“‘Facing the Wrong Way’: Elizabeth Bishop and the French Connection”

Susan McCabe

Considering Bishop’s life-long obsession with travel and location, it is fitting that critics have gravitated to geography to make crystallizing assessments about her aesthetics. Bishop’s almost fifteen year residence in Brazil is arguably her most pivotal locale, functioning not only as impetus for recollecting her childhood losses in Great Village but as an ideal setting for developing her consciousness of “outsiderhood,” and finally for setting the stage for arguably her most significant volume, Geography III (1976).   I want to destabilize this trajectory by turning to the “French connection,” namely Bishop’s exposure in the thirties in Paris to literary and visual surrealism, namely the exemplars Arthur Rimbaud and Max Ernst.  Bishop’s surrealist impulses have been most often identified with her first volume, North & South (1946), with what Richard Mullen recognizes as its exploration of “disjunctive relations between our sleeping and waking minds, and [her] copious use of techniques of dissociaton and displacement in description.” [1]   I contend that Bishop’s exposure in France to lyric and visual surrealism can further illuminate and open up occluded aspects of her work, including her sexuality and politics. When examined together, Rimbaud and Ernst do not confirm the modernist traits of disembodiment and reticence so often ascribed to Bishop but reframe her life-long endeavors to represent her penumbral corporeality “where the shadows are really the body.” [2]

In an often quoted passage from his Second Manifesto, André Breton imagines “there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.” [3]   And he claims that there is no “other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point” (124).  Such determination “to fix” is antithetical to Bishop.   Instead her surrealism pivots upon “facing the wrong way,” a phrase from her fantastical “The Man-Moth.” [4]   She cultivates contradictions which trouble conventional notions of aesthetic representation—and with them, the assumption of cohesive identity (Rimbaud had claimed “I is someone else”). [5]   Bishop writes in 1964 to Anne Stevenson, refracting Breton’s utopian assertions:  “Dreams, works of art (some) glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (what is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important.” [6]   Bishop’s postmodern corporeality and her visual inversions hinges upon this emphasis upon the peripheral and fragmented.

Bishop is the “great poet of love’s secrecy,” exposing it often by not exposing it, writing by not writing. [7]   Dickie invokes Terry Castle’s “apparitional lesbian,” a sign in our culture for “‘the always somewhere else: in the shadows, in the margins, hidden from history.’” [8]   (We might think of the silhouetted, grieved-over body in “One Art.”)  Yet secrecy is not necessarily shame.  It also emerges from Bishop’s sense that rubbing or frottage, activities that might camouflage the immediate perception of an object, in fact discloses nuances only available through the “negative.” 

Bishop’s methods for displacing and reanimating corporeality derive in part from the influences she absorbed in France, where she spent two brief intense periods.  In her first sojourn from September 1935 to February 1936, she stayed several weeks alone in Douarnenez, a fishing village on the coast of Bretagne, reading and translating Rimbaud.  She wrote to Moore that she was translating the French poet to help discipline her writing.  As testimony to Rimbaud’s continued influence upon her, in 1961 she corrected several of Robert Lowell’s translation choices and offered “to give [him] more benefits of [her] past experience in Rimbaud-translating.” [9]   She also remarked to Lowell upon Rimbaud’s Parisian “endless wall of fog’ [that] haunts her still.” [10]   (“The Moose” cultivates a “dreamy divagation” and fogged-in meditations upon “nothing” in “The End of March.”)  Bishop was at the same time highly cognizant of Rimbaud’s acute powers of observation, much like her own literal better than 20 /20 vision.  Consider “The Sandpiper,” her semi-autobiographic bird for whom “(no detail is too small)” and whose almost painful acuity makes the world always reversible:  “The world is a mist.  And then the world is / minute and vast and clear.” [11]   Bishop, like her French predecessor, undertakes observation only through a determined, paradoxically precise, obliquity. 

Peter Nicholls describes Rimbaud in evocative terms: “[He had] ostentatious contempt for all forms of convention and authority, both in his behaviour and his writing [. . . .].   Naif, anarchist, scruffy adolescent, drug-taker, drunk, homosexual, vagrant– Rimbaud was all these things at one time or another. . .” [12]   At least half of these adjectives could identify Bishop—infamously drinking, for instance, her “grog” which she plans to “blaze” and watch “doubled in the window.” [13]   Like Rimbaud, she engaged in what he famously called a “long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.” [14]   Yet Rimbaud, hero for the surrealists, represents the bodily enactment of all that Bishop seems to withhold.  This very withholding in fact signifies her relentless risk of expected tropes so that the “shadows are really the body.”  The particular trope of the shadowy yet palpable flesh of the lover’s body has a counterpoint in visual methods, as we will see with Ernst’s frottages.

Bishop preferred Rimbaud to Baudelaire, dubbing the former the “healthier” poet; her problematic health would make his adventurous embodiment and gender fluidity appealing.  Her personas in North & South, we recall, are predominantly male, if divided.  Rimbaud writes with abandon in “Sensation”: “And I will go far, far off, like a gipsy, / Through the countryside—joyous as if I were with a woman.” [15]   In “The Drunken Boat,” at one point he “remained like a woman on her knees . . .” [16]   Finally, Bishop would have cause to feel a kinship with a poet whose ostensibly first poem “The Orhpan’s Gifts” questions: “—Is there then no mother for these small children?” [17]   The absent mother, like the absent shadowy body, haunts most every Bishop poem.

During her stay in France she studied (along with Rimbaud) Max Ernst’s “Histoire Naturelle” (1926), but by 1946, she protested: “Although many years ago I once admired one of Ernst’s albums, I believe that Miss Moore is mistaken about his ever having been an influence, [. . . . ,] I think it would be misleading to mention my name in connection with his.” [18]   Yet later in 1967 she writes: “ [. . .] ‘The Weed’ was influenced, if by anything, by a set of prints I had of Max Ernst—lost long ago—called Histoire Naturelle (something like that) in which all the plants, etc. , had been made by frottage—on wood, so the wood grain showed through.  I’m perhaps saying too much—Lota always said I did—it was much better to keep people in the dark!” [19]   Could Bishop ever by guilty of “saying too much”?  Clearly Bishop had an affinity with Ernst and his frottage method—and perhaps unconsciously acknowledges its sexual etymology.

Frottage, in brief, is the rubbing of objects under paper with pencil to defamiliarize them from their ordinary denotations, and frottage as sexual rubbing accounts for Bishop’s nearly guilty affiliation with an aesthetic technique.  Ernst describes frottage as “optical excitant of somnolent vision,” a phrase that resonates with Bishop’s willed peripheral vision as well as with Rimbuad’s call for willed hallucination; Ernst recounts how he came upon the process:

On the tenth of August, 1925 . . . finding myself one rainy evening in a seaside inn, I was struck with the obsession that showed to my excited gaze the floor-boards upon which a thousand scrubbings had deepened the grooves . . . I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead.  In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained . . . I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities, and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories. [20]

Ernst’s frottage experience is suggestive of Bishop’s obsessed investment in negative space present in her earliest published poem, “The Map” with its confusion between the textured topography of “shallows” that could be “shadows,” with one linguistic slip.  And while Ernst’s account replicates Bishop’s close scrutiny of objects until they lose their familiar boundaries, her stirring up of contradiction, it is the reference to “amorous memories” that seems, at least at first sight, highly un-Bishopic.  Yet by reading Rimbaud through a kind of textual rubbing, frottage takes on for me a metaphoric function: Rimbaud acts as the bodily “negative” to Bishop’s apparently disembodied voice.  (Armour retranscribes as amour.)  “One Art,” for instance, encloses in protective parenthesis the most decisive loss recorded by the poem—her lover’s body an apparitional shudder or frisson: “(The joking voice, the gesture / I love).” [21]

Bishop’s second and last trip to France in 1937 became linked with a horrifying car accident involving her friend Margaret Miller.  Bishop had been traveling in Burgundy with Louise Crane (the driver) and Miller when they were forced off the road.  As a result of the accident, Margaret lost her arm.  This dismemberment caused Bishop major psychological grief (she would try to write a poem from the point of the view of the arm for many years): her guilt (unwarranted as it was) perhaps made the lost arm synechdochal for Bishop’s earlier traumas of loss (and connection), in particular her loss of her mother to madness.  Rimbaud himself would have a leg amputated because of infection, long after he stopped writing poetry in a silence echoing Bishop’s claim that she wrote her best poetry by not writing it.  The threat to bodily integrity because of psychic pain because of psychic pain becomes a significant undercurrent in Bishop’s work.  She records some of the shock she experienced in the car accident in “Quai d’Orleans”— “we stand as still as stones” – along with the desire to forget and to be forgot:

“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
          I want to tell you,
“as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid
         of the leaves’ fossils.” [22]

This turn takes us back to Ernst, his frottage revelation at the sea-side inn, where the floorboards reveal their grain as “leaves and their veins, the ragged edges of a bit of linen.” [23]   What emerges in Bishop’s poem is the sense of being revealed by the landscape, and the discovery of her sorrows imprinted there.  This poem’s ending hints at what drew her to Ernst (and perhaps what drew her away): a pressure upon the ordinary to reveal the fossil imprint of apparitional material, startlingly clear yet blurring at the edges.  

Let me return to Rimbaud’s bodily negative, his inverted imprint upon Bishop.   To experience embodiment signifies for both Rimbaud and Bishop the concomitant threat to bodily integrity.  While written in controlled quatrains, “The Drunken Boat,” situates the speaker as lost in a sea very similar to one that threatens to drown several of Bishop’s figures.  He writes; “I no longer felt myself guided by haulers!” [24]   Swept up by unnavigatable forces, he becomes flickeringly visionary: “And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!”  The danger of shipwreck is a desired intoxicant:  “O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!”  This apostrophe prefigures Bishop’s thanatos-driven preference in “The Imaginary Iceberg” with its “scene a sailor’d give his eyes for”: “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, although it meant the end of travel.” [25]   This motif recurs in “Crusoe in England” with her male hero hallucinating in the arid landscape, drinking his “home-brew” and playing a “home-made flute” that has “the weirdest scale on earth.” [26]   As Brett Millier writes: “Studying the surrealists in France, [Bishop] would have imbibed, along with Pernod, the highly romantic notion of the artist in touch with the darkest depths of his soul, willing to suffer degradations of various kinds to experience that depth.” [27]   

Like Rimbaud, Bishop in her “little chemical garden” of “Love Lies Sleeping,” practices a “reasoned derangement,” searching for correlatives for psychic intensities.  Indeed, “Love Lies Sleeping,” engineered through deranged peripheral vision, characteristically begins with a deceptive assertion of clarity:  “From the window I see/ an immense city,” but this city turns out to have “grown / in skies of water-glass.” [28]   Her hung-over figure corporealizes what he sees:

the city grows down into his open eyes
inverted and distorted.  No. I mean
distorted and revealed,
if he sees it all.

Revelation hinges upon the chiasmus that substitutes “revealed” for “inverted”: this inverted look (with its queer resonances) recommends a peripheral vision, like the one vivified through frottage.  She practices this vision in “Vague Poem,” posthumously published (seemingly because it was “saying too much”); in it Bishop watches a crystal and “almost saw it: turning into a rose,” ultimately refracting into a desired, apparitional body: “Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal, / clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples.” [29]

Let me continue to pursue the notion of Bishop as Rimbaud’s bodily negative, his inverted imprint.  Rimbaud translates, as it were, the body in Bishop, in theses lines of “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:

And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. [30]

In this landscape Bishop’s eye sees “a holy grave” through a “keyhole-arched stone baldaquin / open to every wind from the pink desert.”  With similar “keyhole” perception, Rimbaud’s “A Dream for Winter” features “a small pink railway carriage / With blue cushions” that transports lovers in their night journey. [31]   Resurfacing in the language of “Love Lies Sleeping,” this speaker predicts: “You will close your eyes, in order not to see, through the glass, / The evening shadows making faces.” [32]   The print of a small kiss that “like a mad spider” (the sensory aftermath) allows the lover to “take a long time to find that creature/—Which travels a great deal . . .” [33]

Rimbaud strikes a swaggering pose (similar to the one in “Over 2000 Illustarations”) in “At the Caberet-Vert,” which begins in unpresuming Bishop fashion, his traveling eye resting momentarily on the sensory:

For a week my boots had been torn
By the pebbles on the roads.  I was getting into Charleroi.
—At the Caberet-Vert; I asked for bread
And butter, and for ham that would be half-chilled. [34]

Subtly, the poet’s vision transforms: “I looked at the very naïve subjects / Of the wallpaper.”  In another poem, Rimbaud rubs the image in “Old Men Sitting” into view: “Their skulls caked with vague roughness / Like the leprous flowerings of old walls.” [35]   The interest in texture resonates with Ernst as it does in Bishop’s “Sleeping on the Ceiling”: her close hallucinatory upside-down glance notes: “Below, where the wallpaper is peeling, / the Jardin des Plantes has locked its gates.” [36]   Rimbaud, legs under his green table, observes the scene transmute through the catalystic appearance of the full-breasted serving–girl who “filled [his] enormous mug with its foam / Which a late ray of sun turned gold.” [37]

“At the Caberet-Vert” is one of the poems Bishop advised Lowell about (saying she herself once translated it); she insists upon the word “late” (a word “important for the atmosphere of fatigue and peace”) which he has apparently omitted. [38]   The line signals a consciousness of time (Millier points to Bishop’s serious “trouble with the physical sensation of the passage of time”). [39]   It is also suggests the oblique, workings of light, a double consideration that infuses many poems including “Quai d’Orleans” where “light and nervous water hold / their interview,” an interview that includes her own anxious, secreted subjectivity. [40]

Bishop acknowledges that “The Weed” is inspired by Ernst, but the poem also appears to emerge out of Rimbaud’s “Sleeper in the Valley.”  This poem depicts a soldier apparently asleep, his head upon the “cool blue watercress,” in a “valley which bubbles over with rays” (think of the “late ray” of “Cabaret Vert”); we discover, in double take, that he is dead with  “two red holes” at the very end. [41]   “The Weed” likewise articulates a posthumous body: “I dreamed that dead, and meditating, / I lay upon a grave, or bed.” [42]   Registering Ernst’s influence, the poem charts the limits of vision and perseverates upon a “blank space”:

A few drops fell upon my face
And in my eyes, so I could see
(or, in that blank space, thought I saw)
that each drop contained a light

This “blank space” also bears the scenes composed within “the weed-deflected stream.”  As in “Quai d’Orleans” (or the elegy for Miller’s arm), memory becomes embodied: “(As if a river should carry all / the scenes that it had once reflected” on its “momentary surfaces.”)  The burgeoning weed only creates more contradiction, becoming a parable of phallogocentrism to mark the body as self-betraying, self-divisive sign:

The weed stood in the severed heart.
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
It lifted its head all dripping wet
(with my own thoughts?)
and answered then: “I grow,” it said,
“but to divide your heart again.”

“The Man-Moth,” one of the first of Bishop’s pantheon of split beings, hinges upon the dangers and thrills of deviant perception:  “He does not dare look out the window, / for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, / runs there beside him.” [43]   Much like the frottagist, the man-moth operates in the realm of defamiliar surfaces, hoping to find himself  “forced through” the sky’s “round clean opening” in the form of  “black scrolls of light.”  This “apparitional” figure has an eye that is “all dark pupil, / an entire night itself,” a negative space that, rather than pointing towards Breton’s fixed point beyond contradiction, affronts an Enlightenment epistemology tied to wholeness, illumination and integrity. 

All such values once more disintegrate in “Gentleman of Shalott,” a poem that presents a body split by a mirror and unsure “which side’s in or out / of the mirror.” [44]   The poem ties together several strands I have here addressed: the surrealist interest in altered states and psychic intensity (“the uncertainty / he says he/ finds exhilarating”), the play with gender instability (“that sense of constant readjustment”), the struggle with dismemberment in aesthetic and personal domains (the threat of castration present in “if the glass slips / he’s in a fix—/ only one leg, etc”), the tracing or frottaging over of a traditional text (in this case Tennyson’s.)

At the same time, we can’t help here but see the negative space traced by Margaret Miller’s arm.  In other words, our bodies are not only intensely fragile, but they embody repressed traumatic memories much in the way victims of dismemberment experience phantom limbs.  The phantom limb can also figure as the “lesbian signifier” (traumatic by virtue of its repression) in theorist Elizabeth Grosz’s terms, as “lack” that becomes productive presence through the claiming of corporeal surfaces. [45]   Rather than thinking about Bishop’s early poems as reflecting what Millier refers to as “protracted uncertainty about her sexual orientation,” [46] it operates with the postmodern insight that a body does not precede a discourse, and moreover that these terrains are not clearly distinguished or unified.  What better locus than “the French connection” and surrealist point of view to initiate life-long meditations regarding the body? 

“In the Waiting Room” looks back to this early period as it interrogates “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?” [47]   It too looks peripherally (at the National Geographic, at the waiting room hands and boots) to explore the way the body is virtually scripted through cultural imposition beyond individual control, producing for instance the synecdochic “awful hanging breasts.”  The peripheral gaze becomes a willed turning aside so as to perceive the occluded negative, so as to render a discomforting if exhilarating awareness of a fragmented corporeality.  If Rimbaud helps us see Bishop’s sensuality or her landscape as sensate (think of “The Map” where “[w]e can stroke these lovely bays, / under a glass as if they were expected to blossom”), Ernst illuminates the way Bishop’s deflected vision revels in tactile surfaces and reveals psychic burials.

 “Little Exercise,” Bishop’s poem with a series of instructions to examine what is not present and what resides in the blanks, reads: “Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of the row-boat.” [48]   Bishop combines her intensely conscious craft with a stance of willed passivity, what Ernst refers to by aligning the creator of a work with a spectator.  Bishop’s precarious unbeliever “sleeps at the top of the mast’; his dreams speak to a gull, saying “‘I must not fall. / The spangled sea below wants me to fall.’”  In “A Season in Hell,” Rimbaud confesses: “I grew accustomed to pure hallucination,” and says “farewell to the world in the form of light poems,” the first of which reads: “Song of the Highest Tower / May it come, may it come / The time we will fall in love with.” [49]   Several titles from Histoire Naturelle (the album Bishop confessed to know) should be evocative at this point: “He Will Fall Far from Here”; “She Guards Her Secret”; “Scars”; “The Origin of the Clock”; “To Forget Everything.”  Bishop’s early apparently impersonal poems when read beside Rimbaud’s and with Ernst’s frottage in mind shows them to be more readily impassioned than readers might otherwise suspect.  Like Rimbaud, Bishop has her bodily “shuddering insights,” her hallucinations, her reckless plummetings. [50]


[1] “Elizabeth Bishop’s Surrealist Inheritance,” American Literature 54 (March 1982): 64

[2] Bishop.  “Insomnia” in The Complete Poems 1927-79 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983) 70. 

[3] André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Hen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michgan Press, 1969) 123.

[4] The Complete Poems 14.

[5] Rimbaud, “To Georges Izambard” in Complete Works, Selected Letters.  Trans. Wallace Fowlie.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963) 305.

[6] Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil Estess, ed. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969) 123.

[7] Margaret Dickie, Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997) 82.

[8] Ibid. 82.

[9] Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1993) 337.

[10] Robert Giroux, ed.  One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) 396.

[11] Complete Poems 131.

[12] Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 27.

[13] “The End of March,” Complete Poems 179-80.

[14] Rimbaud, “To Georges Izambard” in Complete Works 307.

[15] Ibid. 17.

[16] Ibid. 115.

[17] Ibid. 11.

[18] Letters 135.

[19] Ibid. 478.

[20] Max Ernst, “Surrealist Situation of the Object” in the Manifestoes of Surrealism 276.

[21] Complete Poems 178.

[22] Ibid. 28.

[23] Ernst, “Surrealist Situation of the Object,” 276.

[24] Complete Works 115-119.

[25] Complete Poems 4.

[26] Ibid. 164.

[27] Life and the Memory of It 152-3.

[28] Complete Poems 17.

[29] “Vague Poem,” unpublished poem from Bishop Collections, Vassar College Library.

[30] Complete Poems 58.

[31] Complete Letters 57.

[32] Ibid. 57.

[33] Ibid. 57.

[34] Ibid. 59.

[35] Ibid. 65.

[36] Complete Poems 29.

[37] Completle Poems 59.

[38] Letters 395.

[39] Life and the Memory of It 150.

[40] Complete Poems 28.

[41] Complete Works 57.

[42] Ibid. 20-1.

[43] Complete Poems 15.

[44] Ibid. 9.

[45] Grosz “Refiguring Lesbian Desire” in Space, Time and Perversion (New York: Routledge 1995) 175.

[46] Life and the Memory of It 101.

[47] Complete Poems 161.

[48] Complete Poems 41.

[49] Complete Poems 196.

[50] “The Prodigal” in Complete Poems 71.

Bio: Susan McCabe is an assistant professor at University of Southern California.  Her book on Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss was published by Penn State Press in 1994.  She has published poems in journals including Volt, Fence, Barrow Street and Colorado Review.  Currently, she is completing a study of modern poetry and avant-garde film.

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