In teaching “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop, I often get stuck on the phrase “fire balloons.” Students, evidently trained by cadres of English teachers to suspect that nothing in a poem can be what it says it is, venture all kinds of guesses at the hidden meaning of “fire balloons.” Are they stars, planets, angels, UFOs?
Well, they’re actually fire balloons. I mean, I don’t have a letter from Elizabeth Bishop proving this point, but the balloons in the poem behave exactly as the balloons on this completely unrelated website say they do. They’re made of paper, they rise with the hot air produced by a lit source, they wobble, they are illegal, they fall eventually, they start fires. The speaker in the poem simply watches them, and sees their typical consequences.
So the balloons are literal balloons. But as the website suggests, they are often mistaken for other things. They seem to have hearts; they seem to “steer” (though they really just drift). They seem to be “solemn” and to “forsake” us. Is there anything that people won’t read themselves into?
Though they are inanimate and directionless, the balloons represent danger. People don’t intend them to inflict harm, but they do. The idea that beauty can be dangerous is a feature of some great poetry, from Shakespeare’s sonnets through Keats and Byron to the 1890s and on into confessional and postmodern modes of the late 20th century. Here, Elizabeth Bishop combines two poles of experience in the same incandescent lyric. Beauty and hope fly upward; destruction and inhumanity descend. Which way do we turn? Which, in the poem, is more real?