Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Realizing Social (In)Justice in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”

Perhaps because it is one of Bishop’s travel poems, “Pink Dog” immediately caught my attention with its vivid, colorful imagery, playfulness, and conversational tone. I love the speaker’s initial observation of something so mundane as a hairless dog contrasted with the sights and smells of Rio De Janiero. The rhyme scheme, which is constructed with three end-rhymes in each tercet, (aaa bbb ccc…), is at first almost child-like in its simplicity and playfulness. Similarly, the speaker’s surprise at the sight of the dog, in its simplicity and honesty, achieves a conversational tone from the beginning stanza.

All of these initial impressions constitute a kind of lightness which is soon complicated by the speaker’s darker observations of the displaced and poverty-stricken populations of the city: “how they deal with beggars? They take and throw them in the tidal rivers / Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites / go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (ll. 14-18). The first effect of such a major shift in tone and subject inherent in the speaker’s juxtaposition of the hairless dog with the city’s poor and displaced is the immediate comparison. While she employs some hyperbole, the speaker recognizes that these people are being treated as if they were unwanted animals.

The poem evolves even further in the final four stanzas when the speaker returns to meditations on the pink dog and proposes that it dress up for the Carnival festival to hide its repellent condition. The speaker concludes by praising the festival which “is always wonderful!” (l. 36), and urging the dog to participate, “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” (l. 38). Such praise is tainted, of course, with a cynicism which informs the entire poem. Bishop’s investigation of the city’s treatment of its poor populations is also an investigation of the shallow and meaningless nature of festivals such as Carnival. Just as the pink dog becomes a metaphor for the “idiots, paralytics, [and] parasites” which a city cannot hide, Carnival becomes a metaphor for the ineffectual human endeavor to compensate for such social injustice. Because it is a Christian holiday, Carnival also becomes, in Bishop’s representation, a manifestation of the failure of religion to solve social problems of classism. Just as Bishop’s playful rhyme can only partially hide the dark themes of the poem, Carnival can only superficially obfuscate (and temporarily alleviate) human misery.

--Matthew Vetter


Rio de Janeiro

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a

dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

—Elizabeth Bishop

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Pink Dog.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 530. Print


Nola said...

Thank-you. This is one of my favourite poems of Elizabeth Bishop. I went searching tonight for the full poem because I am house-sitting and do not have my book with me. What do I find? A whole lot of nonsense, in my opinion (and yes, of course, it is opinion). I was becoming disgusted with what I read, and wavering again on the side of congratulating, rather than regretting, my decision years ago to study science instead of English. But I find your words wise, and understanding, and again I have to consider that there may be at least some value in analyzing poetry. I still do have a considerable problem with accepting that one person's interpretation/opinion is of any more value than the next person's verdict, so I still do wonder at some level why any of this is of value at all. However, I do like what you have to say, enough, obviously to respond. So perhaps there is value in discussion and debate. It definitely is nice to read about people who still read her poetry, because my introduction to her work was in a first-year university English course wherein we were obligated to study an anthology of poetry which included all of two women, and the intro to Bishop's work noted that there was no theme to her work. (Pfft!) So, thanks. :)

Mary said...

I live in Brazil and have taught Bishop for a decade in an international school here. "Pink Dog" is a wonderful poem, and you make many good points here. I do think you should look into the role of the historical context, however. More than a critical comment on how society deals with "undesirables," the poem's Rio setting and Bishop's tone is replete with the terror of the dictatorship.

Peter Pfister said...

There is certainly this level of commentary on social justice in the poem. There is also a good deal relating to issues of gender and femininity. Elizabeth Bishop does reward the reader with her complexity and substance. I read her poems every few years and always get something new as I age and change with experience.