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A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
This is the definitive edition of the work of one of America’s greatest poets, increasingly recognized as one of the greatest English-language poets of the twentieth century, loved by readers and poets alike. Bishop’s poems combine humor and sadness, pain and acceptance, and observe nature and lives in perfect miniaturist close-up. The themes central to her poetry are geography and landscape—from New England, where she grew up,...
A Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2011
This is the definitive edition of the work of one of America’s greatest poets, increasingly recognized as one of the greatest English-language poets of the twentieth century, loved by readers and poets alike. Bishop’s poems combine humor and sadness, pain and acceptance, and observe nature and lives in perfect miniaturist close-up. The themes central to her poetry are geography and landscape—from New England, where she grew up, to Brazil and Florida, where she later lived—human connection with the natural world, questions of knowledge and perception, and the ability or inability of form to control chaos.
This new edition offers readers the opportunity to take in, entire, one of the great careers in twentiethcentury poetry.
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
—the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves' own conformation:
and Norway's hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
—What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.
The Imaginary Iceberg
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?
This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.
This iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.
Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite "The boy stood on
the burning deck." Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.
Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.
The Colder the Air
We must admire her perfect aim,
this huntress of the winter air
whose level weapon needs no sight,
if it were not that everywhere
her game is sure, her shot is right.
The least of us could do the same.
The chalky birds or boats stand still,
reducing her conditions of chance;
air's gallery marks identically
the narrow gallery of her glance.
The target-center in her eye
is equally her aim and will.
Time's in her pocket, ticking loud
on one stalled second. She'll consult
not time nor circumstance. She calls
on atmosphere for her result.
(It is this clock that later falls
in wheels and chimes of leaf and cloud.)
Wading at Wellfleet
In one of the Assyrian wars
a chariot first saw the light
that bore sharp blades around its wheels.
That chariot from Assyria
went rolling down mechanically
to take the warriors by the heels.
A thousand warriors in the sea
could not consider such a war
as that the sea itself contrives
but hasn't put in action yet.
This morning's glitterings reveal
the sea is "all a case of knives."
Lying so close, they catch the sun,
the spokes directed at the shin.
The chariot front is blue and great.
The war rests wholly with the waves:
they try revolving, but the wheels
give way; they will not bear the weight.
Chemin de Fer
Alone on the railroad track
I walked with pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.
The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond
where the dirty hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.
The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple.
The pet hen went chook-chook.
"Love should be put into action!"
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.
The Gentleman of Shalott
Which eye's his eye?
Which limb lies
next the mirror?
For neither is clearer
nor a different color
than the other,
nor meets a stranger
in this arrangement
of leg and leg and
arm and so on.
To his mind
it's the indication
of a mirrored reflection
somewhere along the line
of what we call the spine.
He felt in modesty
his person was
for why should he
The glass must stretch
down his middle,
or rather down the edge.
But he's in doubt
as to which side's in or out
of the mirror.
There's little margin for error,
but there's no proof, either.
And if half his head's reflected,
thought, he thinks, might be affected.
But he's resigned
to such economical design.
If the glass slips
he's in a fix—
only one leg, etc. But
while it stays put
he can walk and run
and his hands can clasp one
another. The uncertainty
he says he
finds exhilarating. He loves
that sense of constant re-adjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:
"Half is enough."
Large Bad Picture
Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.
Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,
their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.
On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.
And high above them, over the tall cliffs'
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging in n's in banks.
One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.
In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,
while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them there,
commerce or contemplation.
From the Country to the City
The long, long legs,
league-boots of land, that carry the city nowhere, the lines
that we drive on (satin-stripes on harlequin's trousers, tights);
his tough trunk dressed in tatters, scribbled over with nonsensical signs;
his shadowy, tall dunce-cap; and, best of all his shows and sights,
his brain appears, throned in "fantastic triumph," and shines through his hat
with jeweled works at work at intermeshing crowns, lamé with lights.
As we approach, wickedest clown, your heart and head, we can see that
glittering arrangement of your brain consists, now, of mermaid-like,
seated, ravishing sirens, each waving her hand-mirror; and we start at
series of slight disturbances up in the telephone wires on the turnpike.
Flocks of short, shining wires seem to be flying sidewise. Are they birds?
They flash again. No. They are vibrations of the tuning-fork you hold and strike
against the mirror-frames, then draw for miles, your dreams, out countrywards.
We bring a message from the long black length of body: "Subside," it begs and begs.
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over;
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
Love Lies Sleeping
Earliest morning, switching all the tracks
that cross the sky from cinder star to star,
coupling the ends of streets
to trains of light,
now draw us into daylight in our beds;
and clear away what presses on the brain:
put out the neon shapes
that float and swell and glare
down the gray avenue between the eyes
in pinks and yellows, letters and twitching signs.
Hang-over moons, wane, wane!
From the window I see
an immense city, carefully revealed,
made delicate by over-workmanship,
detail upon detail,
cornice upon façade
reaching so languidly up into
a weak white sky, it seems to waver there.
(Where it has slowly grown
in skies of water-glass
from fused beads of iron and copper crystals,
the little chemical "garden" in a jar
trembles and stands again,
pale blue, blue-green, and brick.)
The sparrows hurriedly begin their play.
Then, in the West, "Boom!" and a cloud of smoke.
"Boom!" and the exploding ball
of blossom blooms again.
(And all the employees who work in plants
where such a sound says "Danger," or once said
turn in their sleep and feel
the short hairs bristling
on backs of necks.) The cloud of smoke moves off.
A shirt is taken off a threadlike clothes-line.
Along the street below
the water-wagon comes
throwing its hissing, snowy fan across
peelings and newspapers. The water dries
light-dry, dark-wet, the pattern
of the cool watermelon.
I hear the day-springs of the morning strike
from stony walls and halls and iron beds,
scattered or grouped cascades,
alarms for the expected:
queer cupids of all persons getting up,
whose evening meal they will prepare all day,
you will dine well
on his heart, on his, and his,
so send them about your business affectionately,
dragging in the streets their unique loves.
Scourge them with roses only,
be light as helium,
for always to one, or several, morning comes,
whose head has fallen over the edge of his bed,
whose face is turned
so that the image of
the city grows down into his open eyes
inverted and distorted. No. I mean
distorted and revealed,
if he sees it at all.
Excerpted from Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 2011 Alice H. Methfessel Trust Publisher's Note. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 13, 2015
Posted February 13, 2015