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Apartment in LemeElizabeth Bishop
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Vol. 28 No. 2 · 26 January 2006
Poem

Apartment in Leme

Elizabeth Bishop

405 words

1.
Off to the left, those islands, named and renamed
so many times now everyone’s forgotten
their names, are sleeping.

Pale rods of light, the morning’s implements,
lie in among them tarnishing already,
just like our knives and forks.

Because we live at your open mouth, oh Sea,
with your cold breath blowing warm, your warm breath cold,
like in the fairy tale.

Not only do you tarnish our knives and forks
– regularly the silver coffee-pot goes into
dark, rainbow-edged eclipse;

the windows blur and mirrors are wet to touch.
Custodia complains, and then you frizz
her straightened, stiffened hair.

Sometimes you embolden, sometimes bore.
You smell of codfish and old rain. Homesick, the salt
weeps in the salt-cellars.

Breathe in. Breathe out. We’re so accustomed to
those sounds we only hear them in the night.
Then they come closer

but you keep your distance.

2.
It’s growing lighter. On the beach two men
get up from shallow, newspaper-lined graves.
A third sleeps on. His coverlet

is corrugated paper, a flattened box.
One running dog, two early bathers, stop
dead in their tracks; detour.

Wisps of fresh green stick to your foaming lips
like those on horses’ lips. The sand’s bestrewn:
white lilies, broken stalks,

white candles with wet, blackened wicks,
and green glass bottles for white alcohol
meant for the goddess meant to come last night.

(But you’ve emptied them all.)

3.
Perhaps she came, at that. It was so clear!
And you were keeping quiet: oh, roughened enough,
greeny-black, scaly

as one of those corroded old bronze mirrors
in all the world’s museums (How did the ancients
ever see anything in them?),

incapable of reflecting even the biggest stars.
One cluster, bright, astringent as white currants,
hung from the Magellanic Clouds

above you and the beach and its assorted
lovers and worshippers, almost within their reach
if they had noticed.

The candles flickered. Worshippers, dressed in white,
holding hands, singing, walked into you waist-deep.
The lovers lay in the sand, embraced.

Far out, saffron flares of five invisible
fishing boats wobbled and hitched along,
farther away than the stars,

weaker, and older.

4.
But for now the sun. Slowly, reluctantly,
you’re letting go of it; it slowly rises,
metallic; two-dimensional.

You sigh, and sigh again. We live at your open mouth,
with your cold breath blowing warm, your warm breath cold
like in the fairy tale

no – the legend.

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