Elizabeth Bishop, “The Riverman”
I was amazed to find that “The Riverman” isn’t on PoemHunter even though the selection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems offered there is pretty generous in other ways. I think it’s one of her very finest. It’s instantly accessible, it prints itself vividly on the memory after a single reading and it makes a fresh impact every time you read it. I think it’s one of the best, most constantly gripping narrative poems I’ve read, partly because it’s one of the subtlest poetic monologues I know, whose “story” is a fantasy revealing the life and yearnings of the speaker.
Bishop uses simple words and simple syntax unfolding through taut three-beat lines to keep the action moving:
I got up in the night
for the Dolphin spoke to me.
Verbs are the dominant part of speech, grabbing the reader’s attention and suggesting the speaker’s excited, unstable mental state. At the same time, the impression is highly, almost hectically visual. Visually descriptive words are chosen and placed for maximum punch both metrically and syntactically. The whole style is wonderfully cinematic both in the brilliance of individual images and in the way one image displaces another. Sometimes this comes by a sudden shift of spatial perspective that makes us feel we’re really in there, seeing the action in three-dimensional space; sometimes by the melting of a literal description into metaphor or simile:
Then a tall, beautiful serpent
in elegant white satin,
with her big eyes green and gold
like the lights on the river steamers –
yes, Luandinha, none other –
entered and greeted me.
And what of the story? For those who don’t know the poem, it’s a monologue by a man in a remote Amazonian village who thinks a dolphin spirit has led him under the water to a place where he has been entertained by the powerful river spirit Luandinha and where he will be initiated by her into the mysteries he needs to know before he can become a rich and powerful witch doctor. The man’s naivety is suggested by the simplicity of his language and thought-processes, and the confiding artlessness of his address to the reader. As well as empathy with his experience (created by the sheer vividness with which it is presented) I think most readers will feel a powerful human sympathy for him.
My feelings shift dramatically as I read and between readings. There are moments of deep pathos. The speaker’s fantasies are informed by a sense of how poverty drives his craving for a richer life. His childlike optimism and openness are touching. They can be chilling too. When he describes the fine mud in his scalp and the river smell in his hair, the coldness of his hands and feet and how his wife says he looks yellow, we may think of him as a desperately sick drug addict blind to his condition. But there’s exaltation and elation in the vividness of the fantasy, both throughout and in particular moments, like those describing his sense of magical power –
travelling fast as a wish,
with my magic cloak of fish
swerving as I swerve
and of magical elusiveness –
Godfathers and cousins,
your canoes are over my head;
I hear your voices talking.
You can peer down and down
or dredge the river bottom
but never, never catch me.
There’s a hint of impish glee in that last bit, entwined with more elusive and perhaps sinister notes. A vein of comedy keeps surfacing through the poem like a dolphin showing its back, but it’s never just comedy; other tones shimmer through the comic one even when it’s at its strongest.
As with most really good poems, this one offers inexhaustible riches in terms of suggested meanings. The strongest idea it leaves me with is that of the exhilarating, dangerous, blinding and revealing power of the imagination: a power that gives the Riverman immense riches in his poverty, or that allows him to see and wonder at the immense riches that are simply there around him. The excited argument that everything we need can be found in the river because of all that it drains from half the earth becomes a kind of hymn to the riches of the natural world, a counter-vision to the powerful, terrifying, burningly cold one at the climax of Bishop’s earlier “At the Fishhouses”.
Of course “The Riverman” draws on all Bishop’s own life experience and feelings, just as the Amazon draws on the resources of the earth. We see Bishop herself and her conflicted feelings about her own gifts and afflictions shining through the figure of the Riverman. No doubt both the sense of the wish-granting power of imagination and the sly (or frightened?) sense that no-one else can really see him / her are as much hers as the Riverman’s. The interplay of subsidiary suggestions and implications extends endlessly through her work, but the core of the poem is the Riverman himself and our imaginative engagement with him, with his inimitable voice, with his own hopes, fears, visions and story, and the wonderful images of the river that he presents.
For those who don’t have Bishop’s poems in print, a comment has kindly directed me to a site which gives a full text of “The Riverman”: http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2009/12/08/elizabeth-bishop-the-complete-poems-1927-1979/
You can read the text of “At the Fishhouses” at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15209 or the text with accompanying discussion on George Szirtes’ website at http://georgeszirtes.blogspot.com/2009/01/elizabeth-bishop-at-fishouses.html .
The way the metaphor of the breasts occurs in the concluding passages of both poems sharpens the comparison between them.