Monday, January 22, 2007

Elizabeth Bishop, "Questions of Travel"

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime=hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instangly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr-dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hour os unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there...No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"


From Questions of Travel (1965)

A lot of Bishop of late, in part thanks to my guest writer Liz, and in part because of the centrality of travel to her work. Returning from Egypt and struggling to process the experience, I thought it would be good to take travel as this week's theme. Bishop's poem appropriately starts us off with questions, both relativistic questions – of how to judge or merely react to and interact with that which is foreign to us – and questions regarding the purpose of seeking such novelty, and the implications our relation to it has to our relation towards 'home'. I have often found travel to be a state of wonderous stimulation, a state of easy happiness, because the only purpose while traveling is to observe and enjoy. But then what does one do with that observation and enjoyment? How is it to be incorporated into one's 'native' identity? The purity of such experience qua experience, the suspension of self-concern that it involves, and its unincorporable otherness, threaten to overwhelm identity - both poetic, as imagination, and personal, as the syntax and vocabulary of home. Bishop typically evades putting forward a position on these questions, instead enumerating and illustrating the questions themselves, at once utterly casual and serious.

(More on Bishop:

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