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Ink Blots: ‘Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop


Welcome to the first Ink Blots post of 2016. I’m sure a lot of you have made a list of sights you want to see, adventures you want to embark in and places you want to discover. I can’t blame you if you have that burning desire to leave home (I am guilty of that, too), but have you ever thought of why? Why the itch?

Today’s poem is “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop. Written by the award-winning American poet after years of living in Brazil, the piece was first published in 1965 in a collection of poetry of the same title.

Bishop, who has lived in and journeyed to various places (North Africa, France, Italy and Spain), has written various poems inspired by her love for travel. Her poetry on her travels was considered the contemplative type—reflecting on her experiences, her emotions, what’s at stake in her journeys and her learnings about life as she immerses herself in a new home.

In “Questions of Travel,” for example, she examines the conflicting emotions of yearning to leave home and longing for it.

Questions of Travel

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
–Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
–A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
–Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
–Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
–And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there .
Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

Following Bishop’s contemplations, have you wondered: Why do you travel? Why do you want to leave home? What is home anyway? Can you really go back home again once you’ve left?

You might want to bring a copy of this poem on your next trip. Waterfalls, mountaintops, and sunsets. Be inspired to pursue that next adventure, while reflecting on why you wanted to travel in the first place. Here’s to going places! ☁

Ink Blots features poems—from classic and contemporary to published and performed pieces. Read more here.
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