A a materialist reading of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop: ʻa miracle for Breakfastʼ

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A) A Materialist Reading of Elizabeth Bishopʼs ʻA Miracle for Breakfastʼ

B) A Psychoanalytic Reading of Elizabeth Bishopʼs ʻSestinaʼ

C) A Structuralist Reading of Elizabeth Bishopʼs ʻThe Mapʼ

D) A Poststructuralist Reading of Elizabeth Bishopʼs ʻOver 2,000 Illustrations and a

Complete Concordanceʼ
A) A materialist reading of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop: ʻA Miracle for Breakfastʼ

Written in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it features breadlines of poor

people waiting for a meal.
1.The title suggests the poet will be evoking religion. How can one have a miracle for

breakfast? or is this ironic?

2. What is Bishopʼs attitude to the difference between the rich and the poor?

3. Why does she call the charitable meal a charitable crumb?

4. Why does she compare those about to serve to ʻkings of oldʼ?

5. ʻOne foot of the sun/.... river.ʼ Why refer to Christ walking on water here and why in a humorous manner?

6. What is the attitude of the waiting people to towards the rich man in the next two

stanzas? What does Bishop seem to think of him?

7. What are the two final stanzas about? A fantasy of some kind? What does the speaker fantasize about?

8. How do you interpret the final two lines? What does Bishop mean by ʻthe miracle was working on the wrong balconyʼ?

9. Utopianism is a positive term in Marxist thinking. It describes when people yearn beyond the limits capitalism imposes on them and imagine a world in which human desires and needs would be addressed rather than curtailed for the sake of giving a minority of the population excessive amounts of wealth. How might the poem be said to be utopian?


At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,

waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb

that was going to be served from a certain balcony

--like kings of old, or like a miracle.

It was still dark. One foot of the sun

steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.

It was so cold we hoped that the coffee

would be very hot, seeing that the sun

was not going to warm us; and that the crumb

would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.

At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony

looking over our heads toward the river.

A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,

consisting of one lone cup of coffee

and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,

his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun

was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!

Each man received one rather hard crumb,

which some flicked scornfully into the river,

and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.

Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.

A beautiful villa stood in the sun

and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.

In front, a baroque white plaster balcony

added by birds, who nest along the river,

--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb

my mansion, made for me by a miracle,

through ages, by insects, birds, and the river

working the stone. Every day, in the sun,

at breakfast time I sit on my balcony

with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.

A window across the river caught the sun

as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

Elizabeth Bishop
B) A psychoanalytic reading of ʻSestinaʼ by Elizabeth Bishop

Written about the experience of trauma and its aftermath.

1. Why is the poem called ʻSestinaʼ? Is it a poetic form? What are itʼs characteristics?

2. Why would Bishop choose to write about trauma in such a poetic form?

3. Study the poem and note the transformations that key repeated words undergo.. How do ʻtearsʼ especially change?

4. The boundary between inside and outside is important as a measure of oneʼs ability to regulate oneʼs own internal affective states. Victims of trauma have trouble with such regulation. How does the poem record disturbances in that boundary?

5. What does the grandmother represent?

6. What does she try to provide the child?

7. An almanac is a book farmers used to predict weather among other things. How is its predictive ability important as a metaphor of healing in the poem?

8. How does the child start to repair the wound caused by trauma?

9. How might it be seen as a way of gaining control over her emotion?

10.How also is it a way of internalizing the care the grandmother seeks to provide?

11.Stanza 6 has an interesting image that is like the act of internalization. Something

outside is moved inside. The moons from the almanac enter the childʼs art? Why is it

important that they are moons and that they come from the almanac? And why are they like ʻtearsʼ? What is their relation to the childʼs suffering?

12.What is the significance of the line ʻtime to plant tearsʼ? And why is it said by the


13. One power that both art and poetry have is to transform literal things into metaphors.Notice the metaphors in the last stanza. How might they be connected to the therapeutic action of art?

September rain falls on the house.

In the failing light, the old grandmother

sits in the kitchen with the child

beside the Little Marvel Stove,

reading the jokes from the almanac,

laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears

and the rain that beats on the roof of the house

were both foretold by the almanac,

but only known to a grandmother.

The iron kettle sings on the stove.

She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child

is watching the teakettle's small hard tears

dance like mad on the hot black stove,

the way the rain must dance on the house.

Tidying up, the old grandmother

hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac

hovers half open above the child,

hovers above the old grandmother

and her teacup full of dark brown tears.

She shivers and says she thinks the house

feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.

I know what I know, says the almanac.

With crayons the child draws a rigid house

and a winding pathway. Then the child

puts in a man with buttons like tears

and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother

busies herself about the stove,

the little moons fall down like tears

from between the pages of the almanac

into the flower bed the child

has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.

The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove

and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop

C) A structuralist reading of Elizabeth Bishopʼs The Map

A structuralist approach to literature treats words as signs. In The Map Bishop thinks

about the relationship between the signs we make to represent the world and the actual world itself. Her strategy is to take real things to be signs and signs to be real things. The opening line - ʻLand lies in water; it is shadowed greenʼ - is a description of a map as if it were the real world. A sign becomes a thing in Bishopʼs rendering. Notice how she personifies land; it ʻliesʼ as if it were taking a rest. That it is ʻshadowed greenʼ takes the coloration of the map literally, as if in the real world the map colour green actually exists. In the next line, she makes the playful confusion of literal and semiotic or literal and metaphoric more explicit. Note the rhyme (ʻshadow,ʼ ʻshallowʼ) that also confuses a map sign (shadows - shallows) with a real thing, and treats that map itself as if it might not be a cluster of signs but instead the real world it supposedly represents.
1. Go through the rest of the poem and look for other instances of such deliberate

confusion of sign and thing.

2. Why does Bishop draw our attention to this rather playful problem? ( a map-maker is charged with making as accurate an image of the world as possible. This attitude is scientific , objective, cool. Notice places in the poem where the project of objective

representation is mocked or called into question.

3. What are some other attitudes toward the natural world? What alternate way of being in the world does the poem depict? Note Bishopʼs use of words like ʻstrokeʼ (ʻWe can stroke these lovely baysʼ). A mapmaker would not be interested in whether a bay is ʻlovelyʼ and he certainly would not be interested in stroking it...(Can we stroke a bay?)

4. What role does emotion play in the poem? Romantic poets thought of nature as

something that inspired strong emotions. Bishop is quite anti-Romantic in temperament; her preferred mode is much more ironic. How does she mock the Romantic conception of nature?

5. Some would argue all representations of the world are plagued by values and

perspectives. A map is always still the mapmakerʼs map. His perspective is evident in the choices he makes regarding what signs to use. Objectivity itself is a perspective. And all representation entails a choice of signs (blue or red, large or small, etc.) How does Bishop deal with these issues?

6. Some feel that nature should be exploited as much as possible economically. Others think it should be preserved and respected. Which position does Bishop seem to embrace in the poem?


Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.

Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges

showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges

where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.

Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,

drawing it unperturbed around itself?

Along the fine tan sandy shelf

is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.

Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo

has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,

under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,

or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.

The names of seashore towns run out to sea,

the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains

-the printer here experiencing the same excitement

as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.

These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger

like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,

lending the land their waves' own conformation:

and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,

profiles investigate the sea, where land is.

Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?

-What suits the character or the native waters best.

Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.

More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.

A poststructuralist reading of ʻOver 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordanceʼ
This is about an illustrated Bible which contains modern photographs of Middle Eastern scenes. The Bible, as a story about God and humanity, contends that the real world is actually just a metaphor or symbol whose meaning is spiritual. Behind the physical universe is a spiritual one. The literal physical world itself is just an illusion, or even an illustration.
1. What does Bishopʼs attitude to this idea seem to be?

2. If the poem is about the two contending philosophic positions described above – with one favouring absolute foundational truth and the other emphasizing the flow of

experience through space and time without any transcendental foundation - which one do you think Bishop favours in the poem?

3. Notice how she begins with reference to things that might be as ponderous as

foundational truth - the Seven Wonders of the World. She mentions travels she has

taken and says they should have been like the Bible, ʻserious, engravable.ʼ Yet ordinary travels do not attain the stature of biblical seriousness. She notes that the images of the Seven Wonders in the illustrated Bible are a ʻtouch familiar.ʼ That would seem to imply they have lost some of their original meaning or significance. Is this the same for the other illustrations?

4. Note too that the idea of a spiritual world depends still on something physical – being engraved. What are some of the implications of this? How does engraving work in the poem? (Is it not a somewhat forceful kind of writing? and we have noticed that Derrida associates writing with the principle of difference - that all things spiritual or self-identical or transcendental are in the end lodged in physical reality. They are contingent and historical, rather than eternal and extra-worldly.... Engraving seems to ensure the enduring permanence of the ideas of the Bible, but does it also undermine them?

5. Her tone is mocking at times. The Arabs in one photograph, she suggests, might be plotting against ʻour Christian Empire.ʼ... How might Christianity be imperial in other ways than simply military? Crusaders did of course literally return to the Middle East to convert it from an Arab homeland into a ʻHoly Landʼ. Think about how there are two kinds of imperialism at work there. One is military and physical - taking someone elseʼs land by force. The other has to do with language and meaning, even with capital letters. How is it imperial to convert someoneʼs pasture or backyard into ʻthe Tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcherʼ? How is a change of meaning imperial? Could transforming a backyard or a pasture into a ʻTombʼ lead to the first kind of imperialism?...

6. Why the final remark about Khadour, probably their guide, ʻlooking amusedʼ? Why might he be amused?

7. The first line of the third stanza repeats the view that there is an endless flow of

experience and life through time and space, a flow that never can be converted to a

transcendental meaning or truth that stands outside the flow. Everything in such a world would be connected with ʻandʼ and ʻandʼ. Such a world couldnʼt be considered to be an ʻillustrationʼ of a spirit world that stands behind it, or of a spiritual truth. With these ideas in mind, how would you interpret the stanza?

8. Any other comments about the poem?

Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance
Thus should have been our travels:

serious, engravable.

The Seven Wonders of the World are tired

and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,

innumerable, though equally sad and still,

are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,

or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,

against our Christian empire,

while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand

points to the Tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.

The branches of the date-palms look like files.

The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,

is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits

are vast and obvious, the human figure

far gone in history or theology,

gone with its camel or its faithful horse.

Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds

suspended on invisible threads above the Site,

or the smoke rising solemnly, pulled by threads.

Granted a page alone or a page made up

of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles

or circles set on stippled gray,

granted a grim lunette,

caught in the toils of an initial letter,

when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.

The eye drops, weighted, through the lines

the burin made, the lines that move apart

like ripples above sand,

dispersing storms, God's spreading fingerprint,

and painfully, finally, that ignite

in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns

the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.

We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs

among the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.

And at St. Peter's the wind blew and the sun shone madly.

Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,

crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.

In Mexico the dead man lay

in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes

glistened like Easter lilies.

The jukebox went on playing "Ay, Jalisco!"

And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies

splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eyes.

In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening

the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.

The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us

that the Duchess was going to have a baby.

And in the brothels of Marrakesh

the littel pockmarked prostitutes

balanced their tea-trays on their heads

and did their belly-dances; flung themselves

naked and giggling against our knees,

asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there

I saw what frightened me most of all:

A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,

one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin

open to every wind from the pink desert.

An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid

with exhortation, yellowed

as scattered cattle-teeth;

half-filled with dust, not even the dust

of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.

In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by "and" and "and."

Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges

of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)

Open the heavy book. Why couldn't we have seen

this old Nativity while we were at it?

--the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,

an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,

colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,

and, lulled within, a family with pets,

--and looked and looked our infant sight away.

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