line "Life's like that. We know it -- also death.") and "The End of March" (in the line "it was the color of mutton fat jade"). Here, though, she retains the ambiguity of reference. Why? We must wade further into the poem for clarification... soon...

1 comment:

  1. John Barnstead! So nice to encounter you via the felicitous randomness of cyberspace! I will be reading more here in the future....
    --Nick LoLordo