On "Crusoe in England"
In Elizabeth Bishop's bizarre, sly, deceptively plainspoken late poem "Crusoe in England," the famous solitary looks back on his life near its end, recalling his isolation and rescue in ways deeper and more unsettling than Defoe could have dreamed. After painting the hallucinatory, vivid island, with hissing volcanoes and hissing giant turtles--an unforgettable terrain--Bishop's Crusoe muses on the dried-out, wan relics of a life.
From The New Republic (1979)
Joanne Fiet Diehl (1990)
In one of her few public statements on the relation of gender to writing, Bishop commented, "Womens experiences are much more limited, but that does not really matter there is Emily Dickinson, as one always says. You just have to make do with what you have after all" (from page 1: "Elizabeth Bishop Speaks About Her Poetry," New Paper). For Bishop, making do meant a life of daring exploration and an intense dedication to craft the sustained development of a style of straightforward effacement that coupled indirection with the plainness of speech. The guise of the traveler, the voice of the child, and the testimonies of grotesque, liminal creatures all convey experience profoundly felt and obliquely expressed. Different as these voices are, each carries a quality of existential displacement that restricts as it imagines the possibilities of human relationship.
In "Crusoe in England," Bishops most extreme poetic instance of gender-crossing fused with eroticism, the practical, stranded voyager with his laconic voice becomes the spokesman for feelings of great intimacy, fear of maternity, and the pain of separation and loss. Here the voice of the isolated man most clearly articultaes Bishops terrain of difference, for Crusoes hardship is related as much to the claustrophobia of entrapment within an obsessive imagination as it is to the physical conditions of the island. (As John Hollander observes, "The very island is an exemplar, a representation; it is a place which stands for the life lived on it as much as it supports that life. Its unique species are emblems of the selfhood that the whole region distills and enforces and on it, life and word and art are one, and the homemade Dionysos is [rather than blesses from without or within] his votary ["Elizabeth Bishops Mappings of Life," 1983, p. 250.) Loneliness finds its projection in a violent, aggressive landscape where volcanoes heads are "blown off" and the "parched throats" of craters are "hot to touch," an island hissing with aridity and the replication of barren life.
From Joanne Fiet Diehl, "Elizabeth Bishops Sexual Politics" (from Women Poets and the American Sublime, Indiana University Press, 1990), rpt. in Elizabeth Bishop: The Politics of Gender, ed. Marilyn May Lombardi (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 19-20.
Lacking the belief that there is a divine dispensation with which her own disposition might finally harmonize, she exposes irresolvable psychological conflicts, dubieties, gaps or ironies. In her longest and most ambitious poem, "Crusoe in England," for example, she evokes the uneasy relationship between self and other, delineating this familiar conflict in complicated terms. In one way, the objective world is Crusoe's island on which he is a sort of Adam, ascribing meanings and names. In another way, the volcanic island itself (meager and sustaining, boring and interesting, resented and cherished) becomes the inner, subjective world of the "single human soul," and England, to which Crusoe returns, becomes the other world, out there. Among other things, this poem is about social and antisocial impulses--those forces of affiliation and autonomy that clashed in "In the Waiting Room." On his island, "a sort of cloud-dump" where there is just "one kind of everything," Crusoe does not feel a Wordsworthian "bliss of solitude." On the one hand, he dreams "of food/and love," and when Friday finally arrives (still "one kind," one gender), he wishes for sexual union and procreation:
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
On the other hand, Crusoe has dreams that suggest violent, antisocial impulses and anxiety about generation, endless reproduction:
... But then I'd dream of things
like slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I'd have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands ...
(The passage, of course, evokes the anxieties and fatigues of artistic as well as biological generation.) Here and elsewhere in her poetry, Bishop reinforces complexity of view by using the psychoanalytically aware trick of sound association to effect a sort of dreamlike double take: "baby's throat . . . baby goat."
From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.
Bethany Hicok (1999)
Loss is registered in the person of Friday. Cruysoe took Friday "home" to England, and he died there. Certainly a tenuous connection can be made here, as [Lorrie] Goldensohn does, between Fridays death and [Bishops Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo] Soares suicide, but leaving it there would ignore some of the complexity of her idea of "home." Her "home" in Brazil with Soares was perhaps the closest Bishop ever got to a sense of real belonging, and yet when she and Soares broke up, she found it more and more difficult to make a life there. Soares was her "home" in Brazil. Not the country itself or the house she had bought, however much she tried to make it so. Much like Crusoe in Defoes account, Crusoe in Bishop finds a sense of purpose, of "home," when Friday arrives. The original title of the poem was "Crusoe at Home" (see Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It [Berkeley, U California P, 1993], p. 366), which suggests that Bishop had initially thought of the poem in terms of an investigation of Crusoes relationship to the idea of "home," or at least an ironic commentary on ideas of "home."
In "Cruse in England," as in many of Bishops stories and poems, we are presented with a circumscribed world in which a lonely individual or a societal misfit contacts another like himself and for a brief period finds a home. The circumscribed world of the island, like the prison, the boarding house or the communal house in [Bishops early story] "Then Came the Poor," represents a landscape in which the poet, the woman, the orphan, or the lesbian can contact others like herself and form a community. Crusoes phrase "I wanted to propagate my kind" cannot be interpreted simply as an expression of the biological urge of a childless poet to have children. Spoken by a character created by a lesbian poet wise to the homoeroticism of Defoes original text, Crusoes statement becomes a challenge to the biological determinism that hindered the careers of literary women of Bishops generation. Crusoes statement refers not simply to reproductive power but to productive power the power to write, to influence future generations and to build community.
From Bethany Hicok, "Elizabeth Bishops Queer Birds: Vassar, Con Spirito, and the Romance of Female Community, Contemporary Literature 40:2 (Summer 1999), 306, 307.
Joanne Feit Diehl
If "In the Village" sketches a psychically successful journey from mourning to reparation, "Crusoe in England" delineates a similar trajectory with a more somber outcome. Like "In the Village," "Crusoe in England" describes a site of loss, but here invention, while it can temporarily stave off loneliness cannot survive the return home. What constitutes the difference between the losses suffered in the story and poem is that Bishop, while she can constitute a world of meanings where human craft conspires with nature to create a safe haven for art, cannot constitute a world of sustained human relationships. Friday's loss proves irreparable because in this poem of unreconciled mourning, no other object comes to take his place. The haunting singularity that marks Crusoe's island speaks to Friday's reality as well, for he can neither be forgotten nor replaced. Reparation here would mean the internalization of Friday into the self and substitution for him in the external world. But neither internalization nor substitution occurs; instead Crusoe is left at home with loss. That "In the Village" should represent a more successful mourning process, that here reparation should discover itself in art, reveals the efficacy of Bishop's transformation of feelings from the lost mother to the regenerative father, from the world of women to the craft of men. The scream, if it is stilled, loses its power, as I have suggested, through the force of an alternative collaboration of male-identified reality and the natural sphere. Whereas the narrator in "Crusoe in England" assumes a male persona, that of Crusoe himself, and while what is mourned is therefore a homoerotic relationship, the masculinized provenance does not save the loss from being irreparable. What remains with Crusoe is the fact of Friday's death which echoes with all the plangency of sorrow. On the other hand, what both "Crusoe in England" and "In the Village" attest to is the importance of the process of mourning for Bishop. Our sense of ourselves and of the world comes, object-relations theorists would argue, from that earliest originary relationship of the infant-mother dyad. If, as in Bishop's case, that relationship is marked by disruption and abandonment, is it any wonder that all the inventiveness in Crusoe's possession cannot redress his subsequent loss? If the power of art to find reparation through mourning exists in Bishop, it may be found in the merger of a male-identified craft and attentiveness to the external world, for it is here, amidst the assurance of such an alternative place, that Bishop discovers the power that mitigates grief.
from Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity. Copyright © 1993 by Princeton UP.
C. K. Doreski
In the course of this dramatic monologue, Bishop disrupts generic expectations and traditions, reveals the child's vision behind the weary recollections of an aged exile, and locates the human bond in the very inadequacy of language. The voice of this poem argues that all knowledge, finally, is incomplete, and consists not of ends but of paths, processes, maps, ways. "Crusoe in England" provides the threshold to "One Art," an elegy for Bishop's attempt to grasp and possess her world through poetic achievement.
Adopting the voice of a male exile and refusing the privileges of autobiography, risking the glaze of distance Lowell noted in Browning's monologues, Bishop paradoxically heightens the immediacy of her "Crusoe" with a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe's fictional exile but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness. The monologue seems the ideal form to tell the story of a prototype of Melville's isolatoes, since it enables Bishop to provide a maplike form of a life without adhering to disruptive chronology. The meanderings of the individual mind, a twentieth-century idea of a literary model, lends a degree of authenticity that owes more to Joyce and Freud than to Defoe or Melville. "Crusoe" assumes the appearance without run- ning the risks of an autobiography by ordering its experience into what Robert Lowell in an interview describes as "a shape that answers better than mere continuous experience."
Though the progenitive tale (Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ) posits a Christian context for the exile (and in some respects retains a Miltonic world-view for its sense of education and redemption), "Crusoe in England" discards all dogma while retaining the skeleton of the saintly and prophetic wilderness-quest. Bishop's poem might be considered an "education of the exile" poem, but it does not equate the return to civilization with salvation. Crusoe, after all, was exiled into, not out of, paradise. Unlike its fictional counterpart, the poem tells us nothing about this Crusoe's prior lifeexcept that it began in England. The emotional intensity, viewed retrospectively, of the relationship with Friday indicates the most important respect in which the Bishop poem extends Defoes character.
[. . . .]
The landscape seems familiar; yet this volcanic wasteland is "dead as ash heaps." The colonial appropriators, or namers, are no longer in the characters of Osa and Martin Johnson; they have coalesced into the discovering and naming country itself: England. Decidedly postlapsarian, Crusoe both remembers and re-enacts that ahistorical, asocial moment of genuine love in exile. . . . Crusoe, like Lowell, comes with his attendant significancehis fictive and historical authority. In spite of that burden, however, he shrugs off his social (i.e., linguistic) inheritance as irrelevant and inaccurate. Seemingly revisiting in memory the landscape of the National Geographic of "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe dismisses everything the child struggled to acquire. Orality and literacy fail to capture the essence of his life, which remains "un-rediscovered, un-renamable." The authorial gesture of the poem depends upon the exasperation that "None of the books has ever got it right." Like Ishmael, Crusoe knows that "true" places remain unnamed.
From Crusoe's perspective, to acknowledge the shock of "waiting room" recognition is to acquiesce to the failure of language to identify. The core of the poem, preceded by the weary "Well," charts the encumbrance of language in a solitary world. Relative scale ("I'd think that if they were the size / I thought volcanoes should be, then I had / become a giant"), proper names, aesthetics, categories of all kinds ring false in this underpopulated landscape of "one kind of everything." Here the distinctions between ignorance and understanding, error and truth seem impossible to ascertain. Who would appreciate the act of delimiting that naming reflects? The landscape seems fated to the same oblivion as language as Bishop echoes "The Map" (where "The names of the seashore towns run out to sea") in the volcanic landscape (where "The folds of Java, running out to sea, / would hiss").
Like the speaker in John Clare's "I Am," Crusoe, too, is a "self-consumer of [his] woes." Even in isolation this must be given a name and a circumstance: "'Pity should begin at home.' So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." Crusoe resorts to this colloquy with himself to externalize and verify the overwhelmingly interior sensation of pity. The physical remove becomes palpable as he conjectures: "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" [my emphasis] Crusoe confesses his humanity through by naming his emotion. For as D. H. Lawrence asserts in his own "Self-Pity": "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself. " Locating his emotion in language denies Crusoe the spontaneity or wildness of the animal world.
Incapable of "looking up" that which he does not possess, Crusoe abides by the asocial strictures of solitude. An air of unreality pervades the intense reality of this itemized landscape. Like the waiting-room child, Crusoe "reads" the landscape and attempts to place through names its inhabitants. His solitary word games seek to defeat "the questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies / over a ground of hissing rain": "Mont dEspoir or Mount Despair / (I'd time enough to play with names)," but serve only to sound off: Names are rendered meaningless. Knowledge and language as social acts become nightmarish anachronisms:
. . . . I'd have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine . . .
..knowing that I had to live
on each and everyone, eventually.
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.
Such occupational investments in local identity terrify the stranded character. As the waiting-room child discovered, even local geography requires an audience to render the significance fixed.
The eight-stanza terror of the societyless residence is peremptorily displaced by Crusoe's recollection of Friday. While language seems to have outlived its usefulness, Crusoe nonetheless fixes his "other" with a socially significant temporal marker: he names "Friday." Even as Crusoe details the effect of this new society, the impoverishment of language is complete. Declaring parenthetically that "Accounts of [Friday's arrival] have everything all wrong," he fails to meet the demands of language. Friday is "nice" and "pretty"; they were "friends." Stripped of a linguistic interface, Crusoe appears to have met the private, unmediated demands of a relationship shared with but one. Language cannot intervene.
The authorial impulse to give memory a name by converting it into history is a commemorative one. With Friday's deathdate comes the intrusive, factual markerfixing in time the moment recalled, begging to be named. Crusoe's/Bishop's public and private artifacts seem destined for the Temple of the Muses: "The local museum's asked me to /leave everything to them." The human experiences of love and desperation coalesce about the devitalized remains: "the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes." Like Yeats's "Old iron, old bones, old rags," the island artifacts sit unre-discoverable and unrenameable. In questioning the value of this hopelessly romantic, Emersonian art of naming, Crusoe challenges the public appropriation of named things even as he recollects the private bonding of language to love:
How can anyone want such things?
And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.
Unable to thwart the named order of thingsnames, dates, countries, diseasesCrusoe can only recall a time when the world was unnameable but "nice." Readers of Stevens will recognize both place and question: "These external regions, what do we fill them with / Except reflections, the escapades of death."
Commentators have made much of the strangeness of the landscape of Crusoe's island; it echoes Melville's Encantadas, Darwin's descriptions of the Galapagos Islands, and Bishop's own vacation notes of a trip to Aruba. Developing the rich traditions of travel literature and playing against those garden poems that place a green shade against a contaminated world, Bishop extends a distinct tradition in the terms of the American pastoral.
From Natty and Chingachgook to Huck and Jim, and Ishmael and Queequeg, American couples have found adventure and purpose in the wilderness. Crusoe, like his literary ancestors and descendants, leaves the green shade of England, suffers a period of trial and uncertainty, but finds life in that incomprehensible world of that other island. The American pastoral illustrates the impossibility of lingering in the primitive world; the imperatives of human intelligence forbid it. In Crusoe's narrative, however, exterior forces, not his or Friday's intelligence or will, foster the return to civilized values. They perish, as a couple in mutual exile, when they are saved (Friday in fact literally dies of civilization in the form of measles). If Bishop intended to invoke the garden genre when she placed Crusoe once again on the barren volcanic island, she did so to emphasize the growth of Crusoe himself. Only one kind of creature flourishes when planted there, the human kind. Rather than functioning as a garden of humanity, however, a site of the creation myth, the island bears the impress of only one other individual, Friday, whose sex fails to complement Crusoe's.
From the opening stanza, Bishop is concerned not merely with the boundaries of communicationaccounts, registers, books, poems, names, sayings, readingbut with the dependence of all these on social interaction, a human context. What meaning can a name have when there is no one with whom to share its significance? Books previously read show no signs of assisting Crusoe in this island world: "The books / I'd read were full of blanks." All degrees of order seem suspect: Crusoe finds joy and music in his homemade flute in spite of its weird scale, but he relinquishes his hold on language; words belong elsewhere.
The cacophony of baa, shriek, hiss reiterates the unimportance of embellished utterance. On this island, necessity dictates: The gut speaks. Yet Crusoe yearns for reciprocity. His insularity prompts a malignant introversion; dreams playoff his daylight fears. Soon he understands his solitary state in the human enterprise as not merely a term of exile, but forever.
The ultimate erasure of language occurs at the moment of intimate resolution of the state of exile:
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong. )
After the nightmarish threat of intellectual pedantry throughout eternity, Crusoe surrenders his civilization. His need for contact with his own kind confounds his emotional grasp of the state of exile. Ordinary language, the language of accounts, cannot grasp the utter disruption of Crusoe's established emotional state triggered by the direct physical confrontation with a healthy otherness; in retrospect, unable to conjure a more emotive language, Crusoe can only confess that
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
Yet the effect of this apparent failure of rhetorical prowess is to reiterate the original emotional value of these simple words. If language preserved itself for occasions of significance (as this encounter suggests), the apparent numbness of the cliché dissipates. With casual, offhand language, Bishop deliberately cloaks the interiority of this relationship. Unlike Defoe, who immediately establishes Crusoe and Friday as a hierarchical master-servant relationship, Bishop fosters the immediate equality of friendship. She has chosen to approximate the "infant sight" of original relationship with these deliberately disposable words, but in doing so she raises the issue of dramatic plausibility. Can it be that the Crusoe who is so able to recount and register his world and experiences alone is unable to articulate beyond these vague utterances the details of his saving relationship with Friday? Or is the subtle linguistic argument intended to be his own?
Judging the appropriateness of Crusoe's superficial recall re- quires examining the coda with some care. In examining his life in terms of the physical artifacts, one of the questions Crusoe must resolve is whether his narrative is the stuff of poetry. The problem seems less one of an inability to express (surely Bishop does not intend these items to serve as objective correlatives) than one pertaining to a sense of decorum. A stern aesthetic forbids the inclusion of tropes of sentimentality or, worse, formless abstraction. An effective narrative must derive its power from Bishop's ability to indicate the absence of sentiment and analysis and allow unspoken and aesthetically unspeakable language to reveal itself under erasure, taking form from the reader's, rather than Crusoe's or Bishop's, experience of mind and soul. Surely this degree of verbal intimacy is the keenest possible between the reader and poet.
Like Stevens's "The Man on the Dump," Crusoe's task is to invent a language, however primal or trite, of self-definition. As he beats on his lard pail on his island dump, he sounds the idioms of exhaustion, a language of despair. The world consists of debris, the island a "cloud-dump" with "left-over clouds." Even the water becomes dusty and vaguely landlike as the waterspouts are "scuffed-up white." The one tree, "a sooty-scrub affair," tropes on the futility of attempting to inhabit this burned-over district; credible living occurs elsewhere. In spite of the episodes of home crafts and simple pleasures,
The island remains a prehistoric site until Friday comes. Except for this brief respite of human contact and concern, the spirit of this life, as Crusoe recalls it, has "petered out" and "dribbled away." Finally the boredom of the other, home islandEngland, a real, yet uninteresting worldhas corrupted the tongue, which has forgotten how to name the self-sufficiency that must have sustained Crusoe for many years by himself. The closure lacks the predictable and decisive trope of failure, resignation, or self- affirmation. Instead, the rhetoric seems exhausted, and trickles away. From this casual idiom of depletion, which dictates the tone and register of diction of the entire poem, derives the quiet authority of Crusoe's voice.
Framed and punctuated by figurations of experience (the knife-icon, the winemaking. the flute), the internal colloquy assumes a privileged stance, rhetorically empowered by the authority of the central trope of the romance, the quest into the wilderness for knowledge. Surrounded by stanzas devoted to the habitat and to seemingly minor occurrences, the dialogic meditations achieve a fresh radiance, despite their negative tone. Apparently at one time crushed by loneliness, Crusoe reflects on the fragility of the ego and its unease with the naked self:
The picture of Crusoe under the "cloud-dump" with his legs dangling "over a craters edge" mocks the conventional sublimity of Keats's Titans in Hyperion. Contemplating the familiar abyss after the implied self-correction of "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?"Crusoe rises above self-absorption, rallying with "Pity should begin at home." The aged narrator, however, requires a retrospective amendment: "So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." If there is more than a hint of the postlapsarian world in this poem (however genuine the direct observations of the landscapes are), it rests in its godless self-mockery. Bishop allows the preposition about to carry the weight of the questioning line, "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" Canceling the expected with, she turns to its abrupt cousin in the hope of suggesting a problem of view, one surrounded by the dislocations of self-pity. Though Crusoe returns to pity, his crater-colloquy has broadened his horizons.
Melville generates a similarly humane and humorous self- pitying, self-interrogation in the first chapter of Moby-Dick. For both Ishmael and Crusoe an unnamable lack of ease triggers interior, meditative voyages. Ishmael at home, like Crusoe, would die of boredom, but being at the beginning of his book he still enjoys the opportunity of an actual if also allegorical voyage. Crusoe has no such option, and his epic is too brief even to recover the original journey. The poem offers glimpses but no sustained history; even those glimpses assume a meditative, lyric concentration, inimical to narrative flow, when the simple past tense yields occasionally to the spirited, ever-present participles: "the overlapping rollers / a glittering hexagon of rollers / closing and closing in"; the waterspouts "advancing and retreating"; the "hissing, ambulating turtles"; the "spawning," the "knowing," the "registering" of this island existence. The initial voyage and the shipwreck are prehistory. The world-weary Crusoe suggests through the indirection of selective recall that finally the sustaining aspects of island life were not the memory of his previous life but the unreal (surreal) and interesting (unexpected) features of everyday life as an exile. The relics, in the end, fail to sustain even that limited need to reflect upon the past:
That need for connections, a gaze returned, also occurs in the final meditative section of "At the Fishhouses." The recognition of shared experience through the fetishized artifacts confirms the historical validity of the reconstructed self. Strange that Bishop would confer upon the animal and inanimate worlds these powers of correspondence; but the auditory associations of "Clang!" and the "scream" of the village, the crazy-quilt and Aunt Mary's doll of Gwendolyn, the almanac of "Sestina" demonstrate how central the single isolated notes are to Bishop's recollections. With these she conjures up entire lifetimes.
"Crusoe in England" retrieves those poems of childhood that seek to situate the child in her own skin and in society, and anticipates (though chronologically succeeding) the landscape poems of the marginal observer of the sea and its shore. Born into the new world naked, a type of the first inhabitant of Bishop's world, Crusoe must first discover his self-identity and then proceed to a relational awareness through his mastery of a sufficient language. With his unsatisfying but undeniable success Crusoe supplies answers to Bishop's seemingly rhetorical questions of travel:
["Questions of Travel," lines 13-20]
What better way to rediscover one's self through self-education and the schooling of survival? In this island wilderness-garden, lacking community and rejecting history, Crusoe determines and defines home as a viable point of view. In retrospect, he could answer that final question of travel: "Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" The lyric self emerging from the structuring landscape bares a soul linked to this world (this "surrealism of everyday life") while it claims the metaphor of creation and declares itself the finite I AM, only to discover, immediately, that existence is merely one more figure of speech.
As he recalls the new world of his exile, Crusoe lingers lovingly on significant moments of discovery and learning, despair and delight. Like the account of the conquistador tourists of "Brazil, January 1, 1502," this narrative weaves together the languages of metaphysical doubt, discovery, the domestic world, art and artifact, intimacies and geography. It is also an allegory of birth, of entry into the "historical, flowing, and flown." Avoiding the multiple identities of poems like "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe commits himself to no one, not even to his exiled but integrated self. Yet very much like the child's awareness, this moment of relative security purges the tide of self-pity long enough to allow Crusoe to see the world as something other than a self-reflection.
The memento mori framing of the poem contains its undelineated history as firmly as the National Geographic with its "yellow margins, the date" binds the experience of the waiting room. Between the newspaper account of the volcano's birth and the death of Friday occurs the empowering moment of Crusoe's meditation. These two historical events frame a highly conventionalized world of chronological connections ("Everything connected by 'and' and 'and"'), the calendar and habitat of the quotidian. Unlike Defoe's protagonist (whose moves kept time with England), Crusoe seeks to escape his historical frame and enter another dimension to form an ahistorical life. Told entirely in retrospect, his tale leaves enormous narrative gaps. Crusoe has identified the parentheses of his interior life, and leaves them vacant. He recalls his life as a series of poses vying for attention as the formative or empowering one, a series of moments that erupt, like volcanoes, from the surrounding historical matrix. In recall, chronology yields to lyric and meditative conventions of aporia, indirection, and unexpected juxtaposition.
To see the larger dimensions of Crusoe's self-construction requires a sense of its beginnings. Only knowledge of the "old," "bored" Crusoe of pre-Friday exile can account for the force-field of emotion and experience that follows. By the time of recounting, his life's blood"that archipelago / has petered out"; the edge of survival "has dribbled away." Even as we see the life materialize, it fades. The reminiscence turned elegy serves primarily to measure the time from Crusoe's release from the island to his figurative death, coincident with Friday's actual one.
To account for himself, Crusoe feels obligated to place his narrative on the terra firma of a particular but peculiar nature. Despite its solid foundation, the scale is disturbing. The puniness of the volcanoes proves unsettling. Deprived of relational certainties, the exile wanders alert yet unknowing. He can judge a place or situation only in relation to the human community, but here there is none. Like Gulliver, Crusoe finds the landscape unsound because disproportioned. Like Alice, he wonders whether he has grown large or the world has grown small. Crusoe would have benefited from a glimpse of those "shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots" of the waiting room; at least he could have gauged his size.
The panoramic overview gives way to a another dislocating exercise in scale and perspective. Crusoe sees his island in active relation to the sea and sky. Whereas the landscape at first seemed detailed but remote, it now challenges Crusoe's sense of reality. Empiricism fails him. Why the parched craters when it continually rains? Why the constant geologic unease? Why the lack of clear distinction between organic and inorganic forms?
The folds of lava, running out to sea.
would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove
to be more turtles.
Bishop has often returned to the opaque surface of the sea to meditate upon the otherness of the natural world. Always before the ocean has functioned as a restorative trope of otherness; in its difference, its refusal of form, its marbled, restless surfaces, lay its soothing effects. In Crusoe's perverse island landscape, however, the sea relinquishes its primary role, and the land assumes the trope of otherness. Even the waterspouts are land-based, which may explain their flirtatious peculiarities:
And I had waterspouts. Oh,
half a dozen at a time, far out.
they'd come and go, advancing and retreating,
their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
of scuffed-up white.
Even these liquid funnels, which should have been beautiful, are disheveled. In spite being lovely "sacerdotal beings of glass" the funnels spout like chimneys. Crusoe's perception refuses the consolations of romantic languages of the sublime and the picturesque. Though risen from the "cloud-dump," his voice drops suddenly into the despair of isolation: "Beautiful, yes, but not much company." This first mention of human companionship forces reconsideration of those recalled human images: the war-torn, anthropomorphized landscape of volcanoes "with their heads blown off ," and craters with "their parched throats."
The landscape shrinks to the metaphorical "craters edge." Not that the lip of the abyss fails in significance, but rather it lacks specificity. From the precariously weighted "company" of the previous stanza (curiously intimate in its naked closure), Bishop withdraws to the public interior, the realm of literary metaphysical speculation and psychological brinkmanship. In spite of the surface, this stanza shields the grieving survivor from prying eyes. Yet the final aside"So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home"provides the only clue to life before the wreck. Why would pity of all emotional responses evoke memories of "home"? Bishop invents what appears to be one more casual cliché ("to feel at home") in order to fend off while disclosing a wound. "Company" and "home," however, prompt a retreat into the language of displacement and wilderness.
Unlike his eighteenth-century ancestor, Crusoe savors the moment, feeling no need to mark time. At least that is what the returned exile would have us believe from his timeless chronicle. What remains are formal moments sutured by the silence of a life lived and remembered. Each episode confronts a different issue of estrangement and isolation. As if to elude the monotony described"The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun / rose from the sea"Crusoe turns to a distillation of his experience with his description of the homely tasks of winemaking and the subsequent drunken flute playing.
The Dionysian ritual mimics the "untidy activity" of "The Bight." Survival requires sustenance and amusement; this moment of giddy inebriation begins the tug of war for recovery. Even intoxication on berry wine ("the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff / that went straight to my head"), however, cannot force the obvious answer to the seemingly rhetorical "Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" This rambunctious but momentary stay against despair collapses in another introspective view:
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries.
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.
Unlike the figurative hang "over a crater's edge," this all-too-literal slump prompts a return to an early problem. the reason in fact for this narrative: "None of the books has ever got it right." From the start the poem has promised a corrective by one who knows, the traveler.
But he lacks audience-awareness. His poem begins in medias res; not only do the stanza breaks inhibit dramatic, completion, but the speaker neglects to match his key answer"Because I didn't know enough"with its unsounded "why?" Knowledge failed Crusoe long before his exile. The apparently random disciplines, Greek drama and astronomy, forge associative links with Crusoe's Bacchanalia and his persistent attempts to distinguish himself from the surrounding particulars. The unswerving particularity of the previous inventory scene crumbles into the drifts of snail shells about to become Wordsworthian iris beds. Inaccessibility, unexpectedly coupled with the inappropriateness of his book knowledge, allows Crusoe to associate the "bliss of solitude" to the other island, the one he cannot reach.
If books fail, perhaps salvation will arise from tropes of the elemental or excremental. The sounds and aromas of the gull and goat population impress upon Crusoe his difference from the native inhabitants; enough so that upon recall, at a lifetime's remove, Crusoe still "can't shake / them from [his] ears." He recalls an encounter with this population as a chance to assert his difference, his humanity and imagination:
Real and somewhere counter the otherness of this experience. How can these creatures be so at home on this burned-over island? Driven by boredom, Crusoe dyes a baby goat to force him into exile:
Displacing his feelings of strangeness upon the natural world by isolating the kid from its mother is Crusoe's ultimate retaliation, but it is a pathetic, cruel, and childish one.
Crippled by the boredom and uncanniness of the island, Crusoe must find another perspective to relieve the two-dimensionality of this scene; he chooses dreams. Within this sleep-tossed state, appetites surface, demanding to be satisfied. Stranded on the surface, Crusoe stands unable to relinquish or nourish his interior needs. How like the child's "immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness" is Crusoe's
The cry sounds the note of the condemned man, sentenced to endless, isolated, and isolating pointless endeavor. The nightmarish term makes the catechistic epigraph to Geography III ring prophetic. The lessons of geography prevail, the surface of the planet asserts its role as dominant trope.
The convulsions of the past nine verse-paragraphs spillover into:
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
Geographically and psychologically confined, Crusoe has withdrawn to the smallest temporal measurement. All knowledgesituational, personal, investigative, remembered, elemental, physical, irrationalhas proven incomplete, insufficient to alleviate isolation. As if to underscore this painful insight, Crusoe parenthetically stresses that "(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)" This dismissal of Defoe's account of master-servant meeting for religious training not only sounds a corrective to the eighteenth-century tract, but it also denies this stanza the psychological and emotional embellishments that would satisfy the conventional social and readerly expectations. After toying with the unnourishing words nice and friends Bishop underscores all ambiguities with one of her famous conditionals; "If only he had been a woman!" Just as Crusoe and Friday have become a male-bonded couple, Bishop separates them by pointing to their basic incompatibility in terms of the requirements of the domestic world:
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
Friday does, however, supply the missing link between Crusoe and the uninviting landscape. Indeed, he becomes the bridge to Crusoe's humanity. In his sheer physicality, Friday stands as the ideal foil to the introspective gloom. Unlike the alien voice of "Manuelzinho," voicing sorrowing amusement but incomprehension, Crusoe knows the significance of this encounter. Unlike the earlier spectator, Crusoe means no condescension when he recalls: "Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body." The role of admiring and loving white man resurfaces one more time. Perhaps Melville offers the shrewdest and funniest episode in such "savage" schooling; Ishmael tells of his waking sensations:
Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.
Ishmael admires the animal (natural) physicality of this pagan cannibal. Like Friday, Queequeg becomes more than a male; he reaches into the natural unknown. He bridges that gap in which "The Moose" remain a visual standoff. Like the earlier "friendships" in American literatureLeatherstocking traveling "far towards the setting sun," Huck planning to "light out for the territory ahead of the rest"these interior relationships thrive away from civilization, off the page.
Unlike its prose ancestors, "Crusoe in England" lacks the pages of narrative that would supply, conceal, and complete a relationship. It depends rather on the lyric strategies of compression and surprise. Not only does Bishop cloak the relationship with seemingly cast-off diction"nice," "friends," "pretty"but details the core of the lengthy tale in eleven lines. The stanza must bear the weight of the attempted and canceled antecedent perspectives, allowing the echoing "pretty" of the final line to multiply the images recalled. Though avoiding scandalous intimacy, the poem suggests a need for resolution of this new dimension, this superficial core. Just as a new passage is found, the poem adroitly avoids closure:
And then one day they came and took us off.
Now I live here, another island,
that doesnt seem like one, but who decides?
With a single line, Bishop erases an established life and substitutes the weighted present, allowing both deletion and articulation to stand. An entire history collapses into a sentence, and Crusoe reestablishes the historical, chronological frame, abandoning established formal considerations. The abruptness of the intrusive And telescopes narrative elements into staging devices. Only in retrospect does it become clear that them and us, then and now form the lyric hinges of the poem, the rhetorical elements that defer narrative in favor of lyric or meditative strategies. The isolation on a physical island has been replaced by the random, careless existential interior remove. Caught between the real and uninteresting of this other island, made so because of the postmortem realities, Crusoe can confer but a visual benediction on those treasured relics of a life. Reticent to handle his memorabilia, he whispers, "My eyes rest on it and pass on."
Though this withdrawal effects perspective, the deferred historicism requires closure. To rebuke the historicism, Bishop details the interment of the dry, lifeless artifacts, shorn of utility significance. All that's left is to tag and display them:
The echoing still carries the weight of this reminiscence and linguisically transforms living memories to a nature morte, museum artifacts. The narrative of the larger world continues, sometimes violently (as indicated by the volcanic eruption), but Crusoe, looking at his life as if it were a completed work of art, has in effect abandoned the present-tense and consigned the world of experience to memory. If he forswore life "seventeen years ago come March," then how can the poem retrieve the originating spark of this tale? The closure of the poem conceals or reveals its originating image, shelved and in Crusoe's rhetoric, drained of significance; it is the knife that once "reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. It lived." Like the man's old black knife in "At the Fishhouses" (that had "scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish . . . / the blade of which is almost worn away" [de-aestheticizing the object]), the tool Crusoe begged and implored "not to break" testifies only to his former existence, as if an artifact that proves that he had lived at one time also proves he no longer does. This last "effect" engenders the entire monologue; the knife testifies both to survival and to loss.
Yet the poem still aches for affirmation of interpretive possibilities that would challenge this failure of correspondences. Scanning the particulars of his life, the weary exile challenges the worth of the evidence: "How can anyone want such things?" As if to ward off possible requests for the offal of experience, the final indelicate historian of Crusoe's psyche intrudes, returning to the emotional crux of the poem:
And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.
Crusoe survives the failure of his emotional life and lingers only to "enumerate old themes." Resigned and reconciled, he faces the necessary disjunctions between knowledge and understanding, knowledge and experience without the saving wisdom of "One Art": "(Write it!)"
In the 200 or so lines of this poem, Bishop fully realizes the potential of her language-world, illustrating what her poetry can and cannot know. This vision of wholeness exceeds and violates the visual clarity, the conventions established by her previous poems, which explicitly refuse models of inclusion and unity. The tension of "Crusoe" stems from the interplay between the monumental tropes of landscape and the elusive referential nature of the generative emotional core. The hiatus between stanzas command attention by more than the ordinary segmenting and limiting powers of the stanza break; by spatially marking the silences between place and person, the mind and the heart, they constitute one of the rhetoric strategies of understanding. Apparently transparent clarities of language, and conversational syntax expose a lack of autobiographical plenitude. Unlike the seemingly offhand but calculatingly glib counsel of "One Art," the meditation of "Crusoe" strains against the inarticulation of a powerful self-awareness held under erasure by the rhetorical strategies of the poem.
from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP
rewriting of Defoe's story reflects multiple concerns that exceed the issue of
economic control, and her Crusoe does become a kind of visionary, instead of the
colonizing figure from the novel. She places her figure in England reviewing his
past; her Crusoe feels, paradoxically, more of an exile at home than in the one
he had to create from imagination, a familiar predicament from Questions of Travel. As castaway, Crusoe's survival demands
ingenuity, but the utilitarian considerations of Defoe's character are not in
Bishop's: survival, for her character, is a matter of the imagination. Bishop
envisions the return of Crusoe to England as a loss of poetic power and her
character mourns losing the immaterial "home," her Crusoe undergoing a
kind of crucifixion:
would never describe a knife with such intimate lovingness, but Bishop's poetics
require that "the living soul," or the memory of one, make objects
lively and interactive. Even as Crusoe's is an art similar to the Riverman's
(who rejects the "stinking teas" of land) this poem must be about
losing art, returning to "real tea."
survival here becomes also, of course, an emotional kind. As elegy, the poem is
told in a kind of double recollection: at first the retrospective seems to
account for everything, but the impetus behind memory—both permitting and
blocking it—hinges upon the arrival of Friday, an event given seemingly only
the perfunctory attention of a single. rather short stanza. In a quite
compelling article on augury and autobiography in the poem. Renee R. Curry
provides explicit and convincing correlatives between the poet's life and
"Crusoe in England." She decodes the narrative's subtext as "the
muted story tells a tale of Lota de Macedo Soares and Elizabeth Bishop's lesbian
relationship, de Macedo Soares's suicide, and Bishop's emotional life after the
death" (74) and helpfully reminds us, "The 'now' of the Defoe Crusoe
tale, presumably happens back in England after the twenty-eight years spent on
the island. The 'now' of Bishop's life occurs in the mid 1970s,
not yet a decade after de Macedo Soares's suicide" (88). Such a
timeline should show how strenuous "now" can be, and show how
imperative it is to read this poem as one of mourning, a mourning that sees no
definite end (Bishop, Millier records , was working on an elegy for Lota in
the last few years of her life); the details of overcoming the environment in a
parable of economic victory are not so important for Bishop as the incoming of
grief, the processes of a memory in recuperation.
nevertheless uses "Crusoe" to explore her relationship to tradition,
as well as her experience of personal loss and exile, which in effect becomes
the discovery of the absence of a fully usable literary past. But after all,
which is which? to take a question from "Poem." Bishop's muted
connection to tradition mirrors her silenced lesbian relationships, along with
their eventual loss. The poem has its quiet debts. of course: aside from Defoe
and the Wordsworth to be discussed later. Darwin and Jonathan Swift also figure
significantly. Goldensohn reminds us that Darwin's "notes on the Galapagos,
backed up by [Bishop's] own visit to the premises" (54) informs much of
Bishop’s description. And certainly Gulliver's
Travels has parallels to Bishop's poem: both narrators' island displacements
and the playing with misproportions in the landscapes. These debts
notwithstanding, the poem recommends the "home-made," the reliance
upon personal resource and experimental readiness. Her character revels with his
"home-brew," a concoction derived through experience and not acquired
by tested or recorded knowledge:
models the self-made man, the new Adam, with no need of forefathers. What
Bishop's Crusoe likewise prides himself on is the way the island has become his
own project, especially now that he must remember it. From the very opening,
with its "new volcano" reported in the paper, and the hearsay of an
island's birth, the poem mocks the Adamic role of phallocentric naming:
naming follows such an uncertain gestation; does the island, after all, just
exist in "the mate's binoculars"? Or is it a flyspeck just looking
like a volcano? Naming never occurs as an original, inimitable event, but in a
past act of personal possession, viable only as elegiac material; Bishop's
Crusoe must confess:
But my poor old island's still
None of the books has ever got it right.
Bishop even revokes Defoe's power to "get it right," she suggests the
endlessness of taxonomy since there is always "one kind of
everything." The registrar may never exhaust the possibilities of
discovery: records erode, not the recording process or impulse to memorialize.
When Crusoe describes his naming strategy for a volcano—"I'd christened
[it] Mont d'Espoir or Mount
Despair / (I'd time enough to play with names)"—Bishop refers to her
own wordplay, her geography of erasure and reinscription, and to the doubleness
of her own voice, woman impersonating a male narrator.
spite of Crusoe's gender—indeed, because of it—the poem comments upon the
position of the lesbian writer, castaway from the mainstream tradition, thrown
upon her own resources. By revealing lesbians as silenced and made unnameable by
tradition, Bishop refutes the new Adam and inscribes the absence that books have
not gotten right. (Later, of Friday's coming, she will reiterate,
parenthetically, that "[a]ccounts of that have everything all wrong.")
And it is the absences in her Crusoe's own accounting that direct us to a muted
past, tragic because recorded in uneasy tranquillity. Crusoe explains that he
cannot produce the monumental because of cultural deprivation or amnesia:
forgetting is, however, a way of remembering the homemade. Crusoe's looking up
the blank leads us to do the same. Not only do we face
"solitude"—the very state that made the line invisible and
erased—but also what the poem at this moment confesses lies beneath blanks.
choice of the recalled fragment is deliberate: the lines not only concern the
consolatory aspect of memory, which makes absent objects present; they also
appear in Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," as an
acknowledged appropriation of his wife's words, which William defended as the
poem's "best lines." A finely textured palimpsest appears: Mary
Wordsworth speaks through William in a poem respoken by a Defoe character whose
words Bishop dictates. Only in the arena of Wordsworth's poem can Mary find her
outlet. Repossessed by Bishop, she finally speaks through the absences in
Crusoe's literary memory, a kind of hidden mothers garden. Within these spaces
resides the repressed feminine; homemade lyric—and Mary's solitude and
mutation within the male community. Though Mary is not, assuredly, a
prototypical lesbian, she alerts the attuned, remembering reader of literary
suppression. Inasmuch as Bishop dismisses Defoe as unreliable and conveniently
omits Crusoe's first name, the "I" of the poem is not Robinson but can
be interpreted as feminine maker of the self and world as home. Creativity, this
poem confirms, does not emerge from comfortable acknowledgment of past
traditions but from an exile's imaginings and re-creations.
is absent or omitted—or rather embedded—deserves as much notice as what
flashes on surfaces. "Solitude" is the missing word, and becomes, in
opposition to our initial expectations, perhaps, not the state idealized by the
poem: Crusoe functions creatively while alone, but suggests that Friday's
appearance as other "saves" him, permits him to remember at all.
Instead of the slave Defoe makes of him, Bishop makes him desired other, and
subversively refers to homosexual passion by Crusoe's hoping Friday were a
woman. The loss of the island, or the loss of "living soul,"
ultimately, does not devolve upon their rescue from this landscape. Friday's
significance cannot be too much overplayed as Bishop always discards authority
and tradition in favor of human relationship. The first introductory dashes
regarding Friday forewarn his importance: "—Pretty to watch; he had a
pretty body. / And then one day they
came and took us off." How long Crusoe has been in England is not here
indicated (so careful as her Crusoe is about most numberings), but he measures
his time, his life, as the last jolting two lines indicate, by his loss of
Friday: "—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles /
seventeen years ago come March." We depend upon irretrievable others,
upon absences, as they motivate us to reconstruct our pasts, even as memory
cannot bear it.
I have demonstrated, Bishop criticizes, through irony and polyphony, a silencing
tradition. In the process, she discovers a dependency upon the personal forces
in her own history only increasing over time, yet her poems postulate more and
more a disunified ego, an acknowledgment, finally, of the power of the
unconscious to disrupt surface cohesiveness. Her homemade, then, represents the
remakings of a shipwrecked self. Because we do not have complete control over
our identities or over the contents of our knowledge, we suffer slips and draw
blanks, remembering this and forgetting that. We become like Bishop's Crusoe, in
his self-questioning and partial amnesia; at one point, he recalls his self-pity
with a confusion over the extent of his free-will:
misquoting a cliché, he makes himself more "at home," and at the same
time, he recognizes the limitations upon his self-knowledge in lines resonant of
these in "Questions of Travel": "Continent, city, country, society: / the choice is never
wide and never free." What constrains and liberates us in any place,
whether traveling or at home, is those things we can tell or omit to tell
ourselves, the homemade we construct from what we dimly misremember.
The processes of unknowing, then, become as important as those of knowing, since it is absences our consciousness slips upon and holds itself up against. Julia Kristeva's distinction between the semiotic as "a psychosomatic modality of the signifying process," a "rhythmic space, which has no thesis and position" (more noticeable and marked in poetic language), and the symbolic, the realm of law, of theses and positions, seems useful here. Texts operate with a "genotext" that includes the semiotic and "can be detected in phonematic devices (such as the accumulation and repetition of phonemes or rhyme) and melodic devices (such as intonation and rhythm)," and a "phenotext," aligned to the symbolic:
The phenotext is a structure (which can be generated, in generative grammar's sense); it obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee. The genotext, on the other hand, is a process; it moves through zones that have relative and transitory borders and constitutes a path that is not restricted to the two poles of univocal information between two fully fledged subjects. If these two terms—genotext and phenotext—could be translated into a metalanguage that would convey the difference between them, one might say that the genotext is a matter of topology, whereas the phenotext is one of algebra. ("Revolution and Poetic Language," 120-21)
could postulate this dual structuring in any signifying system—in any poem, in
any sign, but it has more relevant application in appreciating the processes
within texts committed to undermining thetic and symbolic knowledge or
propositioning. While Bishop does not utilize "genotext" in
ostentatious rebellion against "phenotext," she foregrounds
"topology," the play within "relative and transitory borders,
" the only kind of home she can envision, and continues to posit the self
as ephemeral and riveted by unconscious dislocatory processes, as when her
Crusoe dreams of "things / like
slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it / for
a baby goat." Such mistakes appear to characterize Crusoe's waking life as
well: "The goats were white, so were the gulls, / and both too tame, or else they thought / I was a goat, too, or a gull." "Baa, baa, baa and shriek,
shriek, shriek, / baa . . . shriek . .
. baa . . . I still can't shake / them from my ears." With the island's
transitory borders of phonemic reiteration and even primal rhythms, of the
"questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies," self remains in the
process of remembering.
dilemma of identity is linked in this poem with a painful solitude, interrupted
by the arrival of a proto-lover. Apparently Friday cannot solve Crusoe's desire
to reproduce: "I wanted to propagate my kind, /
and so did he, I think, poor boy." Bishop shows her character caught in
a paradox of kin. To achieve difference, one propagates: but the fallacy of
this, she points out, is its result in "kind." The poem works through
an anxiety over reproduction: first, by dyeing a baby goat "bright
red" so "his mother wouldn't recognize him," and then, through a
nightmare of murdering a child, mistaking it for a goat. Because of the
singleness and uniqueness of everything on this island—"one kind of
everything," and the limitless expanse of isolated islands—Crusoe craves
the difference, the self, that emerges through relationship. But since
connection can only be remembered by Crusoe's mourning, selfhood is shown as
re-created, moment by moment, through memorial sacrifice.
from Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by The Pennsylvania State UP.
"We demand nothing but fresh conception." Thus began the manifesto of Con Spirito, the rebel literary magazine Elizabeth Bishop and some of her fellow students started at Vassar in February 1933. "Frankly we are more interested in experimental than in traditional writing," they continued on the front page of their first issue. "Anything--politics, science, art, music, philosophy--anything that is spontaneous, that is lively" (Editorial 1). Bishop's co-conspirators were an impressive group of women, including Mary McCarthy, Eleanor and Eunice Clark, Frani Blough, Margaret Miller, and probably Muriel Rukeyser.(1) According to McCarthy, Bishop had come up with the name Con Spirito for the magazine, "a pun joining the musical notation meaning `with zest' to the announcement of a conspiracy" (226). The original intent of Con Spirito was to provide an alternative to the college's established literary magazine, The Vassar Review. Or, as Bishop had put it somewhat more strongly in a letter to Donald Stanford, Con Spirito's aim was "to startle the college and kill the traditional magazine" (One Art 13). Betsy Erkkila has mentioned Con Spirito in passing as a "striking" example of a successful collaboration among women who are positioned in competition with other women in a "struggle" for literary territory (Wicked Sisters 100). Paying attention to struggles such as these, Erkkila argues, provides a richer reading of literary history, one that can account for the differences among women (4). The editorial in the first issue of Con Spirito, however, also aligns these women in collaboration against a male-dominated literary tradition and particularly challenges the stereotypes of college-educated women put forward by the literary press.
Con Spirito was also a conspiracy, a clandestine and anonymous meeting of literary minds, in an attempt to create a space of freedom for the imagination within the boundaries of the women's college community and the larger literary world. Although it was short-lived (the magazine folded in November 1933 after only three issues), Con Spirito provided an important forum for the developing talents of its writers. Two of Bishop's Con Spirito pieces, "Then Came the Poor" and "Hymn to the Virgin," became her first professional publications when they appeared without significant changes in The Magazine in 1934. McCarthy took issues of Con Spirito to impress Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic when she was looking for review assignments (McCarthy 262). T. S. Eliot praised the magazine when he came to the Vassar campus in May 1933 (Fountain and Brazeau 51). Of the seven co-conspirators, four went on to establish successful literary careers: Bishop, McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Rukeyser. But beyond its importance as a professional vehicle, Con Spirito provided a space of possibility for Bishop, who had not yet come to terms with her lesbian sexuality or her literary ambition. In a limited sense, I will argue, Con Spirito allowed Bishop to "come out" as both a writer and, perhaps much more provisionally, a lesbian. Moreover, the Con Spirito writers seemed to share a fantasy of a productive female community, an idea of community that I will argue in the last part of my essay remained a powerful structuring fantasy in Bishop's work. Hence the idea of literary community that I pursue through my reading of Bishop's experience at Vassar allows me to suggest new ways to see the enclosure fantasies that have long been noted by critics as an important feature of Bishop's work. These enclosure fantasies--among them the boarding house, the prison, and the island--serve as spaces of "possibility" in Bishop's work that provide a challenge to the fixed ideas of both gender and literary identity that she found constrained the artist in the 1930s.
[. . . . ]
Bishop's fantasy of female community (expressed throughout her Con Spirito writing in terms of literary ambition, fear of a feminine taint, sexual perversion, and cross-dressing) continued to be part of her work throughout her career, attesting to the persistence of the discourse of perversion surrounding literary ambition and lesbian sexuality. Bishop's 1938 story "In Prison," for example, brings together ideas of gender ambiguity, literary influence, female community, and lesbian sexuality. Langdon Hammer has suggested that "In Prison" is a metaphor for life in the closet ("New Elizabeth Bishop" 144).
Provisional spaces such as these can be found in Bishop's work throughout her career, but they are strikingly present in her well-known "Crusoe in England," published at the end of her career, although it is important to note that notebook entries from 1934 demonstrate that ideas for this poem are connected to the Vassar years and the discourse of the 1930s. Immediately following graduation from Vassar in 1934, Bishop stayed on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts for several weeks. The landlord of her temporary home by the sea was Mr. Wuthenaur, a man who wanted to "simplify life" all the time, and his behavior led Bishop to consider writing a poem about "making things in a pinch--& how it looks sad when the emergency is over."(16) The idea was finally published in 1972 as "Crusoe in England." David Kalstone has written that the poems in Geography III, of which "Crusoe in England" is one, "revisit her earlier poems as Bishop herself once visited tropical and polar zones, and ... they refigure her work in wonderful ways" (252). Bishop's "Crusoe in England" refigures the ideas of female community found in the Con Spirito work.
"Crusoe in England," like "In Prison," narrates the fantasy of a community both found and lost during the course of the poem. Alone on the island and oppressed by solitude, Crusoe has
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs
The images Bishop uses here are reminiscent of those I have already discussed that describe the lesbian who was supposed to be simultaneously sterile--the "desiccated old maid"--and associated with a "breeding ground" for producing more of her kind.
This is an island that repeats in one sense the representations of lesbian community that Gabriele Griffith has argued were common to the early part of the twentieth century (11). These representations create an image of lesbians "as the only one in their community, as isolated individuals ... intended to arouse pity rather than condemnation." This isolated figure is precisely the one we see as Crusoe sits dangling his legs over the edge of a volcano: "I often gave way to self-pity," he tells us:
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
If Crusoe is one of a kind, so is everything else on this island:
The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.
The island had one kind of everything....
Crusoe's loneliness is alleviated temporarily, just as it is in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, by the arrival of Friday. But while Crusoe in Defoe's colonial account is only able to construct Friday, the "savage," as a slave, even though he is clearly fond of him, Bishop's Crusoe calls Friday a "friend":
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
--Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
The narrator's elusiveness about the nature of his relationship with Friday and the cryptic phrase "(Accounts of that have everything all wrong)" suggest that the relationship between the two men was one of mutual desire. Immediately following this parenthetical comment, however, Crusoe utters what must be the most banal sentence in the world: "Friday was nice." He then repeats it in the next line and adds, "and we were friends," as if this would somehow explain the confusion.
Bishop wrote the poem long after she had read Robinson Crusoe and only reread the novel after she had written the poem, so she relies on a hazy memory of the book to re-create her Crusoe. It was the idea of the desert island and making things do in an emergency that appealed to her. But it is clearly also the relationship between Friday and Crusoe that fascinated Bishop. In Defoe's account, Crusoe "civilizes" Friday and teaches him English. In Bishop's poem, Crusoe does not try to convert Friday. They are friends, on equal terms with each other. But immediately following these lines, Crusoe cries out, "If only he had been a woman! / I wanted to propagate my kind, / and so did he, I think, poor boy." Bishop thereby adds a new factor to this story of Crusoe and Friday, a marriage plot that legitimizes Crusoe's feelings for Friday. As in "Seven-Days Monologue," however, Crusoe ultimately rejects the heterosexual narrative. Lorrie Goldensohn suggests in her reading of this passage that it is important to pay attention to "the pressure of [Bishop's] particular experience behind and within the poem," the suicide of her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares, and the desire she expressed in numerous letters to have children that she and Soares could raise together (Elizabeth Bishop 78). I would agree with this reading in part. But this stanza, with its qualifying and hedging, also suggests other ways of reading the phrase "I wanted to propagate my kind." What Crusoe dwells on at the end of the stanza is Friday's body. Friday was, after all, "Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body." Immediately following these lines, Crusoe and Friday are taken off the island and returned to England. In the last two stanzas of the poem, Crusoe surrounded by his island possessions--is living on what he describes as "another island," England. There is no reason why he should not have found a woman in England, but the poem makes clear that he has stayed with Friday. The poem ends with the weight of loss: "And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March" (166).
Loss is registered in the person of Friday. Crusoe took Friday "home" to England, and he died there. Certainly a tenuous connection can be made here, as Goldensohn does, between Friday's death and Soares's suicide, but leaving it there would ignore some of the complexity of the idea of "home." Her "home" in Brazil with Soares was perhaps the closest Bishop ever got to a sense of real belonging, and yet when she and Soares broke up, she found it more and more difficult to make a life there. Soares was her "home" in Brazil, not the country itself or the house she had bought, however much she tried to make it so. Much like Crusoe in Defoe's account, Crusoe in Bishop's finds a sense of purpose, of "home," when Friday arrives. The original title of the poem was "Crusoe at Home" (Millier 366), which suggests that Bishop had initially thought of the poem in terms of an investigation of Crusoe's relationship to the idea of "home," or at least an ironic commentary on ideas of "home." In this sense Crusoe finds a home with Friday much in the same way that the narrator in "Then Came the Poor" finds a home with Jacob. Here again, as in that early story, an ambiguous but erotically charged relationship is represented through an investigation of the complex connections between two male personae. Joanne Feit Diehl has argued that "Crusoe in England" is "Bishop's most extreme poetic instance of gender-crossing fused with eroticism" (20). It is here within this space that the desire to "propagate my kind" is most strongly expressed.
In "Crusoe in England," as in many of Bishop's stories and poems, we are presented with a circumscribed world in which a lonely individual or a societal misfit contacts another like himself and for a brief period finds a home. The circumscribed world of the island, like the prison, the boarding house, or the communal house in "Then Came the Poor," represents a landscape in which the poet, the woman, the orphan, or the lesbian can contact others like herself and form a community. It may represent that limited but also "capacious" space of the closet that Timothy Morris has suggested "resonates throughout [Bishop's] work" (125). Hence Bishop's sense of community and influence cannot be thought of apart from the desire to "propagate [her] kind," to create a language that would begin to speak of lesbian desire. Crusoe's phrase "I wanted to propagate my kind" cannot be interpreted simply as an expression of the biological urge of a childless poet to have children. Spoken by a character created by a lesbian poet wise to the homoeroticism of Defoe's original text, Crusoe's statement becomes a challenge to the biological determinism that hindered the careers of literary women of Bishop's generation. Crusoe's statement refers not simply to reproductive power but to productive power--the power to write, to influence future generations, and to build community.
Bishop's ideas of community and her own place in it might be productively considered in light of an essay she published at Vassar. Interested in the workings of time in the novel, Bishop offers us yet another spatial metaphor. Disturbed from her studies by a sound outside, she writes that she looked out her window and noticed the birds "going South" ("Time's Andromedas" 102). They were "spread across a wide swath of sky, each rather alone" and yet connected by an "invisible thread." It was "within this fragile network," Bishop writes, that "they possessed the sky." As I have suggested throughout this essay, Bishop built this fragile network at Vassar and maintained it in suggestive ways in the poetry and prose she published throughout her life. It is by establishing this connection that I have attempted to momentarily catch hold of the "invisible thread" that connected Bishop to a larger community of writers and artists who attempted, however briefly, to "possess the sky."
from "Elizabeth Bishop's "Queer Birds": Vassar, Con Spirito, and the Romance of Female Community." Contemporary Literature 40.2 (Summer 1999).
Return to Elizabeth Bishop