College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3

Commerce or Contemplation: The Ethics of Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil

by Angus Cleghorn, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Much study in recent years has explored Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel in Brazil. Readers of the poetry often take pleasure in Bishop's "theatrical distances" to use Wallace Stevens' phrase, since Bishop is so wry and honest about differences between tourists and locals. Questions of Travel (1955) is a volume that begins with tentative entrance into Brazil, and moves intermittently and variously into the interior. Bishop experiments with getting to know the place and people by carving out different relations in the poems. "Commerce or contemplation" is a dialectic that began in "Large Bad Picture," a poem from Bishop's first volume, North and South (1946). In Questions of Travel, the poet attempts to move beyond commercial colonialism toward interior geographies in order to contemplate distances.

The first three poems from Questions of Travel position their personae in various ways as they enter the space of otherness represented by Brazil. "Arrival at Santos" docks its personae as temporary tourists who turn Landscape into Art (the epigraph-source of the next poem, "Brazil, January 1, 1502"). Identities are suspended in local snares diachronically, as in "Brazil, January 1, 1502," which posits characters 450 years apart, all partaking in the colonial text of Brazil. Flitting back and forth through time, between identities, from other to self, and also blurring significations between phenomena and text, Bishop demonstrates the impossibility of fully knowing the other. The volume's title poem, "Questions of Travel," foregrounds the issue of whether the tourist's quest stems from an innocent desire to savour landscapes of difference or whether it might have a darker motive, resembling the imperialistic desire to conquer and acquire other lands (B. Hicok, personal communication, August 28, 2003).

Bishop cannot recuperate an authentic, original Brazil because it belongs to the past and it is too far from her frames of reference. No matter how literally she wants to touch the place, the privileged view of the poet requires abstract poetics—usually a romantic merging of identities, such as is found in some of her breakthrough poems, early on in "The Man-Moth," later "In the Waiting Room," and here in "The Riverman." We might question whether she is more successful at writing herself or Brazil. Her navigation of self and other as she journeys inland is an epistemological quest—a series of poems that approach people and places variously. She tests the waters and surveys the land and people in an effort to know them. In that sense, the poems are forms of knowledge—experiments in relation.

The first stanza of "Arrival at Santos" is a bevy of aesthetic strokes—each one well described by critics in the past. What I find engaging is Bishop's irony—so necessarily present in her detached observations, yet so lovingly ambiguous—it's as though when she writes, "who knows?—self-pitying mountains, / sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery" (CP 89)—the poet is saying, "yes, those mountains could have emotions for all I know, as ridiculous as such pathetic fallacy may be." When she switches perspective to the tourist in stanza two, asking, "Oh, tourist, / is this how this country is going to answer you …," we see the importance of this dialogue between self and other as an epistemological quest. I say self and other because Bishop's tourist is told to finish breakfast in stanza four, only to quickly shift into the first person-tourist, "I somehow never thought of there being a flag …" (this merging of identities is a technique Coleridge used beautifully in his conversation poems). All of this shifting makes us think about the wonderful uneasiness of being a tourist—the mind is constantly engaged in adjustment. So when the well-documented Miss Breen gets caught amidst "twenty-six freighters / waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans" readers cathartically guffaw until "We are settled," between neighbourly knowledge of Miss Breen and the provisional confidence that the customs officials will speak English, we hope …" (CP 90) as Bishop writes in the eighth stanza. My recount of the poem intends to reproduce the mental adjustments and settlements that proliferate Bishop's poems as epistemological quests; for they do go somewhere, in this case the last line reads, "We are driving to the interior." This apparent fact again reassures readers that our poet is a fairly reliable, literal tour guide, despite the morphology between identities, representations, expectations versus realities, and playful reasoning.

"Brazil, January 1, 1502" also begins with relations; "Januaries" is the first word of the poem. We are asked to see like the colonists of five hundred years ago. Bishop's medium of access is the book, Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark. And so Bishop, following her epigraph, embroiders landscape by brushing in "every square inch" of "the frame" that is the first stanza. The second stanza employs her trope of map-making poetry—showing the Christian symbolism of sin demarcated upon Brazil. By the third stanza, the pattern of getting to know Brazil becomes further politicized as Bishop implicates Christian imperialism as "an old dream of wealth and luxury / already out of style when they left home..." (CP 92). By outmoding this five-hundred-year-old conquest in its retro-original context, Bishop inadvertently questions her/our own travelling politics—for its pattern of cruel disregard. The poem ends by merging aesthetics, subjugation, pathetic ignorance and, I suggest, the author's quest:

Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L'Homme arme or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it. (CP 92)

L'Homme arme enables us to recall Bishop's girlhood hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," these colliding with colonial conquest and culminating in an expression of alien ignorance—of the "maddening little women," who communicate in a native bird-like language. In such description "the poetic observer occupies at times the same position as the conquistadores, who associate the Indian women with the lizards and birds" (B. Hicok, personal communication, August 28, 2003).

Here Bishop's poetry enacts animification as opposed to personification; in doing so she professes ignorance, which reveals her awareness that colonialism past and present prevent those visiting Brazil from ever capturing the native place. As the poet delves further into the body of Brazil, its natives retreat further, and the only catch remains the ensnared tourist.

The volume's title poem, "Questions of Travel," synthesizes the concerns of "Arrival at Santos" and "Brazil, January 1, 1502." At this juncture, we might ask again whether savouring difference is necessarily an imperialistic gesture. However, this dialectic seems simplistic when we read the first stanza of "Questions of Travel":

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled. (CP 93)

A 20th-century American tourist typically discomforted by overabundant difference turns Brazil into Wordsworthian "beauteous forms," yet instead of "spots of time," the poet envisions ages hence. This diachronic spectrum coalesces pastoral poetics with concerns we are accustomed to finding in contemporary postcolonial literature—Bishop's streams and clouds simulate "the hulls of capsized ships." While this abstract expressionism resembles the "bronze shadows, mountainous atmospheres" of Stevens' "Idea of Order at Key West," the political condensation of landscape and colonial history anticipate a postcolonial poet such as Derek Walcott ("The Almond Trees," "Midsummer," "Night in the Gardens of Port of Spain"). The tourist-imperialist questions herself "in this strangest of theatres" because delightful innocence is stained by the desire to capture it, which reminds the poetic speaker of old colonial conquests. In these colliding poetics we see from a postcolonial perspective similarities in the continuum of colonialism, tourism and postmodernity.

The tourist's guilty alternative, to stay at home in the States, is supplanted by her postmodern gains: to hear "the other, less primitive music of the fat, brown bird / who sings above the broken gasoline pump / in a bamboo church of the Jesuit baroque: / three towers, five silver crosses" (CP 94). In these postmodern lines Bishop combines the tourist's musings on nature with ramshackle gas pump and colonial religious resources. Yet is this commodification of Brazil materialistic?—is it "commerce or contemplation"?—for the poet hears, sees, ponders, studies and listens in this and the poem's other examples prefixed by "A pity not to have…" So it is knowledge (native or colonial?) that she is after, but the beautiful thing about Bishop is the complexity of such approach. For her phrase, "A pity not to have…" (heard, pondered, studied) is uttered in an upper-class New Englander's tone, thus asserting her privileged position. While she may not be a capital industrialist, the poet is a capitalist of epistemology. "Questions of Travel" ends with two stanzas of precious italics, quoted no less, thereby demonstrating their "summary function" (Goldensohn 190). The poet privileges herself by contemplating staying at home in one's room, such as Pascal. Finally she is compelled to make a choice, but she does not: "And here, or there … No." No choice is made because Bishop is neither here nor there; "blurr'dly and inconscusively" she interrogates the notion of home as locale. Considering Bishop's biography of many homes and not one home, this stance is understandable. But I think that miring her poetic and epistemological complexity in the confines of her life is a congealing reduction. She achieves a new form of knowledge via her homelessness. I suppose I'm universalizing her path into a 20th-century paradigm that ends up with transnational literature: by this term I mean writers who refuse to be categorized within the borders of a nation or by the disinheritance of exile (Derek Walcott, Bei Dao).

Self-consciously critical of tourist roles in Brazil, Bishop escapes American nationhood so that she can reformulate. But what is she reformulating? Goldensohn has written that Bishop reconnects with her Nova Scotia childhood, as the "Elsewhere" poems indicate. Exile enables vivid retrospection; writers such as Joyce and Ondaatje portray this. But Bishop's amalgamated self serves a larger epistemological quest to uncover the other. "Manuelzinho" shows the methods by which such a project can fail, as when the poetic voice exits ambivalently by saying about her gardener: "You helpless, foolish man, / I love you all I can, / I think. Or do I? / I take off my hat, unpainted / and figurative, to you / Again, I promise to try" (CP 99).

"Song for the Rainy Season" is a transition to full recognition of the other, albeit seemingly less personal. In this poem water, "a dim age of water," holds the poet's house on a rocky bank "in a private cloud" (CP 101). This private cloud surrounds the poet and invades the house; this other enters as the dew on "a wall / for the mildew's ignorant map" (CP 102). How far this map has come from "The Map" perused by the poet at the start of The Complete Poems. Here, nature infringes upon the human abode, which lets in the rainy season marked on the wall. The poet rejoices at this instantaneous intrusion, "For a later / era will differ." She then qualifies in brackets, "(O difference that kills, / or intimidates, much / of our small shadowy / life!)." Notice here that the inner life is literally formed by the interior life of the house. It is not articulated from the poet's inner life, which is the small, shadowy place that is quickly changed by difference. "Without water / the great rock will stare / unmagnetized, bare, / no longer wearing / rainbows or rain . . . ." I have to wonder whether Bishop was writing about Stevens' "Rock"—replacing his leaves with her water: "the forgiving air, / and the high fog gone; / the owls will move on / and the several / waterfalls shrivel / in the steady sun" (CP 102). The "great rock," as in Stevens, relates with the bare self, the plain sense of things, the innate, shadowy, unreachable core. Bishop's great rock, when without water, i.e., external flux, stares without magnetism. In other words, the barren self takes on nothing of the other when it only gazes. This dry entity shrivels in the sun; this poverty is similar to that found in "The Burglar of Babylon"—the poverty of the burglar, the poet-voyeur with the distant gaze, to whom I will return momentarily.

Bishop dives in with "The Riverman," which begins in the voice of an Amazonian man who's visited by a dolphin, this supernatural creature resembling the man himself. Bishop again engages her personae in doubling. As the poem's narrative intoxifies the protagonist, several of Bishop's previous tropes re-appear. The speaker is alienated from the unknown language of Luandinha, the river-spirit. Recall the alien bird-noises of the native women in "Brazil, January 1, 1502." This native riverman is animated "like a dog," however the riverman is also the poetic voice, the translator of the experience in the role previously reserved for tourists. So the riverman says "I understood, like a dog / although I can't speak it yet" (CP 106). Through this figure Bishop finds a medium that is shadowy enough to mine under nativity, and thus incorporate the other somewhat. The riverman journeys in the context of brief sojourns away from his wife when the moonlight shines. He says,

I know some things already,
but it will take years of study,
it is all so difficult. (CP 107)

As with the receptions of knowledge in "Questions of Travel" and "Song for a Rainy Season," Bishop admits the difficulty of actually learning from outside ourselves, but certainly looks to the other for value:

Look, it stands to reason
that everything we need
can be obtained from the river.
It drains the jungles; it draws
from trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws from the very heart
of the earth the remedy
for each of the diseases—
one just has to know how to find it. (CP 108)

Prophetic of chaos theory and current trends in natural medicine, the beauty of her description derives from a subtle tone that at first sounds capitalistic (everything we need), which is then qualified by a typical Bishop voice saying "one just has to know how to find it." In these simple words she comments on her quest as practical, speculative, imaginative, empirical and supernatural, as "the river breathes in" and out its substances.

In the poem's last stanza, Bishop goes for full access to the riverman as source of knowledge. In doing so, she invokes the riverman as a collective figure of the people, listening below the river's "high whispering— / like a hundred people at once." Like Stevens' subman from "Owl's Clover" or "The Man with the Blue Guitar," the riverman harnesses human dreams and finds "the pure elixirs." The riverman ends up a modern poet's dressed-up fantasy, like Yeats wearing a coat, albeit this time a "cloak of fish." The riverman also resembles Jung's collective unconscious or Pound's race consciousness with "Godfathers and cousins, your canoes are over my head; I hear your voices talking. / You can peer down and down / or dredge the river bottom / but never, never catch me" (CP 109). And although this figure is an "ungraspable phantom of life," (Moby Dick) the riverman (like Ishmael) humorously ends the poem profiteering: "I will go to work / to get you health and money." The question of whether "commerce or contemplation" is the motivator in Brazil remains suspended as once again she manages to span time in her poetry; in this case, the "ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds" are heeded so that the Amazon may be pilfered.

The last poem of the Brazilian poems in Questions of Travel is "The Burglar of Babylon." This is what Bishop felt like there, as Goldensohn notes:

In "The Burglar of Babylon" Bishop in a letter to her Aunt Grace Bowers in October 1964 pointed out the origin of the poem in personal experience, saying that "I am one of the rich in binoculars!" or one of the spectators watching from the privileged vantage point of tall apartment buildings. (6)

Perhaps the burglar is Bishop's sacrifice of her native snake, her final Brazilian immolation. Is she admitting that she cannot find the other without criminal slaughter? The "Burglar of Babylon" begins with paradise mired in Rio de Janeiro's poverty ("On the fair green hills of Rio / There grows a fearful stain"). These lines sound like Blake, who returns in "The Sandpiper." Perhaps "The Burglar of Babylon," with its ballad rhyme scheme contrasts innocence and experience to comment on Bishop's Brazilian quest; while her poetry was never divided into Blake's "two contrary states of the human soul," she may have felt that way toward the end of her Brazilian poems — as though her effort to represent the other was naively innocent, and that the realities of incorporating the other end up in colonial commerce — which is where she began and was trying to get away from in "Arrival at Santos." Commerce is the privilege of the poet-tourist-capitalist who sees:

On the hills a million people,
A million sparrows, nest,
Like a confused migration
That's had to light and rest… (CP 112)

The next stanza says, "You'd think a breath would end them"—the natives made fragile by the condescending viewpoint of the poet—echoing the conquistadores' mission of "Brazil, January 1, 1502," in which "they ripped away into the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself— / those maddening little women kept calling, / calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)"—both poems reducing natives to birds en masse. Unlike birds, native Brazilians cannot fly, nor can Rio's poor "go home again." Bishop's Brazilian poems are Questions of Travel that explore alterity—"The Riverman" is a first-person immersion, a spiritual desire and mythic transformation that is the privilege of a lunar poet on a hill-top with binoculars and antennae; its ethical questions and compelling earthy directives contrast with "The poor who come to Rio / And can't go home again" in "The Burglar of Babylon." Both poems show the need for abstraction in search of the other.

Bishop's rich, hilltop view of the poor was one that gradually became accustomed to the stains that such a view affords from the voyeur towards her object. In "12 O'Clock News" the media-voice is parodied as it described from "our superior vantage point" (CP 175) the dead indigines. This "ashtray" of bodies is scornfully belittled by the media-voice, whose expertise consists of ethnocentric anthropology—once again, this voice serves as a potential comment on Bishop's epistemological Brazilian quest, which made use of anthropology (Charles Wagley's Amazon Town, Levi-Strauss) and media.

Her final resolution, 1979's "Pink Dog," is similarly harsh in tone, yet its cool distance appears settled, no longer adjusting its perspective. Near the beginning of the poem the "passersby draw back and stare":

Of course they're mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies? (CP 190)

The rhyme playfully combines rabies, scabies and babies—Bishop's tone trivializing the dog of Rio as a slum mum, "poor bitch." Herein the poet is cold and distant, yet as always, also offering meditation of this other's plight. The poem goes on to ridicule the poor beggars of Rio by dissolving them in Carnival costumes. By grotesquely masquerading deathly poverty, Bishop again illustrates the spoils of time; in its relentless procession the corruptions of "radios, Americans, or something" are swept aside for the parade.

As life goes on in Brazil, Bishop turns to the "Elsewhere" poems to re-write her experience of the northeastern seaboard. Perhaps Bishop's moral distance, which was the long-term effect of writing about Brazilian experience, demonstrated her ultimate refusal to appropriate the other or to write confessional poetics (Soldofsky). She went far south to find the "other side of the mirror" (Rich 20) that constitutes herself, and so then she returns north to "a Child of 1918" in "Sestina," (CP 121) the first poem of the "Elsewhere" section in Questions of Travel.


Bishop, E. (1979). The Complete Poems. New York: Noonday Press.

Goldensohn, L. (1992) Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rich, A. (1991). An Atlas of the Difficult World. New York: Norton.

Soldofsky, A. (2003, December 12). "Elizabeth Bishop and her Worlds". [Conference discussion].

Stevens, W. (1982). The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage.

Wagley, C. (1976). Amazon Town: A Study of Man in the Tropics. London: Oxford University Press.

Angus Cleghorn teaches English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College, as well as at Trent University, where he received his B.A. After studying for an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto, Angus went to Simon Fraser University for his Ph. D., specializing in Modern American Poetry and writing a dissertation on Wallace Stevens. He can be reached at (416) 491-5050, ext. 6117 or or


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