Bishop's First New York Poem
“The Map” (written 1934, published 1935)
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.
“The Map” was Bishop’s first New York poem, written during the bleak Christmas season of 1934. She was suffering from severe asthma and the flu at the time, so she ended up spending New Year’s Eve alone in her New York apartment. Bishop spent much of this lonely night examining her framed map of the North Atlantic that contained the Maritime provinces, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia (Millier 77). In 1978, Bishop said in an interview:
My mother’s family wandered a lot and loved this strange world of travel. My first poem in my first book was inspired when I was sitting on the floor, one New Year’s Eve in Greenwich Village, after I graduated from college. I was staring at a map. The poem wrote itself. People will say that it corresponded to some part of me which I was unaware of at the time. This may be true. (quoted in Travisano 41)
As Brett Millier notes in her critical biography of Bishop, “The Map,” like much of Bishop’s later poetry, asks “semirhetorical questions of perspective” and reveals Bishop’s belief that poetry should reveal “the mind thinking” (77). She goes on to identify another central thread in Bishop’s later poetry: the preoccupation with changing perspectives and scale. The poem depicts both the map and the real geography it represents as two equally important realities. Millier also comments on Bishop’s eagerness to become as invested in the map as the printer, “experiencing the same excitement/as when emotion too far exceeds its cause” (77). Millier suggests that perhaps this emotion is the nostalgia and homesickness Bishop is feeling alone in New York at the start of a new year.
The poem reveals the start of Bishop’s life-long obsession with geography and physical landscapes (that would often provide access to interior, psychological terrain). As a poet of observation and detail, she was constantly concerned with perspective. Bishop discussed the poem’s origin in a 1948 letter:
A sentence in Auden’s Airman’s Journal has always seemed very profound to me—I haven’t the book here so I can’t quote it exactly, but something about time and space and how ‘geography is a thousand times more important to modern man than history’—I always like to feel exactly where I am geographically all the time, on the map,--but maybe that is something else again. (quoted in Millier 78)
Bishop’s need to root herself in a specific geography or location perhaps stemmed from her sense of displacement (growing up with relatives in Nova Scotia, Worcester, and Boston, going to college in Poughkeepsie, settling temporarily in New York City, and spending most of her life travelling).
The poem, written in a spare one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, reveals imaginative potential behind a seemingly ordinary object. The process of composition allows Bishop to travel the “long sea-weeded ledges” and ponder the relationship between the land and sea. She invests the map with emotional and psychological depth, morphing the landscape through simile as: “peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger/like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.” In Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, Thomas Travisano suggests that the map allows the speaker to travel vicariously, which nevertheless cannot fully satisfy the urge for lived experiences. Although she appreciates the “map-maker’s colors,” Travisano points out a “confinement of the mapmaker’s framed plane…Bishop might linger over the map-maker’s delicate colors, while only alluding to the material facts, but the material facts remain unchanged” (41-42). There is a longing and dreamy escape in “The Map” that is a product of Bishop’s early confining years in New York as she grappled with a sense of estrangement and homesickness. It wasn’t until Bishop had the opportunity to set off on real-life travels and explore the landscapes of Europe, Key West, and Brazil that she would infuse her poetry with detailed observations and considerations of actual landscapes along with imagined ones.