Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Nuclear Proliferation


Elizabeth Bishop, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1934

by Angus Cleghorn

Nuclear proliferation acts as a contaminant to nature, a technology threatening its balanced order in several poems, notably in “A Cold Spring”. The threat of nuclear devastation is evident in the test blasts Elizabeth Bishop heard from the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland while writing “A Cold Spring”. These contrast with the poem’s pastoral setting – her friend Jane Dewey’s farm. This nuclear disturbance is an example of the recurrent pollution Bishop writes into her natural scenes. Pollution is an alien imposition on a natural environment – think of poems such as “The Moose”, in which the She-beast exits the forest to stop the Nova Scotia bus tour dead in its tracks; or in “The Fish” when the rainbow of engine oil exclaims ironic victory upon the catch in the “little rented boat.” These man-made pollutants are scars in many a Bishop poem, and threaten the natural existence of humanity. In strange-but-true Bishop fashion, the subjective speaker often hangs in the balance – part alien polluter and part natural collateral damage. Bishop’s persona is part she-moose, part bus; part warrior-fish, part oily vessel; part pastoral idyll, and part atomic bomb. At her core is a nuclear energy she called ‘the proliferal style,’ a term Bishop used to describe her new theory of writing in 1938.

Bishop’s personae act as contaminants upon the natural order. Her liminal positions provide the poetry, especially the Brazilian material, its postmodern camera-eye anthropological perspective so readers can enter foreign countries as tourists, get taught lessons by locals, feel strange and unwelcome, then settle with ethnocentric knowledges both local and tourist, so finally the anthropologist can return home to write a balanced social critique. This exercise in alterity is practiced through many poems of inversion, such as “Insomnia”, where upside-down nights express the surreality of lesbian existence mid-20th-century. Bishop expresses otherness in one way or another consistently, so she is known for imagery in which the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange.

Nowhere is this more thoroughly conveyed than in “Crusoe in England”. Crusoe’s “poor island’s still un-rediscovered, un-renamable” (PPL 151). Its unknowable identity contrasts recognized islands, such as what “the papers say”: “A new volcano has erupted … and last week I was reading / where some ship saw an island being born” (151). These body-births are observed and published unlike this speaker’s, whose island is the most recent of “fifty-two / miserable, small volcanoes … dead as ash heaps” (152). Past trauma re-plays itself later in “nightmares of other islands / stretching away from mine, infinities / of islands, islands spawning islands” (155). In “Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Islandology” James McCorkle writes “the island … [is] the trope for understanding the boundaries and boundedness of knowledge and disciplines. Islandology … is a formation of interlocking and permeable spaces” (Reading Elizabeth Bishop: An Edinburgh Companion, 267). In the poem’s maze-like challenge of identity-formation, those vertiginous islands express a surreal sickness in a foreign clime, in which, suddenly, Crusoe’s discovery of Friday candidly expresses fascinated approval of this same-sex other’s body. Homesickness seems to arise in two directions here: the way that Crusoe’s sea-view of inverted islands drift off of the exotic island, receding toward the distant shore of England, which becomes the supposed home to which Crusoe returns, only to feel more alien when his imported exotic artifacts no longer make sense out of their foreign context, and Friday has died of measles.

This sea-drift, this vertigo chain of association, metonymic in its partial shoal-like identification with Bishop’s persona follows a physical process of proliferation. This proliferation goes between the atomic center of a poem, such as the persona or the island setting, and travels outward. Sometimes the strangeness comes from the core, as in Crusoe’s interior island discoveries of otherness, while sometimes alterity is discovered through the mutants met along the way, such as the bus in “The Moose”, or Luandinha, the dolphin-spirit of the Amazon who meets “The Riverman”. However far the journey, its proliferation always involves an inland encounter between other and self: think of “The Man-Moth” in the underground fearing “the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, / [which] runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to” (PPL 11). This man-moth is an other persona fearing final darkness, permeating from the core. The man-moth’s dis-ease proliferates from the nuclear body. The poem’s final stanza extends this soulful dialectic outward: “If you catch him, / hold up a flashlight to his eye. . . ./ Then from the lids one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips. / Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention / he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over, / cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink” (PPL 12).  Notice how the disease poisoning the man-moth is a pain that, once acknowledged and accepted and transferred to the observer-reader, rather than swallowed back down into the core body again, becomes purified sustenance. Crusoe and Friday do not fare so well with their dis-ease.

On the other hand, in “The Shampoo”, the “still explosions on the rocks” celebrate it. “The Shampoo” is the final poem of the volume, A Cold Spring, Bishop’s second volume written largely in Florida where her nuclear poetics began to be written during the encroachment of WWII. The contexts of war and development of nuclear technology factor in a cold way amidst Bishop’s hot Florida, where her sexuality flourished. In a recent essay on “Bishop and the Cold War,” Steven Gould Axelrod discusses A Cold Spring as a book that evades the era’s “heteronormative policing” through its “queer world of female relations and desires … [and] close friendships … between women” (Elizabeth Bishop in Context 229). The title poem, “A Cold Spring”, is written post-war in 1950, and dedicated to Jane Dewey in Maryland. They met in Key West in 1939, and became good friends. George Lensing reads into this poem a subtext that while quiet and easily missed, resounds powerfully. In “’A faint boom’: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’ and the Aberdeen Proving Ground,” Lensing cites a letter Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell on August 23rd, 1950, describing her pending visit to Maryland:

From here I am going (the 15th I hope) to visit Jane Dewey for about ten days. . . . (I think I’ve told you about Jane D.– the physicist daughter of John D? At present she is in charge of “Terminal Ballistics” at the Aberdeen proving ground, & when I stay at her farm on week-days, the rural scene shakes slightly once in a while as Jane practices her art about 15 miles away, & then there is a faint “boom.” It seems there are three kinds of ballistics: Internal, External & Terminal.) (Words in Air 107-8).

So at the farm, while Bishop luxuriated in the pastoral motions of violet, calf, oak, lilac and fire-fly in “A Cold Spring”, Jane Dewey’s missile blasts resounded a foreboding backdrop. In this cold spring everything was tainted: “the violet was flawed on the lawn. / For two weeks or more the trees hesitated ….” Why? Do they hold their breath for spring-life, or, hope the nuclear blasts will stop? This pregnant pause holds inversion within it. Even the sun is described as “a chill white blast of sunshine,” … the mother-cow “took a long time eating the after-birth, / a wretched flag, / but the calf got up promptly / and seemed inclined to feel gay” (PPL 43). I don’t want to read too much into this, but every springtime image is somewhat inverted of usual expectation. Bishop asks us to pause and think of the other side of things, at a female friend’s pastoral farm haunted by nuclear blasts. Abject reality is formative: “Tufts of long grass show / where each cow-flop lies” (43). “Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies / begin to rise: / up, then down, then up again: / lit on the ascending flight, / drifting simultaneously to the same height, / — exactly like the bubbles in champagne. / — Later on they rise much higher” (44). Notice how fireflies rise from the manure-fertilized grass (fed by pollution that’s also a nutrient), and that the fireflies up-down motion resembles nuclear fire, an intoxicating energy like champagne – rising to great heights but ultimately destructive. The poem ends: “And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer / these particular glowing tributes / every evening now throughout the summer” (44). Are these pastures shadowy because of nature itself with its shadow side, because these pastures belong to Jane, Bishop’s female hostess, or because they are haunted by nuclear shadow? In the letter to Lowell, Bishop wrote: “It seems there are three kinds of ballistics: Internal, External & Terminal.” Three types of ballistics in the Bishop poem: “Internal, External & Terminal”. Lensing informs us that “terminal ballistics is a branch of applied physics that deals with the actions and characteristics of missiles or projectiles as they approach their targets.” The longevity of summer is cut short by its obviously limited season. The poem has a blunt ending. Yet the pregnant pause of the season, in its limited glory, is an encasement from which Bishop’s energy proliferates.

“It’s the ‘proliferal style,’ I believe . . .” (EAP 271) Bishop wrote in a 1938 letter to her longtime friend, Frani Blough. Alice Quinn, editor of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (the 2006 book of previously unpublished Bishop material), quotes this letter (from One Art, 71) to indicate Bishop’s creative process in 1938 when she wrote both her prize-winning story, “In Prison,” and as a method involved in Bishop’s writing of the poem, “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box”, which the poet wanted to have close her second volume, A Cold Spring.

There is so much going on here: recall the champagne bubbles rising out of the cow-patties and fireflies in “A Cold Spring”. Now if we read “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box” we can see that Bishop’s proliferal style has to do with this rising action, which is an alcoholic one Bishop associates with Edgar Allan Poe; see the inscription referring to “The Tell-Tale Heart” on the upper-right corner of the poetic draft. Poe’s mechanics are contextualized by Bishop as alcohol-feeding-desire: in Bishop’s career, her highly charged sexual poems mostly remain unpublished in her lifetime; about Poe’s career, Bishop argues, with help from Baudelaire, that alcohol in his poetry is covered up by his poetics on beauty upheld by the mechanics of meter; in American culture, nuclear testing is kept underground; in fact, dangerous desires of several kinds appear destructive in “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box”, while they are repressed, held back, yet out of control in another poem not published in her lifetime, “The Soldier and the Slot-Machine”. This poem is the inverse of “Edgar Allan Poe….” The soldier persona is disciplined, though beautifully corrupted by the bar and intoxications within. And despite the soldier’s rejoinder, “I will not play the slot-machine,” the damn thing surreally melts, in this Dr. Seuss poem for adults, to form “a pool beneath the floor . . .” The subterranean subconscious, no matter how denied or trashed, ends up more powerful, for “the slot-machine is who is drunk,” the machine of desire joining the larger body in the sea where nature flows freely out of control, as Bishop writes in another poem of this period, “Pleasure Seas”.

Proliferation describes the energy that permeates from the core; the sexuality in “the Juke-Box”, in the bell-buoy of “Pleasure Seas”, and “Slot-Machine.” This nuclear energy blasts off in these previously unpublished poems, despite Bishop’s mutant no-name island, ultimately called Mount Despair in “Crusoe”. The proliferal style is mechanical, knows what it wants, and explains Bishop’s unpublished poetics – their half-life dormancy has ended; now we mop up the spilled contaminants from her nucleus.

Frani Blough, 1933

‘The proliferal style’ is a theory of writing that is conductive. Images proliferate in metonymic chains of accretion. Bishop writes in “her Key West notebook: Poe’s ‘Each law of nature at all points depends on all other laws’” (EAP 271). And when she writes to longtime friend Frani Blough in 1938, she says, “Lately I’ve been doing nothing much but reread Poe, and evolve from Poe . . . .” The poem “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box” springs from this literary study (she must’ve been writing it for a long time … from 1938 to 1953 when she wanted her editor, Paul Brooks, to use it as the last poem of A Cold Spring). The “Juke-Box” is about mechanical pleasure; “the notebook some fifty pages before the draft [reads] ‘pleasure is exact, though meretricious / & knows exactly what it wants –’” (271). This theory on pleasure’s proliferation appears also in the 1939 poem, “Pleasure Seas”, a poem promised, then denied, publication in Harper’s Bazaar. Bishop’s lesbian sexuality is central to her poetry’s struggle for emergence at this time. The established oeuvre in the old Complete Poems holds “The Shampoo” as quite spectacular, though veiled, evidence of her proliferal style. Its emanating “concentric shocks” of pleasure jump out aberrantly from the end of A Cold Spring, even if, as Axelrod observes, “the gender of the beloved lacks explicit designation, which by itself becomes a code for queerness” (Elizabeth Bishop in Context, 229). The “maimed and stunted siblings,” as Helen Vendler evaluated them, that did not make it into her published volumes in her lifetime enable us to understand Bishop’s proliferal style.

“Crusoe in England” demonstrates the metamorphosis of the proliferal style affected by years of repression. Bishop’s evolving poetics of the late 1930s remained largely buried, and so were cast into the subconscious of her poetry: turned upside-down in the vertiginous islands and queasy personae. Numerous scholars (such as Richard Mullen, Susan Rosenbaum, and Andrew Epstein) have discussed her surrealism. Back in the Key West notebooks she wrote: “some surrealist poetry terrifies me because of the sense of irresponsibility & danger it gives of the mind being ‘broken down’ – I want to produce the opposite effect” (EAP 272). “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box” registers both effects: the promise of healthy sexual pleasure excitedly fulfilled in Florida dance-halls is dangerously ‘broken down’ through alcoholic dissolution. The booze acts as catalyst and ultimate destroyer, regretfully. Her notebooks converse extensively with Poe, for example, echoing the argument she has with Edgar Allan in the poem, “you said that poetry was exact / but so is pleasure” (272). Bishop also read Baudelaire at length, and this contributed to her dialectical involvement in Poe, trying to defend him as early as 1935 for his effort to elevate Beauty in “The Poetic Principle” and the precise rendering of metrical prosody supporting beauty and sadness in “The Philosophy of Composition”. After “an upsetting dinner conversation in Paris in 1935 … Bishop fled to the kitchen where [her college friend Harriet Tompkins Thomas] found her ten minutes later ‘drinking a large glass of gin and weeping profusely’” (274). Alice Quinn places that anecdote before another from 1948 when Bishop wrote on a Key West postcard of an incident when “Jane [Dewey] and I went to the museum in Baltimore, and to Poe’s grave in the pouring rain” (274). Fifteen years later in 1963 Bishop compares Poe to William S. Burroughs. My point, through Quinn’s strategic anecdotal breadcrumb trail, is that Bishop’s proliferal style of writing emotion emanating from an imprisoned nuclear core derives largely from her quarrel with Poe. In the “Juke-Box” poem, she writes: “The music pretends to laugh and weep / while it descends to drink and murder” (PPL 221). She reads his poetics as a form of denial veiling alcoholic rage: metrical analysis and romantic ideals are fused in Poe’s poetics to hide the mechanics of desire fuelled by “his alcoholic breath that could have been set on fire with a candle,” as Baudelaire wrote in “Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Works” (273).

So when the “Juke-Box” pumps out the beat in spite of Poe we see Bishop proliferate, in an alternative way from the surrealism that would leave her nucleus forlorn on islands. She wanted that poem to end A Cold Spring but it was not included in the volume, which she considered calling Bone Key. Bishop’s poetry went another direction, while her life lived the unpublished poetics: her trip to Brazil led to love with Lota de Macedo Soares on another continent, and the volume, Questions of Travel.

Bishop did manage to publish in the proliferal style. In fact, when she wrote Frani Blough in 1938, she referred to this “new Theory-of-the-Story-All-My-Own” in her prize-winning story, “In Prison”, which was published in the March 1938 edition of Partisan Review (271). Since her proliferal style applies to the short story, and I would add the genres of poetry, letters and painting that constitute her One Art, we can see just how far Bishop was from Poe’s formal poetics in her Theory of Writing Style.

“In Prison” is a captivating story about captivity. Bishop writes the first paragraph about her prison-house: “I have known for many years in what direction lie my talents and my ‘proper sphere,’ and I have always eagerly desired to enter it. Once that day has arrived and the formalities are over, I shall know exactly how to set about those duties ‘Nature intended me to perform’” (PPL 582). Bishop quotes Hawthorne’s words from The Intelligence-Office to press forward her repressed nature into the realm of articulate performance. The story from there gives many examples illustrating how the protagonist can observe luminous details from the limits of her cave. She paints herself into a corner so that she can imagine the vast freedom outside, and this is an inverted bonus: “… I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art! – something I should never know how to do outside where the sources are so bewildering” (PPL 587-8). As the prison gets smaller in the story, the writer’s work remains inside: “Perhaps I shall arrange my ‘works’ … at the base of a wall and half on the floor, in an almost illegible scrawl. They will be brief, suggestive, anguished, but full of the lights of revelation. And no small part of the joy these writings will give me will be to think of the person coming after me, — the legacy of thoughts I shall leave him, like an old bundle tossed carelessly into a corner!” (PPL 588). I am he, the willful janitor mopping up the feast Bishop left in prison. Thanks to Alice Quinn for collecting her gleaming garbage so neatly. Amazing, though, how this 27 year-old short story writer predicted her prison scrawl would emanate. And the unpublished Bishop remained “unconventional, rebellious perhaps, but in shades and shadows” (589).

The story begins and ends with distinctions between Choice and Necessity. Bishop is explaining her public persona, its necessity, which enables choice from prison: “’Freedom is knowledge of necessity’; I believe nothing as ardently as I do that. And I assure you that to act in this way is the only logical step for me to take. I mean, of course, to be acted upon in this way is the only logical step for me to take” (590). Her desires remain passive in what the narrator previously described as the “hotel-existence” led by her “‘minister without portfolio’” (582).

And how exactly is this self-control and denial proliferation? From her cell(s) Bishop paints both the iron bars of restraint and the imagined worlds yonder, perhaps “even a key-hole of sky would be enough, in its blind, blue endlessness” (584) for the Man-Moth to proliferate, for the nuclear core to burn.

About the Author

Angus Cleghorn is Professor of English & Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto. He is the author of Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric (2000), guest editor of two issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal, co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions (2012), The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014), Elizabeth Bishop in Context (2021), and editor of Elizabeth Bishop and the Music of Literature (2019). He has an article forthcoming on Bishop’s Parisian architecture in the new journal Bishop-Lowell Studies, and an essay on Anne Carson, ancient Greek poets, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Stevens in a book out next year entitled Wallace Stevens and Theory.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Steven Gould. “The Cold War,” Elizabeth Bishop in Context. Eds. Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Baudelaire, Charles. “Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Works,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Trans. H. Curwen. London: John Camden Hotten, 1873.

Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems, Prose & Letters (PPL). Library of America, 2008.

—–. One Art: Selected Letters (OA). Ed. Robert Giroux. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

—–. Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (EAP). Ed. Alice Quinn. FSG, 2006.

Lensing, George. “‘A faint boom’: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’ and the Aberdeen Proving Ground,” American Literature Association conf. San Francisco, 2008.

McCorkle, James. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Islandology,” Reading Elizabeth Bishop: An Edinburgh Companion. Ed. Jonathan Ellis. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Travisano, Thomas with Saskia Hamilton. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. FSG, 2008.


Bishop is a detail from the board of the Vassarion, Vassar College’s yearbook.

Blough is from the 1933 Vassarion.

It is our understanding that both photographs are in the public domain.

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