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for Elizabeth Bishop

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon,

Where is?—I’m here?—an upward inflection in
Query and in response, a genetic libretto rehearsed
Tens of thousands of years beginning to leave its indelible trace,

Clawprint of language, ritual, dense winged seed,
Or as someone were slowly buttoning a shirt.
I am happy to lie in the grass and listen, as if at the dawn of reason,

To the clear communal command
That is flinging creaturely will into existence,
Designing itself to desire survival,

Liberty, companionship,
Then the bird near me, my bird, stops inquiring, while the other
Off in the woods continues calling faintly, but with that upward

Inflection, I’m here, I’m here,
I’m here, here, the call opens a path through boughs still clothed
By foliage, until it sounds like entreaty, like anxiety, like life

Imitating the pivotal move of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle,”
Where the lovebird’s futile song to its absent mate teaches the child
Death—which the ocean also whispers—

Death, death, death it softly whispers,
Like an old crone bending aside over a cradle, Whitman says,
Or the like the teapot in Elizabeth Bishop’s grandmother’s kitchen,

Here at one end of the chain of being,
That whistles a song of presence and departure,
Creating comfort but also calling for tears.
by Alicia Suskin Ostriker


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In this video clip from Helen Vendler’s Voices and Visions series, you can hear Marianne Moore reading her poem, “The Fish.” Both Moore and her protege Elizabeth Bishop wrote poems entitled “The Fish.” Below is correspondence between them on Bishop’s fish poem.

The Fish
by Marianne Moore (published 1921)

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron throught the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it

The Fish
By Elizabeth Bishop (published 1940)

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of its 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 entrails,
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.

Correspondence on “The Fish”

1. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: January 14, 1939

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 79.

2. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 5, 1940

I have one Key West story that I must tell you. It is more like the place than anything I can think of. The other day I went to the china closet to get a little white bowl to put some flowers in and when I was rinsing it I noticed some little black specks. I said to Mrs. Almyda, “I think we must have mice” – but she took the bowl over to the light and studied it and after a while she said, “No, them’s lizard.” …

I am so much longing to see some of your new poems. I am sending you a real “trifle” [“the Fish”]. I’m afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway! I left the last line on so it wouldn’t be, but I don’t know …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87.

3. Marianne Moore to Louise Crane: February 14, 1940

[Bishop was romantically involved with Louise Crane and shared a house with her at Key West.]

I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago, which I am thinking of having tattooed on me – in which she tells of Mrs. Almeyda’s identifying certain little specks in a white bowl, as “Them’s lizard.” And she enclosed a very valorous and concentrated poem about a fish. I thought of your somewhat pensive statement, “Elizabeth is writing some poems: she is working hard and will have more things” – when we were pondering the probability of enough to make a book; I wondered where th fish had begun to be written, and if I have missed any companion piece to it.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 397.

4. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: February 19, 1940

I have been reading and rereading your letter ever since it came … And thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on “the Fish.” I did as you suggested about everything except “breathing in” (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was. “Lousy” is now “infested” and “gunwales” (which I meant to be pronounced “gunn’ls” ) is “gunnels,” which is also correct according to the dictionary, and makes it plainer. I left off the outline of capitals [for the first word of each line], too, and feel very ADVANCED.

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87-88.

5. Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop: March 17, 1940

I am glad the Partisan Review wants the article, and since the canoe trip gives a picture of Florida, you could surely send it. And if you ask if I “could bear” to see it again and if I “have the time” to read it, I’ll tell you a fib and say when I said I liked “The Fish” that I meant merely the title, not the poem itself. I don’t feel I am any real help to you and should so like to be. But in anxiety to protect the work I scrutinize every detail.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 398.

6. Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore: March 14, 1940

Partisan Review has asked me to write a “Florida Letter.” … They are printing “The Fish” this month, I think.

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 89

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Breakfast Song

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.
Before the poet Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979, she wrote this poem for her partner Alice Methfessel, who died last week on June 28. Here’s the article on Methfessel published in the Boston Globe this morning: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2009/07/10/alice_methfessel_66_muse_to_poet_elizabeth_bishop/

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The crisis of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves to a calendar we cannot control.” Elizabeth Bishop

Virginia Woolf bases her novel Mrs. Dalloway on the idea that one day in a person’s life summarizes an entire life. In a similar way, one piece of art can summarize an artist’s work. One self-portrait by Van Gogh expresses something about all his paintings. And one poem can sum up something about a poet’s work. That poem for Elizabeth Bishop was her villanelle, One Art. In many of her poems I hear a similar theme of loss. It became the crisis of her life, and we hear the making of that poem in much of her work.


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Where are the dolls who loved me so
when I was young? . . .

Through their real eyes

blank crotches,
and play wrist-watches,
whose hands moved only when they wanted —

Their stoicism I never mastered
their smiling phrase for every occasion —
They went their rigid little ways

To meditate in a closet or a trunk
To let unforeseen emotions
glance off their glazed complexions
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

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I almost saw it: turning into a rose
without any of the intervening
roots, stem, buds, and so on: just
earth to rose and back again.
Crystalography and its laws:
something I once wanted badly to study,
until I learned that it would involve a lot of arithmetic,
that is, mathematics.

Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock; rock-rose…
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
forming, folding over,
unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex —
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) unpublished poem written for Alice Methfessel

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

One Art is considered one of the best villanelles in existence, and it is based on a relationship Bishop had with a woman named Alice Methfessel. They were domestic partners from 1971 to 1979, the year of Bishop’s death.

There are 16 drafts of this poem written in 1976. The first draft of One Art interests me because we can hear the woman in this, not just the poet. Her stream-of-consciousness writing in this draft is where many poems begin. The poem in its original state is all over the page emotionally. It took 15 more drafts for Bishop to craft in the understated tone she needed to give the poem power.

But that voice isn’t here. This is a poem written by an alcoholic who is losing her love because of frequent black outs. This is a woman who is losing her teaching job at Harvard because she is missing classes. She is losing her friends because she would say things to them when drunk she couldn’t remember later.

Bishop did not lose the relationship with Methfessel as she feared. She wrote about her, “Alice [is] a wonderful traveling companion. Since she is so athletic and big, tall, I mean – I thought I’d never keep up with her (and she is 28 or 29 too [in 1972] – but I manged to. I think you’d like her very much – very American in the nicest way; she cheers me up a lot about my native land – …. Alice has had a happy life and is the only child of devoted parents – pampered, really – but nevertheless has turned out to be kind and generous and very funny. – She’s good for me because she cheers me up.”

Brett Millier wrote about the couple in her book, Elizabeth Bishop Life and the Memory Of It, “Although Elizabeth still described Alice as her ‘young friend’ or ‘secretary’ to certain correspondents, very quickly ‘Elizabeth and Alice’ became a recognized couple in the circle of poets and teachers in which Elizabeth moved and in her letters to faraway friends.

“But an intimate relationship between apparently unequal partners, one of whom was an alcoholic, was bound to have its unruly energies. Alice grew weary from time to time of the great demands placed on her by Elizabeth’s pain and poor health; of the cycles of illness, drunkenness and injury that often marked the last years of Elizabeth’s life; and of doling out the Antabuse that helped to prevent such cycles from getting started. And Elizabeth lived in mortal fear of losing Alice and of what would happen if she were to be left alone to grow old and care for herself in her indispositions and incapacities. Alice’s attempts to put distance between herself and Elizabeth’s myriad problems resulted in desperate attempts on Elizabeth’s part to get her back.”

In the chaos of her life, Bishop created one of the most beautiful poems ever written. It begins here, it begins really in the last lines of the first draft when she starts trying to describe her lover’s blue eyes. You can see the writer failing then. You can see a person who is desperate to hold onto a woman she can’t imagine living her life without.


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