When John Ashbery reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems in 1969 for The New York Times, his review was accompanied by an illustration: two giant snails stretching from under their shells to touch one another. Ashbery never mentions the mollusks in his review, but beneath the image is an excerpt of Bishop’s prose poem “Giant Snail.”
“I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is only with the greatest effort of my will,” Bishop’s mollusca persona muses, and one senses how very likely a proxy it is for the poet herself.
Bishop is not the only writer to have found solace or some of herself in a snail. Her coil-shelled critter was an homage to a paean by her mentor Marianne Moore. Moore’s “To a Snail” is a discourse on poetics that culminates “in the absence of feet” and “the curious phenomenon of your occiptal horn.” Moore seized on the snail’s self-sufficiency and endless ability to contract, praising its “grace” and “modesty.”