Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Poems

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
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Apr 24, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: borrowed, poetry
Read from April 10 to 17, 2011

I fell for Elizabeth Bishop on the first page of this double-collection.

The Map

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.


There's a little tingle of eroticism here, similar to that in Judith Schalansky'sAtlas of Remote Islands - of defining and outlining a shape, in your mind, with your fingers - a description that moves quickly from land to paper to flesh. And the sense of physicality: 'does the land lean down to lift the sea from under, / drawing it unperturbed around itself'; 'These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger / like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods'.

And finally, the structure of that last phrase, a tingle in itself: 'More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors'. That's a memory tingle - that line's been ringing in my ear for a week now, waiting for me to find the other line it matches to. I'm almost certain it's an E.E. Cummings. I'm hanging on 'nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands', but that's just close, not want I'm looking for. Hmmmmm.

I like Bishop the most when her poems are rooted in very specific details: from 'Roosters'

the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare

with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.

Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,

the many wives
who lead hens' lives
of being courted and despised


From the very famous 'The Fish':

He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.


Often I find her rhythms and rhymes almost daring, reckless - a kind of challenge to 'good taste', packing more and more in: also from 'Roosters'

The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood

Yes, that excrescence
makes a most virile presence,
plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence

Now in mid-air
by two they fight each other.
Down comes a first flame-feather,

and one is flying,
with raging heroism defying
even the sensation of dying.


But perhaps most of all I like 'Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore'. There's such a strong femininity to it, but also a strength, and an intellect - a sense of rushing air and swirling water and gleeful anticipation that I just can't get enough of:

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
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