January 30, 2017
The Plight of the Poor in "Pink Dog"
On the surface, Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Pink Dog" offers a simple anecdote about a stray dog wandering the streets of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. But digging deeper reveals that Bishop uses the symbolism of the helpless dog to offer readers a deeper understanding of Brazilian society's marginalization of its downtrodden.
The poem sets the scene with a pleasant description of a sunny day, with people leisurely enjoying the beach, before taking an abrupt turn at the startling word "naked" in the third line. The idyllic imagery of the deceptively cheery opening lulls the reader into a false sense of security that the poem will have a happy tone throughout, making the switch to vulgar realism and dark language more powerful. The poem transitions to describing a stray female dog scavenging food to feed herself and her pups, evoking pity in the reader. She is underfed and neglected, suffering from scabies and malnutrition that has caused her to lack a healthy mane of hair. The narrator is concerned for the dog's safety, because in Rio, mobs have been drowning beggars in the river. The narrator asks, "If they do this to anyone who begs, \ drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs, \ what would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?" Satirically, the narrator suggests that the dog wear a mask or a costume to conceal its pathetic state and dance its problems away in the Carnival festivities.
The poem uses a literary device of an extended metaphor that makes the pink dog represent the poor and downtrodden of Brazilian society. The word choice throughout the text humanizes the pink dog: "naked" (line 3), "nursing mother" (line 10), "hanging teats" (line 10) "poor bitch" (line 11), "babies" (line 9), and "begging" (line 12). The poem alternates between words that typically describe a dog and words that typically describe a human, weaving between the two to intertwine the concepts they embody and to complicate the metaphor between the dog and the poor. The poem introduces the dog as "Naked and pink, without a single hair…" (line 5), words that evoke vulnerability and innocence, echoing the way one would describe a newborn baby rather than a stray dog. In the third stanza, the poem describes the dog as having "rabies" (line 7), which clearly connotes the animalistic nature of the dog. However, in the next line, the poet remarks that the dog has "a case of scabies" (line 8), which is a parasitic medical condition found in both humans and dogs, creating a link between the dog and the human poor that it represents. Furthermore, because scabies is often found among populations who don't have access to proper hygiene and can be transmitted easily through physical contact, it is easy to imagine people in the lower stratum of Brazilian society, like beggars on the streets, having cases of scabies just like stray dogs. The next line thoroughly humanizes the dog, with the narrator telling the dog, "you…look intelligent. Where are your babies? \ (A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)" (line 10). The word choice here implies a deeper connection between the dog and the human by characterizing the dog like a human mother. The text also gives the dog maternal qualities, which can be seen in the narrator's commentary on how the pink dog has likely hidden her pups in a slum so she can go out begging for food (line 11-12). The pink dog is trying her best to protect her babies from the harsh dangers of the real world, just like a human mother would.
The poem's use of anthropomorphizing language evokes more sympathy for the pink dog. The reader can easily imagine the pink dog as a young beggar girl and a new mother, hungry and frightened and alone, trying to survive on the streets of Brazil and to support her newborn child she is not equipped to take care of. The clever use of the label "poor bitch" (line 11) highlights the poet's artistic creativity, shown by the dualistic meaning of the word "bitch." Since "bitch" can be an ordinary label for a female dog or a degrading term for a young woman, like a girl on the streets, its use effectively links the pink dog to the beggar girl it represents, who in turn stands for all members of the needy and impoverished stratum of Brazilian society. In the fourth stanza, the dog is described as "begging, living by your wits" (line 12), which is a phrase which aptly describes human beggars who survive on the streets with street smarts and lack real education. "Begging" in particular is a word that can twofold meaning, one with regards to a dog begging for a scrap of meat with big longing eyes, another with regards to a human begging for alms with soft-spoken humble pleas. This word choice straddles the distinction between the dog and the street beggar, and firmly ties the two together into the complex extended metaphor applied throughout the poem.
The symbolism of the pink dog representing the poor heightens the significance of the narrator's tone throughout the poem. In the text, the narrator takes a light tone when directly addressing the cruel targeting of human beggars in Rio. The narrator jokes that the mobs drown the beggars in the river to "deal with" them (line 14), a word choice with connotations of handling a problem with pests, like how one would "deal with" an ant or rat infestation. The narrator describes beggars as "idiots, paralytics, parasites" (line 16), directly referencing the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, and those on welfare. The narrator also describes the needy as "drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs" (line 20), seeming to assume that the poor have a tendency towards substance abuse of drugs or alcohol. The phrase "with or without legs" is also extremely irreverent towards the plight of the physically disabled. The narrator's tone towards the beggars is one of lofty disdain, pitying the poor but also feeling superior to them and being unwilling to help. The narrator never once criticizes the inhumane murders of innocent helpless beggars. Instead, the narrator even shares a joke about the beggars, who do not know how to swim, saying that "In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners \ the joke is going round that all the beggars \ who can afford them now wear life preservers" (lines 22-24). The narrator uses a light and matter-of-fact tone when describing the cruel joke instead of condemning it. The indifferent tone suggests that the narrator, like fans of the joke, is unsympathetic to the beggars' plight. This stanza not only conveys the narrator's point of view, but also suggests the opinion of those who are better off in Brazilian society. The fact that "the joke is going round" (line 23) means that the joke is widely considered to be funny and the people who hear the joke continue circulating it. The joke's popularity as described in the poem is textual evidence of a lack of compassion for the extremely poor in Brazilian society by those who are not impoverished. After all, the people above the lowest socioeconomic class are taking advantage of the dark humor of the horrific situation to crack a joke at the expense of the abused and mistreated beggars who are being openly murdered.
The poem shows a tonal and verbal shift after the eighth stanza that further demonstrates the narrator's lack of empathy for the pink dog and the poor it represents. In a satirical twist, the poet makes the narrator sound ridiculous in stanza nine and onwards, through diction that shows that the narrator is so distant from the circumstances of the dog and the poor that he or she cannot understand or relate to their suffering. For example, the narrator suggests to the pink dog that since Carnival has arrived, "the practical, the sensible \ solution is to wear a fantasía. \ Tonight you simply can't afford to be a- \ n eyesore" (lines 27-30). The narrator's meaning is that it would be shameful to be an eyesore during Carnival, but the word choice of the phrase " you can't afford" (line 29) is humorous in its absurdity. The poor people represented by the pink dog can barely afford anything, let alone pricy Carnival mascaras or glittering fantasias. With the means that they have, the poor literally can only afford to be an eyesore. The narrator also foolishly asks, "What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?" (line 33), which shows how clearly clueless he or she is. Obviously, the dog and the Brazilian poor that it symbolizes cannot afford to partake in a samba school or to buy flashy costumes or to learn to dance and engage in other expensive leisurely activities. The dog and the poor in Brazil have much more important priorities than partaking in Carnival frivolity, like worrying about basic needs like clean water, food, and shelter. The narrator's foolishness is perhaps best demonstrated by his or her argument that the dog should participate in the festivities because "Ash Wednesday'll come but Carnival is here" (line 32). Ash Wednesday begins the period of Lent, a time of fasting and prayer and abstinence from earthly pleasures, when everyone willingly lives like a beggar. But what remains apparent to the reader is that the asceticism of Lent is completely different from the life of the poor, because Lent is a voluntary choice and a temporary reprieve from indulgence, whereas beggars do not have the option to live sumptuously and lavishly for the rest of the year. The poor are forced to live Lent every day of every year, and for them it never end. It is not a choice. The poor simply do not have any other alternatives. The poem's narrator essentially tells the dog that it should "Dress up and dance at Carnival!" (line 39), and that it can go back to living in poverty when Ash Wednesday and Lent arrive. The narrator does not seem to understand that the austere lifestyle of the poor is not a willing choice but a last resort and their only option. The narrator's well-intentioned but unhelpful suggestions, tactless word choice, and cheery tone suggest a certain ignorance. The text illustrates that the narrator does not understand how hard daily life on the streets is for the pink dog and the poor.
The poem "Pink Dog" conveys a fundamentally human sense of suffering and the struggle to survive through an extended metaphor of a dog representing the poor of Brazil. Poetry has the power to give us authentic insight into topics that are difficult to understand on a human level. In this case, the poem "Pink Dog" evokes empathy and a deeper understanding of the oppression and marginalization suffered by those who are extremely impoverished. At the poem's conclusion, the reader is left with the lingering thought that even though Carnival is supposed to be a time that brings Brazilians together to celebrate and to share joy, Elizabeth Bishop uses Carnival to highlights the social divide between those who have and those who have not—like a poor beggar girl on the streets, or a stray pink dog trotting across an avenue.