The below essay is a final draft, and not a final copy; therefore, it does not have page numbers and cannot be quoted in future publications. The published version of the essay is in the following book available in print and online versions in the Seneca library: Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions. Eds. Cleghorn, Hicok, Travisano. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, June 2012. Part II (of the 4 part book with 17 essays by different people) Crossing Continents: Self, Politics, Place Bishop’s “wiring fused”: Bone Key and “Pleasure Seas”
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Angus Cleghorn Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box and the Library of America edition of Bishop’s poetry and prose provide readers with additional context enabling a richer understanding of her poetic project. Alice Quinn’s compelling tour of previously unpublished archival material and her strong interpretive directions in the heavily-annotated notes let us color in, highlight and extend lines drawn in The Complete Poems. Some of those poetic lines include wires and cables, which are visible in Bishop’s paintings, as published in William Benton’s Exchanging Hats.
If we consider the extensive presence of wires in the artwork alongside the copious, recently published poetic images of wires, we can observe vibrant innovation, especially in the material Bishop had planned for a Florida volume entitled Bone Key. The wires conduct electricity, as does The Juke-Box, both heating up her place. Florida warms Bishop after Europe: in this geographical shift, we can see Bishop relinquish stiff European statuary forms and begin to radiate in hotbeds of electric light.
Also existing in this erotic awakening is a new approach to nature in the modern world. Instead of wires representing something anti-natural (modernity is often this sort of presence in her Nova Scotian poems, for example, when “The Moose” stares down the bus), the wires conduct energy into a future charged with potential where “It is marvellous to wake up together” after an “Electrical Storm. ” This current brings Bishop into alien territory where lesbian eroticism is illuminated by green light, vines, wires and music. Pleasure Seas,” an uncollected poem that stood alone in The Complete Poems, is amplified by the previously unpublished Florida draft-poems, many of which include the words Bone Key in the margins or under poem titles; this planned volume is visible in the recent editions and is prominent in Bishop’s developing sexual-geographic poetics. In The Complete Poems, “Pleasure Seas” is first of the “Uncollected Poems” section. As written in the “Publisher’s Note,” Harper’s Bazaar accepted the poem but did not print it as promised in 1939.
This editorial decision cut “Pleasure Seas” out of Bishop’s public oeuvre until 1983 when Robert Giroux resuscitated it in the uncollected section. Thus it is read as a marginal poem, which has received relatively little critical attention. Far less than “It is marvellous to wake up together,” a previously unpublished poem found by Lorrie Goldensohn in Brazil that has been considered integral to understanding Bishop’s hidden potential as an erotic poet since Goldensohn discussed it in her 1992 book, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry.
Perhaps because “Pleasure Seas” has been widely available since 1983 in The Complete Poems, this poem does not appear to critics as a found gem like “It is marvellous . . . .” Now, however, we can read these previously disparate poems together in the Library of America Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters volume, in which “Pleasure Seas” was placed accurately by editors Lloyd Schwartz and Robert Giroux in the “Unpublished Poems” section. As such, it accompanies numerous unpublished poems, many of them first published by Quinn in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. Pleasure Seas” is a tour de force, and its rejection in 1939 likely indicated to Bishop that the public world was not ready for such a poem. I speculate that had that poem been published as promised, Bishop would have had more confidence in developing the publication of Bone Key, a volume which would have followed, or replaced A Cold Spring and preceded Questions of Travel; she might have re-formed A Cold Spring into a warmer, more ample volume as Bone Key.
A Cold Spring ends with the lesbian mystique of “The Shampoo,” the bubbles and “concentric shocks” of which make a lot more sense when accompanied, not by the preceding poem, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” but by erotic poems such as “Pleasure Seas,” “Full Moon, Key West,” “The walls went on for years & years…,” “It is marvellous to wake up together,” and “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. ” Bishop’s writing in Florida involves tremendous struggle to express sexual desire and experience.
Automatic bodily impulses contend with traditional strictures. Since in Florida “pleasures are mechanical” (EAP 49) and for Bishop counter the norms of heterosexual culture, her tentative imagination treads “the narrow sidewalks / of cement / that carry sounds / like tampered wires … ” in “Full Moon, Key West” (EAP 60). She fears the touch of her feet may detonate bombs. Bishop’s recently published material offers explosive amplitudes measured against the constraints of traditional poetic architecture. Full Moon, Key West” and “The walls went on for years & years…,” in EAP are dated circa 1943. In both poems, Bishop envisions nature merging with technology to provide an extension of space in her environment: The morning light on the patches of raw plaster was beautiful. It was crumbled & fine like insects’ eggs or walls of coral, something natural. Up the bricks outside climbed little grill-work balconies all green, the wires were like vines. And the beds, too, one could study them, white, but with crudely copied lant formations, with pleasure. (EAP 61) Teresa De Lauretis writes in Technologies of Gender about how innovative language and technology (in film) represent gender and sexuality in new formal expressions of life previously considered impossible. The new poetic material from Bishop similarly re-formulates human living spaces. In the above poem, the man-made room’s construction breaks down into natural similes. A dialectic between nature and architecture has nature grow into walls, balconies and rooms.
This poetic process is found in later poems such as “Song for the Rainy Season,” in which the mist enters the house to make “the mildew’s / ignorant map” on the wall. Typical human divisions between construction and organicism are made fluid. In “The walls…,” divisions between inner and outer worlds crumble; for instance, white beds are studied, but are they beds to lie in, or plant beds on the balconies? Bishop writes that they are “with crudely copied / plant formations,” suggesting both flowers and perhaps a patterned bedspread (rather like the wallpaper-skin of “The Fish”).
The phrase, “walls of coral,” itself merges architecture with nature, also echoing Stevens’ 1935 image of “sunken coral water-walled” in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which Bishop had been reading and discussing in letters with Marianne Moore. Stevens and Bishop draw attention to artifices of nature, and nature overpowering artifice. The natural versus manufactured-world dichotomy is deconstructed through innovative cross-over imagery, continuing in these lines: Up the bricks outside climbed little grill-work balconies all green, the wires were like vines. (EAP 61)
Vines simply grow up buildings, so we have a precedent for nature’s encroachment on man-made constructions. Here, Bishop replicates natural vines with “little grill-work balconies / all green,” a man-made architecture that looks as if it grows on its own. Then the poet surprises us again with another simile, “the wires were like vines. ” The imagery of the wires blackly echoes that of the balconies; again this accretion lends the physical man-made constructions a fluid, surreal life of their own, which is empowered naturally by the simile that has them acting like vines.
Vine-wires extend nature through technology into potential domains far from this balconied room. However, despite the revolutionary “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” to use the title of the well-known Heidegger essay, this is a poem of walls, which offers temporary extensions of nature, only to be shut down when One day a sad view came to the window to look in, little fields & fences & trees, tilted, tan & gray. Then it went away. Bigger than anything else the large bright clouds moved by rapidly every evening, rapt, on their way to some festivity. How dark it grew, no, but life was not deprived of all that sense f motion in which so much of it consists. (EAP 62) With a last line again sounding like Stevens, and yet the rest of the poem very much Bishop, “The walls…” concludes with walls between the poet’s human nature and nature’s indifferent “festivity. ” The muted colors of traditional human habitation infiltrate her window, so Bishop will have to wait, as her wishful thinking indicates earlier in the poem, for a “future holding up those words / as something actually important / for everyone to see, like billboards” (61). My essay hoists up these formerly scrapped images of alien technology, held back in Bishop’s time, “like billboards. Those diminutive “little fields & fences & trees, tilted, tan & gray” are found in an earlier poem, “A Warning for Salesmen,” written between 1935 and 1937. Earlier poems, especially from Bishop’s years in Europe, lack wires as conduits of energy and transformation. “A Warning to Salesmen” offers a static portrait of marital doldrums; it speaks of a lost friend, dry landscape, and farmer at home …putting vegetables away in sand In his cellar, or talking to the back Of his wife as she leaned over the stove. The farmer’s land Lay like a ship that has rounded the world
And rests in a sluggish river, the cables slack. (EAP 16) Alice Quinn found this poem in Bishop’s notebook, written when she took a “trip to France with Hallie Tompkins in July 1935″ (251). Even if it is a poem of loss, it also anticipates gain. The slack cables await tightening. The lack of desire in the poem begs for it; Quinn notes this through Bishop’s scrawling revisions: Lines scribbled at the top of the page to the right of the title: “Let us in confused, but common, voice / Congratulate th’occasion, and rejoice, rejoice, rejoice / The thing love shies at / And the time when love shows confidence. To the right at the bottom of the draft, Bishop writes, “OK,” but the whole poem is crossed out. And below, on the left: “My Love / Wonderful is this machine / One gesture started it. ” (251) This machine anticipates the mechanical sexual pleasures found in the Florida bars written into “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. ” “A Warning to Salesman” shows she had long been waiting for Florida. Before she slots nickels into the Floridian Juke-Box, Bishop’s trip to France includes time spent residing by “Luxembourg Gardens” in fall 1935.
This poem of garden civilization indicates Bishop’s relationship with European traditional architecture; the poem begins: Doves on architecture, architecture Color of doves, and doves in air— The towers are so much the color of air, They could be anywhere. (EAP 27) While the deadpan-glorious tone might resemble Stevens, we might also think of Bishop’s “The Monument,” which was written earlier and first published in 1940; it also ambiguously provokes present explorations of art, thought and place, rather than fixing memories of the past.
Barbara Page’s essay, “Off-Beat Claves, Oblique Realities: The Key West Notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop,” clearly demonstrates that Bishop’s “The Monument” is a response to Stevens’ statues in Owl’s Clover, one of which was located in Luxembourg Gardens, as Michael North demonstrated in The Final Sculpture: Public Monuments and Modern Poetry. Similar to Stevens’ rhetorical parody of monuments, in Bishop’s “Luxembourg Gardens,” “histories, cities, politics, and people / Are made presentable / For the children playing below the Pantheon” (27) and on goes a list of history’s prim pomp.
Then a puff of wind sprays the fountain’s water, mocking “the Pantheon,” the jet of water first drooping, then scattering itself like William Carlos Williams’ phallic fountain in “Spouts. ” Finally, the poem ends with a balloon flitting away, as children watching it exclaim, “It will get to the moon. ” By employing the fluid play of kids, wind, water and dispersal, Bishop builds a conglomerate antithesis to traditional Parisian monumentality.
With even more Stevensian flux than “The Monument,” this poem situates Bishop’s critique of monuments in Europe, unlike the well-known “Monument” poem, which could be anywhere, and thus speaks of a more liberating and expansive American perspective, drifting from European classical culture possibly all the way to Asia Minor or Mongolia. Also from her 1935 notebook is “Three Poems,” which works well to explain Bishop’s transition from studying the architecture of Europe to recognizing its sterile limitations and then finding her own perspective.
Section III develops an emotional movement away from stultifying monumentality: The mind goes on to say: “Fortunate affection Still young enough to raise a monument To the first look lost beyond the eyelashes. ” But the heart sees fields cluttered with statues And does not want to look. (EAP 19) In the final stanza a future is foretold by the promise of a fortunate traveler: Younger than the mind and less intelligent, He refuses all food, all communications; Only at night, in dreams seeking his fortune, Sees travel, and turns up strange face-cards. EAP 19) Starving (a word Susan Howe uses to describe American women poets before Dickinson), this speaker is impoverished by statues and has, as the lone alternative, future fortune in surreal night visions of travel. Bishop’s travels will fill her gypsy-heart’s desire as it expands its vocabulary in the roaming poetic technologies found in Florida and Brazil, but Paris itself does not illuminate love. In the Paris of “Three Poems,” “The heart sits in his echoing house / And would not speak at all” (19).
This inarticulate “prison-house” enables us to see why Bishop needed to travel in search of home as an idea, but not a physical settlement, as her use of Pascal illustrates in “Questions of Travel. ” Her jaunt to Brazil inadvertently became an eighteen-year residence with Lota de Macedo Soares, but their home was not fully expressed in the volume, Questions of Travel. Florida was the source of sexual-poetic experimentation; Bishop’s work from there proliferates with freedom not yet found in Europe, and not written into the published poems from Brazil.
The reticent Bishop did not want to be known as a lesbian poet; it would limit her reputation and her private life in the public sphere, and she likely feared that sexual expression would not be accepted in print. A poem from Questions of Travel, “Electrical Storm” (1960), strikingly indicates excitement with Lota in Brazil. Just as striking, though, is the repressive prison-house in this poetry. It reveals as much repression as it does desire: Dawn an unsympathetic yellow. Cra-ack! – dry and light. The house was really struck. Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler. . . . hen hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls. Dead-white, wax-white, cold – diplomats’ wives favors from an old moon party – they lay in melting windrows on the red ground until well after sunrise. We got up to find the wiring fused, no lights, a smell of saltpetre, and the telephone dead. The cat stayed in the warm sheets. The Lent trees had shed all their petals: wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls. (PPL 81) While the electrical storm is substantial, the poem narrates it after the fact, and the storm cuts off communication with a dead telephone and “wiring fused. So the electricity certainly was there, but the lightning is pejoratively “like a dropped tumbler. ” And the only animal in bed is Tobias the cat, “Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child. ” Personal electricity is not expressed, certainly not through Lent; it is spited in the society of neighbors and “diplomats’ wives,” whose nature is described as “dead-white,” their hail like “artificial pearls. ” Unlike the earlier poem of desire, “The walls went on for years . . . ,” in which balconies are transformed by vines into wired energy, “Electrical Storm” displays the reverse action.
Nature is hardened into artifice. Social civilization, like Bishop’s monuments, is a restrictive agent, part of the past in conflict with the newfound energy of Bishop’s tropical present. In Brazil, the poet constantly observes the natural world as vulnerable to civilization. Sometimes Bishop presents an alternative harmony, as in “Song for the Rainy Season,” which moistly answers to the repressive short-circuiting of “The Electrical Storm” by opening the door of an “open house” to the mist infiltrating the house and causing “mildew’s / ignorant map” on a wall.
This poem’s erotica is played out as the house receives nature’s water. The house, with its opening to the outer environment, suggests Lota de Macedo Soares’ property, Samambaia (a giant Brazilian fern), in the mountains above Petr? polis where Soares built Bishop a studio (PPL 911). The progressive architecture of their house lends itself to the way in which Bishop’s poem has the outer environment flow indoors. More often, however, Questions of Travel traces aggressive conquests, as Bishop works through history’s impact on the country. Natural power has been contained – harnessed, mined and packaged throughout history.
Take “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” for example, and note how Bishop’s natural images dialectically break down, then reach forward technologically. The branches of palm are broken pale-green wheels; symbolic birds keep quiet; the lizards are dragon-like and sinful; the lichens are moonbursts; moss is hell-green; the vines are described as attacking, as “scaling-ladder vines,” and as “‘one leaf yes and one leaf no’ (in Portuguese)”; and while the “lizards scarcely breathe,” the “smaller, female” lizard’s tail is “red as a red-hot wire. ” That beacon beckons from the poem’s forms of colonial imprisonment. Breathlessness will find breath in EAP. * * William Benton’s words from Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings accurately convey the benefit of studying two of Bishop’s art forms to gain greater compositional insight into her “One Art. ” In his introduction, he writes that, “If Elizabeth Bishop wrote like a painter, she painted like a writer” (xviii). Wires, cables and electrical technology are strewn abundantly through the paintings. Observed in sequence, Bishop’s black lines powerfully extend this emergent narrative of Bishop as an electric writer. The paintings Olivia, Harris School, County Courthouse, Tombstones for Sale, Graveyard with Fenced Graves, Interior with
Extension Cord, Cabin with Porthole, and E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine are marked with black lines that technically disturb nature. The bold presence of Bishop’s lines factor in virtually every painting to infringe upon nature (with the exception of the explicitly pretty watercolor odes to nature, such as the arrangement on the cover of One Art). When we align the Florida paintings with Bone Key and other published poems from Florida, we can chart the artist’s development in accord with the technological presence of wires.
As with the early poems in EAP, her oft-undated Florida paintings, circa 1937-39 when Bishop had returned from Europe, depict square architecture set off by wires askew. In Olivia, a painting of a weathered wood house on Olivia Street in Key West, the modest brown house is fronted by two contrasting white porch-pillars, and to the left “like a cosmic aspect, the telephone lines form a tilted steeple” (Benton 18) connected to the proximate telephone pole. The painting comes across as a satiric “Monument. ” Likewise, the next painting, Harris School (21), is topped with battlements contrasted by wispy kites flying freely in the orange sunlight.
Bishop’s painterly contrasts invoke satire, rather like the parody of old Parisian architecture in “Luxembourg Gardens. ” County Courthouse (23) is extremely dramatic – a transitional painting in the evolution of Bishop’s transgressive art. Benton describes it well: “A view composed of what obstructs it. The central triangle [courthouse structure] that leads the eye into the painting is at once overwhelmed by foliage. Downed power lines contribute to the sense of disorder. The scene is the exact opposite of what a Sunday watercolorist might select. It is, in fact, a picture whose wit transforms it from a “scene” into an image of impasse”(22).
The palms in the foreground overpower the courthouse of similar size in the center. Nature’s supremacy over the architecture of man-made legal institution is accentuated by downed power lines, symbolizing, as often for Bishop, that our efforts to transmit information over and above nature depend on the co-operation of nature, the winds of which can knock down our voices. Tombstones for Sale, which is the cover of The Collected Prose, and Graveyard with Fenced Graves (31, 33) are filled with iron bars in harsh but beautiful contrast with flowering trees. Recall the iron-work balconies ‘growing'” up buildings in “The walls went on for years and years …. ” These wonky walls are evident in Interior with Extension Cord, a painting of undetermined year with “the dramatic focus on the extension cord crossing the planes of the white room” (42). In here, the barren walls out-space the open door with view of the garden. The painting yearns for nature to be let in the door. Cabin with Porthole, the next painting (45), provides compositional relief. Bare but cheerful yellow walls surround the open porthole with blue ocean view; the painter’s travel bags are casually set in order beside a neat flowerpot on the table.
Travel looks homey here, made additionally comfortable by the fan plugged into the wall with electrical cord in the top-right corner. The next undated painting, Gray Church (47), is set by Benton in contrast to the lightness of Cabin with Porthole. The editor’s placement of Gray Church, the painting’s mood nearly as dark as van Gogh’s The Prison Courtyard, suggests that Benton, like Quinn in EAP, ordered a dramatic narrative sequence so observers could follow an interpretive trail of artistic development. Although E.
Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine (77)appears later in the book’s sequence, perhaps because it is more of a sketch than a painting, it would have likely been created near the time she wrote “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine” in Florida, as Quinn documents it with a rejection letter from The New Yorker, October 28, 1942 (EAP 279). These amateur works of art evince the crucial importance of publishing flawed poems, scrawl, sketches and paintings that are incredibly useful tools to instruct us about their masters; in this case we see projection of the artist’s techno-dreams. Of E.
Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine, Benton writes, “The rainbow arc at the top of the picture – resembling the handle of a suitcase – bears the legend “The ‘DREAM'” (76). This dream, rainbow-shaped, carries technology in the form of the slot-machine. Whether or not observers want to view the rainbow dream as lesbian codification, as some students of “The Fish” do with that poem’s victorious rainbow of otherness, the undeniable fact is that Bishop has painted “The ‘DREAM'” onto the handle of her slot-machine. This slot-machine is dependent upon currency for the dream of a fortunate future.
Although an amateur painting, it is far more developed in terms of the progress of artistic, hopeful vision than earlier works, such as 1935’s “Three Poems,” in which Bishop is desperately scanning seas from France, and the fortune teller turns up strange face cards as the only potential currency, so the poet dreams of travel. The 1942 sketch and poem, “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine” (EAP 56-57), not to be confused with the painting just discussed, appears like an adult-version Dr. Seuss parody of E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine complete with fearful alien beast atop machine in the sketch.
In the poem, Bishop uses the soldier persona to depersonalize her dream, destroyed by a third-person other. Still, the persona employs first person: “I will not play the slot-machine” bookends the poem as a mantra of abstinence from the drunken slot-machine. Nevertheless, it consumes coins until they melt surreally into “a pool beneath the floor . . . / It should be flung into the sea. / / Its pleasures I cannot afford” (EAP 58). This denial and apparent dismissal through the otherness of the soldier stays with Bishop, who cannot trash her desires in the sea; they pulled on her for years even if their expression remained unpublished.
After The New Yorker’s Charles Pearce rejected “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine,” Bishop recalled this event twenty-two years later in a letter to Robert Lowell: “Once I wrote an ironic poem about a drunken sailor and a slot-machine – not a success – and the sailor said he was going to throw the machine into the sea, etc. , and M[oore] congratulated me on being so morally courageous and outspoken” (EAP 279). Moore in 1964 was at that time congratulating Bishop on a moral lesson to be learned about Brazilian crime and punishment in “The Burglar of Babylon. However, the point that Bishop makes with quiet sarcasm in her letter to Lowell is that Moore missed the irony so crucial to understanding “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine. ” Moore reads moral courage in Bishop’s condemnations; actually, Bishop’s morally courageous core, the one of social conformity that Moore applauds, melts in the machine. The soldier’s denial to play it is weaker than the power of the machine itself, which melts and breaks into subterranean pieces – unacceptable mercurial junk that will be “taken away,” a disposal of natural, illicit desire.
Travel in Florida and Brazil offers many cabins with portholes for Bishop to view the sea far away from stultifying northwestern culture. Sometimes Bishop allows the establishment to triumph, as in the balanced yellow painting of The Armory, Key West. Even here, though, wires dangle from the flagpole to create slight asymmetry. Merida from the Roof (27), the well-known cover of The Complete Poems, while a bit chaotic with copious windmills outnumbering church steeples, nevertheless illustrates an intoxicating tropical harmony. The dominant palm, telephone wires, city streets and buildings hang together nicely from the painter’s balcony view.
This Mexican painting from 1942 anticipates work Bishop would do in Brazil over the next two decades, such as “The Burglar of Babylon,” which ends with the poet looking down on Rio’s crime-ridden poverty with binoculars. * * * When we contrast The Complete Poems with Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, we can see just how much further Bishop’s unpublished poems went in configuring her relation with the world through nature and technology’s extensions of it; natural growth is given additional electrical currency to express sexual awakening, and I argue, a potentially full realization of her poetic power.
Lorrie Goldensohn in The Biography of a Poetry discusses her discovery of “It is marvellous to wake up together” in a box from Linda Nemer in Brazil. This discovery and “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box” best exemplify Bishop’s rewired sexuality. Quinn cannot be certain which of these poems was written first. In terms of the arc of the poetics I’m tracing here, it makes sense for “Poe’s Box” to come first because it works to loosen up the sexual expression of “It is marvellous …. However, Quinn notes work on “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box” as late as 1953, and narrates its intended place as the closing poem of A Cold Spring, which Bishop considered calling Bone Key. It may have been written as early as 1938 when Bishop wrote to “classmate Frani Blough from Key West about her immersion in Poe” (EAP 271). Lloyd Schwartz and Robert Giroux date it in the late thirties to early forties period. As A Cold Spring stands, it concludes with the rapture of “The Shampoo” – a thinly veiled poem of lesbian eroticism in nature’s guise. And yet when I teach this poem to students, I often have to explain the “concentric shocks. “The Shampoo” is a wonderful climax, but it abruptly follows “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore. ” This sequence repeats the juxtaposition evident in Bishop’s letters between her lush tropical experience and her polite correspondence with Moore. Now we can envision an enlarged not so cold spring in the key of human bone warming up with “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. ” This poem is filled by emanations of light and sound from the Juke-Box. Starlight and La Conga are the Floridian dance-halls described as “cavities in our waning moon, / strung with bottles and blue lights / and silvered coconuts and conches” (49).
This erotic-tropical electric fulfillment sounds more like Walcott than Bishop. The poem has “nickels fall into the slots,” drinks drop down throats, hands grope under tablecloths while “The burning box can keep the measure …. ” Perhaps to ruin the party, Edgar Allan enters the last stanza in which Bishop writes, “Poe said that poetry was exact. ” This poem, though, is a corrective to Poe’s poetics, for Bishop knows for herself and Poe in the drinking establishment of poetry that “pleasures are mechanical / and know beforehand what they want / and know exactly what they want. Bishop focuses on “The Motive for Metaphor,” like Stevens, or like Baudelaire whom she was also reading at the time, knowing and tracing her desire for expression as expression. Conversely, Poe in the 19th-century tried to unite his metrical poetic exactitude with ideals of beauty while explaining his technique in “The Philosophy of Composition. ” While the mechanics of meter involve precise measures, Bishop suggests that seeking pleasures is comprised of a more powerful mechanics. “Lately I’ve been doing nothing much but reread Poe, and evolve from Poe . . a new Theory-of-the-Story-All-My-Own. It’s the ‘proliferal’ style, I believe, and you will see some of the results … [a reference to her prize-winning Partisan Review story ‘In Prison’]” (OA, 71; EAP 271). Bishop’s use of Poe illustrates her gripe with tradition as a source of monumental fixture, thus limited understanding, which has taught her well but prevents the poet from dancing at La Conga and telling that Floridian tale in A Cold Spring. Bishop wanted this poem near the end of A Cold Spring but didn’t quite get it done.
The final lines of the poem deal a further blow to Poe, and by extension to Bishop herself, when she asks, “how long does your music burn? / like poetry or all your horror / half as exact as horror here? ” (50). Poe’s horror stories (see Bishop’s notes on “The Tell-Tale Heart” on the upper-right corner of the draft of this poem), and I would suggest her writing in The Complete Poems (as wonderful as it is), articulate a fictional horror that only comes half-way to expressing the full pleasure of horrific catharsis available in the experience and writing of Florida honky-tonks.
Who would have thought Elizabeth Bishop a “Honky-Tonk Woman”? Bethany Hicok traces Bishop’s florid night-life in her 2008 book, Degrees of Freedom: American Women Poets and the Women’s College, 1905-1955, and thanks to Quinn we have the poetic evidence in print. “It is marvellous to wake up together” is a full and complete rendering of Bishop’s eroticism. We might give Bishop latitude for not publishing this one in the Second World War period; Quinn estimates the date between 1941-6 when Bishop lived with Marjorie Stevens in Key West (267).
Perhaps in the twenty-first century readers are comfortably relieved to hear Bishop express her lesbian sexuality, but in her time she did not want to be publicly scrutinized as a lesbian poet. In some respects, “It is marvellous to wake up together” is like “Electrical Storm,” since the poem speaks of sex after it has happened. Here, though, the stormy clearing is less anxious and repressive. Instead of diplomats’ wives and spiteful neighbors’ children, Bishop feels “the air suddenly clear / As if electricity had passed through it / From a black mesh of wires in the sky. All over the roof the rain hisses, / And below, the light falling of kisses” (EAP 44). Technology is god-like, hovering over their chosen house, and yet it is not alien, for the lightning storm’s electrical current of rain follows in hisses rhymed with kisses. Bishop is fully in the arena now – with the powers above electrically charging the nature that conducts itself harmoniously in the bedroom. In the second stanza electricity frames the house so readers can imagine it being sketched artistically.
Remnants of past prison-houses exist, and yet the past constraints of an inarticulate heart are transformed in this reality where “we imagine dreamily / Now the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning / Would be delightful rather than frightening;” the pleasure of this reality is also a dream, and it remains a dream in the last stanza. My point is not simply that dreams can come true, but that this true dream is limited to this house’s electrical currents. The speaker is “lying flat on [her] back,” which is an interesting line because it suggests sex, and yet it is from this position, this “same implified point of view” that the speaker emphasizes inquiry: “All things might change equally easily, / Since always to warn us there might be these black / Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise / The world might change to something quite different …. ” What sort of change is envisioned? The poem vaguely considers open futures; “something quite different” could be horrific or promising. Whatever change may come, these wires hang over the house, through Bishop’s poem and art as charged presences connected to future advancement. “Dear Dr. -” was written in 1946, around the same time Bishop might have finished “It is marvellous to wake up together. ” It continues to wire her present into the future: Yes, dreams come in colors and memories come in colors but those in dreams are more remarkable. Particular & bright(at night) like that intelligent green light in the harbor which must belong to some society of its own, & watches this one now unenviously. (EAP 77) These seven lines pull together a lot. Bishop’s dreams – in Paris were quite alienated from her art-culture milieu; in Florida dreams are amplified by Juke-Boxes, liquor and dancing.
There she finds physical lushness to match the dream currents that will sizzle in Brazilian experience. And yet in “Dear Dr. —” near the end of her relationship with Marjorie Stevens, Bishop is writing from Nova Scotia to her very helpful psychiatrist, Ruth Foster (286), expressing this foreign glow as an alien perspective: “that intelligent green light in the harbor / which must belong to some society of its own,” suggesting some alien technological prophesy, which “watches this one now unenviously” (77).
Goldensohn writes of electrical impasse in The Biography of a Poetry: “But still the wires connect to dreams, to nerve circuits that carry out our dreams of rescue and connection, or that fail to: in “The Farmer’s Children,” a story written in 1948 shortly before Bishop went to Brazil, the wires also appear, telephone wires humming with subanimal noise eerily irrelevant to the damned and helpless children of the story” (33). This story, written late in the Florida years, is further evidence of Bishop’s “proliferal” style, the multi-generic “One Art” developed in response to family, Northern traditions, Poe, and Europe.
Bishop’s evolving art comprised of poetry, fiction, letters and painting demonstrates psycho-sexual evolution found in Southern tropical harbors, far from the Northern remoteness of her mother’s Nova Scotia. These poems from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box register extensively the alien vision so far ahead of what was admitted in Bishop’s present. By contrasting the reserved perfections from The Complete Poems, such as “Electrical Storm,” and the limits of history as in “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” we can see what is held back there, waiting for the more fully expressed imperfect transgressions of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box.
The Complete Poems provide intricately innovative poems that point out limited perspectives while expanding ethical imaginations of the future, whereas Quinn’s book enables readers to thoroughly explore the dream workings of a poet bursting from the libidinal confines of her time, swinging by green vines through wires of sound and light to transmit electricity for an erotically ample future. Bishop’s anxiety and longing for a more tolerant future society, as expressed in “Dear Dr. —,” can also be traced back to her thwarted effort at publishing “Pleasure Seas. This powerful erotic poem sits chronologically in the middle of her poetic development away from Europe (signaled by “Luxembourg Gardens” and “Three Poems” circa 1935), and stimulated by Florida in the late 1930s. “Pleasure Seas” illustrates the new powerful range of Bishop to be discovered when reading EAP and the Library of American edition next to The Complete Poems. As an “Uncollected Poem” in The Complete Poems, “Pleasure Seas” would perhaps sit more easily in the Poe . . . Box. The aberration of “Pleasure Seas” in The Complete Poems may explain why only a handful of critics have discussed its significance.
Bonnie Costello, Barbara Comins, Marilyn May Lombardi, and Jeredith Merrin have published helpful interpretations of “Pleasure Seas. ” Each critic picks up on the poem as an indication of developments that Bishop makes, or does not quite make, in other published poems. Bonnie Costello, for example, writes in Questions of Mastery: “’Seascape’ and ‘Pleasure Seas’…anticipate the perspectival shifts in ‘Twelfth Morning; or What You Will,’ ‘Filling Station,’ and ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,’ in all of which the poet’s pessimism is countered.
In these later poems she achieves a vision at once immediate, even intimate, and yet directed at the world and questioning a single perspective of selfhood” (15-16). Costello also makes an important observation in a footnote: “‘Song’ may be a rewriting of ‘Pleasure Seas'” (249, n. 16). However, according to Schwartz and Giroux, “Song” was written in 1937, two years before “Pleasure Seas,” which then reads as an amplified fulfillment of the sad song from two years earlier. The latter ocean poem swells with pleasure in face of forces that threaten that very pleasure.
Now that we can read “Pleasure Seas” in the larger context of Bishop’s struggle to write sexual poetics, the poem makes more sense and gathers like-minded poems into its vortex of desire. “Pleasure Seas” is a study of water — contained, distorted and freed. It begins with still water “in a walled off swimming-pool” (195) – another wall like the ones that go on “for years and years” in the poem from 1943. This man-made pool contains “pink Seurat bathers,” like the publicly acceptable automatons in his famous paintings, Bathers and La Grande Jatte.
This viewer, though, is a surrealist who observes this scene through “a pane of bluish glass. ” Seurat’s bathers have “beds of bathing caps,” again resembling and anticipating the beds inside and outside the balconied rooms of “The walls go on for years and years …. ” Are these bathers’ heads in or out of it? Contained within a pool, they are willing prisoners of public space in chemically-treated water. At the close of the poem, they are “Happy . . . likely or not–” in their floral “white, lavender, and blue” caps, which are susceptible to greater weather forcing the water “opaque, / Pistachio green and Mermaid Milk. The floral garden colors of their caps contrast with disarming shades. That awfully bright green is “like that intelligent green light in the harbor” of “Dear Dr. ,” belonging to the alien society unenvious of the contemporaneous one. Jeredith Merrin, in “Gaiety, Gayness and Change,” asks how “Pleasure Seas” moves “from entrapment to freedom, from (to borrow from Bishop’s own phrasing from other poems) Despair to Espoir, from the ‘awful’ to the ‘cheerful'”? (Merrin in Lombardi 154).
The next sentence of “Pleasure Seas” envisions free ocean water “out among the keys” of Florida mingling, interestingly, with multi-chromatic “soap bubbles, poisonous and fabulous,” suggesting both “The Shampoo” to come, and the poisonous rainbow of oil in “The Fish” – another natural being that should exist freely in nature, which is caught in a rented boat. Even “the keys float lightly like rolls of green dust” connotes geological formations that are susceptible to erosion. Everything green and natural is made alien. The threat is intensified by an airplane; a form of human technological height that flattens the water to a “heavy sheet. The sky view is dangerous in Bishop’s poems; consider “12 O’Clock News” in which the view from the media plane ethnocentrically objectifies the dying indigenes below. In “Pleasure Seas” the poet says the plane’s “wide shadow pulses” above the surface, and down to the yellow and purple submerged marine life. The water’s surface even becomes “a burning-glass” for the sun – the supreme force of nature is harnessed as destructive technology, as with the high airplane, which, as Barbara Comins notes in “That Queer Sea,” is “casting a ‘wide shadow’ upon the water . . . uggesting some inherent anguish in going one’s ‘own way'” (191). Comins and Merrin see Bishop here pushing the poetic limits of her sexual expression. Even though the sun turns the water into “a burning glass,” the sun naturally cools “as the afternoon wears on. ” Nature and technology dance in a somewhat vexed but “dazzling dialectic” here. Brightest of all in this poem is the “violently red bell-buoy / Whose neon-color vibrates over it, whose bells vibrate // To shock after shock of electricity. ” Neon is the most alien of lights. As with the Juke-Box charging its place, this buoy electrifies its environment.
Its otherly transgression “rhythmically” shocks pulses through the sea. “The sea is delight. The sea means room. / It is a dance floor, a well ventilated ballroom. ” These lines from “Pleasure Seas” contain the charge picked up in “the dance-halls” of “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. ” That poem has seedy, drunken desire releasing the inner alien; in “Pleasure Seas” it is potentially trans-gendered here in the homonym of the “red bell-buoy,” the color of passion also found in “the red-hot wire” of the lizard tail in “Brazil, January 1, 1502. ” That lizard is notably female. Both poems vibrate outward into larger spaces.
From paradisal waters, the poem retreats to the “tinsel surface” of swimming pool or ship deck where “Grief floats off / Spreading out thin like oil. ” Natural poison spills, damages, and disperses. “And love / Sets out determinedly in a straight line…But shatters” and refracts “in shoals of distraction” (196). These shoals receding around the keys anticipate the homosexual vertigo of Crusoe’s surreal islands in the late great semi-autobiographical poems of Geography III, the 1976 volume beginning with young Elizabeth Bishop’s formative experience of inversion “In the Waiting Room” – “falling off / the round, turning world” (160). Pleasure Seas” ends with water crashing into the coral reef shelf – at the surface of nature, half in, half out – “An acre of cold white spray is there / Dancing happily by itself. ” Out there in the sea, as land gives way to coral reef, the poet creates a “well ventilated ballroom” to be free and ecstatic. Unlike the public spaces of the Florida honky-tonks, these pleasure seas are solitary. They are, however, natural – and thus contrast the ironic happiness of “the people in the swimming-pool and on the yacht, / Happy the man in that airplane, likely as not–” (196). This pleasure of 1939 holds the promise of liberation, momentarily.
While explorations in the late thirties lead to joyful poems such as “It is marvellous to wake up together,” and the thirsty “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” another Florida poem bids farewell, circa 1946. “In the golden early morning …” contains many of the Floridian tropes merging nature with technology. About a trip to the airport, it indicates a break up with Marjorie Stevens (“M” in the poem). As the speaker is being driven to the airport in the early morning, she reads the newspaper stories of human horror: I kept wondering why we expose ourselves to these farewells & dangers—
Finally you got there & we started. It was very cold & so much dew! Every leaf was wet & glistened. The Navy buildings & wires & towers, etc. looked almost like glass & so frail & harmless. The water on either side was perfectly flat like mirrors—or rather breathed-on mirrors. (EAP 80) The water as foggy mirror is an example of how technology (a mirror in this case) extends nature to reflect for Bishop an extension of herself that can’t quite exist freely on its own, or in the social world. More dramatically, an airplane descends this early morning: “Then we heard the plane or felt it . . .” She feels the sublime vehicle “as if it were made out of / the dew coming together, very shiny. ” The plane is similar to the aircraft’s technological transgression in “Pleasure Seas,” but “In the golden early morning . . . ,” it is also like a product of nature made from the dew. This simile resembles the fusion of technology and nature in “Pleasure Seas” where the red bell-buoy charges the sea, or in “The walls . . . ” where the “wires were like vines. ” These images express Bishop’s longing to extend but not quite transcend the provocative desires of the physical world.
Her projections are made possible by poetic language’s explicit tropic function: it is a technological extension of reality. Bishop’s technologies blatantly transgress nature by pointing to her exclusion from it when it participates in traditional symbolic order. She comments, as the flight crew in the poem gets out of the plane, “I said to you that it was like the procession / at the beginning of a bullfight . . . ” (EAP 81). Somebody’s going to die. From the outside looking in, Bishop is neither inside the plane, or remaining part of the natural morning. Always liminal, always on the move, she and her poetry are the