This is going to make a hypocrite of me.
I once encountered, in a book of criticism about Bishop, the critic referring to ‘The Hanging of the Mouse’ as a short story. In an essay I was writing at the time, I went to great lengths to absolutely rinse this critic: ‘It’s not a short story, it’s a goddamn prose poem,’ I screamed at the sky. I haven’t changed my opinion about that, but I do think it’s so clever in how it approaches genre that neither me, nor the critic, had the right to classify it in simple terms. The piece is, I think, an incredibly interesting exploration into genre subversion. Like how Rimbaud’s ‘Conte’ (another ostensible prose poem) plays with narrative expectation through syntactic dismantlement, Bishop plays with narrative expectation through the assumption of a familiar tropes: in this instance, the tropes used are those of the fable. In the story-cum-poem, animals gather in a square to witness the public execution of a mouse. What do we expect from a fable? Some sort of didacticism, I guess, possibly wrapped up in folksy cuteness. The last two lines are: “It was all so touching that a cat, who had brought her child in her mouth, shed several large tears. They rolled down onto the child’s back and he began to squirm and shriek, so that the mother thought that the sight of the hanging had perhaps been too much for him, but an excellent moral lesson, nevertheless.” The punchline is that there is no moral lesson: we never find out the reasons for the mouse’s execution, and the mouse itself is a quivering, plaintive, sympathetic creature. The whole piece works to deceive us with its trappings.
(I also think much of the language and turn of phrase used is Bishop exploring her own anxieties about the writing of poetry, but that’s something for me to go on and on and on about another time.)
First published in The Complete Poems, 1969