Questions of Travel

By | 1 May 2018

Elizabeth Bishop packs for Seattle, December 1965

Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969).

The unseen night creatures—scaled and feathered
for their occult ceremonies—rasp and call outside
in the dark beyond the half dark that
surrounds this marbled, half-lit house.
There is little to occupy my nest of suitcases
on the narrow bed: the hillock of a portable typewriter,
a few pairs of shoes, three suits,
a middle-aged woman’s underclothes,
a clutch of diaries and letters,
The Poetics of Music (Vintage Books, 95¢).
Some other books will go by sea,
boxed in a ship’s vast and steely womb,
or else be left to visitors and the foxing elements.
There is, after all, nothing too large or too small
that can’t be left to the mise-en-scène of Brazil,
framed in this teeming window.

This house, midway between city and jungle,
is not indifferent to politics and promenades,
carnivorous plants and tidal rivers.
Neighbouring houses, though, are lit with gasoline,
and tenanted by defeated goats and unbrushed horses.
Underneath us all, the heavy, red earth keeps faith
with the human structures built upon it,
as if there was no such thing as
hubris or landslides or phone lines.
Meanwhile living things spring and decline,
in their godless and Biblical manner.

Obscene and prodigious vegetables are revered here.
Leather-skinned men work their Virgilian work
and hang their homely pots of lunch
on the shaded branches of trees.
The region’s fog, the rain and rainbows,
the obdurate sun; they were only ever
metaphors for the weather we call emotion,
that daily melodrama of violence and rectitude,
like an updating of all the old hymns.

The moon now set, I will sleep alone
like Sappho, leaving only the mirror to report—
in its contrary way—on the state of things.
Tomorrow begins the condition we call ‘in transit’
(Rio—Lima—Miami—Los Angeles—Seattle);
all those hours to think upon a decade
of time spent in the close geographies
of vehicles, gardens, and rooms.

All these human thresholds will one day give way
to a place beyond cities and hills, plains and jungles—
to a splendid and heartless book,
where it is neither night nor day,
neither here nor there, neither me nor you;
a place where a rain endlessly pours,
with nothing ever to break its fall.


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