Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry: Vivid and Detailed Descriptions

Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry: Vivid and Detailed Descriptions

Vivid, detailed descriptions of the exotic and familiar

The ArmadilloThe balloons, while fiery, are familiar; they are objects of the ordinary, known by all audiences and present in all facets of life, such as times of celebration. Bishop enforces their ordinariness by revealing that their appearance is not a surprise; as she tells us, ‘This is the time of year’ when they appear. However the exotic is also presented to the reader, as we hear of when ‘Once up against the sky it’s hard/ to tell them from the stars -/ planets, that is – the tinted ones:/ Venus going down, or Mars,/ or the pale green one.’ These planets are presented as the exotic as they are as unfamiliar to the audience as balloons are familiar; while readers would be very aware of balloons, such as their movement (which Bishop speaks of in the poem) and their physical nature, most would have comparatively little knowledge of the planets. The mixture of the exotic and the familiar here may be seen to represent the experience of Bishop and others in the time of the Cold War where the uncertain chaos of war intruded on the familiar certainty of everyday life; this distortion of life is represented aptly by the odd comparison of balloons and planets.

The Waiting RoomThe waiting room is in the arena of the familiar, decorated with ‘overcoats,/ lamps and magazines’, which one would expect in such a setting. While Bishop waits in this place she reads a magazine and is immediately exposed to the exotic, from a volcano which is ‘black, and full of ashes;/ then it was spilling over/ in rivulets of fire’ to the famous husband-and-wife explorers and writers, ‘Osa and Martin Johnson/ dressed in riding breeches,/ laced boots, and pith helmets’. On one level, the mixture of the familiar and the exotic may be present so as for Bishop to explore and realize the need to be different, and individual in the world. When she hears a cry from her aunt in the dentist’s office she realizes the cry is from her also, and the exotic may be present so as to show Bishop the possibility to be individual and different in the world, which leads her to ask ‘Why should I be my aunt,/ or me, or anyone?’. The title of the poem may thus be seen as a commentary on Bishop waiting passively before she realized the possibility of being individual. If she had not been exposed to the exotic and kept on waiting there was a very real possibility that she may have eventually suffered the fate she worried was possible: ‘falling off/ the round, turning world./ into cold, blue-black space’.

The Filling StationIn the poem the ordinary is seen with the banal filling station. As the poem begins the station appears normal; it is ‘oil-soaked, oil-permeated’, and its physical appearance would not cause a second glance, with its ‘cement porch/ behind the pumps, and on it/ a set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork’. However there is also the exotic present in some form, represented by items that are not only alien to the masculine-dominated space but also generally, such as ‘begonia’. Such items of the exotic are linked to the maternal figure that is not present, and their very presence might be seen as hopeful, as it suggests that while a maternal figure is not present her influence and effect may not be forgotten and perhaps will be echoed at some stage. However the oiling of the begonia suggests that such items, of the exotic, are gradually being overpowered by the domestic and will eventually disappear, leaving behind the domestic world which is a place where maternal figures are no longer present, and soon where their influence will not be either.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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