loss

Marjorie Perloff on: "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Flocks roost before dark Coveys nestle and settle

Meditation of a world's vast Memory

Predominance pitched across history Collision or collusion with history

--Howe, Articulations

The two words are identical except for a single letter: according to the OED, collision means "1. The action of colliding or forcibly striking or dashing together; violent encounter of a moving body with another. 2a. The coming together of sounds with harsh effect. 3.fig. Encounter of opposed ideas, interests, etc. clashing, hostile encounter." Whereas collusion means "Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery."

What a difference a phoneme makes! One's collision with history may be accidental, an encounter of opposed ideas neither planned nor anticipated. One's collusion, on the other hand, is by definition premeditated. Attentiveness to such difference (/i/ versus /uw/) has always distinguished Susan Howe's "history poems" from those of her contemporaries. . . .

Perhaps the best place to show how this process works is in Howe's most recent book, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. On the first and otherwise blank page of this long poem, we read:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest scape esaid

From seaweed said: the story to be told here, if not quite "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves" (Hopkins), evidently consists of fragments shored from the ocean of our American subconscious. Yet one cannot "repossess [the] rest"; or, since what is said from seaweed cannot be repossessed, one must rest one's case. Or just rest. "Scape" may refer either to the seascape or to the landscape or, most plausibly, it may be an abridged version of escape: "there is, no escape, he said," or "let it be said from what the seaweed said" (cf. Eliot's "What the Thunder Said"), no escape, moreover, from the desire to repossess the rest.

Obviously there are many ways of interpreting the eight words in these two lines, which is not to say that they can mean anything we want them to mean. We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to "repossess" something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s's (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e's ando's, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. And so small are the individual morphemes--from, said, scape, esaid--that we process them one by one, with difficulty. This "saying" "from seaweed" will evidently not be easy.

Who speaks these opening lines? The voice is impersonal, part bardic, part comic--a voice akin to Beckett's in Ping or Lessness. But the abrupt opening is immediately juxtaposed to a document, a text taken from the "real" world, namely, an "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781,) of Stephen Williams to President Styles":

[Perloff quotes the Williams letter]

I reproduce this document in its entirety so that we can see what Howe does with her donnée. For Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is by no means a retelling of the Hope Atherton story or the invention of an up-to-date analogue that points to the "relevance" of the Indian Wars to our own time. Still, the story, as gleaned from the letter above and from a number of old chronicles of New England towns, is inscribed everywhere in Howe's poem. It draws, for example, upon the basic paradox that the Reverend Hope Atherton, ostensibly a Man of God, would accompany the Colonial militia on an Indian raid. And further, that having somehow gotten separated "from the company," this "little man with a black coat and without a hat," as one chronicle calls him, would surrender himself to the Indians, only to be rejected by them as suspect, indeed perhaps the "Englishman's God." Suspect as well to his own people, who, upon his return to Hatfield, refused to believe his story. Atherton, in the words of the chronicle, "never recovered from the exposure" and died within the year, an isolated figure, indeed something of a pariah.

Such "untraceable wandering" culminating in the "nimbus of extinction" is, so Howe believes, a ubiquitous fact of early New England history, and its burden continues to haunt our language.

. . . .

In a sermon of 28 May 1670, reproduced in one of Howe's sources for Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the Reverend Hope Atherton recalls that when, in his forest wanderings, he came face to face with the Indians, "I spake such language as I thought they understood." But evidently "they" did not understand, and this failure-to-understand what the other is saying becomes Howe's point of departure inArticulation. Here is the opening poem of part 1, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings":

Prest try to set after grandmother  revived by and laid down left ly  little distant each other and fro  Saw digression hobbling driftwood  forage two rotted beans & etc.  Redy to faint slaughter story so  Gone and signal through deep water  Mr. Atherton's story  Hope Atherton

We note right away that in this poem Hope Atherton is not a "character," with such and such traits and a definable history. The "Wanderings" of Howe's title (there are sixteen sections in part 1, ranging in length from two to fifteen lines) are presented, not as articulations of time--not, that is to say, as accounts of what happened--but in time, in the time it takes to articulate the "sound forms" themselves. Thus poem #1 is a deceptive square (eight lines of predominantly eight- and nine-syllable lines), which tries to contain, both visually and aurally, the linguistic displacements produced by a faulty memory.

The first word, Prest, may refer to Atherton's condition: he was pressed by the Indians to "try to set after" his own people, perhaps after he was revived by a grandmother and left to lie ("ly") in the forest. But the absence of the subject or object of "Prest" brings other meanings into play: "oppressed," impressed," "presto." We cannot be sure whom "he" (if there is a he here) was "revived by," or whose "grandmother" is involved. As for "left ly," the tiny suffix makes it possible to bring to bear a whole host of -ly words: "left mercilessly," "left unkindly," "left ruthlessly," "left carelessly." The reader is given all these options; he or she can construct any number of scenarios in which two people are lying a "little distant [from] each other" and moving to and "fro." It is only dimly, after all, that we can reconstruct the Colonial/Indian conflict, with the colonists' "hobbling driftwood" and "forag[ing] two rotted beans & etc."--"& etc." suggests that it is what comes after speech ceases that matters--as well as the militia's "Redy to faint slaughter story," a story, "Mr. Atherton's story," now "so gone" that it can only come to us as a "signal through deep water."

Not only does Howe frequently decompose, transpose, and refigure the word (as in ly); she consistently breaks down or, as John Cage would put it, "demilitarizes" the syntax of her verbal units. Reading the poem above, one is never sure what subject pronoun goes with what verb, what object follows a given preposition, which of two nouns a participle is modifying, what phrases a conjunction connects, and so on. An extraordinarily taut sound structure--e.g., "revived by and laid down left ly"--holds in check a syntax that all but breaks down into babble. Indeed, by poem #8 all the connectives that make up "normal" syntax have been abandoned:

rest chrondriacal lunacy velc cello viable toil quench conch uncannunc drumm amonoosuck ythian

Is "rest" a noun or a verb and how does it relate to "chondriacal" (hyperchondriacal?) "lunacy"? In line 2, "velc" may be an abridgment of "velocity," which doesn't help us make sense of the intricately sounded catalog "velc cello viable toil"; in line 3, "uncannunc" contains both "uncanny" and "annunciation" (the prophecy, perhaps of the "conch" shell which cannot "quench" our thirst); in line 4, the Anglo-Saxon ("drumm"), Indian ("amonoosuck"), and Greek ("ythian") come together in a "collusion" that makes us wonder if the "rest" isn't some sort of hyperchondriacal lunacy on Atherton's part. Or, some would say, a "lunacy" on the poet's part as well.

What justifies such extreme verbal and syntactic deconstruction, a decomposition that has become something of a Howe signature? Is the obscurity of Articulation merely pretentious? Confronted by lines like "velc cello viable toil," many readers have closed the book, concluding that the poet is talking only to herself. The charges leveled against "language poetry" in general--obscurity, abstraction, lack of emotion, the absence of lyric selfhood--all these can easily be leveled at Susan Howe. Yet even readers unsympathetic to her work, readers who claim a book like Articulation is too private, that it isn't really "about" anything, will, I submit, find themselves repeating lines like "velc cello viable toil," if for no other apparent value than their complex music, the way e, l, and c in the first word reappear as cel in the second, or the way the v, e, l in velc reappear in the very different sounding word viable, the latter also containing the l of cello and toil.

Is this then jabberwocky, nonsense verse? If Howe wants to talk about Hope Atherton's mission to the Indians or apply the 'themes" implicit in the tale--Colonial greed, Puritan zeal, the fruits of imperialism, the loneliness of exile, the inability to communicate with the Other--to the contemporary situation, why doesn't she just get on with it? Even a prose piece like the Mary Rowlandson essay is, after all, by and large comprehensible.

It would be easy to counter that the breakdown of articulation, which is the poem's subject, is embodied in the actual breakdown of the language, that the fragmentation of the universe is somehow mirrored in the fragmentary nature of the text. But the fact is that in Howe's work, as in Charles Bernstein's or Lyn Hejinian's, demilitarization of syntax may well function in precisely the opposite way--namely, as a response to the all-too-ordered, indeed formulaic, syntax that characterizes the typical "workshop" poem.

Poem #5, for example, articulates a "sound form" that refers to Hope Atherton's journey home:

Two blew bird eggs plat Habitants before dark Little way went mistook awake  abt again Clay Gully  espied bounds to leop over  Selah cithera Opynnc be  5 rails high houselot Cow  Kinsmen I pray you hasten  Furious Nipnet Ninep Ninap  Little Pansett fence with ditch  Clear stumps grubbing ploughing  Clearing the land

"Two blew bird eggs plat": "blew" is a pun on "blue" and "plat" means "flat" as well as the truncated "plate." The image of the "Two blew bird eggs plat" gives a fairy-tale aura to this segment of the journey, as does "Little way went mistook" with its Hansel and Gretel echo. Again, the "bounds to leop over" ["Ieop" is OE for "leap"] are more than "houselot" divisions, for the real crossing of the poem is over the borders into another language where the "babble-babel" is formed from words and sounds taken from Hebrew ("Selah"), Indian ("Nipnet Ninep Ninap"), and English ("Clay Gully"), with the mythological reference to Venus's isle "Cythera" thrown in.

The poems now become increasingly fragmented, gnomic, enigmatic, as if the breakdown depicted is not so much Hope's as that of language itself. Regression sets in, poem #9 going back to Anglo-Saxon origins:

scow aback din flicker skaeg ne barge quagg peat sieve catacomb stint chisel sect

and then in #13 to a kind of aphasia, words, now without any modification or relationship, being laid out on the page as follows:

chaotic  architect  repudiate  line  Q  confine  lie   link  realm circle  a  euclidean  curtail  theme  theme  toll   function  coda severity whey  crayon  so  distant  grain  scalp  gnat   carol omen  Cur  cornice  zed  primitive  shad  sac  stone   fur  bray tub  epoch  too  tall  fum  alter  rude  recess   emblem  sixty  key

Epithets young in a box told as you fly

By this time, Hope's search has become the poet's search. It is the poet who must deal with the "chaotic," must "repudiate" the "line" that "confine[s]," the "euclidean" "circle" too neat in its resolution of "theme theme," and the "severity" of its "coda." But one can also read this poem as dealing with any form of making, of "architect[ure]," the placement of "cornice" and "stone" so as to "alter rude" appearances. And the Indian motif never quite disappears, here found in the reference to "scalp," "gnat," "primitive," and "rude."

In #13, words are spread out insistently on the white ground of the page; in #15, by contrast, words run together:

MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree UpConcatenationLessonLittleAKantianEmpiricalMaoris HumTemporal-spatioLostAreLifeAbstractSoRemotePossess ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparition0penMostNotion is

The "collusion" that forces words into this particular "collision" is oddly painful: the text is, so to speak, wounded, as if to say that the nightmare war with the Savage Other has come back to haunt Hope/Howe with its "AKantian Empirical" "Force" or "Immanence" of "Mohegan" or "Maori" presence, its reference to "Shot," "Shower," "Fifty Tree," "ReddenBorderView." This particular lyric concludes with a refrain already articulated in #14, a couplet producing a verbal mirror image:

blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe     sideup even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort (B)draw scribe    upside

"Sideup"/"upside" is a breaking point; after this particular collision, the sequence suddenly shifts to the formal and coherent monologue (#17) of Hope Atherton himself:

Loving Friends and Kindred: - When I look back So short in charity and good works  We are a small remnant Of signal escapes wonderful in themselves  We march from our camp a little  and come home Lost the beaten track and so River section dark all this time We must not worry how few we are and fall from each other More than language can express Hope for the artist in America & etc This is my birthday These are the old home trees

On a first reading, this lyric coda seems excessively sentimental as well as unwarranted. Having wandered with great difficulty through the forest of the preceding lyrics, one is, of course, relieved to come into this clearing, to hear the sermonlike address to "Loving Friends and Kindred." But the resolution here provided--"We must not worry / how few we are and fall from each other / More than language can express / Hope for the artist in America & etc"--is a shade too easy, given the intractability of the material that has been put before us. How and why, after all, does Hope become Howe? How and why is there "Hope for the artist in America"? And finally, what do we do once we reach the birthday when we settle down under "the old home trees"?

. . . [T]he voicing of desire in Articulation, as in Howe's other poems, avoids the personal "I" so pervasive in contemporary lyric. Ostensibly absent and calling no attention to the problems and desires of the "real" Susan Howe, the poet's self is nevertheless inscribed in the linguistic interstices of her poetic text. Howe has been called impersonal, but one could argue that the "muffled discourse from distance," the "collusion with history" in her poetry, is everywhere charged with her presence. She is not, after all, a chronicler, telling us some Indian story from the New England past, but a poet trying to come to terms with her New England past, her sense of herself vis-à-vis the Colonial settlers' actions, her re-creation of the Hope Atherton story in relation to Norse myth as well as to contemporary feminist theory.

Most contemporary feminist poetry takes as emblematic its author's own experience of power relations, her personal struggle with patriarchy, her sense of marginalization, her view of social justice. There are Howe's subjects as well, but in substituting "impersonal" narratives--a narrative made of collage fragments realigned and recharged--for the more usual lyric "I," Howe is suggesting that the personal is always already political, specifically, that the contemporary Irish-American New England woman who is Susan Howe cannot be understood apart from her history. But history also teaches the poet that, however marginalized women have been in American culture and however much men have been the purveyors of power, those who have suffered the loss of the Word are by no means only women. Indeed, what Howe calls the "Occult ferocity of origin" is an obstacle that only a persistent "edging and dodging" will displace if we are serious about "Taking the Forest."

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff.

Lawrence Kramer: On "Syringa"

Singing accurately  

So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of  

Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers  

Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulizes  

The different weights of the things . ..

The poem’s title authorizes us to surmise that the "sparking yellow flowers" are syringa, which is a form of saxifrage. As its name suggests, saxifrage is a flower that breaks rocks, which it does here at the brink of the quarry. But Orpheus’s lament breaks rocks, too; and the connection invests the lament with a sense of fecundity. The flower breaks rocks with its beauty, affirming life on a desolate terrain, which is the traditional burden of elegiac song. When song rivals the flowers, it turns the "fissure" of quarry into a generative source, "the well of dim noon." The poem presses the point by another play on "syringa," which is derived from "syrinx," the Greek word for panpipe. True, the meditative voice may make this generous acknowledgment of the power of song only in order to get beyond it, to say that "it isn’t enough / To just go on singing." But that voice says so, precisely, as it does go on singing, making a poem, "Syringa," that is named for the rock-breaking flower and prompted by loss.

From Lawrence Kramer, "’Syringa’: John Ashbery and Elliott Carter" in David Lehman, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1980), 262-263.

Thomas Travisano: On "For the Union Dead"

Lowell's "For the Union Dead" vastly expands the context of individual experiences of loss presented in more concentrated form in the previous poems. In a succession of subtly linked vignettes, Lowell probes the personal, intellectual, cultural, and political ramifications of an array of locally defined losses. Vanished buildings, displaced monuments, misplaced childhoods, crumbling traditions, frayed dignity, and annihilated cities are represented in successive quatrains through the eyes of a historically aware individual—apparently a dramatized avatar of the poet-reviewing the changes rapidly overtaking his native city and its once dominant Brahmin culture. The texture of the poem fluctuates between graphic, hypercharged super-realism and a curiously distanced, dreamlike reverie. It alludes to Lowell's childhood tellingly in its second stanza, and a "cowed," childlike confusion in the face of unfathomable experience is invoked again later in the poem.

But perhaps most tellingly, Lowell objectifies the process of loss by his persistent attention to visual objects. Often these visual objects are monuments of some public note. After an Latin epigraph that slightly but significantly alters the motto to the Saint-Gaudens statue dedicated to Colonel Shaw's regiment (the altered version translates as "They relinquished everything to serve the Republic" instead of "He relinquished . . ."), the poem proper begins by examining visual evidence of other forms of relinquishment. This examination starts with a public monument whose significance seems largely personal, the "old South Boston Aquarium." Not yet torn down, this structure has relinquished its old function. It "stands / in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. . . . / The airy tanks are dry" (FUD 70). A diminished survivor, the aquarium is just the first of many attenuated monuments that populate the poem. Soon center stage shifts to Saint-Gaudens's "shaking Civil War relief," now "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and to the neighboring Statehouse, another monument, that relinquishes its own traditional centrality and dignity. Braced and held upright by girders and gouged out underneath to make room for a parking garage, it appears as a symbolic victim of the modern, mechanical dynamism that persistently displaces the traditional past.

Such local cultural attrition provides the context for losses of a different order. These begin, of course, with reflections on the death of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment during the Civil War, losses that, despite their tragic nature, had a lofty social purpose. But this is balanced by modern destruction of a still more devastating order, represented by a advertising poster of "Hiroshima boiling." This visual object points with casual indifference toward two dominant postmodern fears that disturbed all four of these poets: the threat of nuclear holocaust and the onset of a devouring commercialism. For example, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 dismayed Randall Jarrell as profoundly as the firebombing and massive destruction of Hamburg did Lowell (see also Jarrell's own quietly heartbreaking "The Angels at Hamburg" for his response to the destruction by firestorm of this German city, where the death toll, by some estimates, exceeded that of Nagasaki.) The age of nuclear anxiety that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (so vividly crystallized in Lowell's "Fall 1961") provides a backdrop for Lowell's mature poetry as well as for the poetry of Berryman and Jarrell. And there is evidence in the polemical essays of Jarrell's prose collection A Sad Heart at the Supermarket and in poems like "Next Day," as well as throughout Berryman's Dream Songs, of the degree to which the burgeoning of a callous and triumphant commercialism in the fifties and sixties disturbed them. During these same years, Bishop moved to Brazil in part to evade the mass-production culture that was increasingly dominating her native land.

Just as Lowell's "For the Union Dead" presents its catalog of losses, so, too, does it present a peculiar, and parallel, catalog of survivors: almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but it stands. Its "cowed, compliant fish" may be no more, but a "bronze weathervane cod" still sits atop the roof, even though it "has lost half its scales" (FUD 70). Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:

                            Everywhere,  giant finned cars nose forward like fish;  a savage servility  slides by on grease.

These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static and attenuated simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations. Some of the poem's many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, and live on in the form of monuments, statues, pictures, and other visual objects. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer physical erosion and a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect. But there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs, who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe, whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial, mindless, and mechanistic order.

By contrast, the displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors. It preserves in vicarious stasis its "bronze Negroes," who maintain a curious simulation of life (William James could "almost hear [them] breathe"), a life mirrored by the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s]," who "doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns." But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" because it is an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in downtown Boston. This is true in part because racism and racial tension also survive, as does a replica of the ditch in which Colonel Shaw and his black Massachusetts volunteers were buried without the customary military honors by the Confederate soldiers who mowed them down at Fort Wagner. The form of that ditch is further replicated in the very "underworld garage" being gouged beneath the Statehouse. The continuing reality of racism reappears in "the drained faces of Negro school-children" whom the narrator observes on television attempting to integrate southern schools (FUD 70-72). But Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem's protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized. His predicament bears more than a passing resemblance to the speaker's long dead "uncle Charles," of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid"—another Union officer and leader of "colored volunteers," buried on that occasion in Concord and with full military honors, attended by "Phillips Brooks and Grant." Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing. For this

    Colonel is as lean  as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,  a greyhound's gentle tautness;  he seems to wince at pleasure,  and suffocate for privacy.

His wincing at pleasure, his erect, and perhaps narrow moral rigidity ("lean / as a compass-needle") is derived from a culture growing from deeply rooted Puritan beliefs in public probity and Election, out of keeping with a pleasure-seeking and profoundly commercialized contemporary culture. He yearns to escape from history's spotlight. Understanding the value of sacrifice for a higher good, he remains inflexible in its pursuit, and this places him on the margins of contemporary culture.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,  peculiar power to choose life and die—  when he leads his black soldiers to death,  he cannot bend his back.

Though Colonel Shaw represents an almost oppressive maturity, childhood remains a constant presence throughout the poem, and the gestures and wishes of childhood persist in the adult. The child's awareness is introduced in the second stanza, which generates much of the poem's continuing imagery, imagery persistently identified both with the poem's central observer and with the city's modern urban planners. The child whose "nose crawled like a snail on the glass" of the aquarium parallels the adult who "pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence on the Boston Common." The child's impulse "to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish" suggests a temptation toward violent gesture that is echoed throughout the poem. Of course, fish don't have noses or make bubbles, as the poet surely knew, so this must be a memory, that, like so many of the objects in the poem, has suffered metamorphosis. Though the impulse to violence is later transferred to other figures, we see it first in the speaker. His yearning for "the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" reflects a yearning to reach back through the premoral awareness of early childhood to the amoral aware- ness of the lower vertebrates (FUD 70).

The body of the poem frequently echoes this yearning to escape from cognition and the pain of historical awareness and self-consciousness and responsibility, an escape that the leaders of Boston seem already to have achieved. It might also imply a yearning for the freedom to act on baser instinct, a freedom shared by the lower vertebrates but rejected by Colonel Shaw. The "Parking spaces" that "luxuriate like civic / sandpiles in the heart of Boston" suggest this lingering childishness in the minds of the city's urban planners. But the speaker of the poem is not exempt. When he crouches before his television set to watch the "Negro school-children," he is mimicking his own action as a child peering through the glass of the fish tank; the school children whose faces "rise like balloons" echo the bubbles the child saw in the fish tank and seem just as trapped as the fish (FUD 70-72). The child is thus complexly imaged as both aggressor and victim, in a separate world from the adult, yet inexorably linked to adult consciousness.

Dream textures weave in and out of the poem, despite its prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, and dream-logic knits the various strands. The poem's logic resembles the subtle, associational logic of dreams, with its many surrealistic images, its curious doublings and transformations. The "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier" may be lost in a dream, as "they doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns," but the central dream-figure is Colonel Shaw himself. When last seen:

Colonel Shaw  is riding on his bubble,  he waits  for the blessèd break.

The bubble he rides survives, with typical dream logic, from the fish tank, and from the faces of the school children who "rise like balloons." Colonel Shaw yearns to escape the vicarious simulation of life in which he is trapped, to depart a world that has a stable place for him neither in its public environs nor in its collective awareness, and to achieve the "privacy" for which he continually "suffocates." Shaw's final heroism may be the fact that he lingers still, in spite of his yearning to depart.

In his review of Lord Weary’s Castle, Jarrell noted that Lowell's "poems often use cold as a plain and physically correct symbol for what is constricted and static" in contemporary culture (P&A 210). In "For the Union Dead" Lowell uses the temporary displacement of Saint Gaudens's bronze relief of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment in a context awash in parking lots, finned cars, and crass commercialization, to create "a plain and physically correct symbol" for the violent yet barely conscious displacement of mourning in the postmodern world.

from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Makeup of a Postmodern Aesthetic. UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by UP of Virginia.

 

Elizabeth Dodd on "One Art"

"One Art" is Bishop's one example of a villanelle, a form she admired and tried to work with for years. It is widely considered a splendid achievement of the villanelle. . . . Loss is its subject, but the poem begins almost trivially. The first line, casual and disarming, returns throughout the poem. The natural-sounding contraction helps to create the semblance of real speech even within this complex form, and the details and examples that follow immediately do not, indeed, seem like great losses. Door keys, a wasted hour, even forgotten names certainly do not warrant the term consistently invoked by the rhyme: "disaster." But the poem builds, until "cities" and "realms" -- of great import to this geographically inclined poet implied by this and all her books -- have been lost.

Not until the final quatrain, bringing the villanelle to the completion of its required form, does the real occasion of the poem appear. Here the loss is very personal, a person, "you." Yet the details and attributes here too are muted. Only parenthetically does Bishop reveal the importance of the you: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)," yet love is evident through the speaker's difficulty in revealing herself. There is a slight change, too, in the refrain line: "the art of losing's not too hard to master," qualifying that original assertion that loss "isn't hard to master." And in the final line the speaker must even exhort herself to complete the rhyme – (Write it!) -- since disaster looms very large indeed. Yes, says the poem, this is a great loss, which I am still working to master. After the suicide of Macedo Soares, Bishop returned to the United States, and so the loss of lands and love compound one another. At least in part, "One Art" is a deeply felt elegy, but Bishop uses both a strict and difficult form and a casual, conversational tone to hush the emotional intensity. In this fine poem, her attempt to mute serves also to heighten the poignancy.

C. K. Doreski: On "One Art"

The simple sentence of the opening stanza seems to subvert the title, declaring that this poem is not about art; rather, it is concerned with an acquired skill, the "art of losing." Critics anxious to commiserate with poets will find this reading psychologically appealing. Not only does it guarantee numerous opportunities to rehearse this art, but (Bishop suggests through the acceleration of enjambment) supplies materials branded "with the intent / to be lost." This perishable quality simultaneously allows for repeated practice and diminishment, if not extinction, of the pain. The poet offers a primer for the mastery of disaster, couched in the Puritan form of the sermon to others for their moral improvement.

Mindful always of the common auditor, Bishop forces the second stanza to visualize with the philosophical ruminations of the first. Readers learn precisely how to master this art, and are urged to practice, to make it into a virtuous habit: "Lose something every day." A further injunction counsels the reception and approval of that resulting disorder—the "fluster"—produced by haste, undue agitation. Loss, art, master, disaster—the lofty conceptual diction of the first stanza crumbles in the mockery of this near rhyme. The "lost door keys, the hour badly spent" become concrete entities and lost time. The refrain vulgarly collides with "fluster"—to master fluster?—in an uneasy rhyme casting the very tone of the poem into doubt.

Bishop enforces a progressively dynamic, almost uncontrollable, schedule of loss in the third stanza.Then simply shifts the focus to the next lesson. No longer does the homilist tally manageable, sympathetic incidents; the poem has moved beyond them to over- whelming concerns: places, names, and destinations. Each reader must supply concrete examples. The "intent" of the first stanza blossoms into the broader intentions of "where it was you meant / to travel" of the third stanza. Bishop continues to induce specific details from the reader as the pace and range grow. Soon drained of places, names, and travel plans, the reader must struggle to fill the lists. The muted refrain rings hollow as these clustered categories of loss and faster/disaster cacophonize.

After the impersonal professorial tone, the abrupt introduction of the lyric I requires immediate reappraisal of all that comes before this stanza. The homilist's experiential knowledge, suppressed in the first half of the poem, surfaces as the teacher has obviously experienced frustration in the auditor's ability to comprehend these lessons of loss. Bishop draws to the heart of the matter and summons the ultimate parting gift, her mother's watch—an artifact that links the living and dead, recalling a time, expressing a generation—making tangible the feeling of irretrievable loss. Bishop literally lost her mother's time, as the stories "In the Village" and "Gwendolyn," and the poems "Sestina" and "Manners" all demonstrate. Looking beyond autobiography to the truth of this loss, however, Bishop exploits what is, after all, only one more "minor family relic."

The exemplum confounds conventional ideas of the subjective and objective, and demonstrates that loss is grave and universal, but too conventional to be deeply personal. She defers the threat of sentiment by the sweeping rhetorical gesture of "And look!" Her life, no longer a chaos of events, seems orderly and safe as Bishop inventories and schedules her losses: "my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went." Her autobiography assumes an oddly reassuring linearity and predictability as the poem hurtles toward its closure. In spite of approximate knowledge—"my last, or next- to-last"—the end is palpable by its very proximity.

This registry of loss proceeds to the missing "three loved houses." Even that great modifier loved cannot convert these houses into homes. In spite of the wisdom of Bishop's crusade—"Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" (see "Crusoe in England")—the expatriot narrating this poem remains homeless.

The narrator, further emboldened by self-knowledge, begins again with "I lost." The scale has tipped; forsaking the personal for "two cities, lovely ones" the poet supplies lineaments and character to these scenic vagaries. Like the child-artist of "Sestina," the speaker approaches the unspecified, the unembraceable, yet concrete, type of loss: "two rivers, a continent," the loss of which suggest the impermanence, the unpossessable nature of the earth itself.

Though there remains a tension between the public and private exempla, that tension is ill-defined and ill-conceived. Bishop has adhered to the standards and expectations of her aesthetic; she has captured knowledge within the language and form of the villanelle. Yet with the displaced utterance delivered sotto voce, Bishop conveys a struggle between growing self-knowledge and her poetic of reticence in this dialogue between the self and the lost. "Even" moors this hierarchy of loss to that always poorly articulated world of extremity—without you, I can't go on, I can't live without you—those contracted conditionals meant to express the inexpressible love between two people. What threatens to emerge is that very thing her rhetoric strives to cloak: the self, naked to the vagaries of language. This ultimate series of I-You dependencies is the final protest against human perishability. Herein lies the true lesson of loss: "—Even losing you." Turning from her common audience, Bishop allows the parenthetically ensnared qualities to create a caesura: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)." Readers participate in the auditory and visual recall of pleasure (not pain) reduced to this synecdoche for the severed other. The positive qualities of this ultimate sacrifice displace the irritations and categorizations that came before in the poem. The situation challenges not the pupils but the master herself. In the almost processional resignation of "I shan’t have lied. It's evident" rests the captive wisdom of the poem. In the extended refrain—

the art of losing’s not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—readers see that parenthetical cure for the only true disaster. This encapsulated lesson is for the master alone; unlike the free, gestural "And look!" designed to deflect attention from the self, the parenthetical injunction maps a course for only one. The poet knows that only knowledge, not wisdom, can be shared. Like the child in "Sestina," the adult must also make something of absence. Her reward is the knowledge with which to write. In this rare command—"(Write it!)"—Bishop distinguishes herself from even Stevens’s "Snow Man," who is "nothing himself," emerging as she does in this dramatic echo of William Carlos Williams’s "Say It!"

The formal constraints of the sestina and villanelle freed Bishop to work with personal material without inducing the maudlin self-despairing tone she despised. The most forbidding and private sorrows, monumentalized in art, oddly affirm human dignity, emotion, and care.

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

Susan McCabe: On "One Art"

Though personal loss is often not explicitly confronted in Bishop's poems, it pervades them. Readers of Bishop frequently turn to "One Art" in Geography III as distinctively Bishopian in its restraint, formality, classicism. Yet this poem deals openly with loss and has been rightly called by J. D. McClatchy "painfully autobiographical." The formal demands of the villanelle keep "squads of undisciplined emotion" from overwhelming the poem, while James Merrill has spoken of "One Art" as resuscitating the villanelle in that its "key lines seem merely to approximate themselves, and the form, awakened by a kiss, simply toddles off to a new stage in its life, under the proud eye of Mother, or the Muse." Personal expression makes the form looser, more pliant and intimate. In fact, Bishop uses form frequently, and especially here, to show its arbitrariness, its attractive flimsiness. Bishop claims that she had not been able to write a villanelle before but that "One Art," possessing a somewhat diaristic dating through its metrics and tone, "was like writing a letter." It is a form tellingly imitative of the obsessional behavior of mourners with their need for repetition and ritual as resistance to "moving on" and their inevitable search for substitutions.

We are ultimately left not with control but with the unresolved tension between mastery and a world that refuses to be mastered; we are left with language. Restraint is tense hilarity here:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture  I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident  the art of losing's not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 The imperative self-prompt "(Write it!)" conveys the immense energy needed to utter the last word of "disaster." From the beginning, Bishop presents "the art of losing" as perverse rejection of the desire to win. In the poem's alternating rhyme of "master" with "disaster," disaster has the last word. "The art of losing isn't hard to master" is true because losing is all we do. The poem reveals a struggle for mastery that will never be gained. We can only make loss into therapeutic play. One does try to master loss, but Bishop recommends that we recognize our powerlessness and play with the conditions of loss: the blurring and splitting of presence and absence, being and nonbeing.

Bishop's "art of losing" resembles what Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle calls the rule of "fort-da" (gone / there), after a game his grandson constructed in his mother's absence:

 The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering the expressive "o-o-o-o." He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful "da" ("there"). This, then, was the complete game—disappearance and return.

At first perplexed by an impulse seemingly opposed to the pleasure principle, by a symbolic repetition of the distressing experience of the mother's departure, Freud offers two explanations for the child's apparent gratification in this loss game.

At the outset he was in a passive situation--he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part. These efforts might be put down to an instinct for mastery acting independently of whether the (repeated) memory were in itself pleasurable or not. But still another interpretation may be attempted. Throwing away the object so that it was "gone" might satisfy an impulse of the child's, which was suppressed in his actual life, to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him. In that case it would have a defiant meaning: "All right, then, go away! I don't need you. I'm sending you away myself." (10)

Freud finally hands over to a "system of aesthetics" (17) the consideration of how pleasure can come from repeating traumatic moments of dissatisfaction. The child's rendering of loss in symbolic terms with the accompanying verbalization "fort-da" suggests that loss marks entry into language, as language marks entry into the awareness of the presence of absence. The shifting between such appearance and disappearance. as we have seen, becomes quite vivid through abruptly sequential sentences of "In the Village":

First, she had come home. with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.

In a sense, Bishop practices the "instinctual renunciation" Freud points to in her poem not only by making loss an intention and active practice (as she does by swallowing the coins and burying the needles in the story) but by losing and recuperating words in rhyme. Poetry can imitate through refrain the experience of "fort-da."

The poet's "one art" handles plural loss; but the expansion of this phrase to include so much validates such activity as the one and only one possible—with death as the ultimate project to be undertaken even as it is postponed within language. The middle line endings weave together to spell ultimate "evident" loss—"intent" / "spent," "meant" / "went": the other side of will and choice must always be loss of control, abandon, renunciation. Bishop instructs us: "Lose something every day," and in the third stanza, "Then practice losing farther, losing faster." The tercets logically build up from small (keys) to big (continent) with demonic precision and momentum. We are reassured by the second stanza that mastery will come to the novice in time, that we will develop the ability to "[a]ccept the fluster." Yet the items lost become increasingly personal with her "mother's watch" at the center, deliberately at the beginning of a line as if to skip over it with a distracting exclamation, one that further heightens the way the poem presents a consciousness in process:

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or  next-to-last, of three loved houses went.  The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Still a potentially "last" or "yet-to-be-dismantled" house remains for us to see slip away from the poet, but there will always, one senses, be a further house, the never-to-be-secure home of her childhood that must be continually refigured, the child of "Sestina" drawing yet "another inscrutable house." As we move forward, we also step backwards. The watch stands in for her mother's absence and loss—a timekeeper that reflects its inability to "keep" time. Embedded in the loss of the watch is also the loss of her mother's caretaking and vigilance, as well as her father's position as timekeeper.

In the penultimate stanza, she leaps from the moment of initial loss:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,  some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.  I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

She can afford to let go of these "realms" because her imagination can provide new ones. She travels from one tercet to the next, pushing the poem in opposing directions with rhyme. Crisis occurs just when we might expect "mastery." Even within lines there emerges the desire for mastery along with its inevitable breakdown. Enjambed lines in all stanzas but the next to last indicate slippage. A complete sentence occupies only part of a line in stanzas 2, 4, and 5 and so disintegrates any effect of finality or surety. Movement in time—"losing farther, losing faster"—is loss, and Bishop reinforces her theme of displacement with "farther" liminally haunted by "father."

Bishop's characteristic dash emphasizes breakage and propels us forward into the last enjambed four lines:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture  I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident  the art of losing's not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Loss and love are significantly enjambed with the first two lines of this final stanza, but they not only confess how loss and love are bound, but give continuing evidence of "I love)," risked with a solitary parenthesis in the line. The most intimate words are not deemphasized by being parenthesized but blaze out as a temporary withholding, as her most prominent resistance to and acceptance of losing. We no longer have an object such as the timepiece standing ill for a person but an evanescent voice and gesture, silhouette and trace. There appears a breakdown also in the certainty of the declaration "The art of losing isn’t hard to master" by the addition of "not too hard" and an admission of strain with the fiercely whispered "(Write it!)" between the stuttered double "like." Her "write it" is another way of saying "don't lose it. " But disaster exceeds troping. Writing reveals a doubleness: Bishop wants language to gain mastery, but writing brings us back to the recognition of displacement and loss. Rhyming, dashing, parenthesizing, joking—all these are activities meant to contain but in emphatic practice remind only how such strategies finally fail. They can lead to renunciation not by making "disaster" into reified form but by accepting it as process and reenactment.

 The "work of mourning," explains Freud, involves a gradual withdrawal of investment from a loved and lost object but against such a necessity "a struggle of course arises—as maybe universally observed that man never willingly abandons a libido position, not even when a substitute is already beckoning to him." Bishop's art is one that gives up fixed positions. We can now understand, perhaps, how "One Art" is only seemingly far removed from The Diary or "In the Village": these texts demonstrate as well, as we have seen, Bishop's concern with absence as it participates in writing. Language insists upon presence but always keeps loss in sight through its movement; ultimately it cannot hold back the fluid self and reminds us of the space left between us and our words.

 Elaborating upon Freud's "fort-da," which brings language and loss together, Jacques Lacan asserts that the experience of primal loss and the emergence of identity coincide in language. An originary unrelocatable moment, removing us from a state of undifferentiated wholeness with our mothers, commits us to continuous desire and translates us into the symbolic order of language and law. We become bound up in the paradoxical condition that "is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting"; our "demand for love," the articulation of it, then, puts us forever out of love's reach. Coming to see and say ourselves outside of the maternal body, we call ourselves others and feel the loss that this entails.

Since our identity, our assertion of "I," can only be constituted through language, according to Lacan, we see ourselves as whole or unified subjectivities only through the "function of meconnaissance" most notable in the mirror stage when the child sees its fragmented drives and motor impulses duplicated as a whole-but a whole that rests on the split or chasm necessitated by mirroring; the "meconnaissance" occurs as "form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction" and offers a gestalt, or "an exteriority in which this form . . . is certainly more constituent than constituted" and that "symbolizes the mental permanence of the I, at the same time as it prefigures its alienating destination." Language, thus, aids us in believing the false vision of wholeness even as it shows such a vision to be an oversight. Consciousness attempts to veil over the power of the signifier over the signified, "the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier" that represents the operation of the unconscious. Poems that reflect such ontological uneasiness will appear from Bishop's first volume on, with its "Gentleman of Shalott" presenting a character divided by a shifting, unstable mirror, living within the breach "of constant re-adjustment, " within perpetual yet "exhilarating" uncertainty and halfness (CP, 9). Such a poem almost literalizes the Lacanian fracturing of the self.

Lacan, as does Bishop, always points us back to our language. Dreams rely upon the functions in language of metonymy and metaphor, covered over in waking consciousness to conceal fissure. Both metaphor and metonymy reveal that we cannot escape an endless chain of signifiers. Metaphor corresponds to "condensation," the superimposition of one signifier upon another: "One word for another, that is the formula for metaphor"; metonymy, on the other hand, reflects "displacement," the continual "veering off of signification," the "eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else" ("Agency," 156), much like the tireless and timely parataxis another early poem "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" discovers in its own text and the childhood book it describes with "Everything only connected by 'and' and 'and"' (58).

According to Lacan's psycholinguistic model, we are constituted by a language that deconstitutes us, where "no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification" (150): subjectivity is always then, at risk, so precarious that it becomes appropriate to say: "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think" (166). The entry into the symbolic through the Oedipal event inaugurates a gendered subject while the desire for wholeness exists in excess of possible satisfaction: this desire for completion will be thwarted by the subject's fragmentation within language. The phallus comes to stand for that moment of rupture from the imaginary dyadic relation with the mother, where one does not feel desire for the Other, because the Other is yet the self, or not other, without limit or demarcation. Lacan's definition of demand is relevant in showing the gap that persists between the subject's need and demand; this gap constitutes desire, so that "[d]emand constitutes the Other as already possessing the privilege of satisfying needs, that is to say, the power of depriving them of that alone by which they are satisfied"; this explains the "unconditional element of the demand," which must look beyond itself to some fictive "'absolute' condition," and it is from such an absence, "the residue of an obliteration" that "the power of pure loss emerges," which cannot, in any last analysis, be singularized or pinpointed ("Signification," 287).

Such an understanding of language and identity as grounded in loss is central to Bishop's feminist attempt to undo fixed or unitary identity. Jacqueline Rose's introduction to Lacan's essays makes clear his acknowledgment that the phallus is made only to figure by anatomy and signals its own "pretence to meaning," and the impossibility of satisfying desire; sexual identity is only "enjoined" upon the individual through entrance into language. Because of the arbitrary element in gender division, Rose sees implicit in Lacan's argument the possibility that "anyone can cross over and inscribe themselves on the opposite side from that which they are anatomically destined" (49). Lacan's project, in this light, encourages boundary transgression, especially if we consider his belief that analysis should not allow an individual to mask over the precariousness of her or his identity.

In the Lacanian economy, woman becomes, however, "other. "As Rose exposes, the phallus is by no means unproblematically privileged, for it is: "from the Other that the phallus seeks authority and is refused," but even as woman is subversive Other, Rose does not think females have "access to a different strata of language" (as does Yaeger, for example, in her discussion of "In the Village"): there is no escape from the Law of the Father (55). However, as Lacan does not differentiate enough the breakage of mother-child dyad in terms of the child's gender, he misses the distinct relationship that persists between mother and daughter. The female may indeed, come to the symbolic via an alternate route—her language a different relation to loss. For the girl child, the ruptured primordial relationship may appear less final, and her gender role less reified than the boy's in his identification with his father, as Chodorow has described. Rose objects to Chodorow's apparent assumption of a unified identity (37), yet Chodorow acknowledges gender position as social construction that makes intrasubjective shifting more available to women; in his emphasis on lack and loss, Lacan does not acknowledge relation (as do both Chodorow and Bishop), primarily because his androcentric perspective posits woman as the eternal Other.

If language is joined inseparably with the recognition of loss, females come to that language doubly exiled from the dominant sign system. Nevertheless, identification with the mother makes for a potentially more pluralistic and multiple self. Julia Kristeva, for instance, rereads Lacan and posits a "questionable subject in process" that exists through the fluctuation between the poles of the semiotic (associated with the unconscious, the maternal, the disruptive) and the symbolic (responsible for the rational, the paternal, the systematic). She considers such movement "poetic language," which through its "signifying operations, is an unsettling process—when not an outright destruction—of the identity of meaning and the speaking subject," and links the feminine with poetry, or more precisely, with the disruption it produces. While she does not explicitly catalogue her writing as feminist or, for the most part, treat women writers, Kristeva tellingly concedes: "It is probably necessary to be a woman . . . not to renounce theoretical reason but to compel it to increase its power by giving it an object beyond its limits" (146).

Bishop's poems subvert the very forms—not in themselves radical or "avant-garde"—they employ. "One Art," specifically, casts itself either forward or backward: testing the limits of rational control, revealing the subject unsettled within flux; it literalizes displacement through its calling up of and discarding of objects. While "One Art" appears almost hyperrational, it remains consistent with Bishop's earlier more explicit surrealism—the Paris poems "Sleeping on the Ceiling," "Sleeping Standing Up," and "Paris, A.M.," to name the most striking—which openly affronts reason and logic, manipulating dream symbols in incongruously neat stanzas, to disorient and to trouble. We come upon form, yet cannot locate or settle into a "subject." Bishop wrote at least seventeen drafts of "One Art" before she considered it written.  Not surprisingly, the act of writing is a focal concern of the poem, as becoming an artist is in the story "In the Village." Earlier drafts of the poem show her struggling with the crucial final stanza where phrases such as "Say it," "Oh, go on, write it!" recur as she tries to allow herself to articulate "disaster." Draft 2 even has the tentative entitlement: "(Why not just write 'disaster'?)," protected within a parenthesis. The stilted archaism of "shan't" reveals the essential feebleness involved in the final version's assertion "I shan't have lied." In some of the telling drafts, she simply admits "all that I write is false. I'm writing lies now. It's quite evident"—with false crossed off. Writing may tempt us into lies, but it also shows us up. It is only in the process of "writing it" that Bishop can face the catastrophic losing of a love, though the drafts do not foresee surviving such an event: the first one trails off with the impossible maxim, "He who loseth his life, etc.—but he who / loses his love—never, no never never never never again—" (draft 1).

As Lorrie Goldensohn acutely reminds us in her study on Bishop, written with biography as guide to the poetry, we cannot read the poems in Geography III, and especially "One Art," underestimating the impact Lota's death had upon Bishop or without appreciating the topographical loss Bishop felt in repatriating to the States from Brazil: loss of person, home, family, country can hardly be disengaged (126). The seventeen drafts Bishop wrote present a series of "mislayings," a word Bishop uses in her first version, and the published poem continues to confess its inevitable lying. "I really / want to introduce myself," says draft 1: identity is predicated upon mislaying, so that like the more lavishly described loved one who disappears into a flickering "you," the "I" completely goes under. The "you" is at first an "average-sized" "dazzlingly intelligent person" with blue eyes that "were exceptionally beautiful" (draft 1), and does not, by the way, seem necessarily identifiable with Lota, but with all those whom she has lost or could lose. What becomes "eyes of the small wild aster" in draft 2 evaporates in the remaining trials. "One Art," with all its drafts, represents an archaeology of the struggle with losing. a process that is always with us, so that every loss comes to be all losses, retrogressive and prospective, shuttling through villanelle. As a love poem, "One Art," as Goldensohn points out, does not necessarily signpost a same-sex relationship. Yet it must; for we know what we know. It is stitched together through a lineage of female loss, with the mother's watch in the centrifugal position, with all other love relationships with women timed by it.

Throughout her work, Bishop will test and question the boundaries imposed by "theoretical reason" with the awareness that we must resort to them; if we continue to use Kristeva's model, language and sense emerge only in the spaces created through severance from the semiotic. Retrieval through rhyme in "One Art" again serves as a way of pointing up the passage of language from the semiotic through the symbolic; form becomes a net through, which identity and all its belongings slip. In spite of Bishop's reliance on form, her poem disturbs through its attention to arbitrary and frangible boundaries. Ultimately, Bishop practices forfeiture, a recognition of human limits and imperfection, and therefore, also a potentially freeing activity. When Adrienne Rich writes "It's true, these last few years I've lived / watching myself in the act of loss," she pointedly addresses Bishop's "One Art." Instead of sanctifying art, Rich insists upon imperfection, and says that "the art of losing" is "for [her] no art / only badly-done exercises." Rich's poem insists on the primacy of loss and refuses to accept "acts of parting." She concludes inconclusively:

trying to let go  without giving up     yes     Elizabeth  a village there     a sister, comrade, cat  and more     no art to this but anger  

Celebrating attachment to earthly things. Rich calls for a vitriolic response, not the pained submission that might be read in Bishop. Yet Rich's poem presents itself as both homage and umbrage in mirroring what "One Art" un- says by its terminal "disaster." Bishop does indeed feel her "heart forced to question its presumption in this world" (Rich, "Contradiction," Your Native Land, 98) because she does not see any reason to presume. Still "One Art" admits that—tied to the villanelle in a ritual exercise and exorcism of loss—she cannot but be caught up in desire and attachment. Bishop's poem suggests that she would like to write off artfully what she realizes always eludes inscription—those spaces marking the losses of a "questionable subject"; the form of poems becomes, again and again, expressive of the unruly processes of consciousness they denote. 

from Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by The Pennsylvania State UP.

J. D. McClatchy: On "One Art"

[McClatchy is discussing the last stanza.]

… The loss of love here is not over and thereby mastered, but threatened: a possibility brooded upon, or an act being endured. How Bishop dramatizes the threatened loss is uncanny. "I shan’t have lied," she claims. Under such intense emotional pressure she shifts to the decorous "shan’t," as if the better to distance and control her response to this loss, the newest and last. And again, my mind’s ear often substitutes "died" for "lied." In self-defense, lying makes a moral issue out of the heart’s existential dilemma; a way of speaking is a habit of being. The real moral force of her stanza comes – and this is true in many other Bishop poems – from her adverbs:even losing you; not too hard to master. These shades of emphasis are so carefully composed, so lightly sketched in, that their true dramatic power is missed by some readers.

And then that theatrical last line – how severely, how knowingly and helplessly qualified! It reminds me of that extraordinary line in "At the Fishhouses," at three removes from itself: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." The line her begins with a qualification ("though"), goes on to a suggestion rather than the assertion we might expect of a last line ("it may look"), then to a comparison that’s doubled, stuttering ("like … like"), interrupted by a parenthetical injunction that is at once confession and compulsion, so that when "disaster" finally comes it sounds with a shocking finality.

The whole stanza is in danger of breaking apart, and breaking down. In this last line the poet’s voice literally cracks. The villanelle – that strictest and most intractable of verse forms – can barely control the grief, yet helps the poet keep her balance. …

 

From J. D. McClatchy, "Elizabeth Bishop: Some Notes on ‘One Art,’" in White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 145.