Nicholas Manning Reviews Judith Bishop

20 October 2008

Event by Judith Bishop
Salt Publishing, 2007

To speak of Judith Bishop's poetry is perhaps to speak, necessarily, of the image. Of course, in the context of 20th century poetics, this term carries within it an unfortunately thorny and convoluted lineage. From Ezra Pound's use of the concept against the Georgians to Ponge's against the Surrealists, the image has always constituted a controversial node, its problems and paradoxes traversing diverse ideological mires of competing poetic modernities.

With reference to Bishop's poetic, however, I mean this term in its most simple sense, namely: the presence here of an associative and correlative richness, a passing before our eyes of ever more richly coloured verbal templates. The range of metonymical and metaphorical energy of Event seems sometimes almost unbounded. It is a poetics in which 'pallid/ eye of winter noon' translates the more familiar signifier 'the sun', and 'a net of gulls' gives a tortuous rendition of the common notion of 'a flock'.

Bishop's dense imagistic encoding is often reminiscent then of the luxuriantly ambiguous gestures of poets from the English Metaphysics through to Saint-John Perse and Pablo Neruda. Yet, with this said, it is also important to ask, in the specific context of this poetics: what, precisely, is such imagistic brilliance for? It is a question curiously pertinent for Bishop who, as the proficient translator of the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy, must be familiar with Bonnefoy's extreme exigency regarding the need to closely monitor – and sometimes actively preclude – excesses of 'obscuring' figurative flourish.

Does an image reveal the real, or rather provide a site for lexical aggrandizing? It is a question Bonnefoy himself asks – of other poetries, as well as his own – throughout his poetic development, in continually more subtle and penetrating ways. Moreover, the question seems all the more appropriate in the framework of Bishop's poetic, given the fact that the image is not so much here a site of Poundian condensation, as its inverse: namely, a space of lexical effusion and excrescence, expanding always outwards into ever more notable special-effects.

The known Poundian modus operandi of 'dichten = condensare' thus almost becomes here 'dichten = estendere'. But if Bishop does not employ the image in the sense of a nascent Imagism, it still seems a basis of a poetics which takes as its possible starting point – and even as its end event-horizon – the framing of a world in a series of vivid perceptive instances.

For what should we say of an expression such as 'pallid/ eye of winter noon'? It sounds good. It sounds, to be frank, beautiful. It may have the right to exist because of this; but it is also interesting to ask if it functions beyond this: if it establishes greater nodes and networks of perceptive penetration. In short, if it accomplishes anything else. '[A] spider', Bishop writes, 'has cellared spring rains in its body'. Here, we can only conclude that the choice of such a verb – so original and so precise – is at once impressive and revelatory. It seems to take us quickly into the very workings of a being and an environment. But at other times, this associative register seems too self-sufficient, too autotelic, too simply a demonstration of praxis or technique. Moreover, despite the vivid, occasional beauty of such fragments, there is sometimes also here a slight straining after-effect: a desire to eke every last drop of resonance from one spider's single, simple ontology.

This effect is, strangely, at once deeply impressive and also rather unsettling. When we read in Bishop, for instance, that 'a child's foot stutters/ like a just-fledged bird', we may simultaneously be astonished at the inventiveness and perceptivity of these mots justes, while also being simultaneously aware that the poet is strutting her associative stuff. Of course, this explicit awareness and display of technique is in no way necessarily bad. Indeed, perhaps we should even ask ourselves if this asking of Bishop's imagistic vivacity 'yes, but what is it for?' is not too utilitarian, too functional or entirely teleological an approach.

Poetry, being that form of discourse where justifications are often, and thankfully, less important than the larger ontology and autonomy of the work, it is no doubt sometimes reductive to ask of a poetic: why is this element here? What is its general justification? Its greater goal? This may be entirely applicable here, given first the undeniable beauty of these poems, but secondly the fact that most of them function admirably beyond their associative scaffolds. This said, if we examine more closely what I feel to be one or two of Bishop's less successful poems, I believe we'll see why this question may be warranted.

A good example of the contrasting paradigm I am attempting to describe is the poem 'Late In The Day', where a salient and constantly surprising lyricism cakes a fundamentally linear, and entirely conventional, narrative device. Let's say first of all that 'Late In The Day' is an incarnation par excellence of the infamous genre of the 'dead-animal-poem'. But Bishop's praxis here is so utterly accomplished that we are liable to forget the formulaic arc of its premise and narrative progression. I will quote the poem in full, as I feel it ably represents some of the assets, but also the defects, of Judith Bishop's poetic:

Arrives the moment of contradiction. A rat
has sown its leanness in the earth;
a hawk, blue stencil, floats low across the field of hay,
resembling, as you see it, the
brushed hair of a child.

Wind has ferried the hawk south
toward a swatch of pines.
There, a boy with shaky hands
shoots her down with a stone.

               In his fingers
he gently takes the threads of her entrails.
His eyes reflect a sky sharp as water
from a spring.

In late-shadowed pines,
her young incline toward the sun.
A screen of white down
lies aggrieved by wind at dawn.

There is, for me, a sort of earnest questing after-effect here, a concerted striving to create an impact which seems almost, at times, to become a slight straining. In short, the poem is really trying very hard to make its desired impact. The tenor is laboring to impress, and in the darkened audience, we are perhaps slightly afraid that this voice may break.

But amidst this straining are such moments too of vivid, concentrated beauty, that we are apt to forgive such extreme exertion: 'a hawk, blue stencil, floats low across the field of hay/ resembling, as you see it, the/ brushed hair of a child '. Until the second fold of this double-folded metaphor, I remained slightly unsatisfied. Hawk as blue stencil, while inventive, seemed not quite enough; but the extension of this comparison – its sudden expansion and effulgence into a new associative and emotive universe – with the introduction of yet another layer to this analogous world, casts the fragment in a new, singular light.

So much for the mastery of an associative praxis. In spite of this imagistic control and inventiveness, however, the question persists whether the poem does not remain itself, in the end, somewhat too formulaic. 'A screen of white down/ lies aggrieved': this is eloquent, but maybe the poet Bishop has so ably translated, Yves Bonnefoy, would ask if it is anything else. Of course, there is perhaps little new one can do with the narratological limitations of 'child in woods finds dead bird', though Bishop perhaps makes the absolute best of her material.

I would not be spending such time enumerating what I see to be the slight defects of this generally strong collection, if these aspects of Bishop's poetic did not seem rather recurrent. The sentimental dead-animal narrative recurs here once more, for instance, in 'Don(tilde)a Marina: Part I' :

It was my name-day. I was five or six. But I remember
                this –
I broke the neck of a baby hummingbird.
Flung from the nest
for faults divined by the hen: a twisted wing bone,
an ill-formed bladder?
I saw its throat wobble by the silk-cotton tree.
The sky was candled by the moon.
My hands moved, a doubled arc.
I held my palms out for the gods, the silken
down a little blood adhering,
               and I thought –
Now I'll never be that wrinkled belly in the dust.

These are the less inventive moments, however, of an otherwise impressive writing. Such a poem starts, to my sense, flatly, and we are worried where it will go; but then Bishop goes somewhere truly intriguing. Lesser poets would no doubt have fallen into the abyss of the sentimental fixation, where Bishop perhaps briefly stumbles, before pulling herself out of such strangely ecstatic sentiment into something more complex and ambiguous:

Delicate and transfixing :
'Storms build across the skies. The rats have come
to take their young to higher ground,
biting gently on their necks.'

This is Bishop at the height of her technical brilliancy, and it is present here in swathes. The ut pictura poesis of 'Rembrandt's Presentation in the Temple' is worthy, for instance, of the highest Ashberian vein of revelatory ekphrasis, and never seems reducible to a mere enumeration or elaboration of visual stimuli:

Their hands press forward
to the pole of this event, dark-burred
in its print, pivot of a skein
of strokes, like the strands

This is a poetic mind at ease in language's largesse, in which the fine markings of a brush in oil are 'like the strands of winter hay/ a swallow trails'. And thankfully, here, there is much more post-facto (post-imago) processing, reflection, and formalizing, than to Bishop's less successful moments of lyrical effusiveness. Bishop seems to probe here then, beautifully and brilliantly, the glittering surface of a glimpsed, possible 'event'.

This is perhaps nowhere so evident as in the very strong 'Savonarolas', in which we find, as well as this imagistic flair, a great deal of a posteriori process and penetration:

Would I die for one who lived in the shadow
of Giotto's stocky portals,
belly red-scaled as a duomo, brow
a fount of black, horse-hair bristles, cypresses?

Would I live for one who died in the noon-glare
of a secular hour, vanity's firebrand,
forgetting a fragrant bread, the sweetest wine, the thrust
                                of rosemary –
thirsting for water?

Oh, but together, they'll make a ghost of me.

This is impressive in so many ways: its formal symmetry, which still allows for the sharp turn of its parabola, gives onto a final line opening onto new perspectives of ontological reflection. That first stanza is as rhetorically dense as any of Ronsard's physical descriptions in Les Amours. Later, the poem seems almost Petrarchan in the sharp torque of that last line's volta.

For every less inspiring variation, then, on 'a screen of white down/ lies aggrieved', we find many others signs of a poetic intelligence here which proves more completely successful. Take, for instance, the brief, unassuming phrase which we read in 'The Indifferent', and which we are liable to pass over at first reading: 'palimpsest of sands'. There are few poets today capable of finding such an expression: such precision of address mixed with ambiguous evocation.

And these instances of insufficient penetration I have mentioned remain, in the end, quite rare. It is no doubt this which makes the separate, perceptive 'events' of Bishop's writing so rewarding. It is no doubt also this which allows it to overcome, mostly, its risks.

Nicholas Manning is the editor of The Continental Review and teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, France.

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