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Anne Shifrer Utah State University Logan Utah 84322-3200 Elizabeth Bishop as Delicate Ethnographer Ive spent many satisfying moments gazing on the dust jacket of the recently published collection of Elizabeth Bishops letters with its reproduction of one of her watercolors wildflowers in a bucket arranged with artful artlessness This grand book sits on my desk along with what I fondly call my Bishop things--mementos from a recent trip to Nova Scotia and the books with their lovely covers reproducing other Bishop paintings This scene reminds me of Bishops poem 12 0Clock News in which she describes her desk and its accessories--typewriter piles of manuscripts inkwell and ashtray--as if they were artifacts and people of a foreign landscape or country Bishop brings the eye of an ethnographer even to her own desk-sized culture Like her friend and mentor Marianne Moore she often seems entranced by tangible things endowing them which large expressive powers While both poets are noted for their descriptive acuity and precision and both interestingly did drawing s as studies for poems their delight in objects was much more than aesthetic relish each also had an ethnographic impulse to examine objects as repositories of hidden lives and cultural meanings It is this ethnographic impulse in Bishops work that I intend to explore beginning with the poem Questions of Travel and using two objects that Bishop singles out for rumination some wooden clogs and a finely-whittled birdcage This poem begins somewhat disconsolately with talk of a country which is for the non-native resident a too muchness--too many clouds too many waterfalls The speaker wonders briefly if she should go home but then immediately becomes charmed by less daunting newnesses What a pity she thinks --Not to have had to stop for gas and heard the sad two-noted wooden tune of disparate wooden clogs carelessly clacking over a grease-stained filling-station floor --A pity not to have heard
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