The draw of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s classic breakup song “Maps” is that it is as plainly sad as possible. “Wait,” the band’s lead singer, Karen O, sings over and over, “they don’t love you like I love you.” But “Maps” is also enigmatic: beyond its abject chorus, the lyrics are cryptic, with verses that are brief and opaque—“Packed up / Don’t Stray / Oh say, say, say / Oh say, say, say.” Karen O repeats maps, plaintive and without context, stretching the word’s aaa over four bars.
According to fan mythology, “Maps” is an acronym for “my Angus please stay,” referencing Liars lead singer Angus Andrew, whom Karen O has said the song is about. There may be other ways to read the song’s title, though. “Maps” evokes the physical and metaphorical distance that is felt from a lover who is leaving. It is a kind of emotional cartography, mapping two people’s painful journeys away from one another. This will serve as our foundation: maps aren’t impersonal, objective. They aren’t.
As a prelude to her 1976 collection of poems, Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop quotes a kind of catechism from a textbook titled First Lessons in Geography: “What is Geography?” it asks. “A description of the Earth’s surface,” it answers. “What is a Map?” “A picture of the whole, or a part, of the Earth’s surface.” “Of what is the Earth’s surface composed?” “Land and water.” It’s as if neutrality, a false remove, is something maps cultivate about themselves: a necessary fiction.
Bishop’s poetry deals crucially in the same illusion of neutrality centering on the idea of description. The first poem in her first collection, North and South, published in 1946, is called “The Map,” and it is as fortunate an introduction a reader could ask for to the concerns that would mark all of Bishop’s work. It examines a world map with incremental care, noting the map’s colors and the placement of its text, drawing associations in its forms. From the poem’s first line—“Land lies in water”—to its last—“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors”—she echoes the questions in First Lessons in Geography and depicts herself as the mapmaker of the poet she would be.
Bishop mainly provided “a description of the Earth’s surface,” and she is a cipher exactly because her gifts appear so plain: How could a poet whose work seems so formal, quiet, and staid, whose mission was so straightforward as to describe, garner devotees from impossibly varying aesthetics, becoming one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century? And why does precise but impartial work inspire such pathos?
Chiefly because the describer, as much as she might strive for invisibility, is never absent, and poetry and geography create more than they record. Description is a collection of concrete details that privileges a generative subjectivity: one vantage, one interpretation. Bishop’s subjectivity asserts itself in the shifts in scale in her poems—she zooms in and out liberally as in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” where she unfavorably compares memories of actual travel to a book of historical illustrations. She describes pictures of “the squatting Arab,” “the branches of the date-palms,” and “the cobbled courtyard,” and then how “the eye drops, weighted, through the lines / the burin made.” Her perspective becomes simultaneously more minute and more broad as she is made aware of both the lines of the illustration and the tool that made them.
With this mastery of perspective, Bishop’s sense of scale is at times Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland–style fanciful. In “Crusoe in England,” the title’s explorer remembers the tiny volcanoes on his island: “I’d think that if they were the size / I thought volcanoes should be, then I had / become a giant.” Her eye can also shrink objects and bring them close—and in doing so she draws a conscious parallel to mapmaking, as she explains in “The Map”: “Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.”
In this Bishop recalls another poet-mapmaker, Richard Hugo, whose poems treated mostly his Montana home and the rest of the western United States. In his poem “Map of Montana in Italy,” Hugo studies a map of Montana where “on the right, antelope sail / between strands of barbed wire and never / get hurt, west, I think, of Plevna…, / anyway, on the right, east of the plains.” His muddled use of directional terms—“east” and “right” indicating the same thing—points to one problem of maps, of a small object, lines printed on paper, standing in for an impossibly large one, land.
These challenges of language highlight maps’ artificiality, their distance from what they are supposed to represent. After the litany of her travel memories in “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” Bishop is unsatisfied with the disjointedness of it, of “everything connected by and and and.” Like memories, maps are artificial because they are self-contained—real experience and terrain are not discrete but continuous. But maps are so self-serious that they are almost adequate. When looking at a map, its falseness is nearly invisible, forgotten—and John Ashbery calls the world of Bishop’s poems “almost as inevitable as ‘the’ world.” Almost.
There is the phenomenon while reading Bishop similar to her description of the experience of reading Charles Darwin: “one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless, heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic—and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one … sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts or minute details.” The forgetful phrase, the sigh, the moment when the mask slips—these lapses carry enormous weight. They are when the world of the description is revealed to be distinct from reality, because the world of the description is contained to the mind of one lonely subject.
For all her endeavored accuracy, these lapses are surely moments Bishop consciously cultivated—the interaction of the real and the artificial is part of the game she is playing. We have in her poems a world that at times matches nearly seamlessly with “the” world and one that at other times is a barely disguised performance. In “Over 2,000 Illustrations” she describes “the specks of birds / suspended on invisible threads above the Site / or the smoke rising solemnly, pulled by threads,” exposing the riggings that support the scene. A mysterious second voice in “The Monument” redescribes the scene the first voice has set—beach, sea, sky, and a “monument” “built / like several boxes in descending sizes”—and explicitly highlights its theatricality. “That queer sea looks made of wood,” the speaker says, “half-shining, like a driftwood sea. / And the sky looks wooden, grained with cloud. / It’s like a stage-set; it is all so flat!”
Discontinuity with reality can become a source of pathos: the poem aspires to more than can be contained or expressed. In an essay on Bishop, Ashbery quotes critic David Kalstone as saying that Bishop’s poems “both describe and set themselves at the limits of description,” and, providing us with a map metaphor, “details are also boundaries for Miss Bishop.” The ultimate failure of description, or the failure of details to describe, exposes a surplus of desire. “The names of cities cross the neighboring mountains,” Bishop describes in “The Map,” “the printer here experiencing the same excitement / as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.”
When emotion exceeds its cause, there is the potential for it to transform the objects it encounters. We are told that Bishop’s poem “Night City” is narrated “from the plane” and this distance from the ground morphs the city grotesquely. The lights of the city become the body’s systems, “those flaring acids / and variegated bloods… / Diaphanous lymph, / bright turgid blood.” Similarly, the roads on Hugo’s map of Montana are “red veins full of rage.” In “Map of Montana in Italy,” the associations Hugo draws are overtly subjective, personal, even possessive: “Glacier Park’s green with my envy,” he writes. We see clearly that description is a kind of projection—to inadvertently return to the lexicon of maps.
In his treatment of Bishop, Ashbery relates her project as illuminating “the way we as subjects feel about the objects, living or inert, that encircle us.” How he frames it, this is importantly a relationship predicated on emotion, the way we feel about the objects changing the way we see them—think of how transformative emotion is when the subject and the object are an “I” and a “you,” Karen O singing, “They don’t love you like I love you.” Ashbery explains of the fraught existence of the subject that we “confusedly feel ourselves to be part thing and part thought,” and this confusion is expressed in the acts of describing and observing. “Looking, or attention,” he writes, “will absorb the object with its meaning.” In this way, the poet’s looking is a more complicated activity than it first appears: meaning and object marry in the poem to create another hybrid of thing and thought, a picture of the self.
Alice Bolin is a writer living in Missoula, Montana.