This is Poetry 2022
The nature of travel
The poem, it must be said, takes a rather dim view of the whole area of travel and tourism. Its opening shows how even the keenest travellers and tourists can become jaded from sightseeing. The poet responds to a spectacular landscape with weariness, almost with disgust, referring to the streams of cloud as ‘streaks’ and ‘tearstains’ and to the mountains as ‘slime-hung’. She describes this vista in terms of pressure, haste and crowdedness, which suggests that the landscape brings her stress rather than happiness or relaxation.
The poem especially emphasises how difficult it is to really know or understand a foreign country. We see this in the filling station when the poet attempts to understand Brazil’s past but can only do so only in the feeblest and most uncertain manner. The point is that, as tourists, we engage with foreign countries on only the most superficial level. What we witness will always be as artificial as a performance in a theatre. The ‘old stonework’ of monuments and other attractions will always remain ‘inexplicable’ and ‘impenetrable’.
Such negativity is also present in her description of the journey to Petrópolis. The poet mentions six experiences she had while travelling there, declaring that ‘surely it would have been a pity’ to miss out on each one of them. As we have seen, however, the poet’s description of each experience is highly qualified – each is depicted as having a negative as well as a positive aspect. Would the poet really have regretted missing out on these experiences? Or is she merely trying to convince herself that her journey to Petrópolis was worthwhile? Bishop wonders, therefore, why we can’t ‘just stay at home?’ She even refers to the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal’s famous suggestion that ‘all the evil in the world comes from man’s inability to sit quietly in his room’.
A sense of restlessness
The poem also highlights Bishop’s acute sense of restlessness. During her adult years, Bishop regularly changed her place of residence. And when she did settle in one place, she experienced what we might describe as ‘itchy feet’, embarking on regular trips and excursions. She’s one of those people who, until the day they die, will be ‘determined to rush’ about the place, visiting and revisiting various locales. She can’t reist this impulse, even though she views it as one of ‘childishness’. The poet’s restlessness makes her agitated and uneasy. This is suggested by the sense of haste and pressure in the poem’s opening, with its streams and clouds that ‘keep travelling, travelling’, its waterfalls that ‘hurry too rapidly’.
The poet seems to view her urge to travel as a failure of imagination. She sits at home and contemplates ‘imagined places’, places she’s never been. She suggests that if her powers of imagination were greater, she’d be able to visualise such locations in extraordinary detail. Her mental image of these ‘imagined places’ would be so rich that she’d never actually feel the urge to visit them. She could simply ‘stay at home?’
A sense of homelessness
Bishop’s father, we remind ourselves, died when she was only eight months old and her mother was institutionalised when she was only four. In the years that followed, Bishop was shunted from guardian to guardian in both Canada and the United States. Because her childhood was spent in so many different locations, Bishop felt that she didn’t really come from anywhere. She didn’t have a ‘home’ in the sense of a point of origin, a native place that her family came from and to which she could return. This sense of what we might call ‘homelessness’ is indicated by the poem’s final enigmatic question: ‘Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?’
The poet is uncertain, therefore, as to where her ‘home’ might be, and whether she even has one. For most of her adult life, Bishop had a modest independent income and no regular job. If she wished, therefore, she could live in or visit any ‘Continent, city, country, society’. And yet she feels no sense of freedom: ‘The choice is never wide and never free’.
Perhaps Bishop experiences no sense of ‘choice’ because her restlessness compels her to keep moving. Or perhaps she thinks that everywhere she visits is ultimately the same. For no matter where she goes, she’s dogged by the same feelings of not belonging, the same sense of never truly being at home.