Friday, September 11, 2009

A Poem A Day #14

I'll be in Tennessee for the weekend for a couple shows, and likely won't post another poem until Monday.  So, today we'll feature two poems by the astounding Elizabeth Bishop, which should be meaty enough to last several days.

The first poem is one of her lesser known works, a trio of similarly structured stanzas each with its own world, its own direction, all aimed at the moon, at the expanse of space, vast celestial images used for the simplest of descriptions of the simplest things.


The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

- Elizabeth Bishop

The next is a well-anthologized and well-known favorite, and it's Bishop at her lushly descriptive best.  My favorite works of hers all realize the secret essence, the epic-ness of the routine, the small, the details of life.  A single event, be it stopping for gas, or the doctor's waiting room, or catching a fish, is painted wide and large, the smallest details made significant by attention and scale, laid bare by her magnificent descriptive eye.  You read Bishop the way you look at a painting.


I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

- Elizabeth Bishop

Legal notice:
Some may feel that the inclusion of works not in the public domain is a violation of the fair-use doctrine of US copyright law. I obviously do not agree, but I will gladly defer to the wishes of the rightsholder, and if anyone wishes for a post of their work or work for which they own the intellectual rights to be taken down, they may ask for its removal and it will be so. I claim no ownership and have no rights as to the works I will be posting, save for any that were written by me.

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