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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Happy Birthday!


On Elizabeth Bishop's one hundred fourth birthday perhaps I may be permitted a few lines about one of the great joys this blog has brought to me personally: the continuing opportunity to while away an hour or so out of each twenty-four, enjoying a Miracle for Breakfast. Not (or not only), as you will surmise, the poem of that name, but the quotidian wonder of le petit déjeuner or the Full English itself, bolted down in haste or savored at leasure, but always, always with her writing at my elbow and her language lingering in my mind.

Certainly Miss Bishop did not neglect the most important meal of the day in her work. I don’t just mean there on the wrong balcony with its buttered crumb of bread and single drop of very hot coffee, or in her “Breakfast Song,” or the sad account in her story “The Country Mouse” of munching soda crackers while her maternal grandfather made his way to the dining car for breakfast as she was being spirited away to Boston from the beloved Great Village of her childhood. Her correspondence, too, is littered with breakfast trays and marmalades (the former having been upset by foraging cats with consequential burnt noses, the latter her sine qua non: “…breakfast without marmalade isn’t breakfast, to me,” as she once wrote to her Aunt Grace, although admitting that “my last batch isn’t very good – in Rio I could get grapefruit and different kinds of oranges – here one can just get the local oranges and limes and they don’t have nice skins”), Ovaltine and Cuban coffee (freshly-ground just in time for every meal), occasional oatmeals when the bread ran out in Brazil, and even bacon in cans (yuck!...). None of these things, though, is exactly what I have in mind.

No, I’m afraid I must confess that I am not, in contrast to Bishop’s estimation of literary scholar Wallace Fowley, that rare person who can sit at the breakfast table and not talk about aesthetics. They are frequently in my thoughts when, week after week after week, – fifty two slithery little volcanoes' worth of them – I spend a pleasant few minutes each morning looking through whatever Bishop or her many friends and correspondents might have written on that particular day years or decades ago, searching out quotations for “Today in Bishop.”

Oh, the things I learn! – the dietary habits of the red-legged Seriema, or the odd fruiting patterns of the Jabuticaba tree, for example. And the characters I meet! – the tiny lisping poet cheerleader (“Give me an ‘ETH’!”) during an S-T-R-I-K-E at San Francisco State University (March 10, 1969), or the equally short and almost as pathetic little thirteen year old boy who the next day (but four years earlier) peddled Bishop in Brazil “a crude potato-peeler, cruder flint gadget for lighting the gas-stove, a blue plastic barrel to keep something in, and a huge dead-looking cake of yellow soap, like a small monument, that I'm sure the maid will turn up her nose at,” to mention just two. Painters I might never otherwise have looked at, novelists I might never have read, music I might never have listened to, recipes I might never have botched – all in rich abundance and often comical juxtaposition.

And speaking of botched recipes: this morning I woke up in an especially foul mood, as it had suddenly occurred to me late last night just as I was subsiding into blessed unconsciousness that I had unaccountably forgotten to get eggs during my weekly Saturday foray to the Oakland City, Indiana IGA to purchase the few staples I require to survive in the culinary wilderness that is very rural Hoosierdom, thereby condemning myself five or six hours thence to cold cereal grown soggy in skim milk instead of enjoying a lovely, toothsome, butter-glazed omelette aux fines herbes.

Or so I thought...

For imagine my astonishment and gratitude as I staggered through the kitchen to find in the midst of clamorous birds and matin bells and white gold skies, smack dab in the middle of the dawn-lit Sunday dining room table, a beautiful blue-glass-lined silver dish containing three of the freshest, loveliest, most ovoid answers to the riddle of which came first that one could possibly imagine. My heart fluttered, and then I drew closer...

and then I stared again, and then rubbed the last remaining crumbs of sleep from my eyes, and then stared again, and then I looked and looked my infant sight away...

A thousand words could not describe what I spied next, inscribed on the surface of each gleaming white shell. Fortunately, in this age when one really can see oneself in freshly-washed dishes, ever-encroaching technology means that a pocket camera is always to hand. I shall, therefore, allow the picture below to speak for me:


All best wishes,

John Barnstead

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