Saturday, September 19, 2020

Crusoe in England by Elizabeth Bishop

 Crusoe in England  


A new volcano has erupted, 

the papers say, and last week I was reading    

where some ship saw an island being born:    

at first a breath of steam, ten miles away;    

and then a black fleck—basalt, probably— 

rose in the mate’s binoculars 

and caught on the horizon like a fly. 

They named it. But my poor old island’s still    

un-rediscovered, un-renamable. 

None of the books has ever got it right. 


Well, I had fifty-two 

miserable, small volcanoes I could climb    

with a few slithery strides— 

volcanoes dead as ash heaps. 

I used to sit on the edge of the highest one    

and count the others standing up, 

naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.    

I’d think that if they were the size    

I thought volcanoes should be, then I had    

become a giant; 

and if I had become a giant, 

I couldn’t bear to think what size    

the goats and turtles were, 

or the gulls, or the overlapping rollers    

—a glittering hexagon of rollers    

closing and closing in, but never quite,    

glittering and glittering, though the sky    

was mostly overcast. 


My island seemed to be 

a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s    

left-over clouds arrived and hung 

above the craters—their parched throats    

were hot to touch. 

Was that why it rained so much? 

And why sometimes the whole place hissed?    

The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,    

hissing like teakettles. 

(And I’d have given years, or taken a few,    

for any sort of kettle, of course.) 

The folds of lava, running out to sea, 

would hiss. I’d turn. And then they’d prove    

to be more turtles. 

The beaches were all lava, variegated,    

black, red, and white, and gray; 

the marbled colors made a fine display.    

And I had waterspouts. Oh, 

half a dozen at a time, far out, 

they’d come and go, advancing and retreating,    

their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches    

of scuffed-up white. 

Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,    

sacerdotal beings of glass ... I watched    

the water spiral up in them like smoke.    

Beautiful, yes, but not much company. 


I often gave way to self-pity. 

“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must. 

I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there    

a moment when I actually chose this? 

I don’t remember, but there could have been.”    

What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway? 

With my legs dangling down familiarly    

over a crater’s edge, I told myself 

“Pity should begin at home.” So the more    

pity I felt, the more I felt at home. 


The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun    

rose from the sea, 

and there was one of it and one of me.    

The island had one kind of everything:    

one tree snail, a bright violet-blue 

with a thin shell, crept over everything,    

over the one variety of tree, 

a sooty, scrub affair. 

Snail shells lay under these in drifts    

and, at a distance, 

you’d swear that they were beds of irises.    

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.    

I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.    

Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects;    

and so I made home-brew. I’d drink    

the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff 

that went straight to my head 

and play my home-made flute 

(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)    

and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.    

Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?    

I felt a deep affection for 

the smallest of my island industries.    

No, not exactly, since the smallest was    

a miserable philosophy. 


Because I didn’t know enough. 

Why didn’t I know enough of something?    

Greek drama or astronomy? The books    

I’d read were full of blanks; 

the poems—well, I tried 

reciting to my iris-beds, 

“They flash upon that inward eye, 

which is the bliss ...” The bliss of what?    

One of the first things that I did 

when I got back was look it up. 


The island smelled of goat and guano.    

The goats were white, so were the gulls,    

and both too tame, or else they thought    

I was a goat, too, or a gull. 

Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek, 

baa ... shriek ... baa ... I still can’t shake    

them from my ears; they’re hurting now. 

The questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies    

over a ground of hissing rain 

and hissing, ambulating turtles 

got on my nerves. 

When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded 

like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.    

I’d shut my eyes and think about a tree,    

an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.    

I’d heard of cattle getting island-sick.    

I thought the goats were. 

One billy-goat would stand on the volcano 

I’d christened Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair 

(I’d time enough to play with names),    

and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.    

I’d grab his beard and look at him.    

His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up 

and expressed nothing, or a little malice.    

I got so tired of the very colors!    

One day I dyed a baby goat bright red    

with my red berries, just to see    

something a little different. 

And then his mother wouldn’t recognize him. 


Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food 

and love, but they were pleasant rather 

than otherwise. But then I’d dream of things    

like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it    

for a baby goat. I’d have 

nightmares of other islands 

stretching away from mine, infinities    

of islands, islands spawning islands,    

like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs    

of islands, knowing that I had to live    

on each and every one, eventually,    

for ages, registering their flora,    

their fauna, their geography. 


Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it    

another minute longer, Friday came.    

(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)    

Friday was nice. 

Friday was nice, and we were friends.    

If only he had been a woman! 

I wanted to propagate my kind,    

and so did he, I think, poor boy. 

He’d pet the baby goats sometimes, 

and race with them, or carry one around.    

—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body. 


And then one day they came and took us off. 


Now I live here, another island, 

that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? 

My blood was full of them; my brain    

bred islands. But that archipelago 

has petered out. I’m old. 

I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,    

surrounded by uninteresting lumber. 

The knife there on the shelf— 

it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. 

It lived. How many years did I    

beg it, implore it, not to break? 

I knew each nick and scratch by heart, 

the bluish blade, the broken tip, 

the lines of wood-grain on the handle ... 

Now it won’t look at me at all.    

The living soul has dribbled away.    

My eyes rest on it and pass on. 


The local museum’s asked me to 

leave everything to them: 

the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes, 

my shedding goatskin trousers 

(moths have got in the fur), 

the parasol that took me such a time    

remembering the way the ribs should go. 

It still will work but, folded up, 

looks like a plucked and skinny fowl. 

How can anyone want such things? 

—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles 

seventeen years ago come March. 

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