It's probably the right time to finally put together a proper post about the poem I read every year on my birthday. I'm not sure when it started exactly, but a handful of years ago I began a new ritual for myself that involves reading Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Bight" the morning of May 23, and usually enjoying some kind of strawberry dessert later in the day.
It's not what you might typically think of as a birthday poem, but in fact, she wrote it on her 35th birthday so you can just imagine her working over the lines, watching the boats come in, thinking about where to go next. I think what strikes me the most is how well it captures the "awful but cheerful" aspects of the day. I've written about this before (see 2012 and 2013) but I can't seem to stop—there's just something about getting older and having time to reflect about where life has taken you so far, right? Looking out into the harbor or across some expansive landscape isn't necessary, but certainly helps to remind you just how big the world is. It also might encourage your eyes to get a little bit glassy (or maybe that's just me).
[on my birthday]
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn't wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
Bishop is so, so good as describing the world around her. It's one of the things that attracted me to her work when I was in college and traveling a bit. Read a poem of hers, and you just feel grounded, present, alert to every detail in the scene. Her poems, in some ways, feel perfect in that way, but in studying her work more closely in graduate school (and simply knowing the challenges any writer faces), settling on just the right words was an enormously difficult task for her, which often meant it took her years to complete a single poem. (Ever wondered why her collected poems volume is so slim? Call it a case of perfectionism, perhaps.)
Anyway, come May, Elizabeth Bishop and strawberries are always on my mind, so here's this year's recipe.
Strawberry Pistachio Crumble
Serves 4 to 6
For the berries
2 pounds strawberries, hulled and quartered
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
For the crumble
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, unsalted
1/2 cup spelt or whole-grain flour
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place strawberries in a large bowl and add the lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch; gently toss to coat. Pour into an 8- by 8-inch baking dish.
In a food processor, pulse the oats, pistachios, flour, sugar, salt, and butter until large clumps form. The butter should be evenly distributed, and the crumble should hold a bit of shape if you squeeze it between your fingers.
Scatter the topping over the strawberries and nudge it around with your fingers until well covered. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until golden and the strawberry juices are bubbling around the edges. Serve warm or room temperature with freshly whipped cream.