Nature: An Essay by Christine Marshall

TQ2 Prose Open Runner-Up

I. Parry Sound, Canada

The first morning: three otters
on the dock: dark, slick

with lake water, posed together
family-portrait style.

The second morning: two deer
across the milky bay: the mother

demure in white socks,
the gawky fawn kicking up
its skinny legs.

The third morning: a baby turtle
painted red and green, alone
on a log’s wobbling tip.

Each day begins my lesson in biology, regeneration
set before me like the northern lights we see
haloing the woods.


II. Washington DC

At 21, my childhood friend Frances
hiked the Australian outback
to study aboriginal women’s health.
Now an OBGYN with five degrees,
she catches babies, performs abortions,
testifies in court and makes her own
granola. We are sitting in her apartment
with floor to ceiling windows overlooking
the Washington Monument
the day after my 39th birthday.

Frances got married a year
and a half ago, later than she wanted
to start building a family, and she hasn’t yet
gotten pregnant.

I’m tired of buying onesies
for other people’s baby showers

she tells me.


III. Brooklyn

The morning of her baby shower, my old roommate
Charlotte brews coffee in a French press,
puts a bowl of cereal in front of me
and settles with a sigh at the table.
Charlotte’s belly button is popped out like a timer
on a Thanksgiving turkey.
Charlotte’s warm and practical and just a bit stern.
Motherhood for her is a dress she’s been keeping
in her closet, waiting to put on, zip up.
It’s been a decade, now, of tests and treatments,
surgeries and battles with insurance companies, and her heart condition
means no midwife wants her and she can’t give birth
at home or in a birthing center’s big organic tub.
But Charlotte will suffer debt and compromise,
atrial fibrillation and neuropathy, the possibility
that her heart will stop in labor,
to have a child. Her body’s both the hurdle and the means
to what she’s always wanted to become.


IV. Parry Sound, Canada

The house where our family is vacationing
is full of noise and motion, children
playing cards and painting nails and rummaging
through the kitchen cabinets for crackers.
Outside, kids dive from the dock, put blown-up floaties
on the smaller kids, and drag kayaks to the lake.
My sisters pick up wet towels and slice sandwiches
all day long, conversation as much an effort
as dinner, sectioned into edible bites.

After dinner and bathtime, after the kids
have been prodded to bed and there are a few minutes
of quiet, my older sister, Grace, makes us
both a cup of tea, and sits with me
at the rustic wooden table in the kitchen.
What have you been thinking lately about having a baby?
she asks me. It is the last night here.

I add milk to my tea, take a sip.
I don’t know, I say. Everyone else knows
if they want kids. Everyone tells me something different
about what I should do. Maybe, I say,
my biological clock is broken.

You were born to be a mother
Grace says, her eyes wide
and, I worry, a little misty. Even
Mom says you’re the most natural
mother of any of us.

I don’t know what it means
I say, to be a natural mother.


V. Brazil

Elizabeth Bishop, the poet I love the most,
did not have children.

Like me, Bishop lived in many places: Massachusetts, Nova Scotia,
New York, Florida (the state with the prettiest name), Seattle, Paris, Washington DC,
and, for the longest stint of all, Brazil.
Brazil is where
I traveled this summer,
to stalk her ghost.

Sometimes I think I am the loneliest person in the world,

Bishop wrote.

Bishop is called many things by her readers and critics.
She was shy, reclusive, warm, witty, masculine,
brilliant, troubled, and reserved. She was an orphan,
a lesbian, a loyal friend, a surrealist, an alcoholic.
She is modern and postmodern, a formalist
and interested in experimentation. According to my
professor in grad school, she does not observe
the poetic line.

My professor is a fan of the poet Jack Spicer,
and neither of them believes in what Spicer calls
the seaweed of metaphor.
I was initially confused by their objections
to metaphor; as a twin, I always knew comparison

was the stuff of my very existence.
In Brazil, Elizabeth Bishop lived in the mountains.
I visited both of her mountain homes:
one was near Petropolis, north of Rio,
and one in Ouro Preto, a colonial town in the state
of Minais Gerais. I walked around the properties
and observed them from the outside
because I couldn’t get in. This is something like the way
I used to feel about Bishop’s poems

but instead of putting me off, it made me want in
all the more. Eventually,

after years of reading and rereading, of autobiographies and letters
and paintings and recordings of readings,

I found ways to scale the walls, jimmy the locks or smash
the windows, depending on the poem,
so I could enter. In a few poems, I suppose,
I simply turned the handle.
The poem that I’d consider the easiest handle turner
is one every English major
studies as an example of how to really juice a form.
One Art is both a villanelle and an elegy
of sorts, for Bishop’s partner, Lota,
for whom Bishop moved to Brazil.

I read One Art in college, and it’s what made me
want to be a poet — though I think I also wanted
to be Elizabeth Bishop. Her life was dramatic,
unique, and tragic.

In Brazil, nobody had read Bishop’s writing, but they knew about
a movie in the works about her life.

I met just one man who had read her poems, one poem:
One Art, after his wife died.
It consoled me, he said, standing outside a peacock sanctuary
in the Samambaian hills.

I agreed that One Art is a masterpiece
of consolation. But it is not my favorite.


VI. Parry Sound, Canada

My sister persists.
I want for you to understand what it’s like
to fall in love with a child,

to watch the sun rise with more joy
than you can imagine feeling just
to know that the sun is rising
with your beautiful child in the world.

Grace’s oldest son is turning 18 and leaving
for college in a month. She dunks
the teabag in and out of her tea
then wrings it out, hard
enough that the membrane
of the teabag splits
and mint leaves fall into her cup.

I did fall in love with your children, I say.


VII. Buffalo, NY

I did fall in love with my sister’s children.
For years, I watched them while my sister finished residency.
I fastened the tabs of their Elmo-themed
diapers, sang The Itsy Bitsy Spider
and I’ve been Working on the Railroad;
hauled them in baby bjorns and strollers
around the neighborhood, washed their hair
without getting shampoo in their eyes,
tickled their arms while they fell asleep.
I fried their eggs, tied their shoes,
rubbed sunscreen on their cheeks and buckled them
into the minivan so we could play kickball at the park
down the street.

When I see them, my heart
flops around like a caught fish.


VIII. Isle Grande, Brazil

My favorite of Bishop’s poems
is the long poem Crusoe in England
in which Robinson Crusoe, after he has been rescued
from the island, reflects on his years of isolation.

He recounts his nightmares
about islands

stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands.

As the poem tells it,
then Friday came. Friday came

and he was nice, says Crusoe,

–if only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.

Well, there are many ways to propagate
your kind and many ways
to be lonely.

I traveled to a small island the last few days
I was in Brazil. I hiked through
the Atlantic rain forest to a beach listed
in my guidebook as one of the ten most beautiful
beaches in the world.

It was cold that day, but I worked up
a sweat, clambering over rocks
and up steep hills, across sand
and through heavy streams.

Lopez Mendez Beach appeared suddenly
after a long, dense downhill.
One moment I was embroiled
in torso-sized ferns, vines
thick as skirts around the trunks
of trees, and the next moment
I was standing on a wide open
wind-clean beach with nothing
but sea stretching away forever
pure as loneliness.


IX. Davidson, NC

I wonder if I feel about poems
the way other people feel about children.

Sometimes I wish the poems would not be so difficult.
I don’t understand what they’re saying
or why they won’t just explain their behavior.

I wish they would help pay the bills and stop taking up
so much of my time. I wish other people’s poems
weren’t so much prettier than mine,
and that they didn’t get so much more attention at school.

And sometimes I am surprised by them,
the way they take on a life of their own,
the way they reflect and challenge me

to think about who I am and what matters
in the world.


X. Worcester, Massachusetts

Bishop didn’t know her parents.
Her father died when she was a baby, and her mother
was institutionalized when Bishop was six.
She didn’t have siblings or cousins, just a couple
of elderly aunts to whom she would dedicate poems
about fish and moose.

I wonder if Bishop’s poems, for her, behaved
as an expression of loneliness
or an antidote to it.

In a letter to her friend Robert Lowell, Bishop
chides him for revealing the intimate details of his marriage
to Elizabeth Hardwick. She says to him
Art’s just not worth that much.

Bishop’s poems did not follow the poetic line
of her day. She was not confessional
like Lowell, not vein-opening
like Sexton or Plath, not fun
like Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery,
not political like Adrienne Rich.

I’d say her poems are best described by a line
from the early poem The Bight:
all the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

When people ask about my influences
as a writer, I don’t know what to say.
I can rattle off many names
but the poet who feels like family is Elizabeth Bishop

who died five years before I was born
and whose poems, despite my years

of trying to write like her,
are nothing like mine.


X. Perry Sound

The week we are on vacation – the week
in which I observe that my sisters never sit down –
is the week in which they are not rising at 5 am
to drive kids to crew practice, respond to violently ill
patients, and eat lunch at their desks at the hospital
so they can write up their notes and make it
to parent teacher conferences.

Well, I do not really follow
the family line.

I like to sleep in, and I like
the time and space to write, make

beautiful things, and think sad
thoughts. At least, this is what I have believed

since college, when I first started reading Elizabeth Bishop
and writing poems.


XI. Brazil

In the Great Elizabeth Bishop Scavenger Hunt
I was the Grand Prize Winner.
I found Bishop’s apartment in Rio. I walked through Flamengo Park,
designed by Lota. I found her giant home surrounded by rainforest and gates and mist
in Samambaia. I found her charming home in Ouro Preto.
I found the fountains, the waterfalls,
the squatter’s children and a stray dog
with a pink ribbon wrapped about its neck
that made me think of Bishop’s Pink Dog, the one Bishop asks
Where are your babies?

With each find, my heart flopped like a caught fish.

People kept asking me what I was doing in Brazil.
It was hard to explain. I wasn’t exactly doing research,
not the way my friend Herman travels to other countries,
conducts interviews with elementary school children
and gathers data from the public libraries.

What I was doing was part pilgrimage
and part like traveling to visit
your adoptive parents’ grave,
if you had never met your adoptive parents.


XII. Davidson, NC

But after all that, I find that I can’t write
the poems I wanted to write about my pilgrimage
to the site of Bishop’s poems.

I keep hearing Frances, I’m tired
of going to other people’s baby showers.

I’m growing tired of metaphors.

In Ouro Preto, I bought two
new friends Bishop’s Collected Works,
translated into Portuguese.

I left them on the table of the hostel
with a note that said something about how much these poems mean to me.

I don’t know if they read them.
Christine Marshall has work appearing or forthcoming in Best American Poetry and in journals such as Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, gutcult, RHINO, Western Humanities Review, and others. She currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina.