The Marvelous Elizabeth Bishop

Here in the land of western waterfalls snow finally concedes to rain and rain means occasional lightning, which makes me think of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem.

This poem, “It is marvelous to wake up together,” was not printed during Bishop’s life but was discovered among her personal papers after her death. It’s a love poem, which is somewhat uncharacteristic as Bishop did not typically focus on romantic love in her poetry.

Entirely characteristic, though, is Bishop’s power of vision. In this poem it is both wide and subtle:

It is marvellous to wake up together

At the same minute; marvellous to hear

The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,

To feel the air clear

As if electricity had passed through it

From a black mesh of wires in the sky.

All over the roof the rain hisses,

And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;

It is the prickling air that wakes us up.

If lightning struck the house now, it would run

From the four blue china balls on top

Down the roof and down the rods all around us,

And we imagine dreamily

How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning

Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view

Of night and lying flat on one’s back

All things might change equally easily,

Since always to warn us there must be these black

Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise

The world might change to something quite different,

As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,

Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

The beauty here is stunning: intimate yet unsentimental thanks to Bishop’s ingenious style, her serenity, the controlled elegant lines, her judicious use of rhyme.

The coupling of erotic and atmospheric electricity is an obvious choice but Bishop makes it work through her brilliant power of observation. Avoiding the trap of clichéd metaphor, she does not liken human eros to lightning but goes the reverse route, beginning with the larger world and imagining a literal storm that both shares its heat with the lovers and contrasts the force of hissing rain with the “light falling of kisses.”

And the image of the house as a “bird-cage of lightning” in the second stanza becomes a rich symbol of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of love: intimate and prone to ensnare.

But the third stanza is what moves things to a higher level of subtlety, to something beyond a simple love lyric in the hands of a masterful technician.

The idea is that change comes as easily as a lightning storm that delights rather than worries – delights because it’s dark and the speaker is in bed with her lover. With its hints of motion and progress, this joining of eros and change seems hopeful, perhaps a quintessentially American hope, nourished most obviously by the poetic legacy of Walt Whitman. Bishop’s lines in fact recall “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” when Whitman writes of a meeting with a lover in the dark near water in motion:

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll

slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed

to me whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same

cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face

inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I

was happy.

Interestingly though, Bishop mentions neither happiness nor progress but the more neutral “change,” which could be benevolent, yet there are subtle hints of foreboding: the electrical wires dangling are always there, but they are there to warn of impending change, not to celebrate it. What is this vague “something quite different” the world might become?

I believe the poem deliberately leaves this question unanswered because it wants us to imagine things fortunate and ominous. It allows us the electrified pleasure of eros and the dark house charged with light for just a moment. It wants us to take innocent pleasure in the lovers’ changing kisses, and it wants us to consider that the wires might destroy rather than enchant.

And it wants us to remember that this belief in easy change is rooted in the “simplified point of view” nurtured by darkness, by the vulnerability of sleep, of sudden waking, of love.

And maybe that’s the poem’s genius and its subtlety. These words, deeply generous and not at all naïve, might be telling us something about the inevitable force of a simplified perspective, the force of experience both limited and overwhelming to shape our larger perceptions of things.

Marvelous indeed, and a fitting last gift from one of the world’s best twentieth century poets.