Bishop Translates Paz’s “January First”

I was disappointed to discover that I liked very few of Bishop’s translations, but perhaps shouldn’t have been considering that I generally don’t like her style of poetry and it seems only natural that she would translate poems in the style she admires.

Nevertheless, I was quite taken with Bishop’s translation of Octavio Paz’s “January First:”

The year’s doors open
like those of language
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
—Nor possibly my being invented, either.
You were in another day.

You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among the appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees,
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

Cambridge, Mass,. 1 January 1975.

I love the perspective on life this poem offers. While not a new perspective it is certainly a perspective we constantly lose in the everyday clutter we call our lives.

It’s all too easy, especially at my age, to forget that each day we enter the “unknown” if we’re willing to look at it freshly.

In that sense, we do invent each day. Perhaps New Year’s Day is the best day to realize this, but it’s also true every day of the year.

As I’ve noted a few times in this blog, one of the reasons I read poetry regularly is precisely because at its best it jolts us into a new awareness, as implied by the opening line, “The year’s doors open/like those of language/toward the unknown.”

Bishop’s “One Art”

I’ve finished all of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems except for her translations, which I’ll discuss later, and there are surprisingly few poems I’ve marked as ones I really like, five, to be exact.

Judging from the poems I do like, which include several that are often anthologized, like “The Armadillo” and “First Death In Nova Scotia,” I suspect that what I don’t like about her poems is the overwhelming sense of “objectivity.” Too many of the poems seem to do nothing but describe a scene, describe it so coldly and meticulously that you can’t help but sense the artist’s alienation from what she has chosen to describe.

It is precisely those poems that try to articulate this alienation, those mentioned above and, particularly “One Art” that I do like:


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I hope that I wasn’t influenced to choose this poem because I heard the author read it here, but I probably was. It always seems difficult to totally ignore what we’ve been told are “good” poems prior to actually reading them ourselves.

I suspect that reading this poem in the context of all of her other poems influenced me, too. In some ways, this poem seems to summarize her outlook on life, which is not too surprising when you read her biography.

More importantly, the poem precisely captures a moment most of us have felt more than once in our lives.

Everyone has lost many of the things mentioned in the poem, none of which seemed disastrous. But too many of us have also lost those things that do seem disastrous. Even at fifty-five it hurts to be a “motherless-child.”

I still remember that period in my life when I repeatedly played Ray Charles’ version of “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck,” I wouldn’t have any luck at all, and ironically referred to it as my theme song.

Things often have a way of righting themselves, though it certainly doesn’t seem that way when you’re in the middle of a losing streak. Unfortunately, for some people things never do quite right themselves, and who can blame them if they’re left feeling lost and alienated?

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

I’ve been struggling through the first eighty-four pages of Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927-1979 and finding it impossible to identify with most of the poems as they are long, detailed examinations of ordinary, everyday situations which seem to lead nowhere. While it is remarkable that someone actually pays such close attention to everyday settings, most of the poems just plain bore the INTP in me.

Other more symbolic poems like “The Weed” are more interesting, but nearly impossible to comprehend, as if the narrator’s dream were recorded directly on to the page without any effort to interpret it.

Perhaps it is finding “The Fish” in this context that made it seem so extraordinary, a poem of minute detail that explodes into a vision of nature:

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of its mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
— the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly —
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
— It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
— if you could call it a lip —
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels — until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Perhaps I merely liked this poem because it brought back old memories of the picture of the magical flounder in Grimm’s fairy tale “The Fisherman’s Wife.?

Though Bishop goes out of her way to paint a “realistic picture? of her fish, in the end it’s the “fabulous? aspect of the fish that nets this reader.

The poem also reminds me of Faulkner’s fable of “The Bear,? where an ancient, larger-than-life bear represents Nature. In terms of fish tales, this is The One That Got Away, the giant fish fishermen the world around talk about when they gather. And the only way one can hang on to This Fish is to let it go, to continue the legend.

Of course, it could be that I liked this poem simply because it reminds me of the joy I sometimes experience when I’m totally immersed in the moment in a particular place, a brief moment when I feel at one with nature and myself.

Not surprisingly, this much-anthologized poem has inspired considerable commentary, some of which is discussed here.

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