Do it like this: Elizabeth Bishop

Acclaimed poet, Elizabeth Bishop, class of 1934

Image via Wikipedia

She’s a poet’s poet, the kind whose work inevitably shows up in poetry how-to-write books and anthologies. She’ll take a thing and look at it so long and hard, it’s as if she’s standing there with you, dead fish in hand, saying, “You really must look at this. Really and truly look at it, or I shall never leave you alone.”

And yes, she strikes me also as the kind of person who would say “shall” rather than “will” when using first person. As a woman, a human being, she comes across as distant; even her pictures look formal.

To me her poems seem intensely impersonal. She was rich and well educated, brought up by grandparents. She went off to Vassar and then lived all over the world, including a long stay in Brazil. She was a Lesbian. None of this shows up. To read her, you would think she lived all her life in Nova Scotia, never far from the docks and the sea.

The Fish fits this theme, and it’s one of her best known poems: It’s easy to see from this poem why she has such a reputation for craftsmanship, though I detest the last line.

My following poem needs work, but since no one has yet opened any of these entries I’m guessing I’ve got all kinds of time. Here’s the draft:


I stopped at the foot of the drive,
and got off the bike,
edged it past the rear-view mirror
through the dense
dark of starlight,
to where the garage lay
open like a cat
curled in snoring sleep.
I could not see
how far the nasturtiums
reached from their bed,
or whether the Japanese beetles
had yet made extinct
the flowers that live in the cracks:
burdock, fleabane, evening primrose.
It’s a pretty big crack.
I don’t know if things stay at night
when everything is shades of black,
or whether it transforms
like rainbow oil
bled into pavement
that evolves its way back
through time. Perhaps
something of it has escaped
through the midnight seams,
A fossil that found itself buried
in the disturbed ground.
What once was
Ammonite, trilobite and bryozoan,
by day enslaved,
rippling its liquid muscles
until it makes a brontosaurus
pushing cars,
as easily as I pushed
my little bike down the driveway
to its small and grease-stained spot.
I set the kickstand and backed out.
A little black animal
ran out the door, something
blacker than an oil stain at midnight
creased the night,
snagged the corner and ran.
I banged the door down
and it framed the night,
while I followed with my eyes
the place where it had,
or hadn’t,
been, but I saw
no hydrocarbon enigma, only
black space magnetized
with a field of surprise.

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