Elizabeth Bishop and the Poetry of Losing Your Shit

I’ve been using an excuse to put off a lot of things: “No, I can’t—I’m moving.” Buying boxes and tape, making the right appointments, and clearing my schedule took a week and a half, somehow, and I had suspected that I was planning too much until suddenly I was in the middle of the move, running up city blocks, following a truck in a car through red lights on the West Side Highway. I was thinking about which street was a one-way and which bridge would have the least traffic, and it was clear that I had been planning around the inevitability of not thinking about anything else.

I was moving alone for the first time in a while, so I tried to stave off my awareness of this fact by enlisting a friend to be there and be calm when I was about to lose my temper. But at some point he had to stay with my cat while I argued with the movers about the possibility of squeezing my bed frame through a narrow Brooklyn hallway. Their position on the matter was presented as immovable; they wouldn’t be able to push it through, and they were threatening to leave it there, in the hall. I pressed my point; they could push it through, and they couldn’t leave, not after they had arrived late, and where was I supposed to sleep anyway? “The bed is the most important part of a move,” I said lamely. One mover thought to take a door off its hinges, and I agreed and stared at his handiwork, holding screws in my hand, thinking of my abandoned bed frame on the sidewalk. But with the door gone, a waiver signed, and sweat on everyone’s faces, the leader of the team still shrugged. I drew in a deep breath, felt like I was going to fall from a great height, and tears came to my eyes—if I were less kind to myself, I would say they came like clockwork. The team took one look at me, took one look at each other, and decided they could push one last time, this time getting it through with an ease of which I’m now fairly suspicious. I cheered and instantly began worrying about their tip.

Later that night, when I was actually alone, I panicked because I didn’t know which box had my copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems. I’ve been reading it before going to bed, and something about the experience with the movers had reminded me of her poem “In the Waiting Room.” Perhaps it was the banality of a lot of the day’s events: waiting at stoplights, wondering what to eat and when. But maybe it was what interrupts six-year-old Elizabeth’s reading of National Geographic. She’s staring at the “black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs.” (“Their breasts were horrifying,” she cracks.) She hears a cry and thinks at first that it is her aunt from within the doctor’s room. But then, well, here’s the rest of the poem. As it’s a Bishop poem, it is both typical of and better than those moments of self-awareness that shock the system for only a few seconds, then bring you back to the quotidian just as quickly.

I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them,
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
—I couldn’t look any higher—
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How—i didn’t know any
word for it—how “unlikely” …
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

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