Ohio University

Search within:

The Impenetrable Wood: Gender Identity in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”

It is not the repetitive nature of the dogs in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Moose,” but the title creature itself appearing at the end of the poem that represents mothering and gender identity. Bishop's moose is feminized by a patriarchal voice transferring the idea of “she” onto the other passengers. Therefore, the moose is identified by the bus passengers through a heteronormative social construct. The passenger’s assumption that the moose is female further suggests the mammal is a substitute mother, and "the sweet sensation of joy" is a return to the non-judgmental womb.

Bishop’s moose emerges from “the impenetrable wood” (line 33), a thick, dark, forested area impossible to decipher. The darkness surrounding the stopped bus during this segment of the sojourn grows darker still after the driver turns off the headlights. The point of the passengers’ interest in discovering the moose is two-fold: conjecture regarding the mammal’s gender identity, and the labeling of identity that indicates the moose is a surrogate mother. Bishop describes the moose after it approaches the bus, sniffing the “hot hood” (line 137) the way a dog becomes familiar with a stranger, but it is the exterior picture of the moose that leads to conjecture about identity:

Towering, antlerless,

high as a church,

homely as a house

(or, safe as houses).

A man’s voice assures us

“Perfectly harmless…” (lines 138-143)

The passengers qualify gender based on exterior features: the moose is “antlerless,” (line 138) but is it possible that it is a bull (male) that shed its antlers, or a cow (female), which does not grow antlers? (Owen Nat’l Park Service Web). Bishop’s description indicates height by stating the moose is “high as a church” (line 139). We imagine the top of the mammal’s head is far above the ground like a church steeple touching the sky. A bull moose is considerably taller than a cow, but what draws even greater attention to defining the mammal's gender is the idea of safety and interiority: “homely as a house/(or, safe as houses)” (lines 139-140). Bishop’s use of “homely” provides two connotations: an exterior ugliness and an interior warmth. In the last line of stanza twenty-four, a patriarchal voice interjects opinion usurping identity and feminizing the “homely” (line 140) moose: “Perfectly harmless…” (line 143). Bishop employs an ellipsis suggesting uncertainty; the presentation of uncertainty leads to questioning the actual gender of the moose:

Some of the passengers

exclaim in whispers,

childishly, softly,

“Sure are big creatures.”

“It’s awful plain.”

“Look! It’s a she!” (lines 144-149)

The declarative passengers erupt with fact, opinion, and assumption: it is fact that the moose, whether bull, cow, or young, are “big creatures.” The opinionated statement, the mammal is “awful plain,” expresses disappointment in its lack of beauty. Finally, assumption is made about the moose’s gender: “Look! It’s a she!” (line 149). The passengers cannot possibly identify the mammal’s gender due to the surrounding moonlit darkness. Bishop’s use of assumption suggests conservative radical thinking about identity: The moose symbolizes an anthropomorphic look at misidentity ; a cow can only be identified by a vulva patch upwardly located between the cow’s rear legs, or by examining pelvic anatomy (Duetsch et al 3). The announced assumption is “she.” According to constructivist gender criticism, gender is a social construct, or cultural product. The “harmless” nature of the moose, proclaimed by a male passenger, implies the mammal is female. In turn, the assumption of gender is established in the minds of other passengers and they build on the “harmless” agreeable, description of a large, plain-looking woman. Whether Bishop is being self-referential or providing an eidetic image of a substitute mother, the moose is feminized by others and does not have an identity of its own.

Observers choose to assume to identify the animal’s gender on a dark, moonlit wooded road. Bishop creates an arena, assigning viewers to question the moose’s identity in a position of non-seeing, yet the viewers make an unqualified decision and label the moose female to justify the passengers feeling of safety. The moose is in a precarious position; the animal is forced to be observed by those who are blind to accepting the moose for whatever gender he/she/it/they/zer actually is. Here, the moose’s gender is culturally determined based on looks, size, even movement, much like the classic, clichéd image of a woman walking down a street past a group of blue-collar men, whistling and cat-calling as she passes by. In Bishop’s poem we see a mirror-image of sexual harassment in the bus passengers gaping stare and vocal comments, which are based on their visual response of the moose’ exterior features.

The passengers rely on predominately acceptable heteronormative social constructs. In contrast, allowing ‘normal’ people to develop a possible falsehood (i.e. accepting the moose as female) is far easier for the public in Bishop’s poem than to consider the possibility of a social other as normative. Bishop cleverly portrays the onlookers’ narrow-minded thinking in the summary of one term in the next stanza: “otherworldly” (line 152). “Otherworldly” suggests something spiritual, or relating to intellect and imagination. The keyword here is imagination or imaginary. It is impossible for the moose to be anything but female. The passenger’s imagination cannot fathom anything but the feminization of the moose. Following Bishop’s use of “otherworldly,” she poses a question in the universal we:

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy? (lines 153-155)

The repetition of “why” not only adds poetic stress, but also emphasizes the demanding need to “feel.” In order to “feel [the]...sweet sensation of joy” (lines 153-155) we must rely on the comfort of mother, whether a substitute mother or birth mother. The “joy” brings us back to the womb: “homely as a house/(or, safe as houses).” The womb is where we are safe from the world and from our imaginations, where we have yet to experience childhood trauma, or face the scrutiny of socialized debasement.

Bishop’s poem is an exquisite journey culminating with a timeless judgment: who are we? What right do we have to decide what is normal? How can we possibly understand all that emerges from the “impenetrable wood”?

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Moose.” The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001.

Duetsch, Jason A., and Rolf O. Peterson. "Using Pelvis Morphology To Identify Sex In Moose Skeletal Remains." Alces 48.(2012): 1-6. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Murfin, Ross C. “Gender Criticism.” The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 3rd. ed. UK: Palgrace MacMillan, 1997.

Owen, Pat. “Moose Rutting.” National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Undated. Web. 30 Mar 2016. <http://www.mooserut2010-2.pdf.&gt;