Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tuesday Poem: "Arrival at Santos" by Elizabeth Bishop

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery;
impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brillant rag.
So that's the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,

descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen's

skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall

s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail the letteres we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.

by Elizabeth Bishop

This poem was first published in the New Yorker in 1952.

Photo Credit: Alice Helen Methfessel, courtesy of Frank Bidart

For more about poet, Elizabeth Bishop, see:

This is an unusual poem in its format and layout. In line 2, stanza 4, the phrase "a strange and brillant rag" looks like the word should be brilliant, but Bishop published it as "brillant". I cannot find such a word in the dictionary.

At the end of line 4, stanza 7, Bishop carries the "s" which one would expect at the end of the place name "Glen Fall" onto the beginning of line 1, stanza 8. Whether Bishop does this to play with the reader's perceptions I cannot know as she died in 1979 and we cannot ask her.

We might expect her to be mailing letters in line1, stanza 10, but Bishop publishes the phrase as "the letteres" which sounds vaguely French, but isn't since the French word for letter is lettre.

Despite, or perhaps because of these eccentricities, this is a fascinating poem of travel only undertaken sixty years ago.

This is where Elizabeth Bishop is talking about:


and these are the kind of things you can do in Santos these days:


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Andrew - I find Elizabeth Bishop intriguing and maddening. Not just the subjects she writes about, but the way she writes.