blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Pink Dog"


Bonnie Costello (1991)

… What makes this exploration of social and physical anxiety so powerful is that she both abhors the enforcement of "costume" and sees its necessity. We are embarrassed here by nakedness and by its opposite. … In "Pink Dog" she urges a costume on a naked dog (a dehumanized image of the body) for the sake of its survival in a culture that wishes to deny the mortal body. The poet writes from the margin, on the divide between culture and nature, a creature of both. It is her empathy for the pink dog, her own sense of marginality, that provokes her terrible advice. In a culture which abhors the body’s mutability, disguise is the only alternative to expulsion of annihilation. The dog in us must be dressed up and taught to dance if it is to be tolerated at all. Carnival is now the expression not of freedom but of repression.

The poem offers no clear answer to the public fear of the mutable body, yet that fear and repressive behavior it provokes are obviously criticized. We are left suspended between sympathy and judgment toward the speaker. Pink dog and speaker appear as two rival aspects of the self – one that would parade its nakedness, whatever the consequences, and one that would cover and protect, since it cannot or does not wish to expel, the body. The pink dog has none of the alterity of the fish or other iconic figures in Bishop’s poetry. She lives among us, in our element, as the aspect of ourselves we cannot tame. But by making her central figure a dog rather than a human, Bishop reminds us that she does not represent, in her naked, diseased state, a viable human option. The poet is not the dog but the troubled speaker who must somehow reconcile her culture to the dog it despises …

from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 85-86, 88.


Lorrie Goldensohn (1992)

"Pink Dog," published in 1979, but by Lisa Browne’s calculation written in 1964, introduces a different mood. Each of Bishop’s books has featured animals and objects,m streets and houses. Each book has its resident animal. … Besides Marianne Moore, I do not know of any modern or contemporary poet who pushed the animal masquerade quite as hard and effectively as Bishop; even her small prose poems in "Rainy Season: Subtropics" are saturated with the pain of the grieving human animal working the microphone behind the poem. Nothing is so savage and hurt as "Pink Dog," with its almost unbearable Swiftian irony, where the speaker rises almost inevitably in our minds, moving in a ghost duet with the trotting miseries of the naked little bitch with scabies:

[Goldensohn quotes the poem.]

In another context, "They" could be wrong about the ruined Carnival; in these lines, though, ruin seems all too likely and a scolding, black desperation clings to both speaker and dog. …

Yet the very explosion of this bitterness into print marks a further advance in subject: this is only the second major female animal emblem allowed into Bishop’s work, and an eye interested in looking for a fuller spectrum of emotions could balance the recent appearance of the benevolent and potent moose against the ill and damaged mother dog. … Occasionally, Bishop’s animals are allowed what her people are not: pity accrues for the scabious mother dog with her dangling teats, where the black mothers of National Geographic [from the poem "In the Waiting Room’] "with those awful hanging breasts" remain an object of childish horror.

from Lorrie Goldensohn, "Lost Poems," Chapter 12 in Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 278-279.


C. K. Doreski

While refusing the predictable moral stance, "Pink Dog" exposes the cruelties of an age of extreme conformity. The poem, however, lacks Bishop’s characteristic vaguely resigned but painfully aware voice, and affects a tone of humorous indifference. Though she may attempt to echo the less-than-acute political satire of the Brazilian sambas (see translation in CP 263-264) and simultaneously record the trials of the dog and the brutalized narrator, she relies on a series of tropes of the grotesque that engender neither nor interest. Surely she would recognize that the speaker of this poem is as much a victim of a cruel age as the dog. Lacking the sting of political narrative, Bishop's critique appears naive, not shrewd. The light-verse end rhymes of the tercets of "Pink Dog," rather than intensifying and unifying the poem, render it comical and tasteless. Perhaps a difficulty with this poem stems from its strange voice. Though the voice of "Manuelzinho" was not Bishop's, the attendant spirit's voice was. "Pink Dog" lacks the strong sense of purpose found in even the weaker of the earlier exile pieces. As so often, Randall Jarrell most effectively describes what most have come to expect from Bishop's world, and in so doing reveals the sullied vision of this poem:

She is so morally attractive in poems like "The Fish" or "Roosters" because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people's wickedness and confusion, but not for you. your own; that morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore.

The lack of that moral attractiveness mars "Pink Dog," but the poem does remind the reader how convincingly that moral purpose occurs in her best work, like "Crusoe."

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright 1993 by Oxford UP


Mena Mitrano

Scholarship on Elizabeth Bishop has traditionally praised her reticence, especially in matters of identity, the female body, and female sexuality.(1) Indeed, readers who aspire to more than just a superficial knowledge of Bishop's poetry must come to terms with her famed reticence. In one of her last poems, "Pink Dog" (1979), the rhetorical containment and modesty associated with her style border on self-censorship. In this poem, reticence becomes the speaker's protective response to the realization that as soon as female subjectivity appears on the avenue of representation, it automatically becomes something profoundly ruinous, viscerally antiaesthetic.

Accordingly, in "Pink Dog" animal allegory is chosen as a sort of rhetorical objective relative for a speaker caught in a bind. Unlike her mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop does not use animal allegory to suggest the possibility of a gentler world;(2) rather she uses it to point to a self-censoring process, to intimate guarded, even muzzled, speech about the possibility of positing a female subjectivity against the grain of the page, so to speak. Bishop's female dog, clothed in nothing but the socially offensive pink bareness of its/her aging body, is not simply a dog but a signifier that keeps the poem (and us) oscillating between two semantic clusters: "woman" and "dog."

Like Stevens's anonymous "you" in the initial octave of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (Collected Poems 380), Bishop's naked "you" in the first movement of "Pink Dog" momentarily becomes a sort of privileged interior paramour, an anonymous term of address with whom the observer enters a quiet, intimate exchange as if in a flash of recognition: "The sun is blazing and the sky is blue. / Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue. / Naked, you trot across the avenue" (CP 190). In the second tercet referentiality is no longer suspended. The exclamation "Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!" - possibly interjected by a passerby - leaves no doubt as to what the observer's anonymous interlocutor was in the first tercet. But "Naked and pink, without a single hair" returns to "Naked, you trot across the avenue," that is, to the scene of the initial intimate address, where we did not yet know for sure that the naked "you" was a dog. Moreover, the poem increasingly conjures up the overlapping of two semantic clusters when, later on, stanzaic divisions are employed to create the expectation of an unmasked signifier "woman" in the place of "dog": "But no one will ever see a / / dog in mascara. . . ." and with the juxtaposition of "depilated" and "dog" in the last stanza (CP 191).

But the title already announced this oscillation between two intersecting semantic clusters. Visually, "pink dog" is a pastiche: it conjures a dog made up as a woman, that is, clothed in what popular culture has long viewed as the quintessential attribute of femininity ("pink") or, vice versa, a pink thing (popular space of femininity) dressed up as a dog. Bishop's poem begins with an observer who recognizes in the dog something she knows: that female subjectivity enters representation as a grotesque fact. As the poem unfolds, however, all traces of the observer's former identification with the naked "you" are dissolved into an alliance with a "they" who are "mortally afraid" of it. As in other Bishop poems, the progress of "Pink Dog" leads to that moment of epiphany when the observer falls into social constructions of the self.(3) This fall is bitterly celebrated by the rhyme scheme in the fourth tercet, which substitutes monotony for cruel mockery, exposing the imperfect, inadequate rhyme between the shaved bitch's "hanging teats" and her "wits," respectively, her worn-out motherhood and her intelligence. The same observer who at poem's start had secretly recognized a signifier of femininity that otherwise exuded offense goes on to learn that it would be improper to say out loud what she realizes the minute her eye meets the pink dog and its horizon of meaning. The suspension of referentiality simultaneously speaks and represses this impropriety. Through a self-censoring observer caught between knowledge and silence, Bishop can thus deliver the hard lesson that in symbolic practice, female subjectivity exists under the sign of a technology of violence (in which the poem participates) whereby the appearance of the female subject automatically calls for its "expulsion or annihilation" (Costello 86).

In a poem such as "In the Waiting Room," protected by a child persona, the observer could rebel at the realization that she is "one of them" - of the community of adults in the waiting room, of a world at war, of the disturbing images of The National Geographic - with a scream (CP 159-61). In "Pink Dog" no such thing is possible. Here the overlapping of interiority and exteriority is accepted without protest as a rite of passage to the symbolic, as the very possibility of subjectivity; but in addition, Bishop goes on to expose her observer's self-censoring acts.

The suspended referentiality that in Bishop's poem attempts to clothe in modesty an outrageous, ruinous insight into female subjectivity may also be read as a figure for the dispersal of the self. The female self in "Pink Dog" appears, that is to say disappears, in the shape of an offensive pink nakedness. This second reading places the poem in a dialogue with an American tradition of writing that, as Richard Poirier shows, from Emerson to Stevens has attempted to "writ[e] off the self" (Poirier 1987, ch. 5). It may be said that similarly to Poirier's Emersonians, Bishop writes off the female self, dissolving it into a nonhuman image. But in "Pink Dog" this dispersal begins to show signs of anxiety; it becomes stained, so to speak, with ideology; that is, with an intention that Poirier's argument confines exclusively to the Europeans (Nietzsche and Foucault among them). The naked pinkness or the pink bareness that greets us in the heat of a Rio de Janeiro summer day, before even suggesting the shape of a dog, signifies a doubt: that under such a "blazing" sun one might not immediately be able to make out the shape of the pink mass in the horizon. Thus, with the complicity of a South American scenario, Bishop offers a pun on a North American trope for the self as "some bare rock" (Poirier 1992, 71). With an almost Chaplinesque tragic playfulness, Bishop revisits the Emersonian scene where we are asked "to submit to the poverty of subjectivity, the poverty of self" (Poirier 1992, 73). Her conceit of a pink firstness, of a pink, bare and barren, depilated self is the low-brow child in a series of eminent North American poverties such as Emerson's rock, Charles Peirce's Firstness, and Wallace Stevens's pallid candor of the First Idea. The pinkness of Bishop's female animal self declares that, for all the spectacular costuming and dancing it may spur, poverty of self cannot be an object of intellectual longing because it remains fundamentally embarrassing on the scene of signification.

NOTES

1. For representative discussions of Bishop's reticence, see Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop (New York: Twayne, 1966) 126, and Octavio Paz, "Elizabeth Bishop, or the Power of Reticence," Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, eds. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1983) 211-13.

2. Stevenson praises the modesty and dignity of Bishop's non-epic poems, p. 126. 2. "The Pangolin" comes to mind, in The Complete Poems (New York: Viking, 1986).

3. I am thinking of "At the Fishhouses" and "In the Waiting Room." Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983) 64-6, 159-61.

WORKS CITED

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.

Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 1991.

Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: Viking, 1986.

Paz, Octavio. "Elizabeth Bishop, or the Power of Reticence." Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Eds. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983. 211-13.

Poirier, Richard. The Renewal of Literature. New York: Random House, 1987.

-----. Poetry and Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Twayne, 1966.

from The Explicator 54.1 (Fall 1995)


Amanda Zink

“Slum tourism is a way for travelers to taste the exotica of squalor,” announces the title of a September 10, 2007 article on Indian Malaysian Online.   The article goes on to describe several of the world’s largest slums tourists can explore.   Trendy or not,  during a 2005 visit to Nairobi, Kenya I could not have secured a tour of Kibera, the largest slum in the world,  even if I wanted to (no locals were willing to take three American girls through this dangerous area that covers most of the city).  The speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog,” seems a slum tourist herself, observing and sympathizing with the desperate inhabitants of the largest slum in South America, Brazil’s Favela da Rocinha, ironically located in Rio de Janeiro’s wealthiest neighborhood.

C.K. Doreski (MAPS) writes that “Pink Dog” is a failure because it lacks the “sting of political narrative” and a “moral attractiveness,” making it “affect[] humorous indifference” instead of spurring the reader to political action.   On the contrary, Bishop’s comparison of Rio’s impoverished inhabitants of Rocinha to a vulnerable, desperate dog is a searing commentary on the ways in which a nation’s poor are swept to the fringes like so many feral animals. 

Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,
to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take them and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?

Perhaps critics such as Doreski would say that Bishop’s tight end-rhymes, and the sing-song quality of the lilting stanzas, sacrifice the political to the lyrical.  However, Bishop’s use of rhyme here is similar to other poets,’ like Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad for Americans – 1954” or Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” whose ironically musical use of rhyme actually makes a more, not less, intense political statement.  The sing-song stanzas about a city’s castaway homeless, framed in the setting of Rio’s decadent beaches and Carnival atmosphere, would make any Brazilian politician squirm in discomfort.   Indeed, as Cary Nelson points out in his notes on Bishop, “Pink Dog” is representative of her poems that “focused on her Brazil experience, [where] her  technical skills and unsentimental wit supported her in a journey into boldly unconventional social and cultural commentary of a sort no other American poet has attempted” (631).

“Pink Dog” is set not inside Rocinha, but rather on the brighter side of Rio’s tourism: on the beach where “Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue” under a hot sun and a blue sky, and in trendy cafés that line downtown sidewalks.   Against this bright, sunny backdrop the disparate image of the hairless dog “trot[ting] across the avenue” repulses bystanders:

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink without a single hair…
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

With the strong AAA rhyme scheme, Bishop forces us to travel, from the sunny beach where the “sky is blue” and the umbrellas display “every hue,” across the “avenue” where the rhymes and the imagery become disturbingly vulgar.  In these stanzas, the speaker begins to separate herself from the passersby with the pronoun “they.”  Instead of expressing disgust for the dog, as the other tourists do, her muses anthropomorphize the dog’s life, expressing her sympathy and eliciting such from readers:

Of course, they are mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent.  Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Critics of “Pink Dog” focus on the dog’s explicitly female body, and Mena Mitrano (MAPS) writes that this poem is typical of Bishop’s poetic “reticence, especially in matters of identity, the female body, and female sexuality.” Indeed, employing the derogatory term “poor bitch” both distances the speaker from the dog – “’you’” are a dog, I am a woman” – and associates the dog with women in the slums to whom society might refer as poor bitches. While Bishop’s preoccupation with the female body – both naked and dressed (“What will you wear” to Carnival?) – is obvious in this poem, it serves to highlight the economic disparities inherent in the ironic juxtaposition of the world’s largest slum within one of the world’s most attractive destinations for wealthy tourists. 

Throughout the poem, Bishop indicts all who observe Rocinha’s inhabitants but do nothing to help them: Brazilian bureaucrats, tourists, and locals alike are incriminated.  The speakers mentions “the joke is going round that all the beggars/who can afford them now wear life preservers” for when they are thrown into the “tidal rivers.” This line conjures images of opportunistic vendors who would sell, rather than give, a life jacket to a drowning beggar or a bottle of water to a person dying of thirst.  The presence of Carnival in the final stanzas of the poem seems an odd answer to the moral and mortal problem with which the poem is concerned, and yet, fittingly, it provides the solution to the vulnerable dog (and beggar) whose pink skin is suffering from exposure to the elements.  “Dress up!” the speaker urges the dog, saying in effect: “our tourists don’t mind observing your poverty during Lent – ‘Ash Wednesday’ll come, but Carnival is here’ – but now the tourists want to see everyone happy and disguised, even if you are only disguised as happy.”  Everyone in Bishop’s poem either enables or participates in slum tourism, keeping Rocinha’s beggars on display, the merchants’ pockets full, and the politicians’ posts secure.

Work Cited

Lal, Neeta. “Slum Tourism is a way for Travelers to Taste the Exotica of Squalor.” 10 Sept.
2007. Asia Sentinel on Indian Maylasian Online. 8 Nov. 2007. <http://www.indianmalaysian.com/sound/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=638>

Copyright © 2007 Amanda Zink


Return to Elizabeth Bishop