Entomology and Epistles

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These butterflies are out in force, drawn by the pungent flowers on the bushes surrounding our deck. They are lovely, different than the typical orange monarchs and solid yellow flutterers that we usually see here. They have been constant companions, especially today while I took advantage of the perfect summer day to start a new project (more about that below) and do some revisions on older work.

I am reading Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell , and it has inspired a new project. I am taking notes on phrases that catch my attention as read the letters in sets of twelve. There are 459 letters in the book, which would give me 38 sets of poems with a few remaining. As I take the notes, I then plan to fashion a poem from the phrases – sometimes using just the phrases  (as a sort of cento) and sometimes with added material to make them behave as proper poems. I thought this would be an interesting way to keep me focused on the material, as I often get lost in long, epistolary books.

So, as a way to kick it off, here is a rough draft of the first piece, inspired by Letters 1-12 in the book.

I’m Afraid that You Have Had a Miserable Winter

Bishop/Lowell-Letters 1-12


My worst fears, my ambitions:

a fire, burnt tar-paper

a wastebasket, an accident

a thimbleful of water


A sense of horror and mystery:

a fish being angled for off-shore

a seasick feeling – something like death

Memory stirred – anonymous threats

disreputable rooming houses


My sanctuaries:

a calf being born in the pasture

high red cliffs; harbor at low tide

pleasant, undeserved things –

the library, muttering contentedly


my scathing history: a relative; a mystic.

Language fails me.


As always, I would love some feedback on the poem or the project. And enjoy the butterflies!


6 thoughts on “Entomology and Epistles

  1. I love the idea of the project. That’s a clever resource. And, I look forward to reading more of your poems. I have a publishing question re poems which use phrases like this, or centos. Can one submit centos? Is it done? And with the phrases woven into your words, does one just attribute the book and author?

    Line 6: Is it supposed to be “far off-shore”?

    I’m not sure, but consider the same amount of lines under each heading. Not necessarily the same amount of objects, but without a pattern the categories seem unbalanced. Does that make sense?

    Now I’m off to look more carefully at my Library!


    • I know that I have read centos in journals before – I will have to look at how they reference the original work. Line 6 is correct -” angled for” is the verb, “offshore” the adverb. There was no comma in the original, but putting one in may clarify.

      I need to fix the formatting – there should be stanza breaks that are not there that may help the ordering make sense. Like I said, rough draft, so looking at the balance is something I will definitely do. Thanks.

  2. I was also wondering how you might handle attribution for the poems that come out of this project. If they all appeared together, as in a chapbook, it could be handled in a Foreword. If they appear individually, maybe a note beneath the poem?

    Re imposing a pattern by making the same number of lines under each heading–I like poems that create a pattern but break it somewhere so that our expectations are toppled. I think your poem does have a pattern, at least enough of one.

    Love the project! Just wrote a poem about Bishop’s encounter with a cashew.

    • Thank you, Diane! I am fully immersed in this project after a few days, and this draft, although a good start, is decidedly the weakest of the bunch at this point. The poems are creating their own narrative of sorts – the speaker’s voice is a writer (though not necessarily Bishop or Lowell). I agree that, as a collection, a foreword would be a great way to explain the inspiration. I find as I am writing into the pieces, I am adding more and more to the phrases to create the poetic sound/narrative that is in my head. Would be interested to know if you would be willing to read the first batch, as I am near completing ten drafts and would love as many eyes on them as possible.

  3. Hi Donna–
    Happy to read the first ten and give you some feedback. I’m replying a bit late to this as your blog program doesn’t send follow-up notices. If I check the box below, then I get some form asking me to subscribe to something.

  4. Not sure why I got this comment, but I think it’s because I checked the box, Diane. The form asks us if we want to subscribe to comments. I’m not sure if checking it means we see all comments, or not checking it means we don’t. So, don’t know if you will see this follow-up. But I do see a lot of comments…

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