Elizabeth Bishop

3 posts

“Don’t Forget That When You Get Older.”

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Quaint. That’s the word that comes to mind when reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manners,” a poem dedicated to some “child” 101 years ago.

It is especially quaint (and I daresay nostalgic in the most human of ways) to see it through the clouded lens of 2019. A poem about manners? Now, in the Age of Trump and its trickle-down rudeness, selfishness, and vanity?

The speaker’s grandfather, perhaps laughable to more cynical readers, might come across as almost holy to others. Grandpa as prophet, then, and where did we get lost along the way?

See where you fall as a reader. Is it a hopelessly-dated chuckle or a prophetic reminder that there’s still time, and always will be, to go back to being human beings who are part of a shared community—that is, humans who are actually kind and caring?

I hope that question is not rhetorical.

 

Manners
Elizabeth Bishop

For a child of 1918

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
“Be sure to remember to always
speak, to everyone you meet.”

We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.
“Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.”
And I said it and bowed where I sat.

Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
“Always offer everyone a ride;
don’t forget that when you get older,”

my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a “Caw!” and flew off I was worried.
How would he know where to go?

But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled he answered.
“A fine bird,” my grandfather said,

“and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he’s spoken to.
Man or beast, that’s good manners.
Be sure that you both always do.”

When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people’s faces,
but we shouted ”Good day! Good day!
Fine day!” at the top of our voices.

When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.

Temptation = a Summer Book Before the Summer

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I visited the local Barnes and his friend, Noble, this past weekend for the express purpose of visiting the periodicals section to buy copies of the July issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal, which includes my poem, “Hemingway Fishing.”  It didn’t go down that way. Not quite.

“While I’m here in the shady Tree of Knowledge,” I figured, “I might as well leaf through a few books. You know, just to browse. Nothing dangerous to my budget or my library-only resolution.”

The next thing you know, a clutch of Gray’s in my hand, I’m in the poetry section–akin to a recovering alcoholic visiting the open bar “just for the ambiance.”

Now I know how Adam & Eve felt. I had no chance. None. Before I knew it, I was starting a little book stash, rationalizing to myself that it was “just” a little pile for summer reading, that I can’t really access my home library when I am away at the summer camp, anyway, that I have a teacher-discount card from both Barnes AND Noble gathering dust in my wallet, so what the Hades.

Before you knew it, I had To the Left of Time (Thomas Lux), Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds), and Poems (Elizabeth Bishop) poetically piggy-backed on the bookstore floor. Before you knew it, my conscience had been banished, and I didn’t give a fig.

Temptation, thy name is Summer Books Before Summer (officially starts the 21st in the northern hemisphere). To compound my sin? When I got home, I put these books aside for the summer and then, two nights later, when the novel I was reading did its molasses uphill imitation, turned to the Lux and started reading it early. Before summer, that is.

As Charlie Brown would put it: Arghhh!

Fear not, however. I immediately consoled myself. I said, “Hey, it’s over 90 degrees today. Close enough!”

Now you know where the adjective “Adamic” comes from.

Why Do We Wander? The Poetry of Our Restless Roots

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What is it about travel? The urge to move, to discover, to see, is a poem unto itself. A rich vein worth mining.

Often travel is rooted in the psyche. Moving one’s home, restlessly, is a form of travel–only what are we fleeing? What are we seeking? Do we think we will be a new person if we find ourselves among strangers in a strange land? If we do, we forget (or deny) the “setting within.” You can escape place, yes, but you can never escape the topography of yourself.

All of these questions came to mind as I hit the final stretch of Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage. Though it is ostensibly a book about D.H. Lawrence, it is about most anything but D.H. Lawrence, too. Still, Lawrence shadows the author (who shadows him) throughout and, at the end in Taos, New Mexico, Dyer wonders about Lawrence’s wandering soul:

“At various times Lawrence wondered why he had drifted so far from his inclination to sit tight: ‘What is it, makes one want to go away?’ ‘Why can’t one sit still?’ ‘Why does one create such discomfort for oneself!'”

In search of answers himself, Dyer purchases a discounted copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry at a nearby bookstore and pauses over her poem “Questions of Travel.” It is a moment all readers know well. A moment of synchronicity where we feel we were fated to open a book and read words which transect present preoccupations.

As summer draws nigh with its travel plans, I see new wisdom in Bishop’s poem myself. Dyer’s synchronicity becomes mine, yet another variation of the reader-writer transaction that ripples out to the forever-shores of reading. I especially love Bishop’s comparison of strange lands to a stage (“Is it right to be watching strangers in a play /
in this strangest of theaters?”), as if the “real” of distant places is actually the “make-believe” to our foreign eyes–if only because our eyes cannot otherwise make sense of them and feel a need to write our own narratives.

Or maybe we don’t want to make sense of them at all. Maybe travel becomes the essence of escape that way. Thus, the strangers we see in a distant land become storybook cutouts from the distant land of our nostalgic pasts–ones that never really existed and still don’t, only we will them into existence as a panacea for all that hectors us in the hellbent of our modern lives.

As you read (or reread) Bishop, consider your own restless roots. See if you can find the “why” in yourself, photograph it, maybe, and look at it later, marveling at how different it looks from the perspective of time and experience.

 

“Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
— Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
— A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.

— Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages
— Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
— And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?’