DIGGING INTO THE EARTH’S SURFACE: Pondering Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop

To describe the planet aptly is one thing, but to understand one’s place on the planet is another one altogether. The poems of Elizabeth’s Bishop’s Geography III go beyond mere description of the earth’s surface and delve into how geography defines not only where we are on the planet but also who we are.

Many of the poems in Geography III contain geography as outlined in the epigraph (which was excerpted from a children’s primer)—lush descriptions of the natural world: its waters, its lands, its mountains, and its inhabitants—and yet many of the poems present an impressionistic view of the planet, a paradigm refracted through a lens specific to the speaker.

The phenomenon of contextualizing oneself into the world points to why Elizabeth Bishop may have chosen to title the collection Geography III as opposed to Geography I or Geography II; the geographies presented in the poems are more than just descriptions of the planet’s surface.

“Waiting Room,” the collection’s first poem, exemplifies this notion quite well. The speaker (presumably an older Bishop recalling a similar experience from her childhood) discovers strange and new lands via the hyperrealism found in the photographs of a National Geographic magazine. This exposure to distant, exotic, and “horrifying” cultures existing concurrently (a fact that the speaker confirms by checking the magazine’s publication date) overwhelms the speaker to the point that the dentist’s waiting room recedes beneath “a big black wave/another, and another.” The speaker’s impressionistic depiction of her epiphany contrasts sharply against the realistic photos and text that triggers the speaker’s epiphany.

The young Elizabeth absorbed a second and third lesson in geography that February evening; she has learned that life exists beyond the waiting room, beyond her family, beyond the night in outside Worcester.

I normally prefer shorter, denser poetry, so I relished the opportunity to read some verse that moves as languidly as the row of clapboard buildings appearing in “the Moose.” Because of the quotidian nature of the Bishop’s diction and syntax, however, I found that her poems read more like prose than poetry in many places. Granted, the complex imagery of some of the poems belied the simple language, but I enjoy metaphor and allusion as well, and many of the poems lacked any powerful or impactful comparisons. Finally, I must commend Bishop’s ability to work well within complex and intricate forms such as sestinas and villanelles. Often, I have to repeat to myself her authorial aside from “One Art” to “Write it!” while trying to write poetry in such difficult forms.

Should I come across another Elizabeth Bishop poem, I would most certainly read it and recommend that you do the same.

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