David Kalstone

David Kalstone: On "At the Fishhouses"

[Robert] Lowell, when he read the poem in The New Yorker, recognized immediately the "great splendor" of the descriptive part, but questioned "a little the word BREAST in the last four or five lines – a little too much in the context perhaps; but I’m probably wrong." What he picked up, of course, was the flicker of human drama, of a vestigial implacable female presence behind the scene – as in The Prelude when the young Wordsworth’s landscape is suddenly and unintentionally shadowed by feelings which have to do with his dead parents. That, no doubt, is why Bishop’s poem has often been felt as Wordsworthian in its evasions and circlings. Originally, "At the Fishouses" began with more details about Bishop’s grandfather, but her revisions suggest the degree to which she chose not to overstress the poem’s human and personal center. Here eye, as Howard Moss suggests, is a dramatic eye; yet she often experiences traditional dramatic problems – character, comic or tragic action – by fitting out a stage for them, a stage upon which the protagonists will not necessarily appear. By the end of "at the Fishhouses," Bishop’s own place as protagonist is apparent; her sense of being an outsider is powerfully banished at the cost of identifying herself with severe, if universal, natural laws.

David Kalstone, "Prodigal Years," Chapter 1 in Part II of Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1989), 121-122.

David Kalstone: On "The Man-Moth"

A figure effectively dead turns up in the notebooks, in New York material that Bishop would adapt for "The Man-Moth." She had observed a woman in the subway about whom everything had died – her face dead white, her clothes, her handbag – except her eyelashes. Bishop remembers that in a dream her friend Margaret Miller "had looked into the inside of a small mask someone had pulled from his face, and caught in it all around the eyeholes were the little hairy eyelashes. The woman’s face made me think of that – its expression was a concave one, like an empty interior expression, and its only markings were the little eyelashes." The woman’s eyes were shut, and the lashes seemed like those on a sleeping doll. "It is rather strange the way the eye is surrounded with inhuman stuff – hair grows, I’ve heard, even on the dead." The incident contributes obliquely to "the Man-Moth," a kind of morbid counterpart to the man-moth himself, who has, on rare occasions, the capacity to escape and make his romantic ascents to the surface of the city, each one a doomed foray. We know that a newspaper misprint, reading "manmoth" for "mammoth," prompted the poem: the idea of a doomed spirit trapped in a subway rider’s form, sitting always backward, racing under the city streets (in the world of the third rail "running along silently, as insincere as poison," she wrote in her notebook). In the conditional clauses of the poem’s last stanza she transforms her own notebook observations of the deadened woman on the subway into a glimpse of residual purity and spirit:

[Kalstone quotes the last stanza.]

The observer’s curiosity and effort is rewarded by extracted signs of life, but as in her windowpane illumination, as in "the Weed," there is a link between vision and tears. …


from David Kalstone, "From the Country to the City," Chapter 1 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989 19-20 

David Kalstone: On "The Fish"

The poem is filled with the strain of seeing – not just the unrelenting pressure of making similes to "capture" the fish, but the fact that the similes themselves involve flawed instruments of vision, stained wallpaper, scratched isinglass, tarnished tinfoil. This is why, on some readings, the poem has the air of summoning up a creature from the speaker’s own inner depths – the surviving nonhuman resources of an earlier creation, glimpsed painfully through the depredations of time and the various frail instruments we devise, historically, to see them. The "victory" that fills up the little rented boat is one that more than grammatically belongs to both sides. Like "Roosters," though without its bitterness and fear, the poem taps and identifies nonhuman sources of human energies. What makes it different from [Marianne] Moore’s animal poems is its interst in the difficulties of locating and accepting such energies.


From David Kalstone, "Logarithms of Apology," Chapter 4 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), 87.