I’m very happy to say that my essay “Mothers and Marimbas in ‘The Bight’: Bishop’s Danse Macabre” has been awarded the 2015 Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism upon its publication in volume 61:4 of the peer-reviewed journal Twentieth-Century Literature.

The essay offers a close reading of “The Bight” that demonstrates how the poem unites the key elements of danse macabre—skeletal imagery, musical procession, grisly humor—with apprehensions of the absent mother, an approach founded upon but aesthetically distinct from original symboliste works such as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, or the work of American symbolists such as Wallace Stevens.

Professor Brian McHale, awarding the prize, wrote:

“Mothers and Marimbas” undertakes an exemplary close reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Bight.” It attends scrupulously to details of sound and sense; it excavates wordplay and etymologies; it brings to bear wide literary-historical and cultural learning, and justifies the relevance of that learning to Bishop and her text; it makes judicious and resourceful use of Bishop’s letters, her discarded drafts, and the facts of her biography to illuminate the text at hand. It does, in other words, exactly what we have in mind when we characterize a piece of critical writing as a close reading, and it does so with tact and imagination.

Which is not to say that its horizons are limited to explicating the thirty-six lines of Bishop’s text. Rather, “Mothers and Marimbas” joins the ongoing scholarly conversation about Bishop, in particular the part of that conversation having to do with the relationship between Bishop’s writing and her difficult and troubled life. Precisely because her poetry often seems deliberately reticent—or maybe because it aspires to reticence—it has prompted a great deal of biographical and symptomatic reading that seeks to restore the effaced contexts of her childhood displacement, her sexuality, her alcoholism, and most relevantly for this poem, the loss of her mother. Without at all denying the somewhat cryptically biographical dimension of “The Bight,” “Mothers and Marimbas” reminds us that private expression is mediated here (as everywhere in Bishop) by her deep engagement with her poetic precursors and the cultural traditions all around her.

“Mothers and Marimbas” can be read here, and McHale’s encomium here, in snippet view for casual readers or in full if you have access to Muse.

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