In this poem (as well as some others), Bishop is able to describe an entire country or continent at once. The result is a half-real, half-imagined synthesis of the actual place and the representation of that place. In the literal sense, the speaker of “The Map” is looking at the images the cartographer has drawn. On the other hand, she is also touching the “real” water and land that are imaginatively contained inside the map. It’s as if she is in an airplane, seeing the outline of the place from some incredible distance— and yet, somehow, her arm is nearly long enough to touch the physical world she describes.
I’ve been able to see this very tension played out in the works of other poets, and especially those who write about exile. When I discovered Agha Shahid Ali, and especially his poem “I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror,” for example, I remembered the perspective I’d seen in the “The Map.” For me, it was Bishop who first showed me the complicated scope that is possible in poetry: a hard, objective, microscopic up-closeness that somehow co-exists with seeing “the big picture” at a distance. It’s this pull between near and far that keeps me coming back to her poems, and keeps me hard at work inside my own.
For more on Bishop, check out Alice Quinn’s edited volume of Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts and fragments, Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke Box.