Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop!

Today, February 8, 2011, is Elizabeth Bishop's 100th birthday.

I've written before about my love and admiration of Elizabeth Bishop. (Yes, it is true that I once had a crush on her too.) I wrote about her in an essay here and in blog posts here and here.

I'm not sure what the reticent Miss Bishop would have thought of it, but I'm delighted that her birthday is being celebrated with fanfare. In Nova Scotia, her childhood home, there's even a year's worth of centenary events: EB100, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary. It's been fun to poke around online and find friends and strangers alike celebrating her. You can see Lisa Peet's take at Like Fire (she has good taste in Elizabeth Bishop photos) along with Lloyd Schwartz's up at The Readers Almanac. Dana Gioia, a former student of Bishop's, wrote a long piece in the Wall Street Journal about the two new volumes of her poetry and prose just published by the Library of America in honor of her 100th birthday.

I couldn't decide which poem to post today. I thought about her gorgeous villanelle, "One Art," which I recently saw referred to as the best poem of the 20th century. I thought about her "Sestina," which inspired me to write the very few poems (sestinas, of course) that I've written in my adult life. I thought about "Insomnia," one of the few poems I know by heart (and one hated, apparently, by Marianne Moore who called it a "cheap love poem.") I thought about "Visit to St. Elizabeths", about Ezra Pound, with its rhymes and expanding form.

In the end, I decided on an old favorite, "Arrival at Santos," the first poem in Bishop's book Questions of Travel. I love her descriptions, I love Miss Breen, and I love the fact that she moved an "s" to the beginning of the next stanza to make the rhyme work. Enjoy!

Arrival At Santos

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and--who knows?--self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that's the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,

descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen's

skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall

s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps--
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.

January, 1952

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