Elizabeth Bishop (7): Unpublished Manuscript Poems

photo of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

So I’ve reached the end of the poems — and it feels like looking over someone’s desk while they just popped out for a sec. The FSG Poems includes images of the handwritten and typed drafts Bishop left behind, complete with comments, scratched-out words, etc. Apparently, Bishop was prepared for the eventuality that her drafts would survive her — she left directions in her will that they could be published, as deemed appropriate. This is a rare privilege, simply because with the other poems, what we get to see is the final version, but here, we see a process. And writing is always a process; poems don’t just magically appear out of nowhere.

“The Owl’s Journey” is a playful, short poem that promises an adventure “miniature and ancient: / collaboration thought up by a child.” The rabbit carries the owl, they are on their way to somewhere they must be, a destination we are not told. The description of the odd pair made me smile: “claws lock deep in the rabbit’s fur, / and the owl seated / a little sideways, his mind on something else; / the rabbit’s ears are back, his eyes intent.”

Some of the poems in this section are more personal than others – one is a little tongue-in-cheek poem Bishop wrote into a cookbook before giving it to Frank Bidart, with the reassurance that “if a problem should arise: / The Soufflé fall before your eyes, / Or strange things happen to the Rice / — You know I love to give advice.”


Another one I liked is “For Grandfather” (FSG 329) because it is not at all sentimental. Writing about family is difficult. Writing about family and doing it well is even harder. I don’t know if this is about her real-life grandfather, but reading it I became part of the scene, the grandfather telling his story so insistently, so vividly that the grandchild can physically feel the cold of the arctic. “How far north are you by now?” opens the poem, and the listener is “almost close enough” to see him. Again, a flock of adjectives: stocky, broadbacked & determined, these are the descriptors for the grandfather himself. The snow is “hard, brilliant, curdled.” The grandchild chides the old man for not having his sealskin cap and his fur coat: “You’ll catch your death again.” This is not a child’s voice, this is the echo of a parent’s voice.

The grandfather, with his words, has taken the grandchild back in time and to the north pole, and the poem ends on a plea: “Grandfather, please stop! I haven’t been this cold in years.” Again, this is not a child’s voice. Children hardly ever speak of such time-spans. Yet the images in between are what a child would see: the “old-fashione, walrus moustaches / […] hung with icicles.” And the specific identification of the cap and coat, as well, is the echo of a child. Children are particular. It’s not “Where is your hat?” or “Why are you not wearing a hat?”, it is “Where is your sealskin cap with ear-lugs? / That old fur coat with the black frogs?”

The peculiar blend of child and adult voice make this poem very attractive in my book. It is followed by a poem in a child’s voice: “Salem Willows.” This poem evokes images of old-timey circuses and and merry-go-rounds, and “the coarse, mechanical music” that drives the polished, lacquered animals up and down and around until the time is up.

The child dismisses the golden camel and the “high gold elephant / with his small red velvet rug” as well as a chariot and some golden horses, all in favor of a lion. The lion is breathtaking: “His gold mane was abundant / His mouth was open; his tongue / enameled red; his eyes / brown glass with golden sparkles.” The playful use of line-breaks here makes the lion appear potentially more fierce — it could be his eyes that are red — and adds a sing-song rhythm in time with the up and down of the painted creatures. “At the center, / front halves, plaster people” are the only other human beings we are told about, other than, at the very end, the obligatory old aunt who is waiting for the child do be done. With no other living soul on the merry-go-round, the child surveys the peculiar, new territory. “Were we all touched by Midas?” she asks as she sits on the gold lion. The spinning motion turns the field into a glittering “glassy sea” and the first point of orientation when the carousel slows down is the aunt: “Aunt Maud sat and knitted / and knitted, waiting for me.”

image of a lion tamer

The elation of being on a merry-go-round is balanced with the familiar, reliable presence of the aunt, the exotic, luxurious gold and red loudness and motion with the plain, green-ish “glassy sea” and the calm, quiet aunt who is waiting and knitting, both of which are dull activities. To me, this is a beautiful scene. Strangeness and safety are just within view and earshot of each other, allowing the young explorer to ask, “Were we a ring of Saturn, / a dizzy             nimbus?”

If you’ve been following this series of Bishop posts, you’ll have noticed I left out the translations. This will be remedied. I promise. Translations are interesting animals, and I wanted them to have their own post.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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