Packing for summer travel, readers may want to think about bringing along the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop, an inveterate traveler who was especially good at questioning the usefulness of travelling at all. Here is a famous example, a poem that spends quite a lot of its time describing a songbird in a bamboo cage seen hanging above a broken pump in a gas station. Bishop is a poet who can describe waterfalls as "mile-long, shiny tearstains" and make the architecture of a birdcage as interesting as that of any cathedral in a guidebook. And there are depths in her wryness and oblique humor:

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,


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 theaters?

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 a noble pantomimist, 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 fantasy 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 to stay home?

Or could Pascal have not been 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 . . . No. Should we have

stayed at home,

wherever that may be?

("Questions of Travel" from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.)