Academic journal article The Southern Review

One Cluster, Bright, Astringent

Academic journal article The Southern Review

One Cluster, Bright, Astringent

Article excerpt

The year Elizabeth Bishop died, I learned to read. 1979: Voyager 1 enters the Jovian system, streaming microscopic particles and dust. Approaching the planet's magnetic field, a robotic probe releases a greeting. Packaged with a message from President Carter, the gold-plated copper disk contains birdsong and whale song, salutations in fifty-five human languages, crashing waves of thunder and surf. After making its introduction, the spacecraft continues its mission. In one of the more than eighteen thousand satellite-captured images, the planetary god almost seems to answer Earth's inquiry. Attended by its retinue of moons Jupiter hangs unmoving, its Great Red Spot mouthing the long o of Callisto, Io, Europa, its faint rings reverberating some untranslatable song across the orange-brown clouds, faint traces of white ice.

Far from the banded atmosphere, I sit at a kitchen table in California moving my fingers across the coarse texture of letters raised on multicolored cards. Mother shuffles the deck, asks me to repeat the sounds I see. Vowels are yellow; double vowels, a limy green. Consonants are lavender; blended sounds like dr, pl, sk, an odd shade of salmon. I love the soft ah housed in box and wash; the bristly i that so quickly turns from fish to field, fire to bird; e's sudden silence.

The phonetic cards have pictures on their undersides; I flip one over after sounding out s-e-a-g-u-l-l, then run my finger the length of an outstretched wing. Mother encourages me to write those words I've mastered in a black-and-white ledger. (I've scrawled my name on its cover.) She litters the notebook's columns with metallic stars to encourage my unsteady, oversized print. Within weeks, we're stringing phrases. Their sounds swell and turn degrees of purple and green and blue until my whole world becomes a prism of words. Soon, sentences animate not only the pages of my Little Golden Books, but the printed faces of cereal boxes and street signs.

                                      * * * 

Nearly twenty years later, Bishop's work is teaching me to be a better reader. It's night in a northwest corridor of Washington, D.C. I'm in my third-floor bedroom at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, not studying exactly, but opening and closing books, searching for something I'll know when I find it:

    I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
   slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
   icily free above the stones,
   above the stones and then the world... 

With this, the Kirov's white-washed walls dissolve. Soon the entire building falls away, taking the city with it. I'm pulled, as if by some electric current, into what Wallace Stevens calls "the planet on the table," this strange planet where, unlike what I've long been taught, repetition doesn't equal redundancy and things that are "cold dark deep" are also "absolutely clear."

I read Bishop's poem. I read it again and again. There are things about "At the Fishhouses" I recognize, things so intimate, immediate, they seem to spring from my own memory. The "million Christmas trees.../waiting for Christmas" and oversized seaside tubs lined

    with layers of beautiful herring scales
   and the wheelbarrows.., similarly plastered
   with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
   with small iridescent flies crawling on them 

carry me back to Northern California. Back, to where coastal waters are so cold "If you should dip your hand in/your wrist would ache immediately,/your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn." As if my bones are sucking snow-ice, I feel a sudden chill. And in my head, a glacier whose song starts to coolly seethe and then to burn until all around me is liquid, all is rising and breaking in a series of dark gray waves...

But the poems waters are not the Pacific's. Among California's "wild jagged rocks," there are no scattered "lobster pots." I've never known (or will ever know) any fisherman "friend of my grandfather" smoking Lucky Strikes while casually netting his nets. …

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