Elizabeth Bishop & the Snail Shell: Brazil’s Sleeping Ear

Writing to Frani Blough on 5 December 1963, Elizabeth Bishop bemoans her auditory situation. With her Victrola reliant on the patchy power of Samambaia, Brazil, she grumbles, ‘I suspect I am hearing everything a few seconds slow…’. Just like the Victrola, Bishop’s listening had begun to lag; where once the poet relied on playback apparatus such as the phonograph, her ear found itself severed from the technologies to which it was attuned, recalibrated to the capacities of her own cochlea. Bishop, so the critical refrain follows, once dreamt of being a musician. Catching the tune of this interdisciplinary collaboration, this paper instead examines the auricular thinking underpinning such musical preoccupations. What function might the ear play in Bishop’s late composition habits?
This paper stages an experiment in thinking through this critically neglected aspect of Bishop’s poetry, reading the Giant Snail section of ‘Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics’ (1967) as an example of the poet’s experimentation with the ear as an auditory amplifier. Literalising the etymological conceit of shell as cochlea to transform snail into ‘sleeping ear’, ‘Rainy Season’ comprises a meditation on the acoustic function which the cochlea’s exoskeleton fulfils. This wasn’t the first time Bishop’s ear had been thus engaged. Turning to examine ‘Under the Window: Ouro Preto’ (1966), I argue that the poem’s staging of overhearing becomes a vessel through which to route the poet’s shifting understanding of her evolving perceptual and compositional habits. In doing so, this paper outlines the manner in which Bishop’s poetry itself aspires to the status of playback technology – a means of recording and replaying the soundscape of Brazil – offering a critical reappraisal of the poet’s interest in the science of acoustics.