Sunday, November 1, 2009

First lessons in geography

In 1976, Elizabeth Bishop published a marvelous and very slim volume of poetry, titled Geography III. It contains only ten poems but of those ten are some of her most beloved, including “In the Waiting Room,” “The Moose,” “One Art,” and “Five Flights Up.”

The book has as a sort of epigraph a set of questions and answers from a nineteenth century geography textbook, First Lessons in Geography. The questions, along with the answers convey the same sort of direct and simple diction that characterize Miss Bishop’s poetry: “What is Geography? A description of the earth’s surface. What is the Earth? The planet or body on which we live. What is the shape of the Earth? Round, like a ball.” It is easy to see why she chose these passages to introduce the book.

Over the years, I’ve searched without success for this book in dank bookstores and antique store stalls. This past summer while browsing the Internet Archive, I found the book, one of the many scanned by Google. It is from the page that contains Lesson VI and asks those questions above, that I have lifted the image used in the header of my blog.

I first discovered Geography III early in 1979; later that same year, Miss Bishop died. The book has fifty numbered pages and was designed with a generous use of white space. I’m still reading in it thirty years later.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite of Elizabeth Bishop's poems is "Questions of Travel," in which she scolds, "Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" I've felt so, until I returned home and looked at the pretty pictures and souvenirs that make me forget the biting flies and traffic jams.

    Welcome to the blogosphere, David.