WILLA v6 - Death, Domesticity, and the Feminine Gaze: Bishop's 'First Death in Nova Scotia'

Volume 6
Fall 1997

Death, Domesticity, and the Feminine Gaze: Bishop's "First Death in Nova Scotia"

Martha Marinara

The world is all-seeing, but it is not exhibitionist -- it does not provoke our gaze. When it begins to provoke it, the feeling of strangeness begins.

You should use more objects in your poems. One can write very good poetry without vivid images, but I myself prefer observation.

Wallace Stevens wrote in his text concerning the imaginative process and aesthetics that "there seems to exist a corpus of remarks in respect to painting, most often the remarks of painters themselves, which are as significant to poets as to painters" (160). The connection between poetry and painting, a connection underscored by the process of gazing has been described many times in relation to Elizabeth Bishop's poems.

Thomas J. Travisano has described her poem "Seascape" as a "cartoon version of the Raphael original" (Travisano 120). Randall Jarrell wrote in Third Book of Criticism that Bishop's "minutely observant best poems ... remind one of Vuillard or even, sometimes, of Vermeer ... all exist on a small scale, and some of the later poems especially are too detailedly and objectively descriptive" (Jarrell 325). But it is not just description and details, pleasing as they may be to look at and read, that create for Stevens a sense of "aesthetic integration as reality" (159). Stevens further writes in Necessary Angel:

The subject matter of poetry is not that "collection of solid static objects extended in space" but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so reality is not that external scene, but the life that is lived in it. (160)

Bishop's ability to immerse herself entirely in such an intense observation of a scene or object does seem to unite a depth of self with the depth of objects, surface reality with a private imaginative fiction. Merleau-Ponty in "Eye and Mind" wrote of the visual perceptions as a sharing, a communion, between what sees and what is seen: "There really is inspiration and expiration of Being, action and passion so slightly discernible that it becomes impossible to distinguish between what sees and what is seen" (167). Merleau-Ponty's definition of representation envelops a strong metaphysical relationship between vision, nature, and art: "Vision is not a certain mode of thought or presence of self., it is the means given me for being absent from myself, for being present at the fission of Being from the inside -- the fission at whose termination, and not before, I comeback to myself" (186). Bishop's act of representation would then imply an ontological dependence, a mimetic resemblance held between the pictorial image and the original object.

This approach to representation longs for a truth, a moment of original plenitude behind every sign, derived from what Jacques Derrida calls a "metaphysics of presence" (qtd. in Culler 19). If we accept this metaphysical interpretation, Bishop's act of representation would include a comfortable understanding of the objects she is describing, but this interpretation would neglect to explain the strangeness and lack of resolution in poems such as "First Death in Nova Scotia," an image-making that results in seeing more than it is comfortable to see. Mary McCarthy once described Bishop's way of seeing as being 1ike a big pocket magnifying mirror" (McCarthy 68). Not a magnifying glass, which Bishop can hide behind and, in god-like fashion, probe the externals and reveal the internal workings of nature, but a magnifying mirror which would more problematically capture and reveal her own disquieted image in the representation as well as that of her readers.

If meaning is to be found in Bishop's precise methods of seeing and our own subsequent readings of her texts, we must account for the great need for a merging of Being and object, the desire for presence. And, if we recognize the strangeness in her dense particulars of landscape, we must preclude any meaning resolved in a metaphysical sense. Between these two contradictory methods of interpretation, we are left with the necessity of closely observing Bishop's concentrated gaze. Gazing, writes Jacques Lacan, is the chiasmatic process by which a subject becomes a part of the picture. In a Lacanian sense, Bishop's language merely poses as an erotic of desire in which there is no difference between image and image maker, representing the illusion of perfect reciprocity between object and subject, the illusion that since no-thing stands between them, then nothing stands between them (Lacan, 73-5). Rather than reaching an interiority, and subsequently finding the presence of being she seems to be seeking, Bishop involves herself with externals, only participating in mimesis in order to denounce it. It is the strangeness in her landscapes, the images that fit and then do not fit a mimetic interpretation-a dead loon with red glass eyes that can see and not see-that question the illusion of representation and verbal painting. In an attempt to join text to visual object, Bishop valorizes a return to the original, accepting the desire for a comfortable resolution, but at the same interpretive moment rejects the possibility of appropriation. As Roland Barthes writes, "it often happens that representation takes desire itself as an object of imitation; but then such desire never leaves the frame, the picture; it circulates among the characters; if it has a recipient, that recipient remains interior to the fiction" (56-7). Bishop's representation follows the same course throughout all her observations: intense visual concentration that strips away the familiar-not to make it strange, but to see the strangeness there.

For Lacan, the gaze is always an act of desired appropriation: "We can apprehend this privilege of the gaze in the function of desire" (85). Seeing becomes desire -- part of the scopic drive in which the eye functions as a phallus. The person who does the looking is the person with power, but there is power also in the ability to provoke a gaze. For Bishop, occupying a position of spectator in the phallic mode would not explain her recognition of the inability to grasp, understand or resolve the death portrayed in "First Death in Nova Scotia."

Larysa Mykyta's discussion of the position of the feminine in Lacan's analysis of the gaze finds woman in her position as other to be destructive to the illusion of reciprocity and one-ness that the process of seeing usually supports: "The female object does not look, nor does it have its own point of view; rather it is erected as an image of the phallus sustaining male desires" (54). If we accept this argument then Bishop's gaze questions the possibility of successfully imagining, at least visually, the phallic drive to apprehend and conquer. As Mykyta writes, "[t]o be radically effective every phallic mode of operation must perhaps always and continually be accompanied by a female gaze, by a focus on and a questioning of the conditions of power" (56). Bishop's ability to question the conditions and context of power is dependent on her careful scrutiny of landscapes, her desiring position as spectator and her acceptance of the elusive nature ofobjects and language. Her gaze reveals the social contradictions often hidden in domesticating acts, rather than presenting an aesthetic resolution of them.

With a gaze that is more suspicious than sympathetic, Bishop's strange verbal domesticating disquiets any sense of wholeness or completeness, any successful conversion. By seeing rather than mimicking, she demythologizes the act of domesticating death. As a product of the feminine gaze, her descriptions serve rather to unsettle the conditions of the domestic scene.

Nothing is more unsettling to a domestic group than a member's death, forcing domesticity to its ultimate powers of accommodation. "First Death in Nova Scotia" places a child in a familiar domestic setting, but transfixed by the presence of the coffin containing 1ittle cousin Arthur," the child's observations are confused by desire and fear; the need to face death and the need to disguise it. The strangeness in this poem comes from the child's visual inventory:

In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur's father.

But not recognizing Arthur's death, his body in the casket, does not preclude the ability to see it. The loon gives the child something to focus on, something to think about that feels less painful than thinking about Arthur, while at the same time, it gives her direct access to Arthur's death. The loon with his "deep and white breast" and desired "red glass eyes" is less threatening than the body in the coffin. Writes Robert Parker, "[the loon] sways her attention on these things adults assume, to resist some pressure to assume them herself... The obvious truth about the dead loon, that never mattered to the child before, feels less obvious about Arthur" (104-5). Though she is imagining that the loon can still see, in identifying the loon with Arthur, if she can figure out the loon's death, she can figure out Arthur's: "Since Uncle Arthur fired / a bullet into him, / he hadn't said a word." Attempting to domesticate Arthur's death, to place it within the realm of the comfortably familiar, objectifies Arthur even as the loon, stuffed and silent, is preserved and objectified by the male world of Uncle Arthur.

The child's mother fears explaining the finality of death and attempts to mitigate the child's sadness by using public rituals to mediate the mystery: "’Come,' said my mother, / 'Come and say good-bye / to your little cousin Arthur."' Her mother conspires with the child's imagining that communication is still possible and, as she is asking the child to address the corpse, the child evades the truth even as she is pressed closer to it: "I was lifted up and given / one lily of the valley / to place in Arthur's hand." The child both joins and doesn't join this fantasy as she is pulled away from blurring the images of Arthur and the loon, from breaking the identification of each with death. Death becomes an ordinary part of ritualized family gatherings complete with a coffin like "a little frosted cake." In attempting to find a socially acceptable means to include death within the normalcy of the domestic scene, the mother supports the same patriarchal structure, the same possessive gaze which kills and stuffs loons.

Shaken by the strangeness of death, the domestication of the unfamiliar continues with the child's efforts to accommodate and combine the coffin, Arthur's body, chromographs, loon, and lily. She confuses Arthur's death with a royal palace where Arthur would be "the smallest page at court." But the domestication is unsuccessful as the child is still uneasy, still questions what is happening to Arthur:

But how could Arthur go,
Clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?

Rather than attempting to explain, understand or accommodate death by domesticating, Bishop's gaze reveals an uneasiness that questions the social rituals designed to rescue intense feelings of loss within a socially accepted form. The child's grief and desire is displaced against the landscape of public funeral.

The desire to possess and the impossibility of possession reveals desire as the interpretive act. When Michael Fried made a study of Gustave Courbet's "Burial at Ornans," he was intrigued with Courbet's composing style: "the compulsion of Courbet's to undo all distances-all separation between himself and the painting on which he was working, led him over and over, not only in his self-portraits but across a wide range of subjects, to represent indirectly or metaphorically the activity by which his paintings were produced" (Fried 666-67). In David Carrier's study of art and spectatorship, the position of the artist becomes intrinsic to an observer's understanding of the piece and her own role in that understanding.

Our understanding of Elizabeth Bishop's work is dependent on our understanding of her position, her dependence and disappointment in observation and the final acceptance of the opacity of objects and language. We need to step back, and not become so involved with the object that Bishop is describing, to stop merging with the painting so much that we ignore the painter and our position as spectator. As Michel Foucault wrote in The Order of Things, "in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange ... we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing? ... We are observing ourselves being observed by the painter, and made visible to his eyes by the same light which enables us to see him" (5-6). To Foucault, the reciprocity of the gaze involves both visual absorption and the impossibility of absorption.

Foucault, rather, is a postmodernist who both asserts and denies the reality of his representation within the text. "Las Menias" is a story about painting which denies its own presuppositions, which negates its own starting point, which effaces its own attempts at representing painting; and the nonexistence of its spectator is demonstrated by the reader's inability at the conclusion to fit an even fictively consistent role for himself within that story. (Carrier 13)

Perhaps within our own role in Foucault's precise but neutral place, we need to observe Bishop's feminine gaze, her questioning of appropriation and power, and the elusiveness of both.

The question that hovers in "First Death" is when one looks at different landscapes, is it to see and accept the strangeness found there, "blurr'dly and inconclusively," rather than to try to domesticate, to visually accommodate strange objects into more familiar modes. Driven by the desire to both domesticate and reveal the strangeness in that which cannot be understood, the feminine gaze both supports and usurps patriarchal structures. The gaze born of the desire to possess, when redefined by Bishop, illuminates the details in a scene which make this possession not only impossible, but undesirable as well. Perhaps the reader's gaze, like Bishop's, should include a critical inquiry that cannot easily encompass a stuffed loon and a child's body as woven within the culturally domesticated "normal."


Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York.. Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Carrier, David. "Art and Its Spectators." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45 (Fall 1986).

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. A. M. Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Fried, Michael. "The Structure of Beholding in Courbet's Burial at Ornans." Critical Inquiry 9 (June 1983): 635-683.

Jarrell, Randall. Third Book of Criticism. New York.. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1969.

Lacan, Jacques. "The Line and Light"' in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheriden, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1978.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Eye and Mind." in The Primacy of Perception. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Mykyta, Larysa. "Lacan, Literature and the Look: Women in the Eye of Psychoanalysis." Substance 12.2 (1983): 49-57.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988,

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. New York: Vintage Books, 195 1.

Travisano, Thomas. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Martha Marinara writes poetry and fiction and is an Assistant Professor at Armstrong State College, Savannah where she directs the Writing Center and teaches composition, rhetoric, and poststructuralism.


© 1997, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Marinara, Martha. (1997). "Death, Domesticity, and the Feminine Gaze: Bishop’s ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ ." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 26-29.