Going Deep: Art and the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

When critic Randall Jarrell mentioned Vermeer in a review of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, Bishop excitedly expressed her joy over someone making the connection. We can only guess how she’d feel about Peggy Samuels’ Deep Skin: Elizabeth Bishop and Visual Art, in which the Drew University professor analyzes the influence of more modern artists such as Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, and Alexander Calder on Bishop’s poetry. “From the late-1930s through the mid-1950s, Bishop drew on visual art intently to work out her own aesthetic,” Samuels asserts. Like a great quarterback, Samuels huddles up these visual artists and the poet and explains how they team up to create a whole new understanding of surface and depth in images and words. Deep Skin goes deep, and scores.

“By placing Bishop’s concerns in conversation with the visual arts,” Samuels writes in the introduction, “we see painters’ experiments and the discourse about those experiments pulled through the reacting sensibility of a poet working on her own affective and aesthetic concerns.” Rather than slavishly “copy” artists’ works as poems, Bishop emulated their thought processes by adapting them to her poetry. Critics have long recognized the art connection in Bishop’s poetry, but Bishop’s poems and other writings on art (showing affection ranging from Rembrandt to Pollock) “seem to scatter, without any means of cohering,” Samuels suggests. Deep Skin brings that missing coherence to Bishop’s appropriation of modern art theory and reveals the method to her modern art madness.

Thanks to college roommate and MoMA curator Margaret Miller, Bishop gained an insider’s access to the newest European artists to hit American shores. When Paul Klee’s art gained favor, Bishop recognized the power of his paintings’ surfaces as an unstable boundary. Works such as Glance of a Landscape (shown above), with its layers of transparent and opaque watercolor, provided a visual example of the multilayered reality Bishop wanted to create in her poetic worlds. Just as Klee places a bodiless eye in Glance of a Landscape, Bishop inserts an “eye/‘I’” in a similar “fluid deep space” in poems such as “Pleasure Seas,” Samuels writes. Much like Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball,” Bishop’s Klee-esque eyeball breaks through the surface of reality like breaking through the surface of water, which becomes the threshold open both “to nature and to the interior of the poet” in Samuels’ view.

When Miller first encountered the collages of Kurt Schwitters as a curator, she shared her “secret” with Bishop. In turn, Bishop saw the usefulness of Schwitters approach to collage for her poetry. In contrast to Cubist or Dada collage focusing on meaninglessness, Schwitters’ collages enhanced meaning through a layering of human experience. Schwitters ripped elements of a collage from their original context only to create a new context in the collage itself that allowed the elements to “lift off” into new strata of possibility. In “Cape Breton,” Bishop demonstrates a Schwitterean “fascination with surfaces,” Samuels believes, “the play of tactile materialities with different densities and opacities.” Where Schwitters worked in color and shapes to build new arrangements of meaning, Bishop worked in verbal images and connotations to versify a whole new world.

Unfortunately, Bishop’s fascination with Klee later led to an almost unraveling of meaning as she attempted to appropriate Klee’s idea of “walking with a line.” The seemingly endless lines of Klee’s drawings translated into lines of poetry only led to the chaos of works such as Bishop’s “Four Poems.” Fortunately, Calder’s mobiles provided an “antidote” to that chaos in Samuels’ view. Calder’s mobiles continued to allow the mobility and freedom Bishop sought, but in a convenient package protected against disintegration. In one unpublished poem, the “[s]peaker is held and carried as a moving element among gently ascending, descending, and circling shape motifs that, condensing and unfurling, poising their disparate weights and motions, carry the timbre of gentleness, accident, and pleasure,” Samuels concludes. In such beautifully sensitive and astute passages, Samuels shows her deep understanding of both the artists and the poet, giving each their due in a duet of aesthetic theory.

In Deep Skin, Samuels excels in choreographing this pas de deux of poetry and visual art. Just as Bishop borrowed from the visual arts to better her poetry, through Samuels’ eyes we can now return the favor and see Klee, Schwitters, and Calder afresh through a deeper understanding of how Bishop saw them. The subtlety of these borrowings and their manifestations in art and poetry can be hard to follow, but Samuels guides us ably with minimum reliance on tricks of literary criticism. All she requires is an openness to ideas along the lines of Bishop’s own openness. Bishop over and over used the image of water as a open boundary to be passed through to reach something on the other side. Deep Skin invites us to take a similar plunge and allow the play of ideas to wash over and refresh us.

[Many thanks to Cornell University Press for providing me with a review copy of Peggy Samuels’ Deep Skin: Elizabeth Bishop and Visual Art.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.