This article was published in the Written Word supplement of the Irish Independent January 2016.
''All my life I have lived and behaved very much like [the] sandpiper—just running down the edges of different countries and continents, "looking for something" ... having spent most of my life timorously seeking for subsistence along the coastlines of the world.''
Over her 15 years on the Leaving Cert course Bishop has appeared 5 times and consistently proves a popular choice with students. Her conversational tone, eye for detail and exploration of themes such as the search for identity, coming to terms with loss and childhood memories, make her poetry very accessible for all ages, especially adolescents. She was greatly feted in her lifetime and won many distinguished accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Bishop had an incredibly tough childhood; losing her father to Bright’s disease as a baby and losing her mother to mental illness over the following few years. She was raised by relatives and inherited money that allowed her to live independently but her poetry is characterised by a longing and search for home. She also, paradoxically, greatly enjoyed travel; as Niall MacMonagle noted she: ‘preferred geography to history’, and, rather than wallowing in self-pity in her work, she tended to turn her attention outwards to study the world around her in incredible detail.
The Fish, Filling Station, The Armadillo, The Bight and At the Fishhouses all display her skillful use of this razor-sharp attention to detail. In these poems she invites the reader ‘to focus not on her but with her’ at some element of the natural or man-made world that catches her eye. In The Fish she delivers a masterclass in painting a word-picture of the ‘tremendous fish’. She recreates every inch of his ‘battered and venerable’ body, from the ‘brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper’ to ‘the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood’. She makes comparisons with ordinery domestic objects so that those of us who have never set foot in a fishing boat can see what she sees: ‘the irises backed and packed with tranished tinfoil’.
Often she is so eager to get her description right that she corrects herself in the middle of the poem: ‘It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light.’ Michael Schmidt said of her voice that it ‘affirms, hesitates, corrects itself; the image comes clear to us as it came clear to her.’ In Filling Station she puzzles over the contradictions of sight before her: ‘Do they live in the station?’ ‘Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily?’ She poses questions that occur to her in the course of her observations and then attempts to answer them: ‘Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant… Somebody loves us all.’
In the course of her travels she explored exotic locations in Europe, North Africa and South America, some of which pop up in her poems. The Armadillo details the celebration of St John’s Day (24th June) in Brazil with traditional (but illegal!) fire balloons and the havoc they inflict on the local wildlife: ‘Last night another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire against the cliff behind the house…The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.’ In The Bight she examines Garrison Bight in Key West, Florida recreating both the man-made and natural elements of the scene vividly: ‘Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar on impalpable drafts and open their tails like scissors on the curves.’
She also investigates the nature of travel itself, most memorably in Questions of Travel. This poem explores the experience of being a tourist in a foreign country, looking at waterfalls, mountains and ‘old stonework’. She wonders if tourism is really a good thing: ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres?’ or if our fantasies of exotic places are actually ruined by visiting them: ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?...Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them too?’ She celebrates the beauty of the place she is visiting and feels sad at the thought of missing out on the experience:
‘But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.’
Ultimately her ponderings bring her back to her own elusive search for home: Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?’
It was later in life when she finally felt able to write about her childhood experiences. Sestina, In the Waiting Room and First Death in Nova Scotia were all written in her 50s and explore a variety of memories from her childhood. In Sestina she chooses to use a rigid, traditional poetic form to explore probably the most difficult experience of her life; her mother’s permanent confinement in a mental hospital. It details the scene in a kitchen of a grandmother looking after her granddaughter from the perspective of the child. Superficially a warm, cosy domestic scene, the child, although sheltered from the truth, knows something is wrong and sees tears wherever she looks: ‘the child is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove.’
In all her poems Bishop maintains a slight distance from the material, the complete opposite of Sylvia Plath’s approach. While there is a little autobiography in her work she mostly acts as an objective observer. Colm Tóibín said of her: ‘She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling’ which suggests she was like a scientist in her approach, always open to learning something new. Overall her poems on the Leaving Cert course offer students a great opportunity for deep insight and huge enjoyment.