POETRY Three Dreams About Elizabeth Bishop ... J.D. McCLATCHY
“Three Dreams About Elizabeth Bishop”
From Ten Commandments (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)
It turned out the funeral had been delayed a year.
The casket now stood in the state capitol rotunda,
An open casket. You lay there like Lenin
Under glass, powdered, in powder blue
But crestfallen, if that’s the word
For those sagging muscles that make the dead
Look grumpy. The room smelled of gardenias.
Or no, I was a gardenia, part of a wreath
Sent by the Radcliffe Institute and right behind
You, with a view down the line of mourners.
When Lloyd and Frank arrived, both of them
Weeping and reciting—was it “Thanatopsis”?—
A line from Frank about being the brother
To a sluggish clod was enough to wake you up.
One eye, then the other, slowly opened.
You didn't say anything, didn't have to.
You just blinked, or I did, and in another room
A group of us sat around your coffin chatting.
Once in a while you would add a comment—
That, no, hay was stacked with beaverslides,
And, yes, it was a blue, a mimeograph blue
Powder the Indians used, and stuck cedar pegs
Through their breasts in the ghost dance—
All this very slowly. Such an effort for you
To speak, as if underwater and each bubble-
Syllable had to be exhaled, leisurely
Floated up to the surface of our patience.
Still alive, days later, still laid out
In a party dress prinked with sun sparks,
Hands folded demurely across your stomach,
You lay on the back lawn, uncoffined,
Surrounded by beds of freckled foxglove
And fool-the-eye lilies that only last a day.
By then Lowell had arrived, young again
But shaggy even in his seersucker and tie.
He lay down alongside you to talk.
The pleasure of it showed in your eyes,
Widening, then fluttering with the gossip,
Though, of course, you still didn't move at all,
Just your lips, and Lowell would lean in
To listen, his ear right next to your mouth,
Then look up smiling and roll over to tell me
What you said, that since you’d passed over
You'd heard why women live longer than men—
Because they wear big diamond rings.
She is sitting three pews ahead of me
At the Methodist church on Wilshire Boulevard.
I can make out one maple leaf earring
Through the upswept fog bank of her hair
—Suddenly snapped back, to stay awake.
A minister is lamenting the forgetfulness
Of the laws, and warms to his fable
About the wild oryx, “which the Egyptians
Say stands full against the Dog Star
When it rises, looks wistfully upon it,
And testifies after a sort by sneezing,
A kind of worship but a miserable knowledge.”
He is wearing, now I look, the other earring,
Which catches a bluish light from the window
Behind him, palm trees bent in stained glass
Over a manger scene. The Joseph sports
A three-piece suit, fedora in hand.
Mary, in a leather jacket, is kneeling.
The gnarled lead joinder soldered behind
Gives her a bun, protruding from which
Two shafts of a halo look like chopsticks.
Intent on her task, her mouth full of pins,
She seems to be taking them out, one by one,
To fasten or fit with stars the night sky
Over the child's crib, which itself resembles
A Studebaker my parents owned after the war,
The model called an Oryx, which once took
The three of us on the flight into California.
I remember, leaving town one Sunday morning,
We passed a dwarfish, gray-haired woman
Sitting cross-legged on an iron porch chair
In red slacks and a white sleeveless blouse,
A cigarette in her hand but in a silver holder,
Watching us leave, angel or executioner,
Not caring which, pursuing her own thoughts.
Dawn through a slider to the redwood deck.
Two mugs on the rail with a trace
Still of last night’s vodka and bitters.
The windchimes’ echo of whatever
Can't be seen. The bottlebrush
Has given up its hundred ghosts,
Each blossom a pinhead firmament,
Galaxies held in place by bristles
That sweep up the pollinated light
In their path along the season.
A scrub jay’s Big Bang, the swarming
Dharma of gnats, nothing disturbs
The fixed orders but a reluctant question:
Is the world half-empty or half-full?
Through the leaves, traffic patterns
Bring the interstate to a light
Whose gears a semi seems to shift
With three knife-blade thrusts, angry
To overtake what moves on ahead.
This tree’s broken under the day.
The red drips from stem to stem.
That wasn’t the question. It was,
Why did we forget to talk about love?
We had all the time in the world.
What we forgot, I heard a voice
Behind me say, was everything else.
Love will leave us alone if we let it.
Besides, the world has no time for us,
The tree no questions of the flower,
One more day no help for all this night.