Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop: Description Hall of Fame

The poet Elizabeth Bishop is a great describer and belongs in the Pantheon of Describers on High, eternally, if any such thing exists. Very often her work registers the experience of crossing into unfamiliar territory; her senses come to attention in foreign places. I found this description of her visit to a Chinese laundry ("Seven-Days Monologue," The Library of America, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters):

The father was making out accounts in a black note-book,--erect lines of Chinese lettering. He had a little round wooden dish of black paint and a fine brush on a white handle. On the wall is a large calendar, just the ordinary girl kind, but she's a Chinese girl and all the printing is Chinese. The walls are bright blue.

There was a lighted candle beside the father's note-book, and it had burned down on one side and left a thin shell of wax on the other. The hollow was full of light, like an ice cavern lit by its own midnight sun.

My favorite part is the description of the candle. I didn't like "midnight sun" until I looked it up to make sure I knew exactly what it meant and what she meant. From Wiki:

The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon occurring in summer months at latitudes north and nearby to the south of the Arctic Circle, and south and nearby to the north of the Antarctic Circle where the sun remains visible at the local midnight. Given fair weather, the sun is visible for a continuous 24 hours, mostly north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle. The number of days per year with potential midnight sun increases the farther poleward one goes.


  1. oh, Mim, tolerable description...that's sweet...I like the little round wooden dish of black paint (should be ink because that's what's used with a brush with a white handle...) one writes with ink, most especially when doing calligraphy.. but anyway, I still like it...

  2. i recall her wonderful descriptions in letters to Robert Lowell -- from Brazil. Her poems are very visual -- cinematic.

  3. It's a great photograph, Mim, full of subtle detail, the open eyed intelligence of a wonderful writer.

    I love the image of the candle, the detail, 'the thin shell of wax'. Thanks for telling us more about her.

  4. It's my favorite photograph of her. I've been reading Bishop as I work on a poem. She worked on hers for years. Do you like candles, too? They really do enchant me, the way they melt and change, burn away to nothing.