A bite out of "The Bight": Elizabeth Bishop's Diction as Depth

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Author: Zachariah Wells
Date: Jan. 1, 2011
From: The Worcester Review(Vol. 32, Issue 1-2.)
Publisher: The Worcester Review of The Worcester County Poetry Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,703 words

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In his 1950 manifesto, "Projective Verse," Charles Olson told poets not only to beware of descriptive devices, but to exterminate them with prejudice:

For there is a whole flock of rhetorical devices which have now to be brought under a new bead, now that we sight with the line. Simile is only one bird who comes down, too easily. The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem. Any slackness takes off attention, that crucial thing, from the job in hand, from the push of the line under hand at the moment, under the reader's eye, in his moment. Observation of any kind is, like argument in prose, properly previous to the act of the poem, and, if allowed in, must be so juxtaposed, apposed, set in, that it does not, for an instant, sap the going energy of the content towards its form. (Olson 19-20, italics in original)

I don't know whether Olson had in mind Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Bight," but it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, so it seems likely that he would have at least encountered what David Kalstone has called a "lovely concatenation of similes" (Kalstone 104) and seen in it so many fat ducks on the pond. (1,2) Certainly, critics of a less programmatic bent than Olson have found Bishop wanting, even while admiring her poems' "brilliant surfaces" (Honig 115) and "intense observations" (James unpaginated).

There are no poems in Bishop's oeuvre more thorough goingly built of such observations or more exclusively focused on the glittering surface of things than "The Bight." Brett Millier has said that "the poem's method is metaphoric" (Millier 197), but this is not really the case, except insofar as the mechanics of language are fundamentally metaphoric. Lorrie Goldensohn's observation that the poem "seems pure description of sea and shore" (Goldensohn 40) and Marilyn Lombardi's assessment that it "avoids the unifying language of metaphor and instead relies on a metonymic naming and renaming of things in succession" (Lombardi 134) are more to the point, as Bishop leaves any metaphorical heavy lifting to the mind of the reader. Bishop possessed what is for a poet an almost perverse devotion "to a very literal sort of accuracy as her highest poetic value" (Millier 1). Because the surface of the poem is as sheer (steep) as it is sheer (transparent), however, a reader has to work hard to find handholds; one must pay it the kind of attention that Olson might say it lacks, else one can easily look right through it.

Clive James, a notable Bishop doubter, has said that "nowadays it is assumed, especially by the Martian poets she has influenced, that her poems add up to more than the sum of their shiny components" (James unpaginated). (3) The passivity of the verb chosen by James belies and belittles the vigorous--and generally rigorous--dredging carried out by readers of "The Bight," just as the slimness of Bishop's oeuvre and the manifest care that went into her poems' construction contradict the supposed "easiness" of descriptive writing. If anything, one has cause to complain that most admirers of "The Bight," far from overestimating the poem's nuances, have not found enough in it, however more generous their readings are than, for example, Edwin Honig's notorious early review of Bishop's second book.

To be fair to Honig, many of the resonances in this and other Bishop poems can only be fully appreciated in light of her entire oeuvre, to say nothing of her unpublished writings, notebooks and biography. That said, there is plenty in "The Bight" to spur a well-disposed reader in the direction of those deeper investigations. "What clothing is to our body," Erasmus said, "diction is to the expression of our thoughts" (Erasmus 18), and it is Bishop's perspicuity, first and foremost, that makes her poem so beguiling. Bishop was an avid reader of Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (Kalstone 47), (4) and she wastes no opportunity in "The Bight" to exploit the polysemous shiftiness of words.

The first such exploitation comes in the poem's title. We know from Bishop's letters and biography that the poem's setting is Key West's harbour, Garrison Bight. By eschewing the option of calling this poem, as Wordsworth might have, "Lines Composed on the Shore of Garrison Bight on My Thirty-Seventh Birthday. February 8, 1948," Bishop leaves the door open to temporal-spatial, semantic and aural ambiguities. The bight is a real, specific place, but because it is not actually named in the poem, we are free to see it as a nexus of significance.

Most literally in the context of the poem, a bight is "A stretch of water between two headlands; a bay, esp. a shallow or slightly receding bay" (OED). Another such body of water is the Minas Basin, that arm of the Bay of Fundy familiar to Bishop from her childhood on its shore. The Bay of Fundy is famous for its dramatic, record-holding tides; when Bishop starts a birthday poem with "At low tide like this," one can be reasonably sure that her troubled past is on her mind and that she finds herself at a personal low ebb. "Like this"--almost a simile, but for the vagueness of the comparison--is not strictly necessary for a literal description. Zachariah Pickard sees it as an indicator of specificity: "As the very first line makes clear, the poem describes the bight only when it is 'like this'" (Pickard 183). Which it does, but grammatically, Bishop's wording means more than this; it is an ambiguous phrase that functions both as a physical gesture towards the conditions of the moment, as though the speaker were pointing at the water, and as an open-ended analogy. The evocation of tide thus calls to mind both a literal tide and / or a possible metaphor for mood, or a hint of pathetic fallacy; Bishop directs our gaze towards this bay, but also invites us to muse upon the phenomenon of low tide more generally. Such a reading is particularly compelling if one considers that Bishop had, less than two years previously, revisited Nova Scotia--a trip that led to her canonical poems "At the Fishhouses" (written the year before "The Bight") and "The Moose" (finished 24 years later). Any nascent suspicion that the poem might be concerned with Bishop's personal origins is reinforced in short order by the poem's bracketed subtitle. Adam Kirsch has labelled that subtitle "recklessly sentimental" (Kirsch 77), which seems to me a trans-continental stretch given its terse factuality, but it is indeed an important cue to the poem's emotional valencies.

A bight is also "A bend, crook, esp. one in a body or limb" (OED). This corporeal connotation, encouraged by "ribs of marl," invites the reader to see a body buried in the landscape, a connection between this scene and the speaker's person--the heart behind the ribs, as it were. Significantly, although Bishop describes different human activities in the poem, she does not mention a single actual person; this depopulation of the seascape renders it more amenable to metonymic or allegorical readings.

Another "bight" is "A length of rope when looped or folded, esp. distinguishing the body of the rope from its ends; a loop in a length of rope" (OED). In the context of this poem, that loop is a life, poised between birth and the poet's eventual end. Not only does the poem begin with a reference to Bishop's birth, but the last two lines--the other end of a 37-line rope, you might say (5)--are engraved on Bishop's tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts, her place of birth. (6) Written at a crucial time in her life--"Thirty-seven / and far from heaven" (Quoted in Millier 197), she had reflected--"The Bight" captures Bishop's Dantean moment of waking in a dark wood, the right road lost. She was often ill, struggled with alcoholism and, though her first book had been published, she still harboured serious doubts about her life's course as a poet.

Finally, as Susan McCabe has alertly pointed out (McCabe 134), one cannot hear "bight" without simultaneously apprehending its homonym. This ties the title not just to the poem's overt motifs of orality, as McCabe says, but also to the sub-surface themes of ambition and anxiety, as in the idiomatic expression "to bite off more than you can chew," which is beautifully recapitulated in the terminal image of the dredge's "dripping jawful of marl."

The next significant semantic ambiguity occurs in the incredibly polysemous word "sheer." The most obvious sense of the word in context is "Of water, crystal, etc.: Clear and pure; translucent" (OED). This is closely related to the more modern "Of textile fabrics, etc.: Thin, fine, diaphanous" (OED). Had Bishop wished the image itself to be "clear and pure" she might have chosen one of these words instead. Sheer, by contrast, which is adjective, adverb and verb, sheers off in many directions at once. I have already highlighted a couple of the word's meanings above; to provide an exhaustive inventory of connotations here would, I fear, exhaust a reader's patience, but a few definitions do need attention.

It is more than a little tempting to see Bishop's phrasing as an ironic pre-emptive strike against readers who see in a poem like "The Bight" sheer surface, viz., mere description. It becomes even more tempting to indulge this speculation when one next reads that the ribs of marl "protrude" and "glare." It is as though Bishop is saying, obliquely yet boldly, that sub-surface significance is staring the reader right in the face-though the "glare" might well be blinding.

Sheering, in the nautical sense of "swerving," is also an encapsulation of the poem's modus operandi, as well as of its peripatetic author's geographic divagations. Kalstone (13), Travisano (108) and Mark Ford (249) have all remarked upon the poem's "random" quality, as the speaker's gaze shifts abruptly from one point of focus to another. This cinematic method, with its pans and zooms, is no accident, but the reification of a poetic theory that Bishop had been developing for some time. In a 1933 letter to Donald Stanford, she quotes from an essay by M.W. Croll, "The Baroque Style in Prose": "'Their purpose (the writers of Baroque prose) was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.'" This statement, she says, "perfectly describes the sort of poetic convention I should like to make for myself (and ... explains, I think, something of Hopkins)" (OA 12). In a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop would say that Wallace Stevens' "display of ideas at work ... is the way a poet should think" (OA 48). Indeed, Stevens' "poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" (Stevens 239) sounds uncannily like a paraphrase of Bishop's goal. (10)

As an adverb, "sheer" can mean "Completely, absolutely, altogether, quite. Used chiefly to qualify an adv. or prep., or with vbs. expressing removal, separation, cleavage, etc." (OED). This sense ties it into the imagery of removal, separation and cleavage--dredge, pickaxes, scissors, plowshares, stove-in boats, torn-open letters--as well as echoing the homonym "shear." (11) This constellation of tropes suggests strongly that the surface is something to be cut into and pulled apart, that the sub-surface muck might be dredged up. (12)

As with "bight," Bishop's use of the word "ribs" suggests that the poem has more than one locus and also that it must be read into and not just read. The adjectival form of "rib" is "costal" and the space and tissue between one rib and another is called "intercostal." These words are derived from the Latin word for rib, "costa." This is the same root from which we get "coast." (In French, one word, "cote," serves for both.) Embodied in a single image, we have the two scales at play in the poem: the intercostal and the intercoastal. Both scales were preoccupations of Bishop's, the latter in the vast distances she travelled both in person and in poems, the former in her minute attention to details. The fusion of these scales recurs throughout her writings, as in the "minute and vast and clear" shoreline world in "Sandpiper," a bird Bishop would have seen both in Nova Scotia and Florida. Speaking of migratory birds, consider also this passage from an undergraduate essay, "Time's Andromedas":

Of course it was the birds going South. They were high up, a fairly large sort of bird, I couldn't tell what, but almost speck-like, paying no attention to even the highest trees or steeples. They spread across a wide swath of sky, each rather alone, and at first their wings seemed all to be beating perfectly together. But by watching one bird, then another, I saw that some flew a little slower than others, some were trying to get ahead and some flew at an individual rubato; each seemed a variation, and yet altogether my eyes were deceived into thinking them perfectly precise and regular. I watched closely the spaces between the birds. It was as if there were an invisible thread joining all the outside birds and within this fragile net-work they possessed the sky; it was down among them, of a paler color, moving with them. The interspaces moved in pulsation too, catching up and continuing the motion of the wings in wakes, carrying it on, as the rest in music does--not a blankness but a space as musical as all the sound. (Quoted in Millier 45, italics added)

The sandpiper, like Bishop, watches "the spaces of sand between [his toes], / where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains / rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs, / he stares at the dragging grains" (CP 131).

Ribs aren't the only significant bones in "The Bight." There is also the wishbone, which is present not just in Bishop's description of the man-of-war bird's tail, but also corresponds to the earlier mention of "claves." "Clave" is derived from the Latin "clavis" (key), as is "clavicle" (collar-bone). The OED tells us that "In birds the two clavicles are united at their lower extremities into one bone, the furculum or 'merry-thought'." Or wishbone. The etymology of "clavicle" is relevant to Bishop's allusions to it: "Latin clavicula (in 16th cent. French clavicule) small key, tendril, bar or bolt of a door, diminutive of clavis key: in medieval Latin 'collar-bone', according to Littre 'because it was compared to the key of a vault, or, as others think, because its form is that of the ancient bolts'" (OED). Thus, the clavicle is associated with locking up (or unlocking) secrets. One of the doors it opens leads us to George Herbert's "The Collar," a poem of intense self-examination in which a "rope of sands" (Wilcox 526) transports us back to "The Bight," where Bishop is attempting to "tie up [her] fears" (526).

The collar-bone also serves to connect the bight's "ribs" to the rest of a body. In her notebooks, Bishop designated a number of Key West poems as belonging to a sequence she called "Bone Key," a title which she "considered for her second collection" (EAP 265), according to Alice Quinn. "Largo Hueso," or key of bone, is the Spanish name for Key West, as Bishop recorded in a notebook fragment:

   Key West, Largo Hueso, Key of Bone.
   & sees a key like one to the front door
   made of white bone. The island is
   the white coral bone key to
   the sea,
   the depths of the gulf--(EAP xiv, italics in original) 

Another unpublished poem in the "Bone Key" sequence concludes with an image that corresponds to "The Bight":

   The gravestones do not move; but in the blended motions
     of the oleander
     its white blossoms stir
   like pieces of paper in those dark accumulations
     floating in a cluster
     in the dirty harbor. (EAP 43) 

These "dark accumulations" accrete to the point that it is reckless to assume that any of these connections are merely coincidental. As Herbert puts it in "The H. Scriptures II": "This verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third" (Wilcox 210). In The Country Parson, Herbert recommends, for gaining understanding of the Scriptures,

... a diligent Collation of Scripture with Scripture. For all Truth being consonant to it self, and all being penn'd by one and the self-same Spirit, it cannot be, but that an industrious, and judicious comparing of place with place must be a singular help for the right understanding of the Scriptures. To this may be added the consideration of any text with the coherence thereof, touching what goes before, and what follows after, as also the scope of the Holy Ghost. (Herbert 12)

Remember that for some years the working title of Bishop's collection was Concordance and that immediately preceding "The Bight" in A Cold Spring is "Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance," a poem about a bible, in which "Everything [is] only connected by 'and' and 'and'" (CP 58), an explicit reference to the apparatus by which Scripture is collated with Scripture. Herbert's phrase is echoed again in "Cape Breton," also collected in A Cold Spring, with its "miles of burnt forests standing in gray scratches / like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones" (CP 68). The image of burnt trees and the rhyme with "scratches" recalls the bight's "pilings dry as matches." So often, we find Bishop implicitly, perhaps instinctively, "comparing ... place with place," coast with coast, rib with rib.

The composition of the bight's "crumbling ribs" is of paramount significance and provides another example of Bishop's layered verbal choices. "Marl" is a word with serious poetic pedigree, "burning marl" having been used by Milton as a paraphrase for hell's brimstone (Milton 17). Bishop's use of it, by contrast, involves no exercise of poetic license, even if the Miltonic echo helps account for the awfulness of the scene. Marl--"An earthy deposit, typically loose and unconsolidated and consisting chiefly of clay mixed with calcium carbonate, formed in prehistoric seas and lakes" (OED)--is, quite simply, the matter of which the bight's floor is made. That matter, however, much like language and much like the methods of the poem, is a sedimentary accretion. Marl is also "used to improve the texture of sand or light soil" and an obsolete figurative sense of the verb "to marl" is "To spread (marl) as manure" (OED). Marl's fecundity has poetic ramifications in "The Bight" in terms of mental activity (particularly imagination, memory and perception), in terms of Bishop's personal past, and in terms of poetic heritage.

As if this wasn't enough, "marl" has other meanings that enrich the soil of the poem. An old nautical definition of "marl" is "To fasten with marline or small line; to secure together by a succession of half hitches; to wind a line or cord around (a parcelled rope), typically securing it with a hitch at each turn" (OED). This ties marl neatly to the ropy connotations of "bight" and relates also to the poem's method of metonymic association. Recall Lombardi's observation that Bishop eschews "the unifying language of metaphor" (Lombardi 134); the poem's descriptive similes, polysemies and paranomastic play are more "half hitches" than the permanent welding of metaphor. Kalstone's observation of Bishop's preference for simile over metaphor is worth quoting in this context:

It was a tactic she learned from Poe, who argued that metaphors "dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated" and who warned against such expressions lest they convey the "excess of the suggested meaning." ... It was this particular strategy which also allowed Bishop her own tough tentativeness; as if to demonstrate the power of simile over metaphor, the power of reserve, she had written.. .a poem that more than adequately demonstrates both "reserve and having possibly more meanings, in reserve"--the lovely concatenation of similes called "The Bight." (Kalstone 104)

Finally, marl is "A mottled yarn made from two or more differently coloured threads twisted together; fabric produced from such yarn. Freq. Attrib. or as adj. (cf. MARLED adj.2)" (OED). "The Bight" is just such a fabric and, as my philological analysis of some of its key words has shown, these marlings are present at both the micro and macro levels of the poem. One could easily go on in this vein, and several critics have made hay from such polyvalent words as "pilings," "claves," "drafts" and "storm." Such analyses court trivial gamesmanship, it must be acknowledged, but "The Bight" is a poem which, more than most, licenses this type of approach. As Thomas Travisano has said, "[t]he grammatically unnecessary plural, 'correspondences,' clues one in" (Travisano 107) to Bishop's methodology. As long as one is willing to be clued in, one quickly cottons to the fact that there is a great deal more depth beneath Bishop's surface than first meets the eye.

Abbreviations Used

 CP    The Complete Poems CPr   The Collected Prose EAP   Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box OA    One Art: Letters OED   The Oxford English Dictionary WA    Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth
      Bishop and Robert Lowell 

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. New York: FSG, 1984.

__. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: FSG, 1983.

__. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Ed. Alice Quinn. New York: FSG, 2006.

__. Interview with Charles Ruas and Susan Howe. Audio. Web. http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/groups/Howe-Radio/ BishopElizabeth_Howe-Pacifica_4-19-77_with-Ruas.mp3

__. One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: FSG, 1994. Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Erasmus, Desiderius. On Copia of Words and Ideas. Trans. Donald B. King & H. David Rix. Milwaukee: Marquette UP, 2007.

Federal Writers' Project. Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. New York: Oxford UP, 1939.

Ford, Mark. "Elizabeth Bishop at the Water's Edge." Essays in Criticism. 53.3 (2003): 235-261.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Herbert, George. The Country Parson: His Character and Rule of Holy Life. Boston: James B. Dow, 1842.

Honig, Edwin. "Poetry Chronicle." Partisan Review (1956): 115-19.

James, Clive. The Metropolitan Critic. London: Picador, 1995.

Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: FSG, 1989.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.

Lombardi, Marilyn May. The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1995.

McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

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

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings of Charles Olson. New York: New Directions, 1967.

Pickard, Zachariah. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Description. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2009.

Raine, Craig. "Hard Raine: Vidyan Ravinthiran in Conversation with Craig Raine." Horizon Review. (3, 2009). Web. http://www.saltpublishing.com/ horizon/issues/03/text/ravinthiran_vidyan_interview.htm

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 1990.

Travisano, Thomas. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988.

__, ed. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. New York: FSG, 2008.

Wilcox, Helen, ed. The English Poems of George Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969.

Wojcik-Leese, Elzbieta. "Correspondences between the Bight and the Desk: The Conceptual Net-work of Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Bight'." From Wordsworth to Stevens: Essays in Honour of Robert Rehder. Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, 239-66.


(1.) Olson's exemplar William Carlos Williams would likely have been equally unimpressed, given his belief that "the coining of similes is a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence" (Williams 16).

(2.) For her part, Bishop named Olson as one of "[t]hree or four people in this world I really hate" (WA 300). When asked publicly by Susan Howe about her opinion of his poetry, Bishop was considerably more circumspect, but no less dismissive: "I can't say I like his poems" (Interview).

(3.) The key poets in the "Martian school" are Christopher Reid and Craig Raine. Martian poetry, a minor movement in the UK in the late 1970s and early '80s, was so named because its proponents sought to present the familiar in a strange manner, much as Bishop does in many of her poems, so that reality might be perceived as it would be by a visitor from Mars. One Martian poet, Craig Raine, has responded to James's take on Bishop by saying that "Clive is usually quick on his feet, but he was fucking stupid about her" (Raine unpaginated).

(4.) Already in 1936, Bishop said in a letter to Marianne Moore that she was "reading it again" (OA 39).

(5.) I think it clear that the subtitle is intended by Bishop to be read as a line of the poem; without it, certainly, the tone and tenor of the piece shift seismically.

(6.) Bishop's desideratum was that only the last line be used, but this went unheeded for years until Bishop enthusiasts in Massachusetts intervened. Their hearts were clearly in the right place, but the inscription of the penultimate line as well as the last one seems to me a failure of either nerve or judgment.

(7.) A much less gloomy take than her journal entry of February 8, 1941: "--I am thirty years old to-day--& nothing accomplished" (Quoted in EAP 284).

(8.) Given the poem's vintage, I think the chime with "byte" is best ignored..

(9.) Bishop's technique of using surface clarity to encode complexity owes much to the example of George Herbert, particularly in such poems as "Jordan (I)." In her magisterial edition of Herbert's English poems, Helen Wilcox writes that D.M. Hill "suggests that the poem ["Jordan"] seems clear and direct on a first reading, containing defiant argument and leading to a firm conclusion, but on a second reading 'a host of resonances' are heard 'which cannot be harmonized into so confident a tune.' [Michael] Murrin ... notes the complex irony of an 'allegorical' poem which attacks allegory.... The 'plain' style of the poem is also much discussed. According to [Frank] Manley ... it is not an easy but a 'jagged' style with 'great logical gaps the reader must bridge himself if he is to follow the surge and rapidity of the thought'" (Wilcox 199). Wilcox herself observes that the poem's "one-word title triggers off a number of symbolic correspondences" (201, emphasis added), a notion that dovetails nicely with the effect created by Bishop's poem about another body of water.

(10.) Stevens' line finds a further reverberation in Bishop's "Sandpiper," who is "looking for something, something, something" (CP 131).

(11.) Bishop actually used "shears" instead of "scissors" in an earlier draft of the poem (Wojcik-Leese 258).

(12.) It is also worth noting a possible pun in the poem's last word; "cheerful," brings us back to the first line with its rhyme on "sheer." "The Bight" is indeed a "sheer-full" piece of work. If this seems at first glance to be an improbable tactic for Bishop to use intentionally, it should be borne in mind that such sonic slippages often caught Bishop's attention and are evident throughout her work, as in "The Map," the first poem in her first collection, with its "Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges" (CP 3). Another instance is the child-speaker's confusion of "mourning" and "morning" in Bishop's story "In the Village" (CPr 254).

(13.) Bonnie Costello links "Key West's ... sediment of dead coral" with Bishop's "unidealized sediment of memory" (Costello 186). Given that association, it is a bit surprising that Costello didn't follow her thinking to its lexically logical conclusion. A guide book in print at the time Bishop composed "The Bight" informs the reader that in the Keys "The brain coral, fashioned like a limestone model of the human brain, and the pepper coral that stings the hand are common types. The brain coral is valued as a voodoo charm" (Federal Writers' 31). Regardless of whether Bishop had read Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, we know that she was well aware of marl's coralline composition from an earlier poem, "Cootchie," which begins "Cootchie, Miss Lula's servant, lies in marl, / black into white she went / below the surface of the coral-reef ' (CP 46). Given the importance of "correspondences" in "The Bight" and given Bishop's magpie approach to facts and her fascination with "primitive" art and culture (Millier 242), the morphological resemblance of coral to the human brain and brain coral's talismanic value in local pagan rites, while not of primary importance in the poem, were probably taken into consideration by its author. But even leaving questions of authorial intent aside, these resonances form part of the poem's sedimentary make-up.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Wells, Zachariah. "A bite out of 'The Bight': Elizabeth Bishop's Diction as Depth." The Worcester Review, vol. 32, no. 1-2, 2011, p. 67+. Gale Academic Onefile, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA293268623%2FAONE%3Fu%3Dqa_mig19%26sid%3DAONE%26xid%3Df91fed2b. Accessed 7 Dec. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A293268623