Renèe R. Curry

Renée R. Curry: On "Filling Station"

. . . in certain poems such as "Filling Station," Bishop seems incredibly aware of the relationship between her privileged white position and her aesthetic creations. In these poems, she actually interrogates the negative attitudes toward Others that her whiteness imposes upon her and affords her.

"Filling Station" situates a "disturbing" blackness in the beginning stanza of the poem:

Oh, but it is dirty! —this little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match!

At first the omniscient narrator's attitude seems harshly judgmental but the following stanzas highlight the determinedness with which this narrator looks into the translucency in order to see the humanity existing at the filling station. Five stanzas later, the narrator comes to an understanding about love and potentially about God. Clearly, we can surmise, via Bishop's aesthetic design in this poem, that her imagination proves capable of transcending certain white racist and classist attitudes.

Importantly, however, if we read this poem as a replica of the ideological structure of at least one transformable white racist the first stanza makes it clear that the foremost thought expressed will be that of disturbance and that of a negative attitude toward blackness. As well the first stanza's last line implies fear of the explosiveness of too much blackness. It then takes five times as much processing, equivalent to the five succeeding stanzas, for the white imagination to come to a transformed place. The process of change, at least according to this poem, requires no intervention or action on the part of the Other, but rather the white person must observe, question, and transcend. What she will observe includes one human being, a family associated with that human being, the work situation of the family members, a pet who looks "comfy," some domesticating accoutrements, and the recognition that "someone" chose to decorate this place to make it livable and comfortable. This recognition is stimulated by a string of questions beginning with "why": "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" (Complete Poems 127). Upon having recognized the particular someones and their particular choices, the observer reaches a place of transcendence, a position that accepts love as one of the ultimate levelers of humanity.

Regarding white discourse, white ideology, and the white imagination, "Filling Station" looms as an epiphanic and, ultimately, unsustainable moment in the Bishop oeuvre.

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness. Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renée R. Curry.

Renée R. Curry: On "In the Waiting Room"

In Bishop's final book, Geography III, her famous identity poem, "In the Waiting Room," not only addresses the discovery of one's gender, but it also includes Bishop among women of color. The persona of the poem is young and not quite certain that she wants to belong to this world of "breasts." The girl understands little about women, but she does discern that the world of women, with whom she is suddenly identified, includes many women of many colors, including white.

While waiting for her Aunt Consuela in the dentist's office, the young Elizabeth scans through a National Geographic. She surveys among the pictures some black, naked women with interesting necks:

wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying.                         (Complete Poems 159)

While she is reading, her Aunt Consuela lets out an "Oh!" of pain, and the young Elizabeth of the poem experiences a moment of sheer empathy with the aunt. She empathizes in multiple confusing ways: with the pain, the fact of Aunt Consuela's femaleness, with the family sound of the voice. The sensation is overwhelming and causes a feeling of vertigo for Elizabeth.

By talking to herself about her upcoming birthday, the child stops the swirling sensation of discovering her connectedness to women, to a particular family, and to pain. She contemplates the situation and questions:

But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of Them. Why should you be one, too?                     (Complete Poems 160)

Her question, "why," occurs again, with a greater sense of the similarities:

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities— boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts— held us all together or made us all just one?                     (Complete Poems 161)

She cannot quite put her finger on the similarities, but Bishop makes clear in the poem that the persona recognizes the similarities regardless of the awfulness she ascribes to the breasts themselves. This coming of age poem is an important signifier in terms of understanding Bishop's ideological framework regarding whiteness and connections among women.

Clearly, at least for the moment of this poem, and at least beyond the initial awful surprise at the observation of the black breast, this white female child does recognize herself as connected to women of color. The frightening part of this recognition comes when the child then feels herself sliding beneath a series of black waves. To feel remotely connected to women of color, to black women, especially by virtue of femaleness, brings on a feeling of being drowned in blackness:

The waiting room was bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big black, wave, another, and another.                     (Complete Poems 161)

Sadly, Bishop recognizes the connection but also expresses the workings of her imagination, which claim that any connection to blacks feels like suffocating, like being smothered in blackness. Recalling "The Imaginary Iceberg" and Dyer's claim that whites associate themselves with mountaintops and purer forms of oxygen, "In the Waiting Room" reaffirms that connections with blackness cause difficulty in breathing and threaten death.

Bishop cannot locate a consistent ideological base from which to derive comfort regarding this issue of race. She understands the need for change and connection, but the attempts at connection are not long lasting or they threaten to overwhelm. 

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness. Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renée R. Curry.

Renée R. Curry: On "The Arrival of the Bee Box"

In "The Arrival of the Bee Box," Plath writes an omnisciently authorial and colonizing "I." The poem begins with the claim "I ordered this, this clean wood box." With this line, Plath introduces us to the speaker as commander and requistioner. The speaker imparts that the box is "locked" and "dangerous" and that she cannot see into it. In the third stanza, when she puts her "eye to the grid," the speaker discerns layers of blackness and darkness that she associates with "the swarmy feeling of African hands." At this moment in the poem, the box metaphorically becomes a vessel carrying slavelike creatures from Africa, "Black on black, angrily clambering." In the following stanza, the speaker, having somewhat adjusted to the visual aspects of the black on black creatures, proclaims that the noise they make appalls her. She describes their language as "unintelligible syllables" and expresses fear of them as a mass. In this role as white spectator of the Other, Plath's speaker expresses utter disgust with Otherness. She diminishes her fear of this threatening collective by assuring herself that "they can be sent back." After all, she asserts, these creatures are her commodities: "They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner." Annas reads this poem as one in which Plath explores the tensions that exist regarding one's fit in society (A Disturbance 145). I read the poem as one in which Plath experiments with the various roles endowed upon white peoples and thereby explores how she, as a white woman, best fits the various molds of whiteness.

Immediately upon having soothed herself by proclaiming her ownership of and, therefore, power over the black creatures in the box, she permits herself a moment of compassion in which she "wonders how hungry they are." In this white role, the speaker envisions herself as provider for Others. The next line swiftly undercuts her moment of tenderness by shifting the white role from that of caretaker to that of self-preservation. In this new role, the speaker wonders whether the black creatures would forget her should she set them free. Concern about their forgetting her suggests that she might want credit and homage for freeing them, and as well, she might want them to overlook her mistreatment of them. Upon wondering about their ability to disremember her, she suggests that they might be far more attracted to a laburnum, which she personifies as blond and female. In this white role, she vacillates between wanting credit for her liberal compassion and wanting the security of knowing that other, more superlative white women, the exotic blondes, exist to distract the black creatures away from desiring her.

In the last stanza, the speaker explores the ultimate white role, that of God: "Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free." Van Dyne suggests that in "Arrival of the Bee Box," Plath is "mimicking male hierarchies" and "toying with the freedom that male authority might bring" (Revising Life 151). Broe, too, recognizes Plath's play with power, but she claims that ultimately the speaker concedes to the power of the creatures when she promises in the last line that the box will be temporary (150). To my mind, the fact that the poem ends with the creatures still boxed and with freedom rescheduled for tomorrow does not signify a concession nor mere mimicry of male authority. The white female speaker in " Arrival of the Bee Box" displays a determined complicity of her own in prolonging the enslavement of black creatures.

Renée R. Curry: On "The Bee Meeting"

The poem begins with villagers dressed in "square black head[s]" arriving at the bridge to meet the "I" of the poem. The "l" feels "nude as a chicken neck" because she has failed to dress in coverings appropriate to working with bees. The appropriately dressed people are wearing black. However, the one woman who touches the "I" and who prepares her to meet the bees is dressed in a "white shop smock." The villagers offer the speaker a "white Italian hat" and " a black veil" to wear for the meeting. The speaker assumes that the black veil makes her "one of them." However, the villagers are dressed more fully in black than she is; the speaker flaunts headgear both black and white suggesting that she is a contradictory personage occupying a dualistic position. Annas reads this duality as both a powerful identification with the queen bee as well as a "living sacrifice" to the bees (A Disturbance 148-149). The speaker's "white crown" (Annas, A Disturbance 149) represents her power and her vulnerability.

The villagers and speaker walk through hawthorn, small Old World trees with thorns and the occasional white and pink blossoms. Plath delivers a question to the poem at this point regarding whether the hawthorn emits the stench that is "etherizing its children," thus implying that Old World whiteness (and its associated infant color: pinkness) has the power to cast a gaseous envelope of foulness over its offspring. The poem warns that the power of whiteness has ancient sources and that the negative aspects of white power may figuratively be inherited through the air that one breathes. Annas poignantly reads the outcome of the poem as hinging on images of whiteness:

The white straw Italian hat and the white hive earlier in the poem, the magician's girl and the knife thrower's assistant who is a white pillar, and the white box in the last line which is both the beehive and the speaker's coffin, pull together the set of identifications in the poem. (A Disturbance 149)

However, Annas interprets these identifications as Plath's obsessions with the cycle of death and rebirth (A Disturbance 149). I read the whiteness in this poem as reflective of Plath's sense that a racially marked whiteness is an exhausting skin to be in and that the pressures of existing inside it ultimately lead to an untimely and unforeseen figurative death. The speaker in "Bee Meeting" faintheartedly utters, "I am exhausted, I am exhausted—," and imagines herself as a "pillar of white in a blackout of knives." She reluctantly understands that the black-veiled villagers have accomplished their task and that the task has been to drain her of power and to bury her in a suitable coffin, "a long white box in the grove." In "Bee Meeting," Plath highlights the enmity between blackness and whiteness, but she clearly points out that whiteness willingly participates in its own demise by failing to understand that the "white crown" adorning its head signifies both authority and target.

Renée R. Curry: On "Tulips"

Plath steeps the poem "Tulips" in a whiteness depicted as powerful, peaceful, and obliterating: . . .

The wintry whiteness of the white walls presses in on the speaker, both teaching her about tranquility and enforcing it on her. The pressure results in eradication of herself and obliteration of the volatility of life. Van Dyne links this annihilation to "the speaker's fears of carnal and contaminating flesh" (Revising Life 92). As well, Van Dyne suggests that the speaker enjoys the process of noting the body's drift into "anonymity and irresponsibility" (Revising Life 92). Hayman, too, claims that Plath luxuriates in the abdication of responsibility in this poem (155). Significantly, the body that drifts into erasure in "Tulips" is a white body in a white world, a body confronted with entrapment in or escape from its own powerful signifiers. The speaker in the poem claims to understand the tulips as signifiers of a complicated sexual world intruding on the hallowed and clean white world of the hospital. She suggests that she might elude the seductiveness of the tulips should she become a nun and regain purity.

This reading of the poem works well enough; however, when we read the poem with an eye toward racial signifiers, the poem situates the plight of many white women who ardently desire an escape from culpability in white dominance over others. Dyer argues that white women are partially responsible for white dominance, but that because of their marginal status in relationship to white men, the only way they can maintain their own honor as white women is to do nothing about their role in domination (206). Thereby, the exquisite and languorous passivity that Plath demonstrates in "Tulips" marks white women as the culpable incapables that they are in the face of white dominance. The tulips remind the woman in the poem of other worlds, of other lives, of a colorfulness outside herself, but the woman cannot acknowledge these worlds and maintain her white passivity simultaneously. She would have to sacrifice the peacefulness of whiteness.

The tulips signify, by their glorious and bold colors, glaring Otherness. The frustrated speaker of the poem prescribes an enslavement for them uncannily linked to Africa: "The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; / They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat. " Annas rightly notes that the speaker experiences an obligation to choose between the two worlds—the white world and the colorful world (A Disturbance 98)—however, I find that the speaker clearly wishes she did not have the choice. She prefers to imprison the dangerous and colorful world, so that she may remain passively white.

Perloff reads the white world of the hospital into which the colorful tulips intrude as a "dead, " "dazed, " and "empty" one. She reads the tulips as the entity that will force the speaker out of her whiteness (119). But I contend that in the final stanza only the image of the imprisoned tulips permits the speaker to associate the red of the flowers with the red of her heart. Figuratively speaking, Otherness may only serve as a catalyst for white inspection once it is safely ensconced behind bars.

From White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renèe R. Curry

Renée R. Curry: On "Daddy"

Plath's interest in Germany and its relationship to exterminating and far-reaching power, particularly its consanguinity with nazism, emanates most forcefully in "Daddy." The vast majority of scholars who study Plath's poetry examine this poem and discuss the poem's (mis)use of Holocaust imagery as well as the black descriptors that permeate the work. Although Plath situates issues of racial dominance and Otherness at the forefront of this poem's literary tropes, scholars to date do not read this poem as evidence of Plath's white authorial position.

Annas reads "Daddy" as a poem whose landscape constructs social and political boundaries partially signified by blackness (A Disturbance 140). In addition, Annas claims that the purpose of "Daddy" is to exorcise "the various avatars of the other" (A Disturbance 143). Broe, however, finds Plath again locating an interchangeability among self and Other especially in the roles of victim and victimizer (175). Guinevara A. Nance and Judith P. Jones argue that the word "black"provides the significant spark in the poem that "ignite[s] powerful associations among culturally significant symbols" (125). Axelrod finds the father-as-black-shoe representative of a force "capable of stamping on his victim" (53). Furthermore, Axelrod suggests that Plath ironically designs her "aboriginal speaker" as only capable of "black-and-white thinking" (56). Clearly, the poem invites racially marked readings concerned with issues of Otherness; however, the scholarship does not effectively address the white authorship and imagination that creates this Otherness in the poem.

Axelrod ventures close to marking the poet's whiteness when he addresses Plath's interest in things German. He describes the emotional year that Plath experienced previous to writing "Daddy," and then he summarizes her psychological state:

She was again contemplating things German: a trip to the Austrian AIps, a renewed effort to learn the language. If "German" was Randall Jarrell's "favorite country," it was not hers, yet it returned to her discourse like clock work at times of psychic distress. Clearly Plath was attempting to find and to evoke in her art what she could not find or communicate in her life. (52)

Dyer explains that Germany, along with the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, evokes the "apex of whiteness" to the white imagination (19). What Plath desires at moments of psychic stress is a return to the purity she associates with whiteness as well as a return to her particular ancestral background which she claimed as German and Austrian (Rose, The Haunting 225). Yet any such return to or contemplation of things German, especially after World War II, ignited images of nazism for Plath and influenced an imaginative conflation of purity, personal ancestry, and the Holocaust. The language of "Daddy" reflects this conflation.

Jacqueline Rose insinuates that Plath's connection between her own father and nazism in "Daddy" is not the profound and ghastly stretch that other critics have claimed. Rose prompts us to entertain the idea that nazism relied heavily on the dominance of the symbolic father: "For doesn't Nazism itself also turn on the image of the father, a father enshrined in the place of the symbolic, all-powerful to the extent that he is so utterly out of reach?" (232). Clearly, Plath answers "yes" to this question by writing "Daddy." The poem opens with a metaphoric complaint issued by a "poor and white" foot that her "black shoe" will no longer do. The "black shoe," associated with Daddy, and associated with nazism, has become too constricting. In wanting to separate from her father and regain her purity—her white foot—she must blacken the father and remove herself from his taint. She must become Jew to his Nazi:

An engine, an engine 

Chudding me off like a Jew. 

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. 

I began to talk like a Jew. 

I think I may well be a Jew.

By taking on the markings of a Jew in the poem, she highlights the heart of whiteness debates: who exactly can claim to be white? In the context of the poem, Plath attempts to separate from her father, whose power she associates with blackness and nazism. As her father's victim, she takes on the role of persecuted Jew. Dyer explains that the Jews' relationship to whiteness has not been at all fixed in time. During World War II, the Jews, as compared to Aryans, were definitively not-white. However, like the Irish and the Mexicans, the Jews have been both included and excluded from whiteness throughout time. In particular, their special whiteness has been used as a "'buffer' between the white and the black or indigenous" (Dyer 19). The Jew that Plath becomes in "Daddy" is a "buffer" Jew in the sense that it permits her multiple associations with and protections from whiteness. As a Jewish victim of Nazis, she is non-Aryan. As a Jewish victim of Otto Plath, whom she describes as black in the poem, she is white. As a white woman claiming identification with Jews, she proclaims separation from the domineering whiteness of nazism. In "Daddy," Plath particularizes and multiplies her whiteness in relationship to and variance from the negative forces threatening her. Occupation of a Jewish persona permits her just such vacillation.

Rose argues that these vacillations provide Plath opportunities to experiment with varying psychic positions:

Plath . . . moves from one position to the other, implicating them in each other, forcing the reader to enter into something which she or he is often willing to consider only on condition of seeing it as something in which, psychically no less than historically, she or he plays absolutely no part. (The Haunting 236)

In Rose's reading, Plath exhibits a willingness to sacrifice her own claim to white stability, inheritance, and purity of position in order to hold up an incriminating mirror to readers. Yet, as Rose points out, there is the problem embedded in stanza ten—"every woman adores a Fascist." In this line, the incriminating mirror ricochets back from the reader upon yet another of Plath's interesting identifications; she changes from affinity with the victimized Jew to adoration of the Fascist victimizer. She claims this particular adoration as emerging from her womanliness rather than from her Jewishness. Rose reads this line and the following "boot in the face" line as housing such ambivalent agency that they suggest that women adore being violated and they worship opportunities to violate Others. This reading poses "the question of women's implication in the ideology of Nazism more fundamentally than has normally been supposed" (Rose, The Haunting 233). Plath has toyed before with this idea of white women as potentially culpable in oppression of Others in "Moon and the Yew Tree," "Bee Meeting," and I"Wintering"; however, as in most other circumstances, she ultimately recuperates the white woman from significant blame by concluding the poem with an image of the more responsible white male. "Daddy" thus ends with a visit from the villagers, similar to those of "Bee Meeting," who, this time, have come to kill the white man rather than the white woman:

And the villagers never liked you. 

They are dancing and stamping on you. 

They always knew it was you. 

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

In Plath's white imagination, white men's responsibility for oppression far outweighs that of white women.

 

From White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renèe R. Curry.