by Elizabeth Bishop
On the unbreathing sides of hills
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Squatter’s Children, is one in a series of poems that Bishop wrote whilst living in Brazil. Bishop often looked at her world closely and in small parts at a time. In Bishop’s collection of poems devoted to Brazil (compiled in Questions of Travel), she is consistently aware that her eyes are that of a foreigner, yet she is never afraid to see. At times, Bishop shows that it is through looking at the world closely that we understand it. Other times, she shows the strikingly opposite: even if we attempt to see it all, we can still remain estranged and confused. In the case of some of the Brazil poems, this unsettling truth is a commentary on harsh social realities related to poverty.
In Squatter’s Children, Bishop takes a scene and elegantly breaks it apart, showing that it is only after you see each part dissected that you realize that all parts are inseparable. Bishop starts off the poem by taking us “On the unbreathing sides of hills,” the hills of the favelas in Rio. We are somewhere “unbreathing” – without life, suffocated, and still. A sun gazes onto a girl and boy with a “suspended eye.” The setting speaks to the unbreathing quality of the hill: the suspension of the sun connotes a sense of fixedness, and the children, who are in turn “alone,” are trapped in the sun’s motionless gaze.
This set triangle, however, is soon to be broken. The sun seems to take in large breaths as it sheds “gigantic waves of light and shade.” Other elements begin to quickly appear, reappear and disappear, also like the very rhythm of breath. But is this movement relieving? Clouds pile up into a storm: they move closer together, a movement that altogether blocks and caves in closer to the boy and girl. The children, too, begin to move as they “play at digging holes.” But the openings they attempt to make in the ground are impeded – the ground is too “hard.” A similar sense of restraint is felt when they can “scarcely lift” the tools they use.
Up until the end of the second stanza, there is no mention of sound. We move from quiet stillness to quiet movement. We watch in silence. Bishop introduces sound as she did with movement: it happens like a cascading effect, one movement or sound bumping into and intensifying the next.
Sounds fire off with the “drops and clangs” of the children’s tools that cause the children to laugh, in unison with the “thunderheads” of the storm. The laughter becomes the storm as it “spreads effulgence” and strikes “weak flashes of inquiry,” which are in turn described as “direct as is the puppy’s bark.” The laughter, the storm and the pup together harmonize in a direct but weak sound.
The laughter carries light up into the clouds asking a wordless question. It shoots up and descends like an “unwarrantable ark” – as clear and visible as the rise and fall of an ark, however fleeting and weak. It dives back down with no answer, disappearing into the depths of the ground.
Bishop’s description of this cacophony of sounds is paradoxical: it is strong and clear yet weak and momentary. It is through capturing the precise qualities and strong impact of weakness that makes us understand what it is to be weak.
The rain pours out what the storm has swallowed and incorporated – the children, the bark, and the sun – and answers the “flashes of inquiry” with an echo, or rather an “echolalia” (a word choice that beautifully mimics the loopy sounds of rain). There is in fact no reply. There are only the sounds of what is already there, and we are left with the voice of the Mother, which is in turn as “ugly as sin.” But is it the children’s mother calling them back inside? Or is it the grander Mother Nature? This voice nonetheless serves as a sort of rupture: it breaks through this cycle that has taken place between the sun, the children, the clouds and the rain. The Mother separates them and draws the children back to where they belong.
But there is no dry haven for the children to escape to. The storm has already seeped into them and “slid beneath [their] muddy shoes.” Their homes are seemingly falling apart, as they only have “rights in rooms of falling rain.” The alliteration in this last line lends the sense of something tumbling and constant, like the fall of the rain and the unchanging reality of these children.
We begin the poem in a dry and still place and end in one that is wet and falling apart. The children are absorbed into their surroundings: their movements, sounds and very existence are constrained to the lifeless sides of the unbreathing hill.