"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bishop in Russia

Did you have your reservations from the start?
Questions of travel (whether South or North)
two most intentional cities (Brasilia dowagered
St. Leninburg some time ago in this regard)
and two rivers - one where
almost no one rows,
the other where, when
blessing the fleet,
iced stork
priests stand, the jetty
droning Good
Samaritan Death -
were, you wagered,
all too close to being
in fine straits -
the sort of stark places
Finland (or Newfoundland inland) looks
pretty triste (like Nova Scotia) on the way
over to but utterly beautiful
on the way back from
a flower of cultivation or civilization
salt licks,
the last frozen rose
had you arrived
six months to either side
or ten years to the month before,
when in the pre-Hecuban thaw
lamp-high drifts imploded
in Akhmatovian loaves
and balls of frostbound,
spellbound snow.
Mandelstam, floundering
on its cadaverous macadam sidewalks,
called it Petropolis, transparent, green,
the city where that "we will bury you"
referred not to Nikita and the West,
but to an erstwhile lover and the sun.
"One almost envies them a bit - who feel
that they are so important, and perhaps
they are, those Russian poets. Anyway,
the party seems afraid of them, whereas
I doubt that any poet (maybe Pound -
poor wretched Pound! - ) has ever really bothered
the US government, or all that much..."
It's been a kind of blessing, I expect,
that though we taught for two years in the same
brick building in the Yard (albeit you
went to the basement, not the second floor)
we never met. Imagine my chagrin,
if you had thought I just might be the "John"
you'd gotten such perturbing letters from!
And as your plane wrote slant across the sky
disturbing letters that a wedge of cranes
you saw when craning backward seemed to match
in contre-jour against witch-hazel branches
the stewardess brought supper on a tray:

Puddled pillows
stepping stones became
steep in tardy snow:
discarded after-dinner mints
in two linen rows
where spilt milk flows.
Subtle? Silly? Who knows
to what laughable lengths we'll go
to make a point.
All the same -
huddled weeping willows,
moths, flame -
we still make sense:
the sort that hints
some larger joint
adventure than chance
governs events.

February 1996


  1. Wonderful, John. Hurrah for those laughable lengths - to make a point, or a song. It seems to me that you burst into melody with those five lines beginning 'And as your plane wrote slant across the sky...' As for making sense, it's always exhilarating to encounter the sort of affirmation implied by 'larger joint/ adventure.'
    Amen and thank you.

  2. Thank you, John, for your comment. I am happiest with those parts of the poem where I manage some polyglot counterpoint. One example is the line "in contre-jour against witch-hazel branches," which plays with the Russian adjective form of 'crane' ('журавлиный') which is pronounced almost as if it were a combination of the French 'jour' + 'avelinier' -- which in turn mean 'day' and 'hazel tree' in French. When I wrote the poem I wasn't aware of Bishop's friendship with Louise Crane...

    Another example is the sequence of lines "Iced stork / priests stand, the jetty / droning Good / Samaritan Death" -- in which one half of each line is meant to be the Russian meaning assigned to the English sounds of the other half: e.g. the English word 'iced' is pronounced almost like the Russian word аист, meaning 'stork'.