So I'm reading the 5 Dec New Yorker, la di da, Hersh on Bush, Munro on wickedness, all the same stuff, flippity flippity, "Washington as a Surveyor", when I get kicked in the left kidney - it's by Elizabeth Bishop. Well, she's been dead for over a quarter century, but occasionally one sees a new poem pop up, what's the story on this one? Flip back to the front - nothing on the Contributors page (later I discover that Mark Strand's poem doesn't get him mentioned either). As far the New Yorker's concerned, it's just a poem by Elizabeth Bishop - they've published her before, why stop now? Ok, so it's listed at Vassar
under "Notes and notebooks of drafts, dreams, and other observations".
Washington as a Surveyor
Lord, I discovered when I discovered love
That day a continent within the mind,
Unstable on the sea, boundaries unlined
Which now I slowly take the measure of.
The coast's determined, the mountains do not move;
Natural harbors and clear springs I find,
Shade trees and fruit trees, everything of its kind--
Even for an empire more resources than enough.
My favorite flowers, besides, some of each,
Yes, and wild animals who stand and stare;
Rivers that run beyond my present reach
The other way, and clouds that glitter in the air.
Love's flag quickly I planted on the beach
While I explored, but the one I love is not there.
Ok, so it's obviously by Bishop - the frank repetition of "discovered", the concern with geography and love, the use of form, the interest in history a la "Trollope's Journal", maybe some Herbert influence.
So it's a Petrarchan sonnet, well and good for a poem about love. If there's a turn though I don't get it, which is kind of a big minus - it makes the choice a bit arbitrary and artificial. On the other hand the form forces some interesting lines so fine.
This would be George Washington, who worked as a surveyor from his mid teens. Some of that work was in wilderness and counts as exploring. So the measured tone is apropos, the devotional opening too, and the interest in empire - but I'm not sure knowing the speaker adds that much. Maybe there's some illuminating historical detail about Washington's life I'm missing.
Am I missing echoes of Milton or Herbert? E.g., "everything of its kind" sounds like an allusion, and the sense of an innocent land with the unfrightened animals.
Nice going from "Unstable on the sea" to "favorite flowers" as the exploration is described. "The other way" is a strong cold note prefiguring the ending. "Besides", "Yes" seem like filler to satisfy the meter. The lines are in large part longer than ten syllables, which slows things down a tad. "That day" gets some odd emphasis. Why "quickly I planted"? This seems to make "Love's flag" a spondee and I guess avoids the plain iambs of "Love's flag I quickly planted on the beach". Regardless, it contrasts nicely with "slowly" earlier. I like "more resources than enough" - it gives the sense that one might expect "enough" but one's getting more than merited.
It's a lonely poem - a full continent to be explored in the name of love, and nobody's there to be found. The rivers run away out of reach for now, and after that the clouds glitter.
Back to "Lord" - is this Bishop speaking to God? "Why have I been given this rich, beautiful continent but no helpmeet?" Does the poem refer to a moment ("that day") of personal realization?
Ok, so some nice writing, strong beginning and end, no full control of the material or theme, some laxity in the middle, a better poem for the author's other poems - if I'd written this, I'd tell myself something "You rock, but this didn't quite gel, I couldn't stuff everything I wanted into the form or make it fully resonant." A good early Elizabeth Bishop poem, but not up to her extreme standards, hence its absence from The Complete Poems - still much more pleasurable than most poems in the New Yorker.
Update: via the comments, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box : Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
, coming out in March 2006.
Labels: Elizabeth Bishop, poetry