Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979)

Sonnet / One Art / Cape Breton / In the Waiting Room / The Armadillo / The Fish / The Man-Moth / The Moose / Visit To St. Elizabeth's / Seascape / A Miracle For Breakfast / At the Fishhouses / North Haven


I am in need of music that would flow Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips, Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips, With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow. Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low, Of some song sung to rest the tired dead, A song to fall like water on my head, And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow! There is a magic made by melody: A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep To the subaqueous stillness of the sea, And floats forever in a moon-green pool, Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Cape Breton

Out on the high "bird islands," Ciboux and Hertford, the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand with their backs to the mainland in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff's brown grass-frayed edge, while the few sheep pastured there go "Baaa, baaa." (Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.) The silken water is weaving and weaving, disappearing under the mist equally in all directions, lifted and penetrated now and then by one shag's dripping serpent-neck, and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse, rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat. The same mist hangs in thin layers among the valleys and gorges of the mainland like rotting snow-ice sucked away almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift among those folds and folds of fir:spruce and hackmatack-- dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors, each riser distinguished from the next by an irregular nervous saw-toothe edge, alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view. The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast. On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers, but without their drivers, because today is Sunday. The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills like lost quartz arrowheads. The road appears to have been abandoned. Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned, unless the road is holding it back, in the interior, where we cannot see, where deep lakes are reputed to be, and disused trails and mountains of rock and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones-- and these regions now have little to say for themselves except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets. A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes, packed with people, even to its step. (On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts, but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a hanger.) It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse, where today no flag is flying from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob. It stops, and a man carrying a bay gets off, climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow, which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies, to his invisible house beside the water. The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts. The thin mist follows the white mutations of its dream; an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.

In the Waiting Room

In Worchester 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 wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it 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 embarassed, 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 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.

The Armadillo

For Robert Lowell This is the time of year when almost every night the frail, illegal fire balloons appear. Climbing the mountain height, rising toward a saint still honored in these parts, the paper chambers flush and fill with light that comes and goes, like hearts. Once up against the sky it's hard to tell them from the stars-- planets, that is--the tinted ones: Venus going down, or Mars, or the pale green one. With a wind, they flare and falter, wobble and toss; but if it's still they steer between the kite sticks of the Southern Cross, receding, dwindling, solemnly and steadily forsaking us, or, in the downdraft from a peak, suddenly turning dangerous. Last night another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire against the cliff behind the house. The flame ran down. We saw the pair of owls who nest there flying up and up, their whirling black-and-white stained bright pink underneath, until they shrieked up out of sight. The ancient owls' nest must have burned. Hastily, all alone, a glistening armadillo left the scene, rose-flecked, head down, tail down, and then a baby rabbit jumped out, short-eared, to our surprise. So soft!--a handful of intangible ash with fixed, ignited eyes. Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and piercing cry and panic, and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky!

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn't fight. He hadn't fought at all. 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. He was speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny white sea-lice, and underneath two or three rags of green weed hung down. While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen - the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly- I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, the big bones and the little bones, the dramatic reds, and blacks of his shiny entails, and the pink swim-bladder like a big peony. I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass. They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. - It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light. I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip - if you could call it a lip- grim, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish-line, or four and a wire leader with the swivel still attached, with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth. A green line, frayed at the end where he broke it, two heavier lines, and a fine black thread still crimped from the strain and snap when it broke and he got away. Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw. I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange, the sun-cracked thwarts, the oarlocks on their strings, the gunnels - until everything was rainbow, rainbow rainbow! And I let the fish go.

The Man Moth

Here, above, cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight. The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat, It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on, and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon. He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties, feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold, of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers. But when the Man-Moth pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface, the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings. He thinks the moon is small hole at the top of the sky, proving the sky quite useless for protection. He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb. Up the facades, his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him, he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage to push his small head through that round clean opening and he forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light. (Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.) But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt. Then he returns to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits, he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly. The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed, without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort. He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards. Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window, for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers. If you catch him, hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil, an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids one tear, his only possession, like the bee's string, slips. Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over, cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

The Moose

For Grace Bulmer Bowers From narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea, home of the long tides twice a day and takes the herrings long rides, where the river enters or retreats in a wall of brown foam depends on if it meets the bay coming in, the bay not at home; where, silted red, sometimes the sun sets facing a red sea, and others, veins the flats' lavender, rich mud in burning rivulets; on red, gravelly roads, down rows of sugar maples, past clapboard farmhouses and neat, clapboard churches, bleached, ridged as clamshells, past twin silver birches, through late afternoon a bus journeys west, the windshield flashing pink, pink glancing off of metal, brushing the dented flank of blue, beat-up enamel; down hollows, up rises, and waits, patient, while a lone traveller gives kisses and embraces to seven relatives and a collie supervises. Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in. Its cold, round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens' feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles; the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences. One stop at Bass River. Then the Economies- Lower, Middle, Upper; Five Islands, Five Houses, where a woman shakes a table cloth out after supper. A pale flickering. Gone. The Tantramar marshes and the smell of salt hay. An iron bridge trembles and a loose plank rattles but doesn't give way. On the left, a red light swims through the dark: a ship's port lantern. Two rubber boots show, illuminated, solemn. A dog gives one bark. A woman climbs in with two market bags, brisk, freckled, elderly. "A grand night. Yes, sir, all the way to Boston." She regards us amicably. Moonlight as we enter the New Brunswick woods, hairy, scratchy, splintery; moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. The passengers lie back. Snores. Some long sighs. A dreamy divination begins in the night, a gentle, auditory, slow hallucination.... In the creakings and noises, an old conversation - not concerning us, but recognizable, somewhere, back in the bus: Grandparents' voices uninterruptedly talking, in Eternity: names being mentioned, things cleared up finally; what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; deaths, deaths and sicknesses; the year he remarried; the year (something) happened. She died in childbirth. That was the son lost when the schooner foundered. He took to drink. Yes. She went to the bad. When Amos began to pray even in the store and finally the family had to put him away. "Yes..." that peculiar affirmative. "YES..." A sharp, indrawn breath, half groan, half acceptance, that means "Life's like that. We know it (also death)." Talking the way they talked in the old featherbed, peacefully, on and on, dim lamplight in the hall, down in the kitchen, the dog tucked in her shawl. Now, it's all right now even to fall asleep just as on all those nights. - Suddenly the bus driver stops with a jolt, turns off his lights. A moose has come out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road. It approaches; it sniffs at the bus's hot hood. Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man's voice assures us "Perfectly harmless...." Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, "Sure are big creatures." "It's awful plain." "Look! It's a she!" Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy? "Curious creatures," says our quiet driver, rolling his r's. "Look at that, would you." Then he shifts gears. For a moment longer, by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there's a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.

Visits to St. Elizabeth's

1950 This is the house of Bedlam. This is the man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is the time of the tragic man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is a wristwatch telling the time of the talkative man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is a sailor wearing the watch that tells the time of the honored man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is the roadstead all of board reached by the sailor wearing the watch that tells the time of the old, brave man that lies in the house of Bedlam. These are the years and the walls of the ward, the winds and clouds of the sea of board sailed by the sailor wearing the watch that tells the time of the cranky man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances weeping down the ward over the creaking sea of board beyond the sailor winding his watch that tells the time of the cruel man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is a world of books gone flat. This is a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances weeping down the ward over the creaking sea of board of the batty sailor that winds his watch that tells the time of the busy man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is a boy that pats the floor to see if the world is there, is flat, for the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat that dances weeping down the ward waltzing the length of a weaving board by the silent sailor that hears his watch that ticks the time of the tedious man that lies in the house of Bedlam. These are the years and the walls and the door that shut on a boy that pats the floor to feel if the world is there and flat. This is a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances joyfully down the ward into the parting seas of board past the staring sailor that shakes his watch that tells the time of the poet, the man that lies in the house of Bedlam. This is the soldier home from the war. These are the years and the walls and the door that shut on a boy that pats the floor to see if the world is round or flat. This is a Jew in a newspaper hat that dances carefully down the ward, walking the plank of a coffin board with the crazy sailor that shows his watch that tells the time of the wretched man that lies in the house of Bedlam.


This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels, flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections; the whole region, from the highest heron down to the weightless mangrove island with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings like illumination in silver, and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower in an ornamental spray of spray; this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope: it does look like heaven. But a skeletal lighthouse standing there in black and white clerical dress, who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better. He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet, that that is why the shallow water is so warm, and he knows that heaven is not like this. Heaven is not like flying or swimming, but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare and when it gets dark he will remember something strongly worded to say on the subject.

A Miracle for Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee, waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb that was going to be served from a certain balcony, --like kings of old, or like a miracle. It was still dark. One foot of the sun steadied itself on the long ripple in the river. The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river. It was so cold we hoped that the coffee would be very hot, seeing that the sun was not going to warm us; and that the crumb would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle. At seven a man stepped out on the balcony. He stood for a minute alone on the balcony looking over our heads toward the river. A servant handed him the makings of a miracle, consisting of one roll, which he proceeded to crumb, his head, so to speak, in the clouds--along with the sun. Was the man crazy? What under the sun was he trying to do, up there on his balcony! Each man received one rather hard crumb, which some flicked scornfully into the river, and, in a cup, one drop of coffee. Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle. I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle. A beautiful villa in the sun and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee. In front, a baroque white plaster balcony added by birds, who nest along the river, --I saw it with one eye close to the crumb-- and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb my mansion, made for me by a miracle, through ages, by insects, birds, and the river working the stone. Every day, in the sun, at breakfast time I sit on my balcony with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee. We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee. A window across the river caught the sun as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fishhouses an old man sits netting, his net, in the gloaming almost invisible, a dark purple-brown, and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of codfish it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water. The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up to storerooms in the gables for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on. All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence like the small old buildings with an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls. The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them. Up on the little slope behind the houses, set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass, is an ancient wooden capstan, cracked, with two long bleached handles and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, where the ironwork has rusted. The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in the population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in. There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb. He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, the blade of which is almost worn away. Down at the water's edge, at the place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals of four or five feet. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening. He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns. I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." He stood up in the water and regarded me steadily, moving his head a little. Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug as if it were against his better judgment. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us, the dignified tall firs begin. Bluish, associating with their shadows, a million Christmas trees stand waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones. I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, icily free above the stones, above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

North Haven

( in memoriam - Robert Lowell ) I can make out the rigging of a schooner a mile off, I can count the new cones on the spruce. It is so still the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky, no clouds except for one long, carded horse's tail. The islands haven't shifted since last summer, even if I like to pretend they have drifting, in a dreamy sort of way, a little north, a little south, or sidewise and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay. This month our favorite one is full of flowers: buttercups, red clover, purple vetch, hackweed still burning, daisies pied, eyebright, the fragrant bedstraw's incandescent stars, and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight. The goldfinches are back, or others like them, and the white-throated sparrow's five-note song, pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes. Nature repeats herself, or almost does: repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise. Years ago, you told me it was here (in 1932?) you first "discovered girls" and learned to sail, and learned to kiss. You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer. ("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...) You left North Haven, anchored in its rock, afloat in mystic blue...And now, you've left for good. You can't derange, or rearrange, your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.) The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.