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On "Questions of Travel"

Ashley Brown (1977)

The title poem, "Questions of Travel," was first published in 1956, about four years after Elizabeth had taken up residence in Brazil. The tourist has now become the passionate observer and, in a sense, has lost her innocence. The poem is a wonderful mosaic of things that one can see and hear along a Brazilian highway – say, along the road to Petropolis. (Some of these phenomena are, I fear, doomed as highway culture in Brazil resembles ours more and more.) The mechanic’s wooden clogs "carelessly clacking" over the floor of the filling-station, the bird in its fancy bamboo cage above the broken gasoline pump – what a pity, says the poet, to have missed these things in all their particularity. And what random historical causes lay behind them? The poem builds up in a seemingly (but only seemingly) casual way to the two formal stanzas in italics at the end, where the traveller asks herself … "Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?" But she has already answered her question in the poem where, for meat any rate, a whole phase of lost experience has been transmuted into something permanent. The English poet Charles Tomlinson … said, "for the fact of the matter is, Miss Bishop travels because she likes it, not because she is homeless in the way that Lawrence or Schoenberg were." But is it really necessary to insist on this kind of "radical homelessness?" It seems to me perfectly obvious that Elizabeth Bishop has followed Henry James, Katherine Anne Porter and certain other Americans who have gone out into the world, and these are the names to mention. She knows very well who she is. Again, speaking for myself, I have often wondered about the accidents of history that have made my Brazilian friends different from me – they come from a country as old and large and diverse as ours, they had slavery twenty-five years after we did, they too are apt to make exaggerated claims. Elizabeth’s poems have more the "feel" of life in Brazil than anything else written by a North American because they undercut the large generalizations that we all have when we approach a subject on this scale.

From Ashley Brown, "Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil," originally published in Southern Review 13 (October 1977), rpt. in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 231-232

James McCorkle (1989)

… The extreme process of self-definition, for Bishop, is the provisional and momentary act of writing and self-revelation. The poem becomes an interiorized debate – the two voices are less separate characterizations than they are a compound self that interrogates itself and reveals, not affirmation, but doubt. …

`[McCorkle quotes the italicized stanzas.]

The inclusion of the italicized transcriptions from a notebook emphasizes the durational quality of writing. Despite the seemingly multitudinous range of experience and possibility, Bishop asserts "the choice is never wide and never free," because we are governed by experience and language. The concordance of experience is not a Linnaean process if ordering chaos and intellectual control but a converse process where ordering and interrogation lead to further uncertainty. The moment of "golden silence" recalls the adage levelled at children, "silence is golden." The transcendent silences the two voices while returning us to writing and uncertainty. The adage, paradoxically, returns us to childhood and the subversive play of children. We thus return to the beginnings of the poem, the journal’s entries and questions, which break the imposed silence of that Victorian adage and admonishment authorized by the discourse of fathers.

From James McCorkle, "Concordances and Travels: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," Chapter 1 in The Still Performance: Writing, Self and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 20, 23.

Marilyn May Lombardi (1995)

Quae negata, grata – "what is denied is desired." And what is desired may be wrongfully "pocketed." This awareness spills over into most of the Brazilian poems, particularly "Questions of Travel," in which she asks, in the name of all displaced persons:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?

Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

The last query rebounds on both poet and reader, compelling the communal "we" to examine our urge to collect relics, "folded" moments pocketed in an effort to overcome our nagging sense of dispossession. Savoring this souvenir we call a poem, we as readers share the poet’s misgivings about the genuineness of human sympathy. Staring at her words resting on the page like "some inexplicable old stonework, / inexplicable and impenetrable, / at any view, / instantly seen and always, always delightful" the reader (a tourist in the alien topography of the poet’s mind" must ask herself whether she has room for one more image, for one more demand on her sympathy. Will our careful observation help any of us – help the poet or her reader, or the world we ponder "blurr’dly and inconclusively"?

Unlike the flaneur, a traditional masculine figure, the poet of "Questions of Travel" cannot remain comfortably aloof from the madding crowd. As Lois Cucullu observes, the woman who dares to travel alone is in a far different position than the male adventurer. The female flaneuse, or pedestrian, Cucullu reminds us/ may be mistaken for a common streetwalker/ Even though Bishop’s sexual preference alienated her from the marriage market, she nevertheless knew as a woman what it felt like to be on exhibition. For this reason, she might be expected to question the ethics of tourism with a greater urgency than her male counterparts.

From Marilyn May Lombardi, "‘Travelling Through the Flesh’: A Poetics of Translation," Chapter 5 in The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 154-155

Helen M. Dennis

The best one can do as a "tourist" is get into it "like Indians"—but acting "like" is not the same as "being". In this reading of the Kantian sublime, the sympathetic imagination is no longer a sustainable solution, and we are left only with the recognition of inadequacy and difference. And that perhaps leaves one wondering, why bother? And that, I take it, is precisely the question in "Questions of Travel":

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
what childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.

. . . . . . . . .

—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
n which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?"

Metaphors and similes operate here, but they tend to emphasize difference not similarity. The rain is not like politician's speeches in any fundamental way; trees are not actually noble pantomimists. Her previous assessment of the landscape and all it contains is more accurate: "inexplicable and impenetrable, at any view," pretty much sums it up. The self is not reflected in nature, one does not find confirmation of one's individual identity by travelling the tourist road. Instead, one finds inconsequential disruptions and discontinuitities. But the effect of this experience of being alien in an alien landscape is to prompt one to ask, as Bishop does at the end of this poem, "Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" That is to question not only "travel" but its binary opposite "home."

from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

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