The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review
littlereview

Poem for Monday


Crusoe in England
By Elizabeth Bishop


A new volcano has erupted,
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being born:
at first a breath of steam, ten miles away;
and then a black fleck--basalt probably--
rose in the mate's binoculars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island's still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books has ever got it right.

Well, I had fifty-two
miserable, small volanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides--
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
I'd think that if they were the size
I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
become a giant;
and if I had become a giant
I couldn't bear to think what size
the goats and turtles were,
or the gulls, or the overlapping rollers
--a glittering hexagon of rollers
closing and closing in, but never quite,
glittering and glittering, though the sky
was mostly overcast.

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere's
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters--their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much?
And why sometimes the whole place hissed?
The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,
hissing like teakettles.
(And I'd have given years, or taken a few,
for any sort of kettle, of course)
The folds of lava, running out to sea,
would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove
to be more turtles.
The beaches were all lava, variegated,
black red, and white, and gray;
the marbled colors made a fine display.
And I had waterspouts. Oh,
half a dozen at a time, far out,
they'd come and go, advancing and retreating,
their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
of scuffed-up white.
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass...I watched
the water spiral up in them like smoke.
Beautiful, yes, but not much company.

I often gave way to self-pity.
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don't remember, but there could have been."
What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater's edge, I told myself
"Pity should begin at home." So the more
pity I felt the more I felt at home.

The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.
The island had one kind of everything:
one treesnail, a bright violet-blue
with a thin shell, crept over everything,
over the one variety of tree,
a sooty, scrub affair.
Snail shells lay under these in drifts
and, at a distance,
you'd swear that they were beds of irises.
There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects;
and so I made home-brew. I'd drink
the awful fizzy, stinging stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries.
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn't know enough.
Why didn't I know enough of something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I'd read were full of blanks;
the poems--well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
"They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss..."the bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

The island smelled of goat and guano.
The goats were white, so were the gulls,
and both too tame, or else they thought
I was a goat, too, or a gull.
Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek,
baa...shriek...baa... I still can't shake
them from my ears; they're hurting now.
The questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies
over a ground of hissing rain
and hissing, ambulating turtles
got on my nerves.
When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded
like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.
I'd shut my eyes and think about a tree,
an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.
I'd heard of cattle getting island-sick.
I thought the goats were.
One billy-goat would stand on the volcano
I'd christened Mont d'Espoir or Mount Despair
(I'd time enough to play with names),
and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.
I'd grab his beard and look at him.
His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up
and expressed nothing, or a little malice.
I got so tired of the very colors!
One day I dyed a baby goat bright red
with my red berries, just to see
something a little different.
And then his mother wouldn't recognize him.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I'd dream of things
like slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I'd have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
--Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I'm old.
I'm bored too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf--
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain in the handle...
Now it won't look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

The local museum's asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
--And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

--------

This poem was mentioned in this week's Poet's Choice in The Washington Post Book World. Robert Pinsky was talking about wit, and noted, "wit can also find bitter meanings in ordinary-looking phrases, as in Elizabeth Bishop's 'Crusoe in England,' when Crusoe says 'And I'd have given years, or taken a few,/for any sort of kettle, of course.' Thus, Bishop's paired opposites indicate how 'taking' years of life in isolation can be as harsh a sentence as giving up years of life itself." I hadn't read the poem since my sophomore year of college in my women's poetry class, and was really happy to find it again.

Early Sunday we went to Croydon Creek Park in Rockville, behind the climbing gym where my kids have had birthday parties. We had never gone hiking there and were pleased to find a rather steep trail down to the creek, then through the woods and up along the field past the mansion there. There is also a nature center with a number of varieties of turtle, snake, frog, toad, fish and an injured screech owl, where younger son got very attached to a turtle that seems to be imprinted upon humans and was following his finger around the tank.

We came home early so they would have time to play with their friends before dinner with my parents and uncle, but younger son's best friend had gone out for the afternoon, so he could not have a penguin party with their combined stuffed animals (he acquired a new penguin at the zoo in Baltimore yesterday and wanted to show it off). Speaking of which, here are penguin photos because I haven't even taken the park photos off my SD card yet, having been too busy with dinner, kids and Oscars!


There were seagulls hanging around the African penguin habitat that desperately wanted to get at the fish just out of their reach.


The fish was in a bucket just inside the flap door that different penguins seemed to take turns guarding.


Sometimes the gulls wandered close, but they were always repelled...


...and eventually the penguins drove them all to the top of the rocks so they could swim without fighting to protect what was theirs!
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Dinner was very good -- barbecue chicken, Thai noodles -- and then it was That Time. The Oscars had lots more energy this year than last...Stewart should host them in perpetuity. Of course it helped that it started with one of the funniest moments in recent memory: Billy Crystal and Chris Rock announcing that couldn't host this year because they were busy, in a tent on Brokeback Mountain together. And then Steve Martin at home with someone else's kids, Dave Letterman with Steve Martin's kids...Whoopi, Mel, and then Stewart ending up in bed with George Clooney, wondering if it's a dream. Hee! And then Stewart greeted "ladies, gentlemen and Felicity" and said of Capote, "Not all gay people are virile cowboys! Some are effete New York intellectuals!"

He also said the journalism in Capote and Good Night and Good Luck, pursuit of the truth, made them "period pieces." In general I adored his political jabs ("Bjork couldn't be here tonight because she was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her," and after movies that tackled social issues, "None of these issues was ever a problem again") and the introduction to the history of gayness in westerns. And thanking Ben Stiller for presenting in a green-screen unitard, proving to the world that he's Jewish.

Some other stuff I liked: Clooney pointing out that Oscar or no, he'll probably get Sexiest Man Alive 1997 listed first in his obituary. Not sure about Wallace and Gromit beating Howl's Moving Castle for animated film (I liked both vastly better than The Incredibles from last year) but my kids were rooting for W&G, and the kids were ecstatic when March of the Penguins won for documentary and the producers took the stage carrying big stuffed penguins. The director spoke straight to kids, asking them to vote to protect the penguins in the future (if global warming hasn't melted Antarctica completely). Then we sent the kids to bed, fortunately before "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" -- the song from Hustle & Flow that my older son likes -- there were two bleeps during the song, and then, after winning, the singers used serious profanity in their acceptance speech, so much so that Stewart wanted to know why they were the most excited people there! (Apropos of nothing, the Dolly Parton song from Transamerica, "Travelin’ Thru," is free on iTunes this week.)

I loved Russell introducing biopics and I howled at Stewart's comment when Cinderella Man lost best makeup to The Chronicles of Narnia: "Imagine the difficulty of making Russell Crowe look like he got into a fight...I'm going to get pummeled for that later." I also totally loved the Altman honorary Oscar introduction by Streep and Tomlin who really need to do a dirty old broads type movie. Pregnant Rachel Weisz looked gorgeous. As did Lauren Bacall talking about film noir, but she couldn't read her cue cards and she was shaking -- was she nervous or does she have Parkinsons? I felt badly. And is the Memoirs of a Geisha set decorator ill? Her absence and the other guy saying they would keep her in their prayers sounded ominous. Clearly I must see that film for the look, if nothing else, though my costuming geek friends in England told me the kimonos were the wrong styles for the era of the film...not that I will know the difference!

Okay, I may as well be politically incorrect and say I really wanted Paradise Now to lose and was glad it did. I don't give a shit if it's an important film. And while I'm being politically incorrect, Philip Seymour Hoffman...it's fine with me that you won in the toughest category in recent memory. Your performance is amazing. And hurrah for your mom raising four kids. And of course no one is obligated to talk about the larger social implications of their movies -- when someone like Mel Gibson wins an award, I am always profoundly grateful if he keeps his big ugly mouth shut. But...you played a gay character in a year when more actors playing GBLT characters than ever before were nominated. Couldn't you have acknowledged that as well as the talent of the competition? Couldn't you have given us one hint as Ang Lee did of why your film might be important to people who think movies about gay people aren't relevant to them?

So yeah, the relevant Star Trek news was Fiedler, Peters and Wise in the Dead Celebrities Montage, Clooney's win for Syriana since that's Alexander Siddig's film and especially Crash's win since Marina Sirtis is in that movie. I am not going to pretend all things are equal to me in the Best Picture category...I was rooting for Brokeback and hoped that if it lost, it would lose to Capote. So yeah, I'm happy Reese won, I'm happy BBM won screenplay and director and soundtrack, but I'm disappointed overall.

And now I am going to bed as I have a ton of work to do in the morning!
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