Elizabeth Bishop: Poems

Explication of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Shampoo"

In her affectionate verse “The Shampoo”, Elizabeth Bishop addresses her lesbian partner Lota, whose great black tresses have begun to bear the signs of grey aging. Her tone is tender and her language contemplative—she marvels at the marks of age with a sigh, not a scowl. Bishop infuses the poem with imagery of lichens and astros, first to observe the marks of aging, then to expose an emotional current that runs deeper than its transient, physical counterpart. “The Shampoo” serves as vehicle for a subtle and sentimental declaration of love, which Bishop asserts even against the faint manifestations of age.

In the first stanza, Bishop likens the grey hairs of her partner to marine lichens—insinuating their way through the threads of her hair and spreading forth in “gray, concentric shocks.” (The strands of grey that reveal themselves are “shocks” both in the sense that they are tufts of color and literally shocking to Bishop; they have existed all along but until now have gone unnoticed, and their presence and implications are jolting.) In the opening line of the poem, the grey hairs are termed oxymoronically to be “still explosions.” This is perhaps to say that they grow quietly, imperceptibly—almost as flowers do—until their...

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