Elizabeth Bishop resisted being gendered and aimed for objectivity, sometimes using scientific language in poems - but 'The Shampoo' is a poem about love.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is regarded as an American poet, although by birth she was Canadian. She was raised by her maternal grandparents after her father's early death of kidney disease when she was eight. The tragedy was followed by her mother's mental ill-health and hospitalisation in 1916 until her death in 1934. Later, she lived with her father's parents in Massachusetts and also with a much-loved aunt.
These frequent changes of family and household naturally caused a sense of dislocation in the young poet and left her with a reputation of being reserved and proud. She was educated in boarding schools and in Autumn, 1930, went to Vassar College, graduating in 1937. In November, 1951, she visited South America and this led to her decision to live in Brazil with her lover, Lota.
In her poetry, Bishop sets herself apart, refusing to be restricted by concepts of gender and by employing the so-called masculine subject of science to her work in order to assume objectivity. 'Bishop's notorious sense of privacy and her refusal to gender herself as a poet - her insistence of never appearing in any women-only anthologies - are of obvious importance', says Deryn Rees-Jones in Kicking Daffodils - Twentieth Century Women Poets. However, Rees-Jones offers an alternative explanation for Bishop's determination to remain separate from gender issues in her discussion of Bishop and the poet, Lavinia Greenlaw. '[T]hey do not seem to be seeking to transcend gender, but rather to integrate and destabilise it through their use of the objective voice.'
"The Shampoo" from Bishop's collection, A Cold Spring, celebrates a tender women's ritual between Bishop and her lover. On a first reading, the first few lines of the poem suggest it might be about science rather than about love.
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
From the Universal to the Specific
By using scientific language, Bishop acquires a detached and authoritative voice. Despite this engagement with science, the first stanza is a moving metaphor for the memories that surround a long friendship. The poem then adopts a more personal tone:
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
- Come let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
There is a clear shift in the language chosen by Bishop, between the scientific approach in the first stanza and the intimate, domestic image presented in the last stanza. She moves from the universal to the specific and very personal, assuming a voice of authority while refusing to deny or relinquish female domestic experience.
Elizabeth Bishop died on 6 October 1979. Her posthumous works include The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, (1983).
"The Shampoo" A Cold Spring, Elizabeth Bishop, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1955.
"Objecting to the Subject', Deryn Rees-Jones, Kicking Daffodils, Twentieth Century Women Poets, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1996.
First published at Suite101 on 15 November 2010: Elizabeth Bishop - The Shampoo | Suite101.com,/p>