Questions of displacement

Dear Elizabeth,

This is just a quick note to let you know that I read a posthumous collection of your poems (The Complete Poems, 1927-1979) earlier this year. I had sparsely read some of your poems and prose, here and there, during college. At that time, I used to browse the University Library stacks, in search of new-to-me female authors, and I remember precisely the moment I encountered you for the first time – I mean, the moment I found the beautiful Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of your collected prose (the first book of yours I ever read).

From then on, however, I never turned back to your work. But, after reading Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity, last year, I decided to revisit you, my dear. It’s about time to do so: let’s turn 2016 into my year of reading Bishop more closely, then.

Elizabeth BishopThe Complete Poems, 1927-1979 was a good panoramic introduction to this project of mine. The collection includes all of ”North & South” (1946), ”A Cold Spring” (1955), ”Questions of Travel” (1965) and ”Geography III” (1976), as well as some translations, juvenilia, and uncollected poems.

I do intend to come back more closely to each book and to my favourite poems later on. But I’d like to point to you in this note my general impressions of your poetic oeuvre as I have read it so far.

I’d say that yours is a poetics of displacement, of different perceptions and shifting perspectives. The problem of representation is at the core of many of your poems: your craft-like accurate descriptions are a paradoxical means of evading fixed meanings – as if, by trying to look ever more closely at an object, you ended up blurring its outlines.

Your themes revolve around questions of direction, location, identity – a world of discrete, ever changing fragments, as in a moving kaleidoscope. The highly detailed, distant and deceptively objective point of view you adopt in your poems only heightens their intense subjectivity: the fragments you display in your poems (a map, a mirror, a tear, a book, a glass, the sea as an ever evolving symbol of change) only gain meaning through the perceiver behind them, the perceiver who holds those fragments together within her/your eyes. You give us maps, and then withdraws them, writes over them, obliterates, erases them. Those are maps whose figures are perpetually on the move.

You are a very tactile poet, my dear. Through strong discipline and precise,  straightforward description, you manage to convey a sense of intimacy with an object and, at the same time, a longing for this almost physical connection, expressed through a means which cannot be touched with hands: the discreet and seamless act of looking (and of inviting us right into your gaze). So much so, that your poems resemble a miniaturist collection: you turn your verse to tiny things, passing moments, elusive memories that are more like shipwreck remains, the remnants of what could be salvaged from a hopeless situation.

In your poems, the words are balanced like glass mobiles, polished to a blinding blaze, seeming at first almost still, then subtly turning an inch or two, moving almost imperceptibly, following your gaze. You borrow old poetic forms (the sonnet, sestina, villanelle) and carefully builds contemporary poems within them. Using rhymes almost as echoes, your verses sound as the images they frequently evoke: mirrors, something glimmering, a frosted windowpane, glass shattering.

Yours is a deceptively declarative, impersonal voice, but one that becomes nuanced and intimate as we go through the poems.  Rather than providing us with objectivity, your poetic voice turns back on itself, on the subject who perceives and describes, and on the very process of perception. Your voice turns back and forth, seeking meaning (something to hold onto), crossing through towards a refuge that can be looked at from afar but never entered into, towards something beyond surface – and never quite arriving, never finding rest nor home.

Yours truly,


Elizabeth Bishop. Tombstones for Sale.
Elizabeth Bishop. Tombstones for Sale.

About the book

  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 287 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

3 thoughts on “Questions of displacement

    1. Thank you, Cathy! I decided to revisit her this year, too. Every time I reread one of her poems, I notice a new layer of images or meaning that I hadn’t noticed before. Her poems seem to me like Rubik’s Cubes, sometimes. 😛 If you decide to read something of hers, let me know. We could try doing a readalong – I don´t know if it works with poems, but perhaps with short stories… 🙂


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