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Let us Live: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

On a recent trip to New York City I found a pristine copy of the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, prose and letters.  I have been absorbed in reading her poetry and essays ever since I discovered this little gem.  I have been sharing some of her poems on Twitter during the past week and I thought I would share a few more of my favorites ones here.

One of the best sections of poetry in the collection, I think,  is that of the uncollected and unpublished poems.  Some of the poems are complete but were never published, some of them are drafts that she intended to return to and some of them are verses jotted down on a pieces of paper that were never developed any further.  The first is a short one simply entitled “Dream”:

Dream—

I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I’d be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanished in blue, blue air.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

The next poem is an example of one that was found among her notes and doesn’t have a title.  The natural imagery of which she is very fond seemed especially striking and sensual to me:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute, marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a bloack mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightening struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying on one’s back
All things might change equally easily
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

And the final poem I wish to share must have been influenced by one of the most famous lines from the Roman poet, Catullus.  In Carmen 5 he begins, “Vivemus, mea Lesia, atque amemus” (Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love).  Bishop employs the gentleness of that hortatory subjunctive for her own carpe diem inspired poem:

For C.W.B.

I.

Let us live in a lull of the long winter winds

Where the shy, silver-antlered reindeer go

On dainty hoofs with their white rabbit friends

Amidst the delicate flowering snow.

All of our thoughts will be fairer than doves.

We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet.

We will build us a house from two red tablecloths,

And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet.

II.

Let us live in the land of the whispering trees,

Alder and aspen and poplar and birch,

Singing our prayers in a pale, sea-green breeze,

With star-flower rosaries and moss banks for church.

All of our dreams will be clearer than glass,

Clad in the water or sun, as you wish,

We will watch the white feet of the young morning pass

And dine upon honey and small shiny fish.

III.

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,

In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home,

Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork

And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half asleep, half awake, we shall hear, we shall know

The soft “Miserere” the wood-swallow tolls.

We will wander away where wild raspberries grow

And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.

—1929

 

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