STEEP TEA: Elizabeth Bishop

What to say about Elizabeth Bishop that has not already been said? What I find most valuable in Bishop is her strangeness, in poems such as "The Man-Moth," "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "Sestina." These poems are strange, it seems to me, because they retain a childlike innocence that all of us lose by growing up. Even the famous observational powers have something of childish wonder in them, as if the world is seen by a precocious child.

I wrote several poems in response to her work, but in the end only two made it into my book STEEP TEA. My poem "The Clocks" tries for Bishop's tone of astonishment. In her early poem "Paris 7 A.M.," the child-speaker makes "a trip to each clock in the apartment." It is so characteristic of her to describe her movements inside the confined space as trips. More, she has to check whether every clock in the apartment tells the same time, as if half-expecting some discrepancy, some fissure in time. This idea inspired my recall in my poem of a trip to Changi airport in Singapore, when I stood before the wall of world clocks, "all different and all right."

Her poems chart a love of travel, but also a skepticism about its value. Most potently, in "Questions of Travel," she asks, "Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and think of here?" My poem "Kinder Feelings" is my personal reply to her question. When I first arrived in the States, I took the airport bus to Grand Central Terminal, where I would catch a train to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. I still remember my intense excitement standing in the middle of the grand hall, pushed here and there by the peak-hour commuter rush. I was where I longed to be, but, as Bishop knew, the moment of arrival is always backward-looking too. My poem ends with the patently naive attempt to find Singapore in the train timetables. Strangeness. Wonder is a bottomless well.


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