Ms. Bishop & Her Secret Self

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I have been meaning to post Elizabeth Bishop’s “Vague Poem” for the last six months. This timely & coincidental challenge stands as a prompt to plod ahead and risk copyright infringment. I really do love this poem. I hope you find some pleasure there too. It appeared in the Best American Poetry 2001, edited by Robert Hass. The following paragraph preceding the poem is an excerpt from Hass’ write-up on Bishop.

“Like the majority of Bishop’s poems, ‘Vague Poem’ was published first in The New Yorker. It is among the fifty or sixty unfinished poems found in her papers at Vassar College library, and it will appear in a volume of posthumous works that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux will publish under the title Edgar Allan Poem and the Jukebox. As her friend Lloyd Schwartz has observed, in her lifetime Bishop published very few poems with an explicitly sexual content. Since her death, however, many of the poems that have surfaced, either completed or nearly completed, have been quite strikingly sexual.”

 

Vague Poem

 

The trip west.
—I think I dreamed that trip.
They talked a lot of “rose rocks”
or maybe “rock roses”
—I’m not sure now, but someone tried to get me some.
(And two or three students had.)

 

She said she had some at her house.
They were by the back door, she said.
—A ramshackle house.
An Army house? No, “a Navy house.” Yes,
that far inland.
There was nothing by the back door but dirt
or that same dry, monochrome, sepia straw I’d seen everywhere.
Oh, she said, the dog has carried them off.
(A big black dog, female, was dancing around us.)

 

Later, as we drank tea from mugs, she found one
“a sort of one.” “This one is just beginning. See—
you can see here, it’s beginning to look like a rose.
It’s—well, a crystal, crystals form—
I don’t know any geology myself …”
(Neither did I.)
Faintly, I could make out—perhaps—in the dull,
rose-red lump of (apparently) soil
a rose-like shape; faint glitters … Yes, perhaps
there was a secret, powerful crystal at work inside.

 

I almost saw it: turning into a rose
without any of the intervening
roots, stem, buds, and so on; just
earth to rose and back again.
Crystallography and its laws:
something I once wanted badly to study,
until I learned that it would involve a lot of arithmetic,
that is, mathematics.

 

Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose …
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
forming, folding over,
unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex—

 

from The New Yorker

 

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