issue 23 > nonfiction > bishop > kane
Elizabeth Bishop, “The Armadillo,” The Bomb, and Robert Lowellby Julie Kane
We don’t often think of Elizabeth Bishop as a war poet, and yet war is very much present in a number of her finest poems. “In the Waiting Room” shows us that, for Bishop, the very experience of coming to consciousness as a child is an experience of coming to consciousness of war: “The War was on. Outside, / in Worcester, Massachusetts, / were night and slush and cold, / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918” (CP 161). In Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II–Cold War View, Camille Roman argues that Bishop was deeply suspicious of all “national victory narratives” justifying U.S. militarism during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War as a whole. Roman focuses her attention on five poems: “Roosters,” “Songs for a Colored Singer,” the fragment “V-Day, August 14th, 1945,” “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” and “12 O’Clock News.” She does not mention “The Armadillo,” but I think that it is important to restore the Cold War context of that poem for generations of readers not raised, as I was, with makeshift bomb shelters in the basement and terrifying air raid drills in grade school.
At its literal level, “The Armadillo” takes place outside of a house by a mountain in Brazil on the night of June 24th, Saint John’s Day. Local residents have been celebrating the holiday by launching illegal fire balloons. To Bishop’s observer, the fire balloons seem as beautiful as planets as they rise; and when they crash to earth, even the burn injuries that they inflict on their victims get described in romantic terms—owls with “their whirling black-and-white / stained bright pink underneath” (103), a “rose-flecked” armadillo (104). But the speaker suddenly awakens to the reality of the pain and suffering being inflicted upon those creatures, with the shift to italic type in the last stanza emphasizing her shift in awareness: “Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! / O falling fire and piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky” (104).
Certainly the poem is timeless in its applicability to any situation where the act of witnessing or aestheticizing suffering raises the issue of complicity with suffering’s agent. But, as suggested by Brett Millier in her Life of Bishop, “The ‘too pretty, dreamlike mimicry’ is both the poem’s attempts to render the animals and the fire balloons’ imitation of the destructiveness of war” (277). Specifically, the poem arises from the context of the Cold War era and its pervasive threat of nuclear immolation. It was published in The New Yorker in June 1957. World War II had ended in 1945 with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union had tested its first A-bomb in 1949. The hydrogen bomb, many times more destructive than its predecessor, upped the ante in 1952, and the first nuclear submarine was launched in 1954. The early 1950s were also the years of the Korean War and of the anti-communist (not to mention anti-gay, from Bishop’s perspective) McCarthy hearings. Two months after “The Armadillo” was published, the Soviets would develop the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, and four months later they would launch the first space satellite, Sputnik. But the U.S. was already in the grip of a mass fear of the fiery devastation that could rain down from the sky at any moment. Private citizens as well as Civil Defense authorities had embarked upon a program of building bomb shelters in basements and equipping them with survival rations. The steel-walled, underground “fallout shelter” that is now housed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History was installed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1955. Writing to Bishop in June 1956, Robert Lowell announced his wife’s pregnancy and noted that some women “ski all through pregnancy, give birth in bomb shelters, etc.” (Travisano and Hamilton 179). The bomb was on everyone’s mind.
In Bishop’s poem, the armadillo’s personified fist is “mailed,” like that of medieval knights in suits of armor, equipped for hand-to-hand combat but not the new technology of mass destruction. The fact that the baby rabbit is “short-eared” surprises the speaker and at least one other observer, possibly connoting a genetic mutation like those associated with Hiroshima, where living things at the bomb’s epicenter had also been reduced to “a handful of intangible ash” (104). During the decade of the 1950s, American popular culture was reflecting its citizens’ preoccupation with radiation-related genetic mutations. Marvel comics from 1952 on featured mutant villains such as “Weird Woman” who had been created by exposure to radiation. The 1954 sci-fi film Them! frightened viewers with giant mutant ants, while Godzilla (U.S. release 1956) introduced a monstrous creature, as tall as a skyscraper, who had been created by a nuclear explosion in Japan.
Penelope Laurens states that Bishop “dedicated this poem to Robert Lowell, who became a conscientious objector when the Allied command began fire-bombing German cities” (81). Although her connection of the poem to wartime bombing is on track, Laurens implies that the poem was dedicated to Lowell from the beginning on account of its subject matter, which is not the case. As first published in The New Yorker in June 1957, there was no dedication. Lowell had read the poem in manuscript a few weeks earlier and called it one of Bishop’s “three or four best” (Travisano and Hamilton 204). In September 1957 he told Bishop that he had begun a poem called “Skunk Hour” that was “not in your style yet indebted a little to your ‘Armadillo’” (230). Later in life, in the short essay “On Skunk Hour,” Lowell would further explain that both poems “use short line stanzas, start with drifting description, and end with a single animal” (Schwartz and Estes 199). He would credit Bishop’s style, whose “rhythms, idioms, images, and stanza structure seemed to belong to a later century,” with helping him to “break[...] through the shell of my old manner” (199), from a very formal and allusive poetic style to the informal free verse of Life Studies. “Skunk Hour” was, in fact, the first poem of that collection to be written. Oddly, however, Bishop’s style-busting poem is composed in rhymed quatrains.
During the early years of the 1960s, Lowell was especially outspoken in his opposition to “the bomb,” going on public record with the following statement in a 1962 Partisan Review symposium on the Cold War: “No nation should possess, use or retaliate with its bombs. I believe we should die rather than drop our own bombs” (Hamilton 295). In 1965, eight years after “The Armadillo” was first published and Lowell dedicated “Skunk Hour” to Bishop, Bishop finally decided to dedicate “The Armadillo” to Lowell. The poem was going to be reprinted in Questions of Travel, and Bishop wrote to Lowell to tell him that it would bear his name.“Armadillo—how proud and swell-headed I am about the dedication, one of your absolute top poems, your greatest quatrain ever,” Lowell wrote back in late October of 1965. “I see the bomb in it in a delicate way” (Travisano and Hamilton 591). Bishop responded to Lowell from Rio a few weeks later. “I love your expression ‘the bomb in a delicate way!’ That was my idea exactly, I suppose,” she admitted (594).
We have lived for so long now under the threat of “the bomb” that we may have entered a stage of denial about its destructive potential. But at the time Bishop wrote “The Armadillo,” that threat was fresh and pervasive. The best understanding of the poem can be gained by reading it within a restored Cold War context.
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