Richard Flynn
Associate Professor of English
Georgia Southern University
L.B. 8023
Statesboro, GA 30460-8023

'Home-made! But aren't we all?': Crusoe in the Nursery
 

In the schoolbook catechism that prefaces Geography III , the question, "In
what direction from the center of the picture is the Island?" receives the
seemingly conclusive answer, "North". (157) 1 But the series of unanswered
questions that dizzily concludes the child's "First Lessons in Geography"
provides no such conclusive answers. The child reading these lessons,
attempts to look at them as a subject centered in a place called "home,"
but soon discovers she is unsure of "wherever that may be" (94). A
cartographic view seems to help until she discovers how fragile,
inconclusive, and contingent that view is. If the mapmakers' colors are
"more delicate than the historians'" (3), perhaps they are less reassuring.
Is "home" an island? It "doesn't seem like one, but who decides?" (166). If
it is an island, then it is elsewhere, somewhere near the margins, away
from the center of the picture. In what direction lies the child? She is
inside a "rigid house" and when she maps a way outside of the house it
becomes "inscrutable" (123-24) Neither the mapmakers' nor the historians'
colors prove adequate in locating that decentered subject, the poet. The
child is now part of a foreign culture. The poet, feeling herself
estranged, searches a foreign culture for an "island" called "home," and
the country of childhood comes back to her. Recognizing its tenuousness,
that it is a vital, but fragile fiction, she turns to thick description.
She becomes an ethnographer of childhood.

Describing the culture of childhood--for the poet an exploration achieved
only in what Lyn Hejinian calls "Writing as an Aid to Memory"--one is
confronted with the inevitability that it is always "un-rediscovered,
un-renamable" (162). For Elizabeth Bishop and her contemporaries (Jarrell,
and to a lesser extent Lowell and Berryman) the paradox of naming this
elusive state became a primary concern. Like contemporary ethnographers,
these poets experienced a growing need to convey cultural experience beyond
public ritual--a complex task in the late twentieth century. As communal,
familial, and public expression came to seem increasingly problematic, they
turned to what Marcus and Fischer have called "other cultural experience:
the person, self, and emotions"--"all topics difficult to probe in
traditional ethnographic frameworks" (45-46). Conveying such cultural
experience, as the histories of contemporary poetry show, carries the risk
of the poet's succumbing to "the epistemological nightmare of the
solipsistic self" (Hejinian 167). Williams provides part of the answer: "To
make a start / out of particulars," but it is only a start; the Stevensian
"rage for order" intrudes, bringing with it the longing for universalizing
gestures--like it or not, poets are always "tempted / to literary
interpretations" (185).

Most of us would agree that in her generation (and perhaps in her century)
Elizabeth Bishop is the consummate poet of childhood. Even Randall Jarrell,
that inveterate explorer of the "country the child thought life / And
wished for and crept to out of his own life" (Jarrell, Complete 98),
acknowledged the greater accuracy of Bishop's child's-eye perspective. The
reason for this, I would argue, is Bishop's greater ability to leave the
childhood scene and, find herself "back in it"(161)--her recognition that
however tempting Frost's "waters and . . . watering-place" of childhood
are, there is no way for the adult to "Drink and be whole again beyond
confusion." Unlike Frost's, there is ultimately no grail, no salvation
hidden in the children's playhouse.

And yet, though she recognizes the irony and impossibility of the wish,
there is that part of Bishop who would like to be "a believer in total
immersion," to derive imagined knowledge "from the rocky breasts / forever"
(65-66). If it is the ability to look "infant sight away" (59) that allows
the poet to articulate childhood, along the way, the supposed freshness of
the child's vision tempts her to a sentimental nostalgia. In order to make
poetry, she must struggle to examine and reject that nostalgia--trading
"visions" for "looks" (177). Since Romanticism, "childhood" has been viewed
more as a site of idealized innocence than as an experiential state subject
to specific material and social conditions. In the story, "In the Village,"
and poems like "Sestina" and "In the Waiting Room," Bishop succeeds in
conveying childhood as experienced, but in order to do so, she has to
resist the pervasive postromantic adult desire to possess and colonize
childhood.

For Bishop, resisting this desire involves the rejection of home as the
site of self-pity and attention to home as the location of "making." For
Bishop's Crusoe, overcoming self-pity involves the modification of what
Mary Kinzie has describes as Bishop's tendency "to view the worlds of art,
of social relations, and of family as if they were part of the world of
objects--fixed, eternal, fated" (88). This objectifying stance ("a
miserable philosophy") is unmade in the "home-making" that Victoria
Harrison so usefully describes as "relational subjectivity": it is the
grounding of subject-subject relationships, Harrison argues, that helps
Bishop overcome her feeling "helpless with raw emotions" (112). Despite the
tempting security of self-pity, it leads ultimately to falling over the
crater's edge:

I often gave way to self-pity.
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don't remember, but there could have been."
What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling familiarly
over a crater's edge, I told myself
"Pity should begin at home." So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home. (163)

The genesis of "Crusoe," we now know, goes back to the Cuttyhunk notebooks
of 1934: "A poem should be made about making things in a pinch--& and how
sad it looks when the emergency is over" (qtd. in Millier 62). "Crusoe in
England," a powerful meditation on the constructed self, rejects an
essentialism to which Bishop had sometimes fallen prey: the question
"Home-made! but aren't we all?" emphatically insists on the constructedness
of the human person. Here, the telling adverb "familiarly" implies the
dangers of familiarity at that crater's edge. For the poet to understand
the meaning of "home," requires a defamiliarization: the family is not a
universal and biological entity, but something "made in a pinch"--even
though "the choice is never wide and never free" (94). The distinction
between "feeling" at home and "being" at home is an important one: no
matter how attractive one's "proto-" or "crytpo-dream house" is, it is
"perfect! But--impossible" (180).

As Carole Dorseki argues, Bishop sometimes "risks imposing her own desire
for a restorative simplicity upon her subjects" (102-3). However
uncomfortable it makes us, there is also some truth to Doreski's
observation that in Bishop's "poetry about African-American and Brazilian
folk life . . . she becomes an `experience-distant' fieldworker." If, as
Doreski argues, Bishop more successfully overcomes that desire in her
childhood poems, it is because she rejects the idea that childhood is
"simple." If she is less successful in rejecting primitivizing discourses
of race, nevertheless she ultimately does learn what Doreski calls, "the
lessons . . . that constitute the wisdom of `Crusoe in England'" (104). How
different from "Crusoe In England's" wisdom is the reifying sentimentality
of the term "home-made" in Bishop's 1958 review of Walter de la Mare's Come
Hither:

[de la Mare] loves "little articles", home-made objects whose
value increases with age, Robinson Crusoe's lists of his
belongings, homely employments, charms and herbs. As a result he
naturally chose for his book many of what Randall Jarrell once
called "thing-y" poems, and never the pompous, abstract, or
formal.

*******************************************************

At my house as I write there is a four-month-old baby who has
just discovered his voice; not his crying voice, but his
speaking, singing, or poetry voice, and he devotes stretches of
the day to trying it out. He can produce long trills, loud or
soft, and repeated bird-like cries, obviously with pleasure.
There is also a little black girl of three who vigorously pedals
a tricycle around in perfect time to an old Portuguese children's
song. . . . And in the kitchen her mother sings one of this
year's crop of sambas, "home-made" annually in endless variety by
the poor Negroes of the slums . . .

*******************************************************. . .

surely it is of this kind of random poetry that Walter de la Mare
can make child readers, or us, aware . . . in reading this book
we can often recapture what children and other races perhaps
still share: de la Mare's lyrical confidence. (53-54). 2

Bishop's own poetic voice could hardly be characterized as one of "lyrical
confidence," and what John Ashbery characterizes a "quality of thingness"
in her work is far removed from the nostalgia of the cherished "`little
articles'" described in this review. And as the recent wealth of Bishop
scholarship shows, her poem-making was painstaking work, hardly compatible
with a theory of "natural" or "random" poetry. "Crusoe" is a case in point
because it rejects this idealized concept of the "home-made," by focusing
on the complexities of making a home, and being made by a home. And one
might even say that in making the poem "Crusoe," Bishop is able to unmake
the condescension to the "other" expressed in the review. Bishop's Crusoe
recognizes that investing home-made meaning in "`little articles'" is no
substitute for subject-subject relationships:

The local museum's asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It will still work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?

No longer cherished, no longer objects of "deep affection," these museum
artifacts, particularly the parasol, are a crude parody of Friday's
absence: ribs that once were loved and memorized are now plucked and
skinny. The museum that wants "such things," like the "accounts," in books
has "everything all wrong." In the museum, "home-made" objects are divorced
from the specific cultural conditions of their production--like a poetry
divested of its origin in work and struggle.

But how could mere "accounts" get anything right? Barbara Page has
eloquently chronicled the ways in which Bishop made herself into a poet of
"interstitial situations" (210)--and it is in the interstices, narrative
gaps, and linguistic displacements that Bishop gets it right. The problem
of how we are "home-made," and of how we might make a home is a problem of
origins, and, consequently, a problem of language. Randall Jarrell
recognized this, though his tendency toward idealizing gestures sometimes
kept him from realizing it in his poems. Writing about Christina Stead's
brilliant and horrific novel, The Man Who Loved Children, he acknowledges
the overdetermined inscription of paternal family values, even as he longs
for a kind of universal family language of the unconscious, uniting us all:

A man on a park bench has a lonely and final look as if to say:
"Reduce humanity to it's ultimate particles and you end here:
beyond this single separate being you cannot go." But if you look
back into his life you cannot help seeing that he is separated
off, not separate--is a later, singular stage of an earlier
plural being. All the tongues of men were baby-talk to begin
with: go back far enough and which of us knew where he ended and
Mother and Father and Brother and Sister began? The singular
subject in its objective universe has evolved from that original
composite entity . . . (Third Book 3)

Jarrell's discovery here resembles Bishop's in its recognition that the
search for childhood paradise leads to its ruins. Crusoe dreams of
"slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it / for a baby goat" and has

nightmares of other islands,
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frog's eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands . . . (165)

Perhaps "the singular subject" enters "the objective universe" through a
kind of devolution, cast away on infinitely spawning islands. The answer to
being in the world, then, is not so much "propagation"--a reproduction of
difference, predicated on difference--as it is a recognition of what we
have in common, a complex and always threatened intersubjectivity. On what
is our family likeness predicated? A "family voice . . . felt in [the]
throat?" Are we all "held . . . together?" Surely we are not "just one"
(161). Like Crusoe--or the contemporary ethnographer--we are more often
than not rendered inarticulate, "blank" about what we love, and so Bishop's
most noble admission rejects the primitiveness of the noble savage:

Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.

*************************************

--Pretty to watch: he had a pretty body. (165-66)

"How--I didn't know any / word for it--how `unlikely' . . . "
(161). Crusoe's anachronistic Wordsworthian "irises" "flash upon
that inward eye, which is the bliss. . ." of nothing--"the
smallest of . . . island industries" is "a miserable philosophy"
(164).

Likewise, in Bishop's ethnography of childhood, there is no recourse to
"baby-talk." Jarrell's vision of that earliest "composite entity" was
largely withheld from Bishop, who needed to make her music of both
childhood and maturity more profoundly "home-made"--on a flute "with the
weirdest scale on earth" (164). Perhaps it is because books--and poems--are
"full of blanks" (164) that they can help us make sense of "the questioning
shrieks, the equivocal replies" (164) that hurt our ears. Bishop recognizes
that we all stand on a volcano that is both "Despair" and "d'Espoir" (165),
and that to articulate this is to assume the poet's task of exploring the
gap between sign and signifier by playing with names. Bishop's Crusoe
teaches us that it is on this questioning, equivocal, weird scale that the
new music of childhood (and maturity) must be composed.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 

Notes

1 All references to Bishop's poetry are to The Complete Poems: 1927-1979
 

2 As Brett Millier has pointed out, the baby in this passage is "really a
'she,' Kylso's Lothina" (271). Disguising this child under the rubric of
the "universal" masculine underscores the limitations of the view of
childhood expressed in the review, and differs from the more imaginative
cross-gendered performance in "Crusoe in England."
 
 

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, 1983.

---. "`I Was But Just Awake.'" Poetry 93 (1958): 50-54.

Doreski, C. K. Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. \tab New York:
Oxford, 1993.

Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge:
Cambridge, 1993.

Hejinian, Lyn. "The Person and Description." Poetics Journal 9 (1991):
166-170.

Jarrell, Randall. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1968.

---. The Third Book of Criticism. New York: Farrar, 1969.

Kinzie. Mary. The Cure of Poetry in the Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the
Poet's Calling. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1993.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M.J. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural
Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: U Chicago
P, 1986.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: U
California P, 1993.

Page, Barbara. "Off-Beat Claves, Oblique Realities: The Key West Notebooks
of Elizabeth Bishop." In Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Edited
by Marilyn May Lombardi. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993: 196-211.