The impact of Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal loss on the symbolic order of her poems is well-established, but the ways in which Bishop draws on literary tradition in exploring that loss have received less attention. This essay offers a close reading of “The Bight” that demonstrates how the poem unites the key elements of danse macabre—skeletal imagery, musical procession, grisly humor—with apprehensions of the absent mother, an approach founded upon but aesthetically distinct from original symboliste works such as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, or the work of American symbolists such as Wallace Stevens. The essay argues that, in contrast to the imitative earlier poems “Florida” and “Current Dreams,” “The Bight” constitutes an intimate, modern reinvigoration of the danse macabre tradition, representative of both a post-Freudian sensibility alert to psychological submergence and repression, and of Bishop’s characteristically subtle deployment of symbolic planes in her apparently realist work.

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