Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate: A Small Killing

Moore, Alan; Oscar Zarate (2003), A Small Killing, Avatar Press
ISBN 1-59291-009-2

Alan Moore is one of the titans of the comic book industry and probably the best living writer in the business, especially after Frank Miller went off the rails. Unlike a few of the leading writers/artists of alternative comics (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a raving fan of Charles Burns’ and Jeff Smith’s work), Moore managed, throughout his career, to touch on a truly vast array of notes and genres, and rare is the unsuccessful book penned by Moore. With whatever artist he collaborated, whether he worked on a creator-owned book or for DC Comics, whether he wrote an elegiac Superman story or the pornographic narratives of Lost Girls, Moore always came through and produced a standout work, one that was both recognizably his, and that gave the artists he worked with the space and freedom to shine, as well. A Small Killing is no exception to this rule. Originally published in 1991, it is a fascinating work of art, both a compelling story, as well as a intriguing, seductive, colorful maelstrom of a comic. Both the writing and the art are exceptional, and the overall product, short as it is, is a tremendously powerful, awfully dense political and creative statement, which is both completely original, and full of echoes to contemporary and more classical art and literature. Although its content seems mired in the 1980s, since it tells a story about a yuppie’s nervous breakdown, replete with cultural and political criticism of 80s politics, it actually exchanges the narrow scope of contemporary reference for history and psychology. It is not surprising that this book has been repeatedly picked up by various publishers and been reprinted several times since the 1991 edition, then published by Victor Gollancz, dropped out of circulation. This book is both terrific and terrifying, and it’s an understatement to say I recommend it to everyone.

In the coming weeks, I will also review Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing enthusiastically, but one of the most interesting things about A Small Killing is the fact that, unlike, say, Swamp Thing or Supreme, it’s really not a graphic novel tailored to and of primary interest for readers of the genre. The reason for this is mostly Oscar Zarate’s stunning art. Zarate’s pages, if one associates them with other artists in the industry at all, reminded me most of José Munoz’ (who is probably the main influence on Zarate) or Bill Sienkiewicz’ work (say, Electra: Assassin or Stray Toasters). But while the latter is a well-known artist with a thick portfolio of excellent and popular work, many, like me, will draw a blank where the name of Oscar Zarate is concerned. Even searches in online venues come up almost empty. Reading them we learn he has illustrated a handful of books, penciled a few short stories and co-created A Small Killing. While it’s hardly surprising that a masterpiece like this would overshadow the rest of an artist’s work, it is indeed odd that there doesn’t appear to be much of a ‘rest’ if one’s resumé includes work as singular and powerful as this. To return to the book at hand, the first thing you notice is that Zarate did not, as is usual in the genre, pencil, ink and color the panels, Instead, he appears to have painted it. Indeed, the contours and depth that an inker works with, the use a good inker makes of different degrees of clarity and visibility, of shadows, of light- and of darkness, Zarate hands over to colors. The strongest contours in A Small Killing are those of Zarate’s intrepid pencil and what appears to be a very fine ink brush. Some panels are almost exclusively penciled, with few colors entering the hailstorm of leaden lines, some seem to be completely in color, with contrast between different fields of color as the only kind of contour and boundary. From panels I found elsewhere on the web, I gather that this is, indeed, Zarate’s style, and that other writers have had comics created for them that looked similar.

However, the combination of a lack of a large back catalog of work, and the singular nature of this book right here made me feel this this style was created just for this story, these characters. The small fact that it wasn’t isn’t really important. Fact is, Moore wrote a story that Zarate’s art fit like a glove, and vice versa. It is not often that calling an artist a co-creator makes as much sense as it does here. It is almost impossible to say whose contribution is more important for the overall effect of the book, but Zarate’s style seems most specific to the kind of writing and thinking that A Small Killing represents, especially the way that Zarate’s swirling, disturbingly slanted art recalls early 20th century artists like Otto Dix but especially Max Beckmann (pre-1930s). Of course, Zarate’s work is very comic-like in the simple garishness of some of his colors and the lack of figural complexities, but the basic structure of the colors and the way he treats characters and actions in individual panels are highly reminiscent of Beckmann’s work especially where Beckmann depicts groups of people in bars. I found it impossible to read this book quickly, I think it needs to be savored page by page, and not only those pages that include a crowd tableau. Zarate slips his protagonist in and out of the artwork, sometimes as a blueish character in front of a screechingly orange mob, sometimes merging with crowds or background, sometimes threatened by erasure. Faceless sketches of people are inserted and glorious full-page visions. There’s really everything here, but the strongest part, and arguably the most important part for how the story is perceived and read, is the way Zarate treats crowds: a nameless mass of grotesque gluttony and vapid sensationalism. The slants and lights in many of those images make it impossible not to think of Dix or Beckmann.

Here the undecidability concerning Moore’s and Zarate’s contributions kicks in again, because part of that association may also be due to Moore’s story. Moore wrote, as many writers in the late 1980s and earlyy1990s, a harsh indictment of the shallow and chintzy 1980s culture. Of these writers, the most successful was probably Martin Amis, who rose to fame on the strength of his 1980s satires. But Amis’ brand of topical writing doesn’t always suit Moore very well. He doesn’t have Amis’ narrow obsession with the smallness of minds, or Amis’ bitterly biting pen. It’s not that Moore doesn’t try to be topical now and then, but he’s always best when the topical bleeds over into the allegorical, mystical, strange or the plain personal. Lucky for us as readers, and for A Small Killing, this is exactly what he does here, and it’s one of the main reasons why the book is still so readable today. Unlike Amis, Moore is a generous, easily puzzled writer, and this insecurity and openness enables him to write tales about the abyss in us and our culture without damning it all to hell. The story is simple enough, but engineered in a complex manner. It involves Timothy Hole (which is “pronounced ‘Holly’, actually”, “it’s a sort of English thing”), a middle-aged yuppie who works in advertising, and is quite talented at it. As Hole lands a new job and a great contract, marketing a fictional soda (a stand-in, quite explicitly, for Coca Cola or Pepsi) to Glasnost-era Russia. This set-up, and a few stray lines here and there may make the reader think of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) but laughs are scarcer in Moore’s and Zarate’s book. Bewildered by the difficulties this job entails, Hole suffers a nervous breakdown and encounters a small boy, apparently bent on killing him. After appearing in the middle of the road one dark evening, causing Hole to swerve and crash, he appears to follow him, menacingly, for the rest of the book. Hole develops a paranoia, screaming whenever he’s sure to have caught a glimpse of the unknown dark-haired child, sweating with fear whenever he doesn’t see him.

There would be a Twilight Zone-style cheesiness to this mysterious boy, if Moore hadn’t made sure that we all knew pretty soon who that boy was. So instead of hurrying through the book to find out what would happen to the book’s protagonist, we watch as the environment changes around Hole’s increasingly frantic mind, and we follow the flashbacks down their path to Hole’s past. Hole, who is from Sheffield, which is a British industrial town that aw its industry fail in the 1980s, moved first to London and then to New York. Mad with terror, Hole retraces his steps in the present to the places of his past, flying first to London, then taking the train to a more affluent part of Sheffield and finally walking to the poor quarters where he grew up as a child. There is no real explanation for him taking this trip, but as his memory travels back in time, so does he, in a way. Moore takes the metaphor of space and travel that discussions of flashbacks and memory entail, and mirrors it in literal travel. At the end of the book, in a revelation that is devastating for Hole, both levels come together in an epiphany of sorts. The colors of Zarate’s mad tableaux of crowds and landscapes reflect Hole’s own disturbed mind, and his alienation not only from others but from himself, from his own ideas. Hole is really unpleasant protagonist, we don’t much care for him, he betrays people, cheats them and cheats on them, a truly shallow individual who apparently found his niche in advertising. There is the palpable (and explicit) influence of existentialism on the book, but despite a few similarities, Timothy Hole is no Antoine Roquentin, and the book ends on a different note. A Small Killing is about self-discovery, about how people can change as they age and the lies they tell themselves about their own past. As the world is subsumed by Hole’s feverish brain, and past relationships with women, his parents or mentors are seen to have failed due to his increasingly uncaring and empty emotional state, we as readers are drawn into Zarate’s terrifying whirlwind of colors and lines.

But, really, it’s more than just personal. Two aspects in particular are worth mentioning. One is Moore’s mastery of various registers of speech: this skill shines most in the large, full-page crowd panels, which are flooded by small pieces of dialogue, ad culture nitwittery, empty 1980s hipsterism and other bits. The way Moore zeroes in on those moments, and the way he makes a highly economic use of them within the larger structure of A Small Killing is so well realized that it reminded me personally of William Gaddis’ use of salon banter in The Recognitions. The other aspect is political. With a handful of deft allusions and hints, Moore and Zarate settle the book firmly within a fixed historical and political context, as the book was written and published at a time when the United States were governed by George Bush père and the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher (and Thatcherite PM John Major). Thatcher is especially significant as Moore connects modern apolitical culture with the demise of a traditionally left-wing worker town, and Hole’s betrayal of himself with that same change. This sounds topical, but I don’t have a personal context for Thatcherism, and yet it still works. Hole can be made to stand for any political peregrine who endorsed ideals as a young person yet swore off them as he grew older and more successful. The central focus of A Small Killing is on the was our core beliefs about society are linked to core beliefs of ourselves. In a book of dichotomies, of overlapping levels, this is one of the most important. I’m not sure this book has been very influential or important for the genre or literature in general, but as a work of art, it is amazing, and very powerful. Alan Moore’s enormous body of work casts a large shadow, but that should not be an excuse for readers to ignore or shun a small, less widely publicized masterpiece such as A Small Killing.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Time, Time Travel and the Conventional Narrative

Click here to find an intriguing essay by writer Frederick Reiken on the subject of flashbacks in fiction and the treatment of time(travel) in such books. Below an excerpt:

What a conventional story-oriented narrative usually employs is a literary application of the temporal construct known as “block time” or a “block universe” – in which time is envisioned spatially, as if it were a four-dimensional space-time map. That’s why we accept, without hesitation, the simple literary technique of a flashback. Within the spatialized time frame of a novel, the effect of jumping to a flashback is less like going back in time and more like getting on an airplane in New Jersey and then getting off in Texas. For a more exaggerated way of thinking about block time, consider protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy has become “unstuck in time,” and has no control over which part of his life he will wind up in next. All the moments of his life — present, past, future — can be arrived at as if they were geographic places. What I’ll suggest is that a conventional, realistic work of literary fiction makes use of the same apparatus minus the spasmodic time travel. Instead of the protagonist becoming unstuck in time, the author simply moves the reader around within the block-time map. In other words, the reader is the one who becomes unstuck, because the story can go anywhere it wants.

Poems on translating Poetry (2)

Евге́ний Евтуше́нко: О ПЕРЕВОДАХ

Не страшен вольный перевод
Ничто не вольно, если любишь.
Но если музыку погубишь,
То это мысль всю переврет.
Я не за ловкость шулеров,
Я за поэтов правомочность
Есть точность жалких школяров
Но есть и творческая точность.
Не дай школярством себя стеснить
Побольше музыки, свободы!
Я верю в стихи
Не верю в просто переводы.

poems on translating poetry (1)

Zbigniew Herbert: On Translating Poetry

Like a clumsy bumblebee
he alights on a flower
bending the fragile stem
he elbows his way
through rows of petals
like pages of a dictionary
he wants in
where the fragrance and sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and can’t taste anything
he pushes on
until he bumps his head
against the yellow pistil

and that’s as far as he gets
it’s too hard
to push through the calyx
into the root
so the bee takes off again
he emerges swaggering
loudly humming:
I was in there
and those
who don’t take his word for it
can take a look at his nose
yellow with pollen

this, translated by Alissa Valles, is from the stupendously amazing Collected Poems 1956-1998.

A.L. Kennedy: What Becomes

Kennedy, A.L. (2010), What Becomes, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-49406-5

I deeply love and admire the work of A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish writer of short stories, novels and screenplays, as well as part-time stand-up comic. Thus, the following (enthusiastic) review may be slightly biased. However, I don’t think I overreach by calling Kennedy not just a master of her craft, but a great writer, a rare writer. There is, for example, her versatility: in her novels and stories, A. L. Kennedy consistently proves herself to be a writer interested in and adapt at using complex literary techniques, including even being able to nimbly slip into a smooth postmodern playfulness at times, but I value Kennedy most for being an emotive, direct, personal writer who keeps moving and surprising me. At her best, she is able to command a language that seems simple and direct, almost autobiographical, but is actually the product of a writer in full control of her craft. If we compare her work at the sentence level in her most recent collection What Becomes with other contemporary short story writers, for example Bonnie Jo Campbell, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award with her collection American Salvage, we quickly see how unerring Kennedy’s syntactic precision is. There are very few living writers who can boast of writing so simple, so seemingly indulgent and emotional sentences, that nevertheless are anything but indulgent. Their craft isn’t obvious in the sense of simple musicality or strong stylistic oddities, it’s the way Kennedy adjusts and tucks at her syntax sentence after sentence, length, music, slipping from hypotactic into terse, punning paratactic sentences and back, whatever she does, everything is just right, everything seems intentional and careful, while writers like Campbell work with slabs of language, leaving a rough, muddy surface.

But language does not take center stage in Kennedy’s stories, the stories and the characters within them do. And here’s where her success is most visible: she almost always manages to completely inhibit her characters, no matter how different they are. Her writing is a writing from inside, a writing that does not use her characters’ particulars to hang a moral tale from them, she doesn’t present them on a literary platter so they’ll be of use them as objects judged and portrayed from the outside. Kennedy writes from within, and she does it with humor, and a quiet understanding. Of course, on the other hand, she doesn’t just serve up some random slice of life. Like most writers, Kennedy, too, has very specific obsessions, and a very specific slant on life, art and writing. Although the exact focus of her obsessions varies from book to book, all her work is united by a very distinct literary vision, and she has managed to improve upon her expression of this vision as her work slowly grew and started to develop a voice of its own. More and more, Kennedy has moved from expansive books like the magnificent Everything You Need, which took up too many issues to be perfectly successful in all of them, to far more precise collections like Indelible Acts, which focuses explicitly upon bodies and the acts (or rather: performances) we subject them to. Then, her previous novel Paradise looked on dependencies, alcoholism and the unraveling of a life in an unraveling of social relationships, just as her next novel, Day, was concerned with memory and violence. Reading Kennedy today is reading a writer who knows what she can do with language, and is perfectly comfortable in her own literary idiom.

That idiom includes idiosyncrasies that might bother first time readers, yet both they and veteran readers of Kennedy’s work will likely see that there’s a writer at work in What Becomes who is able to blend a vast variety of voices and devices into stories that feel extremely natural and direct, whether they are narrated by men or women. Kennedy is a writer of the interior, thoroughly, untiringly exploring the horribleness of empty contemporary lives. Or rather: lives that are commonly viewed and narrated as empty. The characters in What Becomes are filled with life, with hope and with dreams. Let down by partners, friends or down on their luck, they nevertheless try (and retry) to connect, to work things out. They get lost in the mechanics and particulars of the mundane, the cast reality of the objects that surround us, the objects that complement us. In the story “Confectioner’s Gold” (one of the collection’s best) there is a couple on the brink of failure, who get together one night, and gorge themselves on a lavish, decadent meal. They don’t enjoy themselves, they don’t eat because they love eating or spending time with one another, they eat because eating means not talking. This story is partly narrated by the husband, who, as we learned earlier in the story, in an unusually plain fashion, identifies with blind people he sees passing in front of his house. He ‘feels’ blind, although he isn’t. An angry man, angry with life, angry with his situation as a man, a husband, as a white person, he runs on entitlement, and we get the impression (though it is never spelled out) that the loss of privilege that progress forces on him makes him angry. There is no space in him to consider other people’s predicaments, people who are really handicapped. He represents the norm and his anger feels justified to him.

People like that husband, and disintegrating relationships like his, are, as in his case, created as a consummate mixture of interior and exterior explanations and visions. “Confectioner’s Gold” is a great story to use as example, because it is quite explicit about issues that are part of the underpinnings of Kennedy’s writing, and of the way it is connected to literary and cultural contexts. On the one hand, there are objects that are made to serve as extensions of the failing, miserable bodies of Kennedy’s protagonists. On the other hand, there is the city, the treatment if which sometimes seems to refer directly to writers like Walter Benjamin, and his theories (e.g. about the flâneur and his role in comprehending metropolitan reality). Benjamin is also important in his treatment of history, and his doubts about the veracity of accounts of the past, or rather: their reliability when dissociated from the present. What Becomes is very much about the future, as its title (which alludes to Jimmy Ruffin’s hit single “What becomes of the broken hearted” or rather the idiomatic expression that has been spun from it) demonstrates unequivocally. Although all of the stories have an uneasy but important link to the past, whether it is some unspoken, but still menacing falling-out, as in “Confectioner’s Gold”, or a past relationship, as in the title story, or an episode from childhood as in “Saturday Teatime”: the past is never quite confronted, except through the shambles it has made of the present. Sometimes, Kennedy’s characters try and cope with the past without confronting it at all, sometimes they try to mend it, sometimes it just ambushes them in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The central question of all these stories, in the face of a threatening, dark, unspeakable past, is: what now? How do I behave once my life has been broken by those once dear to me, or by myself? What will I do?

In all her work Kennedy has never asked this question so clearly, so urgently, and in many ways: this, I think, makes What Becomes her most old-fashioned work (and, incidentally, the book of hers that is least concerned with death.). In the tradition of ancient philosophy, this collection of stories take a look at the ars bene vivendi or the ars vitae, the art of how to live, the art of life. Now, this is a common theme in literature, and many writers focus on this aspect, but the concentration and precision of A. L. Kennedy’s new collection is note- and praiseworthy. The answer to the question of ‘What now?’ turns out, often as not, to be a question of whether or not to confront the past as represented by people we once knew and loved, people who let us down or whom we let down. Some people do both, as the protagonist in the title story, who confronts his former wife in her kitchen, cooking a meal, trying to persevere, to rekindle a flame long gone. On the other hand, once he starts to really comprehend that their marriage has failed, that they really are no longer an item, he flees into the obscure embrace of a cinema, preferring to sit in a dark room, while a movie plays in silence, instead of getting on with his life, forging a future. In this story, as in many others, the protagonist’s bodily reality almost merges with the objects around him, the tools he uses to create a reality for him. There is the blood that he sheds on the kitchen floor (and on the knife he uses to cut up vegetables), and there’s the broken movie reel in the cinema that fails to supply the movie with sound, mirroring his own self-imposed deafness. The protagonist cannot provide answers on how to deal with disaster, but his very helplessness is instructive, and the emotional core of the book.

Other stories, like “Wasps”, the short, devastating tale of a married man’s ‘second family’, the result of an affair that eventually metamorphosed into the family he visits on some weekends and on the occasional holiday, seem to come up with answers: “[t]his is a way to be ready when he finally doesn’t come back”; answers however, that aren’t helpful or teachable, that are testaments of a similar helplessness, a similar lack of resolve and willpower. This all the protagonists of What Becomes share: the gap between what they know or intuit should be done, and what they can get themselves to do. Even those whose acts show a willingness not to engage with the issues, to ignore them until they hopefully vanish of their own accord, even they clearly know how they should live, since their acts are mere acting out of rote roles and performed joylessly, mechanically. Even “Marriage”, the story that I feel is the harshest of the bunch, the most cynical, implies, in its blatant display of cynicism, how to live well, although its characters aren’t able to. The story, which closes with the firm assertion “This is exactly what it looks like. Marriage.”, portrays an estranged couple, which is brought together by an act of domestic violence. Hitting his wife in the face, the husband, who’s the story’s protagonist, not only manages to arouse himself, but also to bridge a gap of affections that had opened between him and his wife. The event leaves him as bruised emotionally as his wife is physically, and the final scene has them hold on to one another for comfort, for strength, to endure the present, and one another. Although in “Wasps”, the lover watches her almost-husband leave into a rainy night, holding on only to herself, while the lovers in “Marriage” have each other, it’s hard to say who’s lonelier.

dsc_3088It is quite the miracle that Kennedy can pull off stories like this one without having to enter precious melodrama (except for maybe one or two slips), and also without subscribing to the well-worn workshop mantra “show don’t tell”. In my reading experience, that mantra is helpful if writers lack the creative urge and talent to make ‘telling’ work. Stories are quickly uncluttered if one concentrates on ‘showing’, which also facilitates further editing. Raymond Carver is a rather notorious example of all this. When in 2009, the Library of America published Carver’s Collected Stories, the editors Stull and Caroll decided to include “Beginners”, a version of Carver’s first major collection of stories that did not contain his long-time editor Gordon Lish’s cuts. Lish is famous for having truncated Carver’s writing to the essentials, even adding and changing phrases to make the cuts fit and retain the mood. The resulting stories are breathtaking masterpieces of concision, both moving and trimmed of fat. The original stories are far less than that. Not only is the reader forced to wade through what feels like undisciplined blather, but the emotional force is blunted and dulled through Carver’s penchant for telling, for spelling things out that Lish had mercifully expurgated from the original publication. Carver’s Collected Stories are a lesson in the difficulties of making a strong, introspective interior voice work in the short story format and my having recently read them may have heightened my attention to this kind of writing, but upon closing What Becomes one really feels that Kennedy’s resounding success at it is more than commendable, it’s wondrous. Kennedy never sacrifices emotional impact for elaborate speechifying, she makes the voices work for her, wrenches melodies, surprises and modulations from them, grabbing its readers by the throat.

And at the same time, she is often very, very funny. There is no need for her to paint a bleak picture in doom and gloom. Her stories are filled to the brim with the fullness of life, whether it’s a discussion of orgasm, or a humorous narrative of being afraid of the dentist, whether it’s remembering Doctor Who in a flotation tank or trading books with a blond beauty. People in her stories don’t give up on life, although most just hang on, but at least they do that. I called What Becomes an ars vitae, and then went on to enumerate stories where none of the characters really show us how to live life well, which might seem contradictory, but then Kennedy is not a philosopher, she does not intend to provide us with lessons or teachable moments. Instead, her stories are powered by her characters’ own drive to live their life well and Kennedy shows herself to be both a deeply moral writer, touching on various political and philosophical issues, as well as a compassionate, beautifully open and accepting writer, who waits for her characters to come up with a solution of how to live their lives, how to deal with others and one’s own ugly self. The most sublimely moving moments are those where here characters have the will and the vision to re-design the future, if not for themselves, then for their children, to make sure they will not be as damaged, as warped as they themselves. Despite Kennedy’s reputation for being unremittingly bleak and despite, too, the darkness in these stories, none of them are without hope, without the tacit potential of a better, a brighter future. All this is presented in Kennedy’s inimitable style, in her unique lines that have both the brevity of punchlines, and the sinuous flow of human thoughts and feelings.

I know some people don’t take to Kennedy, incomprehensible as it is to me, yet I’d go so far as to recommend this book to everyone who likes to read short stories. Maybe Kennedy takes some getting used to, maybe her stark sense of the body and of the world of the corporeal and of objects, and the long ruminations of her characters are not for everybody, but A. L. Kennedy is easily one of the best writers of her generation, and What Becomes might just be the best introduction to her work one could wish for.

You are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Elizabeth Bishop: In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I love this poem. Who doesn’t? It’s one of Bishop’s best known poems and rightly so.