Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sandpiper” is about a shorebird that is “obsessed” [line 18] about “something” [line 17] in “[t]he beach” [line 5]. The object of its obsession is “the spaces of sand between [its toes]” [line 9], although it is suspect what reason the sandpiper must have to obsess over something it does not get its food from. This obsessive attitude contextualized within the poem’s text will eventually tell why the sandpiper is obsessed to begin with.
While a shorebird, the sandpiper does not hunt food right on the beach because it is among rocks where it can find its meals of aquatic and terrestrial insects and under water where it can find mollusks also for food (Parmelee, 29). Its ignorance of “[t]he roaring alongside” [line 1] and “the world…bound to shake” [line 2] go against its nature of foraging for food underwater if not along rocky shores. Finding the sandpiper running along the beach “to the south” [line 3] is, therefore, a kind of dislocation not only for the bird itself but also for the viewers who will deem the bird’s actuation unusual.
If the sandpiper’s dislocation from its specific feeding areas is questionable, much more is its “[w]atching…the spaces of sand between [its toes]/where…the drains/rapidly backwards and downwards” [lines 9-11]. Again, there is no reason for the bird to do the abovementioned, since it cannot scratch food from there. Given that the bird is a non-rational being, it cannot be that the bird has gone meditative, attempting “[t]o see a [w]orld in a [g]rain of sand,” to quote William Blake, as a student of whom the bird is being likened [line4]. At most, it has an instinct, but then again, its instinct gives up on the bird because no mollusk or rock-sheltered insects may be strewn atop the grains. It could be that the bird just got distracted from foraging by the “dragging grains” [line 12] that “the interrupting water [coming and going/and glazing] over [its] dark and brittle feet” [lines 6-7] has swept over. What creature will not be drawn toward “[t]he millions of grains [that] are black, white, tan, and gray/mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst” [lines 19-20]? The explosion of colors that are the grains of sand must have caused the sandpiper to act obsessively about that piece of ground underneath its feet. After all, its instinct, no matter how aware the bird’s watchers are about its blunder, must have informed the sandpiper that the shifting colored grains is a promising food location. Hence, that “something, something, something” [line 17] that the bird so obsessively looks for may most probably be food that’s necessary for its survival.
Outside the head of the sandpiper, it is recognizable that the bird commits the mistake of looking for something in an unlikely location. This is because its view is limited to the distracting appearance of the millions of colored grains. But nothing in the sandpiper’s manners tells that it will ever be conscious of its own error (only until the end, hopefully) since its obsession has clouded its better judgment. It runs “finical…,/in a controlled panic” [lines 3-4], which shows that it instantly wants to unearth what the tide-swept, varicolored sand grains promise to compensate the bird’s effort with. Also, it watches particularly [lines 9-10] and “stares at the dragging grains” [line12], concentrated on finding what lies hidden in them. Furthermore, its beak “is focused” [line 16], poised to pick with it creatures that will serve as its meal.
Finally, its “preoccupied” [line 16] demeanor suggests that its distraction is so intense—it “couldn’t [even] tell”if “[t]he tide/is higher or lower” [line 15] and that the minute, vast, clear, misty world [lines 13-14] will unfold an impending disaster—that only afterwards will the fruitless effort be revealed to its bird senses. Thus, the persona of the poem cannot help but utter the interjection “Poor bird…!” [line 18] because the sandpiper’s obsession has defied the logical and its well-meaning concentration will go unrewarded, ultimately defeating the bird’s determined purpose.
What the sandpiper experiences is a case of wrong investment of focus owing to the deceptiveness of its location’s appearance. Really, when a setting looks so inviting, any bird on the lookout for its survival requirements will be deceived into judging that this is more promising that the bird’s regular foraging grounds. In effect, a choice of the deceptive over the true has drawn the bird to obsess over something that proves to be unworthy of the effort in the long run. It is a pity that just when the sandpiper is so close to the rocky terrain and watery part where it can hunt its food, it gets distracted by the alluring grains of sand which, naturally, does not harbor what it is searching for.
It is not a mistake that the persona ironically metaphorizes the bird as Blake’s student because it may have been that the sandpiper tries to see a world in the grains of sand as in the poet’s “Auguries of Innocence,” but the bird does it literally in Bishop’s poem, manifesting its lack of common sense for seeing beyond sizes or, in the case of the poem under study, facades. Surely, humans know better than repeat the sandpiper’s narrow judgment.
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