North and South

Selections from the notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop

Key West

They have set up the carnival, the carnival,
In the back lot of the burnt-out cigar factory.
And the high-diver, before he leaps to his canvas pool
From the ladder festooned with colored lights, can see
Down into the ruins, and then all over the town,
Over the tin roofs to the blacked-out ocean,
The surrounding water, like sheets of carbon paper,
Used and re-used. With displays of mock emotion
He sets a match to himself: flaming, he falls
Like a wagon of war past the gutted stucco walls.

Where six hundred men used to work at rolling cigars
To fill the boxes with the ornate lids
That showed a woman with roses in her hair
And tulle-draped bust—a woman like her bids
The citizens to come and see her dancers
Guaranteed to wear nothing but feather fans and jewels,
And a man with the face of an educated ape
Lures them to see the educated mules.
While Negro children, who are not allowed,
Look on solemnly from among the crowd.

Just North of Boston

Winter twilight: miles of advertising.
—One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Lights chasing each other round and round;
lights running at us screaming letters.
If only we didn't know how to read,
or if they screamed Chinese or Arabic,
would we consider them beautiful?
You say "It's possible."
But look—an 18th-century man-of-war
has run aground: She's struggling there
against the rocks, her lights still lit,

directing rescue operations. No—
it's worse: it's half a man-of-war.
Now come the wedding clothes for rent:
six brides are standing in a row,
dresses agleam like glare-ice; next, their grooms,
with ruffled shirt-fronts, pink or blue,
all on a brilliant stage, on stilts.
How can they meet? When will they marry?
Gold! Gold. A Burmese temple? Balinese?
An Oriental-something roof, with grinning
dragons. Just beyond,
an ice-cream cone à gratte-ciel
outlined in glowing yellow, glowing rose
on top—the ice cream—strawberry.
Twelve Hereford steer, three Hereford calves
of sturdy plaster are deployed …


Look at the Lears upon the beach!
No beards, but gray hairs on their chests
         Like city-snow,
         All gently blow.
Each upon his elbow rests,
With a young lady stretched by each,

In pale blue tights her lovely form;
Ophelia prostrate by the sea
         Casts large, sad eyes on
         The bright horizon.
The sun invades all those who flee
Far from the love affair, far from the storm.

For M.B.S., Buried in Nova Scotia

Yes, you are dead now and live
only there, in a little, slightly tip-tilted graveyard
where all of your childhood's Christmas trees are forgathered
                  with the present they meant to give,
and your childhood's river quietly curls at your side
and breathes deep with each tide.