The "Poem" within the Painting: analyzing Elizabeth Bishop’s backwards thinking and art’s ability to transcend limits

I never thought I could love a poet as much as Elizabeth Bishop until I read Jorie Graham. It almost felt like I was reading Bishop’s earlier work, except poems about fish and moths were replaced by Graham’s poems about classical art. Graham was a pairing element, like sharp cheddar to red wine, to Bishop that enhanced her poems and brought out the different flavors, while allowing the reader to make more intense connections.  Despite changes in topic and tonal sequence, both of these powerful poets reflect on backwards thinking, the altering of perceived thought and reality, and the unsettling nature within a painting.

Graham’s “Two Paintings By Gustav Klimt” compares two very different paintings, one of gorgeous trees and the other of an exposed woman, to show how ideas and emotions hide beneath the surface level. Without gilded garments covering the figures, Klimt’s exploitation is exposed, yet Graham is still a mesmerized by how the paintings make her feel: free. Through a shift from intense love to a confused state of right and wrong, Graham finds joy and horror within herself. On the other hand, Bishop’s poem “Poem,” shows distance between the speaker and a painting, but eventually shifts to a joyous reformation, where she can see herself in the painting emotionally.

Both women feel the paintings become animated at different points in poetic time but are able to achieve a similar sense of self and value. Even though both poems are about paintings, the techniques Graham learned from Bishop deepen the exploitation of art for money, and the use of art to achieve fame as opposed to self-actualization. “The fabric defines the surface,” just as the details define the painting, expanding on how Bishop’s perception of the details affected how she processed, and obsessed over the small things (“Two Paintings By Gustav Klimt”, 44).

A poem about the ethical ambiguity of value and worth, “Poem” achieves Graham’s integration of backwards thinking when searching for identity, and breaks limits to form a connection between body and mind that can feel like one.

Bishop refuses to break her pattern of simplicity through language and her bigger picture interpretations. Despite the transparency in the title “Poem,” she chooses to entitle her work the way a painter would name their art: explicitly and mirroring the subtlety of the painting. Bishop begins with a description of a little painting crafted mostly of dark and solemn colors: “whites, gray greens, and steel grays” (“Poem”, 196), comparing it to the colors of a dollar bill. She first introduces her inquisitive tone when wondering whether they were “American of Canadian” dollar bills, symbolizing two countries she had lived in, and imaging if the sketch was a smaller version of a larger painting (“Poem”, 196).

The contrast of worthiness and monetary value is made apparent when Bishop admits that the painting “has never earned any money in its life” (“Poem”, 196). This sudden personification of the painting as being alive establishes the ongoing paradox between money and art, and how society and the author judge things based off how much money it can provide. The painting being characterized as being “useless and free,” perhaps unbeknownst to Bishop, implicitly hints that there is a freedom or liberty in things that seem frivolous or useless. However, the phrase mostly contributes to the negative stigma towards things of little value, while fueling the monetary symbolism throughout the poem. Bishop, at the end of the stanza, depicts the life of the painting as it has traveled down the family tree “collaterally” to members who “looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to” (“Poem”, 196). This opens the wound between family and memory, where the painting is thought to have no value because it is never seen.

            A Bishop-esque zoom inside the poem occurs at the beginning of the second stanza, where the author examines the details of the painting and identifies it as Nova Scotia. Similar to her work seen in “The Fish,” Bishop moves through the guts of the painting, following the natural eye movement from back to front, as if she is reading the details in the landscape. There are gabbled brown and white houses hiding in the background, and a church steeple that Bishop confuses as a “gray-blue wisp” (“Poem”, 196). She is unifying this painting, her memory, and the colors of money, while contradicting herself by saying “or is it,” as if she doesn’t trust her memory or her ability to translate its familiar details (“Poem”, 196).

Bishop’s eye and pen move to the foreground of the painting, where she begins to visualize the images seen as moments from when they were first painted. The cows only took “two brush strokes each”, and the wild iris, mentioned further along in the stanza, was “fresh-squiggled from the tube” (“Poem”, 196). There becomes a unison, a one-ness between her eyes and the painter’s. Towards the final lines of the stanza, Bishop senses that “they (the clouds) were the artist’s specialty,” creating a familiar connection that her eyes remember this landscape from somewhere (“Poem”, 196). Like her poem “Sestina,” Bishop begins to formulate her thoughts into abstract language by feeling the fresh and cool air, seeing the birds fly, watching the geese feed, feeling the painting partially come alive, while producing something unconsciously charged without acknowledging its presence. The stanza ends with the repeated appearance of “or is it”: the unsureness between a stain and a bird that translates to a thematic detachment (“Poem”, 196).

The third stanza serves as a tonal shift, where Bishop is hit with clarity when she recognizes the painting’s landscape as one from her childhood in Nova Scotia. So far, the tone has flowed with her thoughts naturally, as if she is dissecting and working through the painting aloud in a monologue manner. Bishops starts piecing together where this place resides in her memory of Nova Scotia, as she remembers the farmer’s “titanium white, one dab” barn, his forgotten name, the “hints of steeple / filaments of brush-hairs”, and “Miss Gillespie’s house” (“Poem”, 196). The objects seem to have a name now, an identification, in order to add a uniqueness to the memory. These foreign lands now seem to have a home that creates a clearer, yet untapped, connection. “Heavens”, Bishops exclamation of her epiphany, doubles as a recognition of angelic place that the author is also familiar with (“Poem”, 196). The author shifts to a change in pronoun, using “his” to modify the farmer’s barn, adding a personal attachment to his property.

What’s perplexing is that the oil paint color, “titanium white” used to describe the barn in the painting, even has a name (“Poem”, 196).  However, titanium is usually a silver or gray color; Bishop is reading from her own representation of the barn that may not match the one in the painting. This is the first time that a color in the painting is associated with money, alluding to the misinterpretation of appearance and value. The wisp of the steeple is revealed to be a Presbyterian church, and either the white or brown house mentioned in the previous stanza is now the house of Miss Gillespie. This stanza, in essence, is a very rushed-through scenic depiction of what she said in the previous stanza; the memories are rushing at her and she is spitting out any jumbled connection, as if she is passing the landscape on a train. The raw, uninhibited emotions of excitement carry through as she now begins to see her own identity through the eyes of the painter. 

There is a limit, as Robert Haas reiterates all too well, a disconnect, an “almost”, an unknown boundary that keeps the author from self-actualization (“Poem”, 196). Her use of a dash in the second line acts as an unspoken tip-of-the-tongue moment that can symbolize the true meaning of value and memory that has yet to be discovered. The geese and cows “naturally before (her) time” reflects how the “now” in her memory may seem fresh, but the details of painter’s memory are slightly dated; time still moves on, despite the stillness of the landscape (“Poem”, 197).

The tense shifts in the fourth stanza, transporting the reader into the past when the sketch was made and handed down to another family member, possibly the author. The painting was completed in “one breath,” quite a contrast compared to the vast number of descriptors within the painting. Perhaps it is used to cut down the significance and value of the work, or to convey the author’s nonchalant attitude and naivety towards the burdened relic (“Poem”, 197). Bishop introduces the first, and only, snippet of dialogue revealing that the author’s uncle George created and “left (the paintings) all with Mother / when he went back to England” (“Poem”, 197). We now know that there is more than one painting that seems to be stored in a trunk and toted around from family member to family member. The person speaking is trying to pass off these paintings to the author, as one would pass along used furniture to avoid a Goodwill trip. The family and author seem very indifferent about the whereabouts of the paintings, as well as the uncle; the abandonment of his own work shows a lack of attachment and connection to his family and “home”, as well as the artistic work that offered him no security. The lack of value contrasts with the excitement in the third stanza. Art, in this poem, isn’t portrayed as art, but as currency, which Bishop will start to question as the poem transitions into a state of lyrical thinking.

            “I never knew him” – there is no better way to express the sliver of sadness and sudden understanding of disassociation that is now centered between the author and uncle (“Poem”, 197). The one person who saw what she could and was able to translate that into art was gone, which portrays the grief of feeling solitude within your way of thinking. The pronoun “we” is introduced for the first time, signifying the moment of two strangers of different times joining as one—a very Haas-esque approach to showing human’s innate desire to feel one with another, and in this way, to feel one within a place and a way of thinking. Despite the difference in time, they are connected by this painting, and this landscape. “We both knew this place / apparently, this little backwater / looked at it long enough to memorize it / our years apart” (“Poem”, 197). They shared a similar landscape, but the word “apparently” offers some skepticism in the author’s voice, trying to deny the possibility of someone understanding her identity. Did they entirely know this place, or did their own separate memories changed how they perceived the landscape, and therefore, distort the connection?

With the mention of the backwater, a river with no current, in the painting, the literal sense of backwater can mean something that appears to be stagnant and not progressive. This can be an interesting play on words, signifying Bishop’s ever so famous feeling of being backwards, the author feeling that this connection and revelation is abnormal. However, her use of “literal” could be a paradox that the way she had previously thought about value was keeping her stagnant, and not able to grow more within her family’s and her own history. They both looked at this landscape “long enough to memorize,” long enough for both to be able to see how they would separately create art out of it, how they would conceive the memory, and hold it in their minds. (“Poem”, 197). There is a separateness paired with “our”, how, very similar to the idea of the cows and geese being in a place before the author’s time, the years separating the experience is a limit to becoming one entity. She keeps hinting this idea of togetherness while separate that will lead, later in the stanza, to another dilemma of two things trying to morph into one another.

            Bishop’s line “How strange,” is a contemplation of how, despite the difference in years, these strangers have shared a memory, a place, and a spiritual experience together. She is shocked, since she has expressed a disconnect between herself, her family, and even her uncle. The feeling of abnormality moves into the next line with a more positive idea that “it’s still loved,” which refers to the place portrayed in the painting. However, she corrects herself again by saying that the memory is the thing that is loved. There is a love triangle between the memory, the place, and the feeling, where all three don’t seem to exist harmoniously. The uncle uprooting and abandoning his paintings can parallel the idea of a place in one’s memory that doesn’t align with current time and wanting to detach from that thought. Time can have an effect on the perception of memory, which is alluded in the phrase “it must have changed a lot” (“Poem”, 197). This could be talking about the literal time in between the author and the uncle, but also the time between the author and the “now” of her reflecting back; there is a sense of time feeling still while also flowing, just like the painting itself.

When Bishop says “, Our visions coincided,” their four eyes become only two; she feels like they begin to experience these memories at the same time, the limit of age and time beginning to fade (“Poem”, 197). The corrective tone resurfaces when Bishop feels that “visions” is too serious of a word and uses the “looks” instead to describe what they see(“Poem”, 197). I agree, “visions” is too stuffy and scholarly, and hints that this is something mechanical or futuristic. Bishop’s awareness of her word choice, similar to her awareness of misinterpreting the value of the painting, shows her mind beginning to question and evolve towards this great epiphany. With “our looks, two looks” Bishop closely compares the looks coming from separate bodies that are also joined. It’s interesting how she even contrasts this idea of separate and together by keeping “looks” plural when using the pronoun “our,” showing that their views are more dynamic than just memory (“Poem”, 197). By placing the memories so close to each other, she is starting to think of them as the same idea, while still internally struggling with her own doubt. Using the word “look” emphasizes the landscape and the memory as being purely instinctual, almost ingrained, or something that is usually burrowed until a spark brings it out. It’s a word that lays dormant and then creates a connection within itself.

            What follows after the colon refers to how the author and painter’s looks coincide without boundaries, and what the “looks” specifically are: the idea of “art ‘copying from life’ and life itself” (“Poem”, 197). The painter depicting the scene of Nova Scotia is a way of copying his art from life and using it to express similar memories Bishop also experienced. Interestingly enough, Bishop is utilizing the same techniques when writing this poem: portraying her family disconnect, skewed sense of value, and memories to fuel her art. It’s a poem within the painting, and vice versa, fitting within each other like Russian Dolls that unleashes a feeling that this art hints on something priceless: living life. You feel the intensity when you read the next couple lines, very similar to the fast-paced, urgent tone in the third stanza. “Life and memory” feel so tightly packed or compressed together, syntactically and thematically, that “they’ve turned into each other” (“Poem”, 197). The disconnect between the two has healed, and Bishop can see that this place and her own life are tightly wound together like yarn, and hard to separate. They become one word, one body, and she is understanding that these two things feed off of one another and create an emotion that transcends any amount of money: the feeling of being understood. This also reflects how the idea, life separated and joined, are one ideology. Bishop shows her inability to shake this feeling of abnormality or being backwards by concentrating on differentiating the two within the one. “Which is which” is a subconscious disassociation from singularity within all these elements that could perhaps be a coping mechanism, like humor, and fights with the idea that her memory and way of thinking is shifting (“Poem”, 197).

            “It” is probably one of the most successful and aggravating pronouns, and Bishop hones in on that ambiguity to allow the reader to define “it”. “Life and memory of it” is repeated, in the line beside “Which is which” and immediately following that (“Poem”, 197). The “it” could be many things: memory, loss, disassociation, money, value, but it is mostly likely referring to life itself, and how it is cramped “on a piece of Bristol board” (“Poem”, 197). The feeling is now “compressed,” resurfacing a negative connotation to the painting, as if its small frame is restricting the memories or ideas from expanding (“Poem”, 197). It also refers to how the monetary limits of wealth and value cramp our ability to filter true connectedness to life experiences and the art we use to express them. “Dim” is also repeated, almost nonchalantly inserted between two poetic thoughts, like a dash, as a way to show a progression of dimness as she moves through the sentence (“Poem”, 197). The painting itself is dim, but also her dwindling memory of this place is somehow resurrected through the painting. As this occurs, the Elizabeth Bishop in the beginning of the poem is dimming, her former perception of what value means to her identity is outshined by the redefinition of value, size, and freedom. “The little we get for free,” like “how live, how touching in detail” is the epiphany of the poem, where the author realizes that freeness possesses the most value to one’s self (“Poem”, 197). Living has many costs and consequences related to it but is fundamentally pure. Meanwhile, the details, create the most charged memories and emotions.

When Bishop saw this painting, similar to when I first read this poem, she wasn’t able to see the connection, but was overwhelmed to realize that someone in the world understood and could translate common feelings into things like brushstrokes and dashes. By playing on the word “free” and “earthly trust,” Bishops also reintroduces the money analogy to show the difference between art and value. An earthly trust, something acting as a banking trust as well as a strength with something, is a primitive example of how this concept is engrained, but pulled out of us as we maneuver through finding a purpose. It’s a natural strength, voicing that the reader should allow the primal, unconscious voice to break down the limits. It’s “not much though” especially in comparison to the traditional understanding of value (“Poem”, 197). Bishop compares it to the size of “our abidance / along with theirs,” meaning the details she saw in the painting such as the “munching cows / the iris / the geese “ (“Poem”, 197). The size of the abidance, the compliance with something, can be compared to the size of the “old style silver dollar bill,” with Bishop beginning and ending on a similar size comparison (“Poem”, 196). With that idea, the size of their compliance is small, and almost not important, similar to the true value of the dollar. There is a great amount of value put on money, while this painting is perceived to be worthless; Bishop compares the two forms of paper, money and the painting, in the simile at the beginning and end to emphasize “our”, the uncle and author’s, lack of compliance towards this way of thinking in the hope to teach reader to find value in the unnoticed. However, Bishop personifies the animals, plants and nature scenery in the painting as no longer wishing to comply with these societal views and stigmas. The stigma of worthlessness and value dims; it becomes overlooked, forgotten, and losses its sense of freeness. With the “yet-to-be-dismantled elms” discovered in the last line, Bishops discreetly portrays her own dismantling or undoing of one’s self, but there is a liveliness, a joy, when unraveling that one can only hope to experience.

Bishop’s message of miniscule compliance can act as a way of freeing her from the societal traditions. With art forms, such as this poem and the painting within the poem, a cathartic release occurs that will loosen restraints and free them from burdens in their mind. Regardless what she meant, Bishop has freed me.


Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, 196-197

Jorie Graham, The Dream of Unified Field, 44


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