Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 10

Brinson 1 Meghan Brinson Libbie Rifkin Gender and Authority in 20th Century American Poetry December 13, 2012

Appropriating the Masters Voice: Feminist Ekphrasis in Elizabeth Bishops Brazil The contemporary feminist poet and critic Alicia Ostriker argues that Elizabeth Bishops poem Brazil, January 1, 1502 makes the gendered power relations between colonizers and the continent of Brazil very clear, but then suggests that Bishop simply describes the violence of the dynamic without critique. Ostriker says that Bishop's casual half-amused tone which frames and distances our horror at the brutality to which the poem alludes (584) makes Ostriker long for more bitterness, more denunciation (585). In light of the connection between identity politics and lyric subjectivity made by feminist poet and critic Annie Finch, it becomes possible to answer Ostrikers longing, reframing Bishops poetics as directly and confrontationally political. As Ostriker notes, Bishops poem contains oppressive methods of gazing, replicating the colonial exploitations of European conquest. But Bishop also offers methods of resistance. She utilizes an array of descriptive methods, first describing the scene with little editorializing from an authoritative lyric subject, then introducing the perspective of what the critic Bonnie Costello describes as artist/explorers, exemplified by the 19th century Luminists, who sought to depict Brazil as a new Eden (353). Through the appropriation of landscape into religious iconography, Bishop exposes how depiction itself can be political, gendered and oppressive. Finally, in the last stanza, the voice of the colonizers can be heard describing the women they chase, and the irony of Bishops articulation of

Brinson 2 the logic behind the violence she rejects is revealed. Bishop not only models how to refuse to participate in asserting the authoritative lyric self by refusing to speak for the retreating and maddening native women, but also assumes the judgmental authority to articulate the world view of colonialists and turn it against them, rejecting the imperial position with her metaphorical treatment of the Portuguese as hard, and tiny as nails. Thus Bishop cycles through the available modes of resistance: retreat from oppression, refusal to participate, and willingness to participate in the dynamic of authority through reversal. It also might have mollified Alicia Ostriker to frame Bishops version of Brazil, January 1, 1502 in a feminist ekphrasic tradition. Jane Hendley brings identity politics to bear on the tradition of ekphrasis itself in her introduction to the anthology In the Frame: Womens Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler. Hendley represents a strand of feminist criticism which argues, as Bishop does in her poem, that art itself can re-inscribe power imbalances and reveal their logic. The topic of the collection is ekphrasis, or poetry responding to visual art, a tradition troubled by the gendered visual dynamic of male gazer and female object. Bishops poem represents this gendered relationship beautifully, first introducing the tension between the painter viewing nature, and then of the conquistadors pursuing native women. The idea of a painting enters the poem with the use of the technical word foreground (24), and in the same line as the painterly gaze, identified by Costello as the moralizing Luminists, there is Sin (24). So Nature, previously figured by the epigraph as embroidered and by the first line as greet[ing] our eyes, now becomes threatened, attacked and scarcely breat[hing]

Brinson 3 after the introduction of the painterly eye which chooses, in order to read its religion, sexuality, and racism into the landscape, what to foreground (1, 28, 30, 33). Sylvia Henneburg situates Brazil firmly in Hendley et als tradition of feminist ekphrasis with her article Elizabeth Bishop's "Brazil, January 1, 1502 and Max Jacob's Etablissement d'une communautau Brsil: A Study of Transformative Interpretation and Influence. While it has been generally accepted that Brazil is an example of notional ekphrasis, to borrow the term from the ekphrastic theorist John Hollander, Henneberg argues that the poem is a direct feminist response to Max Jacobs poem "Etablissement d'une communautau Brsil." Henneberg notes that Bishop translated Jacob and owned the same map-containing book to which Jacobs poem responds. Henneberg suggests that Bishops version of events of the poem redirects and sharpens Jacob's critique of imperialism (339). Henneberg argues that while Jacobs poem works to justify the violence against Europeans he portrays, Bishop more clearly takes the side of the native Brazilians by making European violence against them the main topic of her poem. Additionally, Henneberg describes Jacobs poem as denouncing its speakers reaction to the violence of colonization, a speaker for whom Imperialism becomes a personal tragedy that is answered by a narcissistic retreat into the self (349). Henneberg argues that Bishop tweaks Jacobs critique of the guilty European subject upon witnessing the horrors of colonialism, arguing that The imperialist guilt of Bishop's visitor-tourist, like that of Jacob's, leads to retreat, but her retreat signals not a withdrawal into the self but a cautious affiliation with the embattled women (349). How is Bishops persona in Brazil, guilty of imperialism? Henneberg begins to make the connection between the vision of the speaker and imperialism with her reading

Brinson 4 of the line "Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs" (1-2), which Henneberg suggests shows that the speaker of the poem compares her vision of Brazil with the Portuguese conquerors (349). Henneberg argues that the line attests to the capacity for insight of her speaker to realize that as a non-Brazilian, as a foreigner who is distanced from the violence she describes by time and racial privilege, that her vision of Brazil is inherently appropriative (349). Hennebergs argues that the first stanza, which I previously described as using little editorializing from an authoritative lyric subject, still applies her ideals and vocabulary to capture its images in an appropriative fashion (349). Its difficult to understand how the first stanza, full of color adjectives and nouns, reveals and appropriative poetic eye. Annie Finch offers the technical poetic insight needed in her exploration of sentimental poetry as anti-Romantic, The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourneys Nature Poetry. Finchs work on the tradition of sentimental poetry, and Lydia Sigourney in particular, positions 20th century poetry and its critics within a Romantic tradition of poetry which demands a certain subject position, a tradition where, like in Jacobs poem, all things described or addressed in the poem serve as vehicles to illuminate the state of the subjectivity of the poems persona. Finch uses William Cullen Bryants To a Waterfowl, as her exemplar, arguing that the: waterfowl's status as a vehicle has been clear since the moment when the poet answered his own questions himself. Rather than a confrontation with an in dependent creature, the address to the waterfowl

Brinson 5 turns out to be a way for the poet to get in touch with his own internal knowledge. (7) Finch explicitly connects such lyric personas as both authoritarian and gendered, suggesting that This egocentric model of poetry is based on the male-defined poetic tradition of romanticism (4). Most significantly, Finch explains one of the ways in which such descriptive appropriation can occur, arguing that metaphor is an indicator of the subject/object relation within a poem, and hence a synecdoche for the way a poet positions her or his poetic self in relation to the world the poem describes (6). Even by Finchs standards, the first stanza of Brazil, before the entrance of the painterly eye, is remarkably free from metaphor. There is one satin underleaf (7) some monster ferns (8), and flowers like giant water lilies (10), but while these descriptions are arguably metaphorical and based in a European vocabulary, they only describe texture and size, or compare one flower to a more familiar flower. It isnt until the last lines of the stanza, where the scene is described as fresh as just finished/ and taken off the frame (14-15) that Bishop uses a simile to connect her description with the abstract idea of artistic portrayal that will be central to the rest of the poem. I suggested earlier that this bareeditorial description is one mode of less appropriative gazing, and with so few value judgments embedded in the language, one has to challenge Henneburgs characterization of it as appropriative. While the opening lines Januaries, Nature greets our eyes/ exactly as she must have greeted theirs does formulate Nature as feminine object and align Bishops speakers vision with the Portuguese, the pleasure taken by her speaker in the foreign landscape doesnt rise to the colonialization that she later describes (1-2).

Brinson 6 Bishops main weapon in this poem isnt championing the retreating, always retreating women, although she does not attempt to speak for them and allows their calling to each other the last, inapprehensible position in her poem. Nor is the lack of the appropriative lyric subjectivity the most overtly political tack Bishop takes. Rather, it is her illustration of the imperial methods of vision and her connection of them to gendered violence, followed by her satirization of those who use such imperial methods, which constitute her main feminist critique. Bishop sets up expectation that the poem will accept the mediated, interpreted vision of nature as artistic interpretation of those who describe it. She takes the descriptive position of the colonizer and connects this method of vision to the religious and romantic traditions of Europe. As soon as the religious landscape of sin and hell are invoked by the descriptions there is Sin (24), sooty dragons (25), and lovely hellgreen flames (29), then Bishop begins to describe gendered violence. She describes the group of lizards: all eyes/ are on the smaller, female one; back to, / her wicked tail straight up and over,/ red as a red-hot wire (33-36). Ironically, while the line just before this scene contains a Portuguese request for consent one leaf yes and one leaf no (32), the scene with the lizards describes one female lizard surrounded and outnumbered by four male lizards. The sexual nature of the scene is implied by the description of the lizards rear end, her raised tail, and its sexual color red as a red-hot wire (36). But while the religious eye that Bishop dons here judges the female lizard as wicked, perhaps the Eve to the Luminists Eden, the action Bishop describes is that of the lizard moving her back away from the male lizards that half-surround her to the questionable safety of the paintings, and subsequently the viewers, gaze. This stance seems to imply

Brinson 7 that despite the painters judgment of the lizard as sexually wicked, she is, in fact, trying to avoid the wickedness of the male lizards who threaten her. Hennegard also notes the ironic shift in judgments of wickedness in the poem which this episode foreshadows; Bishop prepares her contrast with the real sin at the end of the poem, the ravaging of the landscape and its population (344). By framing the sexuality of the outnumbered female lizard with the invitation to consent, the yes or no of the leaves, Bishop suggests that judgmental eye of the colonizer incorrectly attributes virtue and sin. Bishop then ironically critiques the position she seemed to occupy, revealing her political affiliations when she describes the conquistadores as hard as nails,/ tiny as nails, and glinting,/ in creaking armor (37). While the Portuguese are Christians, they are hard as nailshard here recalling harshness, lack of empathy or the Christian virtue of charity. Additionally, they are capable of causing injury, although they are tiny compared to the landscape in which they ripped away into the hanging fabric (49). The Portuguese are also creaking, perhaps implying decay and rust, or lack of flexibility, or that their creaking armor is insufficient to protect them from the landscape they attack. While Henneburg doesnt offer a close reading of the language, she also sees the Portuguese as indicted and belittled by the poet (347). With this reversal, Bishop not only destroys the expectation that her poems revelation will agree with the visionstructures of colonization, but also reveals that the vision structures themselves are implicated in her critique of the conquistadores and painter-explorers who use them. Bishop further connects the violence of the Portuguese rip[ing] away into the hanging fabric (49) to catch and Indian for himself (50) to European traditions of romance. In their pursuit of the fleeing little women (51), the Portuguese found it all,/

Brinson 8 not unfamiliar (39-40). They are prepared for their violent sexual pursuits by and absence which correspond[s], nevertheless (43), a lack of lovers walks, bowers, cherries, lute music of chivalric tradition which conditions them for a brand-new pleasure (46) of pursuing native women. The world view in which certain women are treated with wealth and luxury (44) while they serve their purpose as pleasure objects has been translated, in the new power structures of colonialism, into shedding the politeness while maintaining the underlying principle of sexual relations. By the end of the poem, it is revealed that Bishop has been speaking, not for the imperialists, but against them. In her usurpation of their voice comes the poems power against them. While Brazil does not appropriate the women with whom it commiserates, refusing to attempt to translate their calling/ calling to each other (5152), the poem does appropriate the voice and vision structures of the European imperial subjectivity in order to reveal them as such. Behind the benign artistic structures of the painters and romantic artists is a subject position in which views of the natural world and women as a passive vehicle through which to satisfy their own aesthetic aggressions and self-serving contemplations. This appropriative subjectivity creates an ethic through which not just images, but the actual physical world, including other people, are appropriated through such self-serving structures. Bishop unmasks the logic behind the conquistadores and implicates not only traditions of romance, but the Romantic ekphrasic summarized by Hendley and the appropriation of epiphany at the expense of the Other described by Finch. Bishop prefigures these feminist critics to respond with a new poetic, calling attention to structures of thought that colonize and appropriation, refusing to participate in the

Brinson 9 Romantic tradition which makes the poems speakers position in the poem of central importance, and using irony to satirize the imperial subject position itself.

Brinson 10 Works Cited Costello, Bonnie. Vision and Mastery in Elizabeth Bishop. Twentieth Century Literature 28.4, 1982. 351-370. Web. 8 Oct. 2012. JSTOR. Finch, Annie. The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourneys Nature Poetry. Legacy 5.2 1988. Web. 9 Sep. 2012. JSTOR Hedley, Jane. Introduction: The Subject of Ekphrasis. In the Frame: Womens Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler. Ed. Jane Hedley, Nick Halpern, and Willard Spiegelman. University of Delaware Press: Newark, DE, 2009. 15-40. Print. Henneberg, Sylvia. Elizabeth Bishop's "Brazil, January 1, 1502" and Max Jacob's "Etablissement d'une communautau Brsil": A Study of Transformative Interpretation and Influence. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.4 2003. 337-351. Web. 8 Oct. 2012. JSTOR. Ostriker, Alicia. Dancing at the Devils Party: Some Notes on Politics and Poetry. Critical Inquiry 13.3 1987. 579-596. Web. 8 Oct. 2012. JSTOR.