Skip to main content

… Bishop describes the St. John’s Day carnival in Rio, in which fire balloons are a tradition. She watches them rise exaltedly, but her attention shifts to the effects, once they burst and their flames are released, on the forest and animals below. These effects are first treated with aesthetic detachment, but a strong moral voice breaks in to oppose the stance of transcendence and aesthetic mastery

Since "The Armadillo" is dedicated to Robert Lowell, it has been read as a critique of his way of making art out of suffering. But the poem is more reflexive than that. In earlier poetry Bishop had chosen to see bodily metamorphosis as aesthetically beautiful, to distance herself from the pain associated with mortality. In "the Armadillo" she dramatizes this aesthetic distance and the inevitable return to the rage of the suffering body.


In "The Armadillo" Bishop addresses our ambivalent will to transcend or aestheticize the body. The ending of the poem is conservative in that it emphasizes protection. If we read the poem as a whole, however, we see the conservative impulse challenged. This ambivalence remains throughout Bishop’s work. But more often the conservative, defensive posture will be challenged, rather than the deviant impulse. In such poems deviance is defined not as an escape from the body but rather as an alternative relationship to the body which reminds us of its uncontrollability. In particular, Bishop turns to carnivalesque images of the misfit who resists the social and cultural norms through which nature is disciplined and controlled. "A Summer’s Dream" and "House Guest" treat this idea allegorically, but in poems such as "Manuelzinho" and "Pink Dog" the realism of the figures makes their deviance more unsettling. In such poems Bishop takes on the stance of someone living within the fragile norms of the dominant culture, but susceptible to the challenge of the misfit, who embodies the expelled elements of the speaker’s life. 


From Bonnie Costello "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 75, 80-81.