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Geography III

Geography III

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Whether writing about waiting as a child in a dentist's office, viewing a city from a plane high above, or losing items ranging from door keys to one's lover in the masterfully restrained "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop somehow conveyed both large and small emotional truths in language of stunning exactitude and even more astonishing resonance. As John Ashbery has


Whether writing about waiting as a child in a dentist's office, viewing a city from a plane high above, or losing items ranging from door keys to one's lover in the masterfully restrained "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop somehow conveyed both large and small emotional truths in language of stunning exactitude and even more astonishing resonance. As John Ashbery has written, "The private self . . . melts imperceptibly into the large utterance, the grandeur of poetry, which, because it remains rooted in everyday particulars, never sounds ‘grand,' but is as quietly convincing as everyday speech."

Editorial Reviews

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“The extraordinary thing about Miss Bishop is that she is both a public and a private poet, or perhaps her poetry by its very existence renders obsolete these two after all artificial distinctions (artificial insofar as poetry is concerned). The private self--the quirkiness, the rightness of vision, the special sights and events (a moose, a filling station) that have intrigued Miss Bishop to the point of poetry--melts imperceptibly into the larger utterance, the grandeur of poetry, which, because it remains rooted in everyday particulars, never sounds ‘grand,' but is as quietly convincing as everyday speech.” —John Ashbery

“Through masterful fusions of metaphor, Bishop creates a new world and resolves and dissolves its differences in the dazzling dialectic of her vision.” —Jane Shore, Ploughshares

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
FSG Classics Series
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.48(w) x 8.17(h) x 0.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

Geography III

By Elizabeth Bishop

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1976 Elizabeth Bishop
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-51440-2


    In the Waiting Room

    In Worcester, Massachusetts,
    I went with Aunt Consuelo
    to keep her dentist's appointment
    and sat and waited for her
    in the dentist's waiting room.
    It was winter. It got dark
    early. The waiting room
    was full of grown-up people,
    arctics and overcoats,
    lamps and magazines.
    My aunt was inside
    what seemed like a long time
    and while I waited I read
    the National Geographic
    (I could read) and carefully
    studied the photographs:
    the inside of a volcano,
    black, and full of ashes;
    then it was spilling over
    in rivulets of fire.
    Osa and Martin Johnson
    dressed in riding breeches,
    laced boots, and pith helmets.
    A dead man slung on a pole
    —"Long Pig," the caption said.
    Babies with pointed heads
    wound round and round with string;
    black, naked women with necks
    wound round and round with wire
    like the necks of light bulbs.
    Their breasts were horrifying.
    I read it right straight through.
    I was too shy to stop.
    And then I looked at the cover:
    the yellow margins, the date.

    Suddenly, from inside,
    came an oh! of pain
    —Aunt Consuelo's voice—
    not very loud or long.
    I wasn't at all surprised;
    even then I knew she was
    a foolish, timid woman.
    I might have been embarrassed,
    but wasn't. What took me
    completely by surprise
    was that it was me:
    my voice, in my mouth.
    Without thinking at all
    I was my foolish aunt,
    I—we—were falling, falling,
    our eyes glued to the cover
    of the National Geographic,
    February, 1918.

    I said to myself: three days
    and you'll be seven years old.
    I was saying it to stop
    the sensation of falling off
    the round, turning world
    into cold, blue-black space.
    But I felt: you are an I,
    you are an Elizabeth,
    you are one of them.
    Why should you be one, too?
    I scarcely dared to look
    to see what it was I was.
    I gave a sidelong glance
    —I couldn't look any higher—
    at shadowy gray knees,
    trousers and skirts and boots
    and different pairs of hands
    lying under the lamps.
    I knew that nothing stranger
    had ever happened, that nothing
    stranger could ever happen.
    Why should I be my aunt,
    or me, or anyone?
    What similarities—
    boots, hands, the family voice

    I felt in my throat, or even
    the National Geographic
    and those awful hanging breasts—
    held us all together
    or made us all just one?
    How—I didn't know any
    word for it—how "unlikely" ...
    How had I come to be here,
    like them, and overhear
    a cry of pain that could have
    got loud and worse but hadn't?

    The waiting room was bright
    and too hot. It was sliding
    beneath a big black wave,
    another, and another.

    Then I was back in it.
    The War was on. Outside,
    in Worcester, Massachusetts,
    were night and slush and cold,
    and it was still the fifth
    of February, 1918.

    Crusoe in England

    A new volcano has erupted,
    the papers say, and last week I was reading
    where some ship saw an island being born:
    at first a breath of steam, ten miles away;
    and then a black fleck—basalt, probably—
    rose in the mate's binoculars
    and caught on the horizon like a fly.
    They named it. But my poor old island's still
    un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
    None of the books has ever got it right.

    Well, I had fifty-two
    miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
    with a few slithery strides—
    volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
    I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
    and count the others standing up,
    naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
    I'd think that if they were the size
    I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
    become a giant;
    and if I had become a giant,
    I couldn't bear to think what size
    the goats and turtles were,
    or the gulls, or the over-lapping rollers
    —a glittering hexagon of rollers
    closing and closing in, but never quite,
    glittering and glittering, though the sky
    was mostly overcast.

    My island seemed to be
    a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere's
    left-over clouds arrived and hung
    above the craters—their parched throats
    were hot to touch.
    Was that why it rained so much?
    And why sometimes the whole place hissed?
    The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,
    hissing like teakettles.
    (And I'd have given years, or taken a few,
    for any sort of kettle, of course.)
    The folds of lava, running out to sea,
    would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove
    to be more turtles.
    The beaches were all lava, variegated,
    black, red, and white, and gray;
    the marbled colors made a fine display.
    And I had waterspouts. Oh,
    half a dozen at a time, far out,
    they'd come and go, advancing and retreating,
    their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
    of scuffed-up white.
    Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
    sacerdotal beings of glass ... I watched
    the water spiral up in them like smoke.
    Beautiful, yes, but not much company.

    I often gave way to self-pity.
    "Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
    I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
    a moment when I actually chose this?
    I don't remember, but there could have been."
    What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
    With my legs dangling down familiarly
    over a crater's edge, I told myself
    "Pity should begin at home." So the more
    pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

    The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
    rose from the sea,
    and there was one of it and one of me.
    The island had one kind of everything:
    one tree snail, a bright violet-blue
    with a thin shell, crept over everything,
    over the one variety of tree,
    a sooty, scrub affair.
    Snail shells lay under these in drifts
    and, at a distance,
    you'd swear that they were beds of irises.
    There was one kind of berry, a dark red.

    I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
    Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects;
    and so I made home-brew. I'd drink
    the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff
    that went straight to my head
    and play my home-made flute
    (I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
    and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
    Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?
    I felt a deep affection for
    the smallest of my island industries.
    No, not exactly, since the smallest was
    a miserable philosophy.

    Because I didn't know enough.
    Why didn't I know enough of something?
    Greek drama or astronomy? The books
    I'd read were full of blanks;
    the poems—well, I tried
    reciting to my iris-beds,
    "They flash upon that inward eye,
    which is the bliss ..." The bliss of what?
    One of the first things that I did
    when I got back was look it up.

    The island smelled of goat and guano.
    The goats were white, so were the gulls,
    and both too tame, or else they thought
    I was a goat, too, or a gull.
    Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek,
    baa ... shriek ... baa ...
I still can't shake
    them from my ears; they're hurting now.
    The questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies
    over a ground of hissing rain
    and hissing, ambulating turtles
    got on my nerves.

    When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded
    like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.
    I'd shut my eyes and think about a tree,
    an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.
    I'd heard of cattle getting island-sick.
    I thought the goats were.
    One billy-goat would stand on the volcano
    I'd christened Mont d'Espoir or Mount Despair
    (I'd time enough to play with names),
    and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.
    I'd grab his beard and look at him.
    His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up
    and expressed nothing, or a little malice.
    I got so tired of the very colors!
    One day I dyed a baby goat bright red
    with my red berries, just to see
    something a little different.
    And then his mother wouldn't recognize him.

    Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
    and love, but they were pleasant rather
    than otherwise. But then I'd dream of things
    like slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it
    for a baby goat. I'd have
    nightmares of other islands
    stretching away from mine, infinities
    of islands, islands spawning islands,
    like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs
    of islands, knowing that I had to live
    on each and every one, eventually,
    for ages, registering their flora,
    their fauna, their geography.

    Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
    another minute longer, Friday came.
    (Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
    Friday was nice.
    Friday was nice, and we were friends.
    If only he had been a woman!
    I wanted to propagate my kind,
    and so did he, I think, poor boy.
    He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
    and race with them, or carry one around.
    —Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
    And then one day they came and took us off.

    Now I live here, another island,
    that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
    My blood was full of them; my brain
    bred islands. But that archipelago
    has petered out. I'm old.
    I'm bored, too, drinking my real tea,
    surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
    The knife there on the shelf—
    it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
    It lived. How many years did I
    beg it, implore it, not to break?
    I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
    the bluish blade, the broken tip,
    the lines of wood-grain on the handle ...
    Now it won't look at me at all.
    The living soul has dribbled away.
    My eyes rest on it and pass on.

    The local museum's asked me to
    leave everything to them:
    the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
    my shedding goatskin trousers
    (moths have got in the fur),
    the parasol that took me such a time
    remembering the way the ribs should go.
    It still will work but, folded up,
    looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
    How can anyone want such things?
    —And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
    seventeen years ago come March.

    Night City


    No foot could endure it,
    shoes are too thin.
    Broken glass, broken bottles,
    heaps of them burn.

    Over those fires
    no one could walk:
    those flaring acids
    and variegated bloods.

    The city burns tears.
    A gathered lake
    of aquamarine
    begins to smoke.

    The city burns guilt.
    —For guilt-disposal
    the central heat
    must be this intense.

    Diaphanous lymph,
    bright turgid blood,
    spatter outward
    in clots of gold

    to where run, molten,
    in the dark environs
    green and luminous
    silicate rivers.

    A pool of bitumen
    one tycoon
    wept by himself,
    a blackened moon.

    Another cried
    a skyscraper up.
    Look! Incandescent,
    its wires drip.

    The conflagration
    fights for air
    in a dread vacuum.
    The sky is dead.

    (Still, there are creatures,
    careful ones, overhead.
    They set down their feet, they walk
    green, red; green, red.)


Excerpted from Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 1976 Elizabeth Bishop. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. She traveled widely as an adult, living for years in France and then Brazil, before returning to the United States.

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