Bishop and Moore: An Exploration of Magic Realism

In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer argues that contemporary science, while evolving from magical and religious attempts to understand and control the natural world, eclipses these frameworks[1]. To Frazer “magic” in the 20th century “is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”[2] Frazer had a significant impact on early modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot who claimed his work “has influenced our generation profoundly”[3]. The poetry of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, in its precision and careful description of the natural world, has been characterized as reflective of a supposed modernist obsession with scientific ways of understanding the world. Paradoxically, both poets achieve a “mysterious”, otherworldly effect through their commitment to precision, in Moore’s writing this manifests itself mainly in an excessive use of defamiliarization, whereas Bishop’s also explores the dreamscape, linked with an existential anxiety. While some critics have looked into Torodov’s ‘fantastic’ literature and its relation to Moore, and others have examined the surrealist influences of Bishop, none have considered the possibility that their works exhibit qualities that are indicative of ‘magic/al realism’. While the term is often associated with the explicitly fantastical works of Latin American authors such as Garcia Marquez, in its initial iteration “magic realism” described “a way to uncover the mystery hidden in ordinary objects and everyday reality”[4] – a mode that is not confined to a specific time or place. In liberalizing and expanding the definition, critics such as William Spindler have produced a “typology” for the genre. Using Spindler’s typology, crucially I will argue that in their precision and hyper-realism, Moore and Bishop repeatedly elicit this “magic” effect; rather than being “false science”, this “magic” actually derives from a hyper-realistic, almost scientific analysis of the world. In an interview for the Paris Review, Moore claimed studying science had a profound impact on her art: “I found the biology courses … exhilarating. I thought, in fact, of studying medicine. Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to ends that are disinterested, drawing and identifying, liberate—at least have some bearing on—the imagination”[5]. It is impossible not to identify within Moore’s works this exhilaration for the scientific, even the inspirations of her poems are treated as if they were academic sources and – unlike modernists such as Eliot and Joyce – these sources are enclosed within quotation marks and typically referenced in her notes. For example, the poem ‘Silence’ is almost entirely structured around the quote of the narrator’s father – my father used to say” – and perhaps appropriately the narrator’s voice is itself marginalized and silenced. Likewise, the poet tries to silence attempts to read her own biography into the poem, as these words cannot be that of Moore’s own father who died when she was aged 6 months. Indeed, in her notes it is attributed to the father of “Miss A.M. Homans, Professor Emeritus of Hygiene, Wellesley College”. In a distortion of the provenance of this citation, the penultimate line “make my house your inn”, delivered as if it were also by Mr Homan, is attributed to the philosopher Edmund Burke. Despite this fusion of identities, critics such as John Charles Hawley argue “these irregularities are not troubling” as “clearly Moore’s intention is to create two composite archetypal figures: father and daughter …. [the] father figure is built up explicitly out of Mr Homans and Edmund Burke”[6]. While the latter argument may be true, I would dispute that the effect of this is “not troubling”. Moore creates a sense of verisimilitude in her use of quotations: there is no reason not to trust the narrator when she says, “my father used to say”. Additionally, the poet uses a logical approach to her argument, an argument which can be summed up through combination of the first and last lines – “my father used to say” “inns are not residences” –the main body acts as a series of logical justifications for this view; “superior men never make long visits”; “they sometimes enjoy solitude”. So, when the father, via examination of Moore’s notes, is revealed to be “an archetype”, the precise, scientific “indexicality”[7] actually has the effect of dislocating the character from a particular time or place. Natalia Cecire sees this dislocation as symptomatic of Moore’s precision as a whole, arguing that she “reproduces the overwhelming quality that the techniques of precision are meant to manage, revealing a poetics whose very commitment to knowledge as such lends it a darkly unknowable dimension.”[8] In her devotion to scientific accuracy, paradoxically Moore opens up the possibility of the mysterious through her poetry. Indeed, at times this “relentless accuracy”[9] of Moore’s work has a defamiliarizing effect, particularly in poems which deal with animals and the natural world. For example, ‘To a Snail’ includes the line “the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn”; the familiar eyes of a snail are rendered unfamiliar through neuroscientific lexis such as “occipital” and the unusual use of “horn”. Like in ‘Silence’, precision and the value of what is left unspoken is emphasized: “contractility is a virtue // as modesty is a virtue”. A didactic pattern emerges in Moore’s poetry; the emphasis on “virtue” – repeated twice in two successive lines in ‘To a Snail’ – is derived from a close examination of the natural world, which is on the one hand presented as the container of moral teaching and on the other defamiliarized through her precision. The observed virtues act as objective properties within the snail itself – the modesty exhibited in the ability to contract at will is an example of “the principle that is hid // in the absence of feet”. The same virtues admired within the typically unromantic animal are exhibited throughout Moore’s poetry. Indeed, she would spend years crafting a single poem, and the final product was achieved through an extensive process of erasure; for example, the appropriately named ‘Poetry’ was whittled down from 38 lines to 4. Inspired by Pound’s assertion that “we live in an age of science”, and his suggestion that contemporary literature should take a scientific approach to its depiction of the world, Moore’s poetry is indicative of the clear, precise style of Imagism. But while close description of the snail – and the natural world within her poetry as a whole – may reveal Moore’s general and editorial values, it is by no means purely an allegory for these values, as critic Schulze argues “Moore’s animals remain animals”[10]. The snail acts as an almost literalized metaphor, the suggestion being that through scientific analysis of the natural world itself – while producing a mysterious, defamiliarizing effect – one can discover objective, applicable moral instructions.

Moore, as Bishop’s mentor had a considerable impact on her poetry, as such the younger poet also favors a style that is precise and scientific, indeed in a letter to Moore she writes “you and I see what others carelessly overlook”[11]. However, while she does suggest that morality can be observed within the natural world, she appears less convinced than Moore about the human capacity to interact with these values. In ‘Sandpiper’ for example the value of precision is seen within the movement of the ocean: –Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them, where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains rapidly backwards and downwards The juxtaposition of the enormous with the minuscule within the natural world, shown here through the spaces between grains of sand alongside the Atlantic Ocean which – despite its size – “drains” into every pore. Bishop through observing the ocean evokes the necessity of precision – a value that is emphasized as an aside to the reader in parenthesis “(no detail too small)”. In the final stanza the reader is alienated from the narrative human voice, which inhabits a smug tone in observing the bird searching between the grains of sand – “Poor bird he is obsessed!”. Yet despite the inability of the speaker to understand the motivations of the Sandpiper, the validity of the bird’s search exists regardless: the “millions of grains” of sand are mixed with the luxurious, almost decadent “quartz grains, rose and amethyst”. As Bishop claimed “there are morals aplenty in animal life”, and crucially, “they have to be studied out by devotedly and minutely observing the animal”; like Moore she holds that morality exists in the animal kingdom, however the ability to appreciate this comes down to being able to observe “devotedly and minutely”. The potential failure to excavate these values from the natural world is an anxiety that reoccurs throughout Bishop’s poetry, as critic Bonnie Costello suggests “Moore continually attached value to fact, where Bishop attaches yearning, fear, uncertainty”[12]. In ‘The Armadillo’ “illegal fire balloons” appear to be “rising toward a saint” from a human perspective, and yet wreak havoc comparable to hellfire to the animal kingdom “it splattered like an egg of fire”; “the ancient owls’ nest must have burned”. Furthermore, the anxiety towards a search for value in the external world descends into crisis in ‘In the Waiting Room’’. Here Bishop’s precision is defamiliarizing, however unlike Moore this is the result of an existential angst: the narrator’s description of “shadowy grey knees” is a reaction to a perceived lack of values (“why should I be my aunt, // or me or anyone”) resulting from a precise analysis of the world around him/her which occurs after closely observing a National Geographic magazine. This anxiety manifests itself in a dream-like sequence whereby the narrator feels that the waiting room is sliding “beneath a big black wave”; veridical perception is called into question and the scientific precision is dismantled, even though this crisis is arguably a consequence of the precision itself. Before examining the magic realist elements of Bishop and Moore, I will first turn to critical responses to the supposed discrepancy between their scientific precision and the mysterious, arguably magical quality of their poems. Firstly, Jeanne Heuving argues that much of Moore’s poetry is indicative of a 20th century version of Torodov’s fantastic, defined as “that hesitation experienced by a person [the reader] who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event”[13][14]. Explicit use of the supernatural does occur occasionally in Moore’s poetry. For example, in the early piece “Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight’ she blurs the distinction between language and thing: “Speed is not in her mind inseparable from carpets”. This inseparability is indicative of Torodov’s fantastic; the reader is unable to distinguish between the description of the thoughts of the narrator and the supernatural entity of the “magic carpet”. Nevertheless, the mysterious “darkly unknowable dimension” of Moore’s poetry cannot be restricted to the few poems where she incorporates the supernatural, and Torodov’s fantastic – which requires at least the suggestion of the supernatural – fails to encompass a poem such as ‘To a Snail”. In contrast, critics have attempted to approach Bishop from a surrealist angle, understandable for a poet who once stated “Dreams … catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important”; many of her poems read like verbal reconstructions of dreams. For example, ‘The Weed’ begins with the impossible, the act of envisaging the sensation of being dead, as Bishop states “I dreamed that dead, and meditating, // I lay upon a grave, or bed”. Throughout the poem the vivid imagery of “the rooted heart” is constantly related to the psychology of the narrator, whose very thoughts – much like the narrator of Moore’s ‘Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight’ – become physical: “It lifted its head all dripping wet // (with my own thoughts)”. Max Ernst once described how flicking through a catalog was enough to induce a sensory overload in its saturation of images and pictures, likewise ‘The Weed’ flicks from one location to the next all the while maintaining the photographic precision characteristic of surrealism. Despite her precision, Bishop presents “a landscape foreign to the objects depicted”, one where “her poems contain much of the magic, uncanniness and displacement associated with the works of the surrealists”. Nevertheless, Bishop’s “magic” cannot be confined entirely to the realms of human psychology, as critic Richard Mullen points out “Her landscapes may well possess qualities of dreamscapes, but simultaneously they are marked by an unusually rich appreciation of the natural world”[15]. We cannot forget that unlike the surrealists who argued “there were no objects only subjects” and possessed little interest in the external world outside the interior, psychological life of humans, Bishop’s work is dominated by the presence of the external natural world.

Crucially, what Mullen sees as the limitations in reading Bishop as a surrealist poet, perhaps work as a strength for a magic realist analysis of her and Moore’s poetry. Coined in the 1920s by German artist Franz Roh, the initial movement derived from a fascination with the psychoanalytic concepts of the unconscious. However, unlike the surrealists, magic realism was not interested in depicting the interior mind of humans, rather ‘magic’ lay within the external world itself and could be revealed through precise analysis. In the words of Roh, “mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides within the world itself”[16]. In addition, unlike the fantastic, magic realism in its looser definition is not confined to a play between the supernatural and uncanny, rather through close enough analysis of reality the marvelous and uncanny reveal themselves in the external world. For example, in Bishop’s ‘The Fish’ the leaking of oil – a typically unromantic image – becomes an object of beauty as the refraction of light transforms it into “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”. The scene is both vivid and hyper-realistic, emphasized through emphatic repetition. Likewise, the presentation of animals as literalized metaphors is indicative of Roh’s conception of magic realism, Moore’s snail cannot be confined to an allegory for the editorial process – morality is self-evident within the animal kingdom and can be revealed through precision. In his analysis of the genre, William Spindler developed a typology of “metaphysical, anthropological and ontological” magic realism, with the initial category corresponding to Roh’s conception[17]. I would argue that the initial category best corresponds to the work of Bishop and Moore, and here the magic “is taken in the sense of conjuring, producing surprising effects by the arrangement of natural objects by means of tricks, devices or optical illusion”. In Bishop’s ‘Filling Station’ the arrangement of cans “ESSO-SO-SO-SO” is both intensely realistic but also produces an effect comparable to synaesthesia, as the sibilance of “so” gives the inanimate cans an auditory and visual presence, emphasised by “softly say” in the line preceding. Indeed, “in literature, Metaphysical Magic Realism is found in texts that induce a sense of unreality in the reader by the technique of Verfremdung, by which a familiar scene is described as if it were something new and unknown, but without dealing explicitly with the supernatural”[18] – in ‘Filling Station’ the commonplace petrol station eventually becomes a reminder that “somebody loves us all”. Furthermore, Spindler argues that “the result is often an uncanny atmosphere and the creation … [of a] impersonal presence”[19] – this impersonal presence is idiosyncratic of Moore’s poetry, as observed in ‘Silence’ where the majority of the poem is made entirely of quotations. It is undeniable that in their scientific precision, ironically a sense of magic is evoked comparable to that described by Roh.

Ultimately then, while the poetry of both Bishop and Moore can be characterized as adhering to a scientific approach to literature in its precision, their devotion to this practice uncovers an underlying mysteriousness in their works. In Moore this is a result of a sense of dislocation given by her playfulness with scientific and logical modes of thinking such as through use of poetic citation, and in Bishop an anxiety towards a failure to uncover values within the external world manifests itself in dreamlike imagery. To explain this mysteriousness some critics have appeals to fantastic or surrealist influences. In contrast, I would argue that magic realism – in its early conception – corresponds to Bishop and Moore’s mode of writing, illustrative of a modern magical thought where rather than being opposed to scientific approaches to the world, the ‘magic’ is uncovered through the precision of such approaches. Endnotes and Reference List:

[1] Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1990.[2] Ibid[3] Dwivedi, Amar Nath. TS Eliot: A Critical Study. Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2003.[4] Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic (al) realism. Routledge, 2013. [5] Hall, Donald. “The Art of Poetry IV: Marianne Moore.” Paris Review 7 (1961): 41-66. [6] Hawley, John Charles, ed. Reform and counterreform: dialectics of the Word in Western Christianity since Luther. No. 34. Walter de Gruyter, 1994. [7] Cecire, Natalia. “Marianne Moore’s Precision.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 67, no. 4 (2011): 83-110. [8] Ibid [9] Ibid [10] Schulze, Robin G. The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. University of Michigan Press, 1995. [11] Ibid [12] Costello, Bonnie. “Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop: Friendship and Influence.” Twentieth Century Literature 30, no. 2/3 (1984): 130-149. [13] Heuving, Jeanne. Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Wayne State University Press, 1992. [14] Todorov, Tzvetan. The fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre. Cornell University Press, 1975. [15] Mullen, Richard. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Surrealist Inheritance.” American Literature 54, no. 1 (1982): 63-80 [16] Roh, Franz. “Magic realism: post-expressionism.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (1995): 15-31. [17] Spindler, William. “Magic realism: a typology.” In Forum for modern language studies, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 75-85. Oxford University Press, 1993. [18] Ibid [19] Ibid

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