Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Suicide of a Moderate Dictator

Elizabeth Bishop


for Carlos Lacerda

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone ear-phones
sapping the festooned switchboard's strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
- the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from the un-proof-read newspapers,
crocking the way the unfocused photographs
of crooked faces do that soil our coats,
our tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths.

Today's a day when those who work
are idling. Those who played must work
and hurry, too, to get it done,
with little dignity or none.
The newspapers are sold; the kiosk shutters
crash down. But anyway, in the night
the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets
and sidewalks everywhere; a sediment's splashed
even to the first floors of apartment houses.

This is a day that's beautiful as well,
and warm and clear. At seven o'clock I saw
the dogs being walked along the famous beach
as usual, in a shiny gray-green dawn,
leaving their paw prints draining in the wet.
The line of breakers was steady and the pinkish,
segmented rainbow steadily hung above it.
At eight two little boys were flying kites.

I've blogged extensively about the new collection of Bishop's fragments and unpublished pieces elsewhere, so I'll spare you the larger discussion. This particular poem is one of the most polished of the collection though, and showcases admirably Bishop's gift for both atmosphere and surprise. Some of the phrases that Bishop throws in so casually are simply stunning ('tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths) and the sense of expected panic, of the fake calm of a day when a storm is expected comes across perfectly. "in the night / the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets / and sidewalks everywhere", Bishop writes, and you can just picture the town teetering on the edge of nervous anticipation. Even the normalcy of the last stanza, the obliviousness of the truly innocent (I'm reminded of Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts, that line about 'how everything turns quite leisurely away from the disaster'), only heightens the sense of submerged tension in the poem.


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