You are fishing on the bay,
your cigars and tobacco on the dining room table,
as I climb the steep russet stairs
to Bishop’s childhood bedroom,
painted aqua like motels in Florida, which she called
the state with the prettiest name. The quilt
is peach and rose and tan. There’s a tiny slate
like the one on which she practiced
her letters and numbers with delight,
especially her eights. The linoleum
looks like it belongs in a kitchen,
and there’s chamber pot under a small white chair.
Her mother’s room is so close, just out the door
and to the left, the walls slanting in on both of them.
How did Elizabeth not bump her head
on the slope over her tiny bed? How did movers
get the bed into that tiny room? How did she go
from place to place, her mother’s scream
following her? How did she not scream
like her mother had when the dressmaker came?
She was sure if anyone took scissors to the fabric
it would bleed.
You said maybe
her mother married her father
when he was already terminal
and that explains his young death, since
there is no definitive story on how the couple met
in Massachusetts, her mother having left Great Village
for Worcester to work as a nurse.
I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it makes sense,
and in the next biography I read, a writer proposes
the same. You are the fiction writer,
I am the poet. I hope you are catching trout.
I am rereading Bishop’s “The Fish,” and I imagine
you are letting the creatures go as she did.
I sit on her bed then lie on it, and peer up
through the skylight she made famous
when she became a star-target.
There’s a curtain over it now since Elizabeth
nor anyone else has to get up at dawn
to mow the cemetery plots or walk the cow
to pasture up Scrabble Road—
that was after her mother went to the hospital
and never came back, and her Gammie and Pa
were thinking of chores to keep her busy.
Elizabeth was asthmatic like I am
and was known to have too much to drink.
She was never able to visit her mother
in the sanitarium. I wonder if that would have
made things more bearable.
When I was a kid,
my mother took me to see my grandmother
after her shock treatments. There was a duck pond
that I thought was for swans
because the place seemed otherworldly,
placid patients being wheeled to the water’s edge
by straight-backed nurses, their immaculate caps
like toy boats. The silence made it the perfect place
to sit in the grass and read, which I did.
I felt at home with the patients, just like the way
I feel at home in this house. My grandmother
wasn’t talking yet, but she would be soon.
She could eat broth, but nothing solid
since she missed her husband
and felt responsible for his death
because they’d had their worst fight the night before.
When she found him, he was slumped
near the sink on the floor. Maybe he was on his way
to get water to see if that would help him breathe.
Afterwards my grandmother walked around that spot
to do the dishes, or lifted one leg high in the air
as though she were climbing over his body, her other leg
following in a strange pantomime.
like Elizabeth’s, was also a nurse and said
women would sometimes come to the hospital
diagnosed as having nervous breakdowns
when they were simply exhausted.
After a few days of being served trays of food
and watching TV, they were ready to go home
to take care of their families. Elizabeth’s mother
wasn’t like that. Nor my grandmother.
But, still, my mother’s story
made me less afraid of madness.
As a teenager, my grandmother’s stay at the sanitarium
all came back to me when I read Lady Sings the Blues.
Billie Holiday said the rehabilitation center
was hard, but she has sunshine and sunglasses
and a white bathrobe and peace.
Or maybe that was Diana Ross in the movie.
To be alone and apart, even to get clean,
always seemed glamorous to me.
You and I sleep
in Gammie and Pa’s bed under two quilts.
We have stopped counting the number of beds
we’ve been in together, though
I am willing to start over again, the way
I made a timeline to see if, before we met,
we were ever in the same city at the same time,
if we could have passed each other on some street
in Pennsylvania or New York. You and I
travel and travel towards each other,
the travel something other than escape
from a scream. We have slept in beds
in Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan,
South Carolina, Rhode Island, New Hampshire,
and Quebec. The comforters and pillows have been
yellow or maroon or white. Like Elizabeth,
I also love the number eight
because it is the infinity sign
looping back on itself like a complicated O,
two O’s really, one on top of another,
the way the two of us sleep under two quilts
even though it is May.
You are fishing on the bay
and I am missing you, but the missing
is necessary for me to go back to childhood,
where my grandmother can get better and then worse,
and in the end take too many pills
as did Elizabeth’s last real lover in Brazil.
The death haunted Elizabeth,
haunted my mother, both of whom
Elizabeth was not so lucky
in love. But my mother was—
my father said there was no suicide note
and therefore no one was at fault.
Despite the empty bottle of Valium,
it was all a mistake, and my grandmother
was buried in a Catholic cemetery,
a rosary lacing her fingers, clasped over her chest.
She was lowered into the ground
next to her husband who I’m sure forgave her,
just the way I hope you’ll forgive me
if ever we have an awful fight.
Of course, I would rather we never quarrel at all.
Of course, I would rather death never do us part.
Of course, I would rather you get home soon
with your delicious salty smell and windburn.
Of course, I don’t know if seeing her mother again
would have even helped Elizabeth,
but in a poem anything can happen
so I introduce them,
sits down next to her mother’s wheelchair and reads
in the grass like I did. Since it’s Nova Scotia,
I throw in a pheasant and peahen.
Elizabeth and her mother delight in the colors.
Neither of them is afraid. Her mother has finally
let the seamstress make her a purple skirt
to replace her mourning clothes. Elizabeth
hears the real story of how her parents met.
Maybe it was at an ice skating rink,
her mother’s blades making perfect
figure eights. Maybe it was in a hospital,
their eyes locking as Gertrude pressed
a cold cloth to William’s forehead.
Whatever the story, Elizabeth
is enthralled by the romance
I hear tires
in the driveway and run to the door
then onto the porch to welcome you back.