By Carol Howard
In a lean-to propped against a one-room cabin in the mountains above Brevard, the poet Elizabeth Bishop writes a journal and sketches images of mountain scenes. It is 1940. Bishop has left her new home in Key West as the local naval base readies for World War II. Built for rustic vacations, the rented cabin is a place of sojourn as she travels back North. Here, she records her impressions of the people and landscape of Southern Appalachia.
In Brevard, Bishop makes the acquaintance of a local woman named Cordie Heiss, who lives by herself in a one-room mountain cabin. Heiss’s habitual singing of traditional melodies and her social idiosyncrasies are a topic of conversation among the tourists. According to one account, Heiss invites Bishop to visit her at home. A sign posted on Heiss’s property makes enough of an impression that Bishop records it verbatim: “Please stay out from prowling around on my land. Cordie.”
A visitor in unfamiliar terrain, Bishop frames her encounters with Heiss and other locals in terms of her own expectations and values. She is struck by the independence and resourcefulness of people who live without modern conveniences. Her poet’s ear is pleased with the unaccustomed turns of the Appalachian dialect. She does not develop an appreciation for traditional music, which she finds “monotonous.” She is, though, an introspective visitor and is more attuned to her outsider biases than many tourists of her generation might be.
Bishop writes glowingly to her mentor, the poet Marianne Moore, about Brevard’s waterfalls and her fascination with the many salamanders and birds she has seen. She delights to slide down Sliding Rock. Still, she confesses to Moore, “all this dampness and leafiness is a little oppressive.” She finds the “big blue shapes” of the mountains, “coming & going through the mist—like recurring thoughts—rather depressing.” Apparently, the mood passes. She returns for a second visit to Brevard a year later, taking up residence at Holly House in town.
The visits to this region take place several years before Bishop published her first book of poems and long before she became famous for capturing unexpected views of landscape during her years of travels. She is, in fact, kinder to Brevard in her letters than her poems’ tourist persona is to the landscape of Brazil, where Bishop lived for fifteen years with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares.
The opening poems of the collection Questions of Travel show that the tourist’s impatience and cultural insensitivity shape her view of the new landscape. The speaker arriving in Brazil launches without hesitation into a complaint about the “meager diet of horizon” and “impractically shaped” mountains.
Even when her speaker appreciates a landscape, as in “A Cold Spring,” written about a friend’s property in Maryland, the descriptive detail is unsettling. The hills are “aimless.” The song sparrows are “wound up for summer.” When an interviewer notes that Bishop’s travel writing has a geographer’s precision, she responds that “Some people don’t like that. I’ve been accused of description.” Bishop’s surprising poetry is as much about the attitude of the traveller as it is about the landscape of travels.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.