Proseby Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop's prose is not nearly as well known as her poetry, but she was a dazzling and compelling prose writer too, as the publication of her letters has shown. Her stories are often on the borderline of memoir, and vice versa. From her college days, she could find the most astonishing yet thoroughly apt metaphors to illuminate her ideas. This… See more details below
Elizabeth Bishop's prose is not nearly as well known as her poetry, but she was a dazzling and compelling prose writer too, as the publication of her letters has shown. Her stories are often on the borderline of memoir, and vice versa. From her college days, she could find the most astonishing yet thoroughly apt metaphors to illuminate her ideas. This volumeedited by the poet, Pulitzer Prize–winning critic, and Bishop scholar Lloyd Schwartzincludes virtually all her published shorter prose pieces and a number of prose works not published until after her death. Here are her famous as well as her lesser-known stories, crucial memoirs, literary and travel essays, book reviews, andfor the first timeher original draft of Brazil, the Time/Life volume she repudiated in its published version, and the correspondence between Bishop and the poet Anne Stevenson, the author of the first book-length volume devoted to Bishop.
“It is no exaggeration to say that these stories will be read beside her poems, as Keat's letters are beside his . . . 'The Sea & Its Shore' and 'In Prison' [are] worthy of Kafka or Poe.” David Kalstone, The New York Times Book Review
“A stunning collection. . . . These are the kind of stories you should linger over, savor, and rediscover again and again.” Elin Schoen, Mademoiselle
“A record of merciless observation, full of surprises both tragic and comic . . . Again and again, in these pages, it is the precision that astonishes . . . So often what Bishop gives us are these small, exact glimpses of the mundane, shorn of all rhetorical indulgence. But when looking is thus transformed, will any word but ‘vision' do?” April Bernard, Newsday
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By Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLCCopyright © 2011 Alice H. Methfessel Trust
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the Village
A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies, skies that travellers compare to those of Switzerland, too dark, too blue, so that they seem to keep on darkening a little more around the horizon—or is it around the rims of the eyes?—the color of the cloud of bloom on the elm trees, the violet on the fields of oats; something darkening over the woods and waters as well as the sky. The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memory—in the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forever—not loud, just alive forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.
She stood in the large front bedroom with sloping walls on either side, papered in wide white and dim-gold stripes. Later, it was she who gave the scream.
The village dressmaker was fitting a new dress. It was her first in almost two years and she had decided to come out of black, so the dress was purple. She was very thin. She wasn't at all sure whether she was going to like the dress or not and she kept lifting the folds of the skirt, still unpinned and dragging on the floor around her, in her thin white hands, and looking down at the cloth.
"Is it a good shade for me? Is it too bright? I don't know. I haven't worn colors for so long now.... How long? Should it be black? Do you think I should keep on wearing black?"
Drummers sometimes came around selling gilded red or green books, unlovely books, filled with bright new illustrations of the Bible stories. The people in the pictures wore clothes like the purple dress, or like the way it looked then.
It was a hot summer afternoon. Her mother and her two sisters were there. The older sister had brought her home, from Boston, not long before, and was staying on, to help. Because in Boston she had not got any better, in months and months—or had it been a year? In spite of the doctors, in spite of the frightening expenses, she had not got any better.
First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.
Unaccustomed to having her back, the child stood now in the doorway, watching. The dressmaker was crawling around and around on her knees eating pins as Nebuchadnezzar had crawled eating grass. The wallpaper glinted and the elm trees outside hung heavy and green, and the straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay.
Oh, beautiful sounds, from the blacksmith's shop at the end of the garden! Its gray roof, with patches of moss, could be seen above the lilac bushes. Nate was there—Nate, wearing a long black leather apron over his trousers and bare chest, sweating hard, a black leather cap on top of dry, thick, black-and-gray curls, a black sooty face; iron filings, whiskers, and gold teeth, all together, and a smell of red-hot metal and horses' hoofs.
The pure note: pure and angelic.
The dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes.
Later they sit, the mother and the three sisters, in the shade on the back porch, sipping sour, diluted ruby: raspberry vinegar. The dressmaker refuses to join them and leaves, holding the dress to her heart. The child is visiting the blacksmith.
In the blacksmith's shop things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things, and there are black and glistening piles of dust in each corner. A tub of night-black water stands by the forge. The horseshoes sail through the dark like bloody little moons and follow each other like bloody little moons to drown in the black water, hissing, protesting.
Outside, along the matted eaves, painstakingly, sweetly, wasps go over and over a honeysuckle vine.
Inside, the bellows creak. Nate does wonders with both hands; with one hand. The attendant horse stamps his foot and nods his head as if agreeing to a peace treaty.
A Newfoundland dog looks up at him and they almost touch noses, but not quite, because at the last moment the horse decides against it and turns away.
Outside in the grass lie scattered big, pale granite discs, like millstones, for making wheel rims on. This afternoon they are too hot to touch.
Now it is settling down, the scream.
Now the dressmaker is at home, basting, but in tears. It is the most beautiful material she has worked on in years. It has been sent to the woman from Boston, a present from her mother-in-law, and heaven knows how much it cost.
Before my older aunt had brought her back, I had watched my grandmother and younger aunt unpacking her clothes, her "things." In trunks and barrels and boxes they had finally come, from Boston, where she and I had once lived. So many things in the village came from Boston, and even I had once come from there. But I remembered only being here, with my grandmother.
The clothes were black, or white, or black-and-white.
"Here's a mourning hat," says my grandmother, holding up something large, sheer, and black, with large black roses on it; at least I guess they are roses, even if black.
"There's that mourning coat she got the first winter," says my aunt.
But always I think they are saying "morning." Why, in the morning, did one put on black? How early in the morning did one begin? Before the sun came up?
"Oh, here are some house dresses!"
They are nicer. Clean and starched, stiffly folded. One with black polka dots. One of fine black-and-white stripes with black grosgrain bows. A third with a black velvet bow and on the bow a pin of pearls in a little wreath.
"Look. She forgot to take it off."
A white hat. A white embroidered parasol. Black shoes with buckles glistening like the dust in the blacksmith's shop. A silver mesh bag. A silver calling-card case on a little chain. Another bag of silver mesh, gathered to a tight, round neck of strips of silver that will open out, like the hatrack in the front hall. A silver-framed photograph, quickly turned over. Handkerchiefs with narrow black hems—"morning handkerchiefs." In bright sunlight, over breakfast tables, they flutter.
A bottle of perfume has leaked and made awful brown stains.
Oh, marvellous scent, from somewhere else! It doesn't smell like that here; but there, somewhere, it does, still.
A big bundle of postcards. The curdled elastic around them breaks. I gather them together on the floor.
Some people wrote with pale-blue ink, and some with brown, and some with black, but mostly blue. The stamps have been torn off many of them. Some are plain, or photographs, but some have lines of metallic crystals on them—how beautiful!—silver, gold, red, and green, or all four mixed together, crumbling off, sticking in the lines on my palms. All the cards like this I spread on the floor to study. The crystals outline the buildings on the cards in a way buildings never are outlined but should be—if there were a way of making the crystals stick. But probably not; they would fall to the ground, never to be seen again. Some cards, instead of lines around the buildings, have words written in their skies with the same stuff, crumbling, dazzling and crumbling, raining down a little on little people who sometimes stand about below: pictures of Pentecost? What are the messages? I cannot tell, but they are falling on those specks of hands, on the hats, on the toes of their shoes, in their paths—wherever it is they are.
Postcards come from another world, the world of the grandparents who send things, the world of sad brown perfume, and morning. (The gray postcards of the village for sale in the village store are so unilluminating that they scarcely count. After all, one steps outside and immediately sees the same thing: the village, where we live, full size, and in color.)
Two barrels of china. White with a gold band. Broken bits. A thick white teacup with a small red-and-blue butterfly on it, painfully desirable. A teacup with little pale-blue windows in it.
"See the grains of rice?" says my grandmother, showing me the cup against the light.
Could you poke the grains out? No, it seems they aren't really there any more. They were put there just for a while and then they left something or other behind. What odd things people do with grains of rice, so innocent and small! My aunt says that she has heard they write the Lord's Prayer on them. And make them make those little pale-blue lights.
More broken china. My grandmother says it breaks her heart. "Why couldn't they have got it packed better? Heaven knows what it cost."
"Where'll we put it all? The china closet isn't nearly big enough."
"It'll just have to stay in the barrels."
"Mother, you might as well use it."
"No," says my grandmother.
"Where's the silver, Mother?"
"In the vault in Boston."
Vault. Awful word. I run the tip of my finger over the rough, jewelled lines on the postcards, over and over. They hold things up to each other and exclaim, and talk, and exclaim, over and over.
"There's that cake basket."
"Mrs. Miles ..."
"Mrs. Miles' spongecake ..."
"She was very fond of her."
Another photograph— "Oh, that Negro girl! That friend."
"She went to be a medical missionary. She had a letter from her, last winter. From Africa."
"They were great friends."
They show me the picture. She, too, is black-and-white, with glasses on a chain. A morning friend.
And the smell, the wonderful smell of the dark-brown stains. Is it roses?
"She did beautiful work," says my grandmother.
"But look—it isn't finished."
Two pale, smooth wooden hoops are pressed together in the linen. There is a case of little ivory embroidery tools.
I abscond with a little ivory stick with a sharp point. To keep it forever I bury it under the bleeding heart by the crab-apple tree, but it is never found again.
Nate sings and pumps the bellows with one hand. I try to help, but he really does it all, from behind me, and laughs when the coals blow red and wild.
"Make me a ring! Make me a ring, Nate!"
Instantly it is made; it is mine.
It is too big and still hot, and blue and shiny. The horseshoe nail has a flat oblong head, pressing hot against my knuckle.
Two men stand watching, chewing or spitting tobacco, matches, horseshoe nails—anything, apparently, but with such presence; they are perfectly at home. The horse is the real guest, however. His harness hangs loose like a man's suspenders; they say pleasant things to him; one of his legs is doubled up in an improbable, affectedly polite way, and the bottom of his hoof is laid bare, but he doesn't seem to mind. Manure piles up behind him, suddenly, neatly. He, too, is very much at home. He is enormous. His rump is like a brown, glossy globe of the whole brown world. His ears are secret entrances to the underworld. His nose is supposed to feel like velvet and does, with ink spots under milk all over its pink. Clear bright-green bits of stiffened froth, like glass, are stuck around his mouth. He wears medals on his chest, too, and one on his forehead, and simpler decorations—red and blue celluloid rings overlapping each other on leather straps. On each temple is a clear glass bulge, like an eyeball, but in them are the heads of two other little horses (his dreams?), brightly colored, real and raised, untouchable, alas, against backgrounds of silver blue. His trophies hang around him, and the cloud of his odor is a chariot in itself.
At the end, all four feet are brushed with tar, and shine, and he expresses his satisfaction, rolling it from his nostrils like noisy smoke, as he backs into the shafts of his wagon.
The purple dress is to be fitted again this afternoon but I take a note to Miss Gurley to say the fitting will have to be postponed. Miss Gurley seems upset.
"Oh dear. And how is—" And she breaks off.
Her house is littered with scraps of cloth and tissue-paper patterns, yellow, pinked, with holes in the shapes of A, B, C, and D in them, and numbers; and threads everywhere like a fine vegetation. She has a bosom full of needles with threads ready to pull out and make nests with. She sleeps in her thimble. A gray kitten once lay on the treadle of her sewing machine, where she rocked it as she sewed, like a baby in a cradle, but it got hanged on the belt. Or did she make that up? But another gray-and-white one lies now by the arm of the machine, in imminent danger of being sewn into a turban. There is a table covered with laces and braids, embroidery silks, and cards of buttons of all colors—big ones for winter coats, small pearls, little glass ones delicious to suck.
She has made the very dress I have on, "for twenty-five cents." My grandmother said my other grandmother would certainly be surprised at that.
The purple stuff lies on a table; long white threads hang all about it. Oh, look away before it moves by itself, or makes a sound; before it echoes, echoes, what it has heard!
Mysteriously enough, poor Miss Gurley—I know she is poor—gives me a five-cent piece. She leans over and drops it in the pocket of the red-and-white dress that she has made herself. It is very tiny, very shiny. King George's beard is like a little silver flame. Because they look like herring- or maybe salmon-scales, five-cent pieces are called "fish-scales." One heard of people's rings being found inside fish, or their long-lost jackknives. What if one could scrape a salmon and find a little picture of King George on every scale?
I put my five-cent piece in my mouth for greater safety on the way home, and swallow it. Months later, as far as I know, it is still in me, transmuting all its precious metal into my growing teeth and hair.
Back home, I am not allowed to go upstairs. I hear my aunts running back and forth and something like a tin washbasin falls bump in the carpeted upstairs hall.
My grandmother is sitting in the kitchen stirring potato mash for tomorrow's bread and crying into it. She gives me a spoonful and it tastes wonderful but wrong. In it I think I taste my grandmother's tears; then I kiss her and taste them on her cheek.
She says it is time for her to get fixed up, and I say I want to help her brush her hair. So I do, standing swaying on the lower rung of the back of her rocking chair.
The rocking chair has been painted and repainted so many times that it is as smooth as cream—blue, white, and gray all showing through. My grandmother's hair is silver and in it she keeps a great many celluloid combs, at the back and sides, streaked gray and silver to match. The one at the back has longer teeth than the others and a row of sunken silver dots across the top, beneath a row of little balls. I pretend to play a tune on it; then I pretend to play a tune on each of the others before we stick them in, so my grandmother's hair is full of music. She laughs. I am so pleased with myself that I do not feel obliged to mention the five-cent piece. I drink a rusty, icy drink out of the biggest dipper; still, nothing much happens.
We are waiting for a scream. But it is not screamed again, and the red sun sets in silence.
Every morning I take the cow to the pasture we rent from Mr. Chisolm. She, Nelly, could probably go by herself just as well, but I like marching through the village with a big stick, directing her.
This morning it is brilliant and cool. My grandmother and I are alone again in the kitchen. We are talking. She says it is cool enough to keep the oven going, to bake the bread, to roast a leg of lamb.
"Will you remember to go down to the brook? Take Nelly around by the brook and pick me a big bunch of mint. I thought I'd make some mint sauce."
"For the leg of lamb?"
"You finish your porridge."
"I think I've had enough now ..."
"Hurry up and finish that porridge."
There is talking on the stairs.
"No, now wait," my grandmother says to me. "Wait a minute."
"Excerpted from PROSE by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Lloyd Schwartz, published in February 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by the Alice H. Methfessel Trust, editor's note and compilation copyright © 2011 by Lloyd Schwartz. All rights reserved."
Excerpted from Prose by Elizabeth Bishop Copyright © 2011 by Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
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