Elizabeth Bishop’s poem begins with a question implying a series of failed attempts: “Now can you see the monument?” and ends with an injunction: “Watch it closely.” In between she sketches a description of an imaginary monument in an imaginary space. Because I am a sculptor of monuments, and have often gone many miles out of my way to try to see them, I found her poem irresistibly provocative. 

So I made my own attempts to see the monument, first as Bishop describes it early in the poem. The monument’s crude, evocative ornamentation reminded me of “outsider art” structures like the Palais Ideal or the Watts Towers. Bishop wrote to the poet Anne Stevenson (Jan 1964, Pickard): “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Most monuments are commissioned works, built in order to define a community's spiritual or political consensus. Works of "fantastic architecture," because they are not, are inspiringly, refreshingly "useless".

But Bishop’s monument wishes and wants to be of use, to be a true civic memorial, like the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she spent the summer of 1938 in a tiny, weatherbeaten fishing shack. She described the landscape of “dune, beach, sun and sky” as “longitudinal”, comparing them to a theatrical set or a long corridor. These appear in The Monument as “…a stage-set… all so flat,” and as “cramped and crated scenery.” In such a landscape, the incongruous 252 foot tall granite tower, a replica of Siena’s medieval Torre del Mangia, may have particularly delighted Bishop because she liked the early “metaphysical landscapes” of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. 

I tried to see the Monument, with its alternating angles and layers, in de Chirico’s paintings. His towers are topped with flag-poles with banners fluttering from their corners, somewhat as in the poem. And in The Great Metaphysician, the raked stage of his piazza is dominated by a monumental structure made of wood: bits of boxes, frames, drafting tools and wooden lay figures. “It may be solid, it may be hollow.” It is at once the painter’s tools and his subject, the artist-prince and his monument. But there’s no sea, sand, or clouds.

Bishop once owned and was influenced by a set of prints by Max Ernst entitled Histoire Naturelle, in which the plants and landscapes were made by frottage, or rubbing, on paper over wood so that the grain creates a graphic pattern. Ernst’s landscapes are, indeed, “like floorboards” and even what Bishop calls, with a hint of Hopkins, “spotted, swarming-still”. Bishop actually used frottage to create the paneling behind her 1937 watercolor portrait of Sha-Sha. She loved to render extremely detailed textured surfaces: wavelets, counterpanes, brick walls; and her sense of the visual seems to have been keenly connected to her sense of touch.

“Now, can you see the monument?” asks the artist, rapidly laying it out on paper. Bishop did actually draw the monument, and one may see it. There’s a sketch of it, with quotations and notes, in one of her Key West notebooks, now in the Vassar library.

“Pound out the ideas of sight–” is written at the top of the notebook page, and then three quotations, then a line drawn across, and then in parentheses, “the moon?” three dots and “Take a frottage of this sea.”

In her story The Country Mouse, Bishop described watching the magical construction of another Pilgrim Monument: “Miss Woodhead made a model of “The Landing of the Pilgrims” on a large tabletop… (and) made the ocean in a spectacular way: she took large sheets of bright blue paper, crumpled them up, and stretched them out over the table. Then, with the blackboard chalk, she made glaring whitecaps of all the points: an ocean grew right before our eyes… “

Take a frottage of this sea;” she wrote to herself, as if one could prove the nature of the ocean view only by taking a rubbing of the crumpling waves.

Then further down the same notebook page comes the quickly drawn sketch. Here the monument resembles an old photograph of the Pilgrim Monument hung with ropes of Christmas lights. Its “ecclesiastical” fleur-de-lys crown or Bishop’s mitre floats above the tower, severed and tilted to the left, just like the crown that tips off and tumbles to the left in the Tarot card of The Tower, struck by lightning.

Below the sketch Bishop wrote these lines, more conclusive than the poem’s would be:

This is the beginning of a painting
A piece of statuary, or a poem,
Or the beginning of a monument.
Suddenly it will become something.
Suddenly it will become everything.

Above the sketch are quotations from George Berkeley’s 1709 An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision, his brilliant early treatise on optics and human perception. In it he argues that we are not able to see distance, and cannot see a distant object in its real visible magnitude. Our ideas of distance and size are learned by association, from movement and touch. A distant object is intangible, and therefore not real. His theory denying the existence of material substance in favor of everything existing only as ideas in the mind of perceivers was called Immaterialism, and codified as Esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived).

“Now can you see the monument?” in this context refers to seeing something that isn’t there unless it is perceived by the senses, a bringing-into-vision that must have been very real to a great poet. 

Bishop quotes a few lines from this section: “Let us see what Moon this is spoken of: It is plain it cannot be the visible Moon… which is only a round, luminous Plain, of about thirty visible Points in Diameter. For, in case I am carried from the place where I stand directly towards the moon, it is manifest the object varies still as I go on... and if I would recover it, it must be by going back to the earth whence I set out.” Berkeley continues: “Again, suppose I perceive by sight the faint and obscure idea of something, which I doubt whether it be a man, or a tree, or a tower… It is plain… that every step I take towards it the appearance alters, and from being obscure, small and faint, grows clear, large and vigorous.”

Below this, Elizabeth Bishop quotes Bishop Berkeley: “For distance being a line directed end-wise to the eye, it projects only one part in the fund of the eye.” She underlined “distance”. In The Monument, “there is no ‘far away,’/ and we are far away within the view.”

Bishop wrote in a notebook in 1934 (Frost) that her poetic “material” sprang from “immediate, intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything—to express something not of them—something I suppose spiritual. But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid.... Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly… but even then the spiritual must be felt. The other way—of using the supposedly “spiritual”—the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material is the way of the Romantic, I think, and a great perversity.”

Berkeley’s ideas provide Bishop with a “dry”, unsentimental way to think about distance, and to use her sense of incongruity and isolation metaphorically without the “perversity” of the Romantic.  Yet to Bishop, the light which makes things visible is a “prowling animal” from which the monument must be protected, as it must be from time, represented by the eroding, cracking wind.

As the monument begins to be seen, corresponding to the transformation that Berkeley describes as one approaches something previously seen at a distance, it changes into a reliquary. The bones of the artist-prince (or the prints of the artist) may be inside. The essential thing is that we watch what is sheltered within, a germ of creativity which “cannot have been intended to be seen.” We must be able to touch it– we are directed to watch it without distance, closely.

For a poet so caught up in ideas of distance, in sensations of homelessless or abandonment, so well-traveled and yet attuned to the surprises of arriving and departing, so well-versed and accomplished at loss, it makes sense to me that a cryptic, elusive poem like The Monument would be an exploration of ideas of distance and perception. We are not to see the monument, or, like her reluctant companion in the poem, can never see it as Bishop would have us see it. To our surprise, we explore instead our own ways of seeing.

Le Palais Idéal
The Watts Towers
The Provincetown Monument At Night
One of DeChirico’s towers
The Great Metaphysician
Max Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle
Elizabeth Bishop’s Sha-sha

Frost, Carol, “A Poet’s Inner Eye”, Humanities, Vol. 30, No. 2, March/April 2009, Washington, D.C.
Pickard, Zachariah, “The attack on surrealism in Elizabeth Bishop’s Darwin letter”, Studies on the Humanities, Vol. 31, No. 2, December 2004, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
North, Michael, The Final Sculpture, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY 1985
Rotella, Guy, Castings: Monuments and Monumentality in Poems, Vanderbilt University Press, Nahville TN 2004