‘Questions of Travel’ a poem by Elizabeth Bishop

It’s summer, and despite all the grim forecasts of the end of vacations, a significant segment of the population will take a break from work. In that interval folks will travel locally, internationally or vicariously through the writings of others. They will record adventures on Instagram, tweet locations and post blogs, sharing their experience along the way. Very few will memorialize their travels in poetry.

The Friday Poem this week is Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions of Travel’

In 2010, author William Boyd travelled to the house in Brazil where poet Elizabeth Bishop lived, and recorded his visit in an article for The Guardian newspaper.

“‘Questions of Travel” is one of the rare Bishop poems that one can easily interpret as autobiographical. Set squarely in the house at Samambaia, it analyses Bishop’s decision to leave America and seek her destiny, whatever that might have been, elsewhere. “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”, the poet asks. “Must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?” And then, in the very last lines, it prompts another question: “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” The answer we are meant to infer is, I believe, a confident “no”. Bishop – born in Worcester, Massachusetts, a New Englander through and through – was made by her life in Brazil. Brazil became her home – however eccentric, irritating, enthralling, frightening, exotic and perplexing a place it might seem to be, depending on the occasion. When she finally left it in 1971, for the last time, the happiest period of her life was over.”

‘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,
instantly 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 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 hours of 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 not 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?”

Elizabeth Bishop, 1965

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