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This article is taken from PN Review 114, Volume 23 Number 4, March - April 1997.

Mont d'Espoir or Mount Despair: Early Bishop, Early Ashbery, and the French Mark Ford

I
'I'd time enough to play with names,' observes Bishop's Crusoe of his years on his 'still/un-rediscovered, un-renam-able' island. Back in England - 'another island,/that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?' - the gap between names and things, d'espoir and despair, uses and meanings, island and mainland, dwindles to nothing:


                      I'm old.
I'm bored too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf-
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle…
Now it won't look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.
                                                   (CP, 166)1


The 'island-dweller' of John Ashbery's 'The Skaters' suffers a similar awakening from his boy's-own fantasy of life as a cast-away. Like Crusoe he climbs to the island's highest point 'to scan the distances', watches waterspouts that are 'beautiful, but terrifying' - an echo, surely, of Bishop's 'awful but cheerful' (CP, 61) - and forgets much of what he thought he knew. Fortunately he has a weathered child's alphabet on which some of the island's flora and fauna are pictured - 'the albatross, for instance - that's a name I never would ...


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