Marianne Boruch‘s Essay, “From Bishop’s Blue Pharmacy,” was published in NER 13.2 (1990).
In 1978, a year before her death, Elizabeth Bishop finished a poem, “Santarém,” which placed her in the crux of the marvelous, at the conflux of two of the world’s great rivers, the Amazon and the Tapajos. The poem rings with exotic, chaotic life – carts hooked up to zebus, those curly-horned oxen; young nuns waving, still in their blinding white habits, off to a downriver mission by steamer; a whole lovely racket of departure and arrival. But this is mere overture; the revelation lies in wait, and the poem gradually narrows to its delivery. Entering a “blue pharmacy,” as she calls it, the poet discovers the real fortune – a wasps’ nest, empty, and placed lovingly on a shelf: “Small, exquisite,” she tells us, “clean matte white and hard as stucco.” Even-tually, the pharmacist gives it to her, and she carries off her prize to the waiting ship. There, a Mr. Swan, fellow-passenger and retiring head of Philips Electric – “really a very nice old man” Bishop assures us – blurts out, simply, “What’s that ugly thing?” And so, on such a question, the poem ends (Complete Poems 185).
I can play this movie in my head a hundred times, and I still return to that moment amid the dusty bottles and boxes, the peculiar shade of that “blue pharmacy.” It is the surprise of that gleaming, tidy relic – the wasps’ nest high in its honored place – that triggers my wonder at how a simple image presses itself into memory as fuse and heart to make a poem, to demand that it unfold as it keeps unfolding.
Surprise. How that is linked to finding, to finding out. I think of once finding a similar unexpected treasure, a map, but a wholly different kind of map, a quick, aerial re-take on the earth, calling itself ‘The Top of the World,” its living center not Asia or America or Europe, but the north pole and its arctic air, frozen islands by the hundreds, strips of cold blue – a map, in short, governed by nothing but surprise, that love of the odd angle. There it was at a garage sale a couple of summers ago, leaning against the paint-dripped bookcase, next to the sprung wing-back chair. I stood and stared; I still stand and stare in my own upstairs hall, transfixed. This may be one of those indulgent, dream-lit moments, but I am thinking Elizabeth Bishop would have loved such a map, not as much as the wasps’ nest, perhaps, but probably enough to have outbid me for it at the edge of that slow backyard, overgrown with anthémis and delphinium and poppy.[read more]