story | 3.1.17
Respecting Elizabeth Bishop
by Beth Sherman | artwork by j4
Usually only six out of twenty-six have done the assigned reading, even though I’ve stopped assigning novels in favor of short stories and poems. We’re working our way through Elizabeth Bishop. “The Fish” takes two minutes and 18 seconds to read. I know this because I recited it out loud while microwaving fake chicken for dinner.
“Poetry is pointless,” says Mihir, voicing what the rest of them are thinking.
“Good example of alliteration,” I shoot back. “Can you tell me where Bishop uses it?”
Mihir always sits in the front row, unlike the others who cluster in the back, hoping I’m too far away to spot them checking Snapchat on their phones.
His flat, glazed expression reminds me of what Bishop wrote about the fish. Only it struggled at the bottom of the boat flapping its gills desperately, while Mihir is already bored to death.
My self-control is exemplary. I’ve never told them how I want to sweep the notebooks off their desks to startle them. I don’t admit I’ve read what they’ve written on Rate My Professor: Worst course ever! You’ll yawn your way through it. Run for the hills with her. I’ve never chastised them for valuing Economics, Accounting and Computer Science more than English because those majors actually lead to jobs.
“Pop quiz,” I announce to a chorus of groans. I groan inwardly too. It’s pointless to memorize facts and spit answers back like day old saliva.
What’s an example of assonance? What does the fish represent?
I’ve never said in my day homework wasn’t optional. I’ve never changed a grade, not even when Donny Rivera begged me to, claiming he’d be thrown off the basketball team if he got one more F.
Mihir’s fingers tap tap taptap on his cell. The clicking drives me crazy. He’s more attached to his phone than to anything alive. It’s a necessary function for him, like breathing.
I’ve never said none of you should be in college. Get a job at CVS or Stop & Shop. Come back when you want to learn.
“Mihir, put the phone away.”
It’s the fourth time I’ve asked and the class has barely begun. He’s not the only one. He’s just the most obvious offender, sitting a few feet away from me, happily oblivious to every word I say. He slides the phone into his pocket and when I turn from the board he’s at it again. Tap tap taptap.
I can’t focus on Bishop, though I know the poem by heart. How the fish is speckled with fine rosettes of lime, its pink swim-bladder like a big peony. How the narrator examines each aspect of gill and fin until everything was rainbow rainbow rainbow and she lets the fish go. Now all the lines are jumbled together like a rancid word salad. Tap tap taptap. It sounds like a secret code.
I’ve never recounted the dreams I have about them. I don’t reveal I’ve followed them on Twitter, tracking the progress of their relationships and the wildly inappropriate things they do outside my class.
When I grab the phone, I’m gratified by the shocked expression on Mihir’s face, the way his mouth goes slack. I look at what he’s written, glance up. All eyes are trained on me, waiting, expectant. It has never been so quiet in the classroom. My heart is an empty cup and I’m waiting for you to fill it, I read aloud. Love love love just words on a page can’t express the tenderness I feel for you inside. Someone gasps, someone else titters. Give it back, Mihir says loudly. You can’t do that. But his voice sounds weak and strained. I keep reading. You are the best part of me, the shot in my coffee, the foam in my beer. Mihir stands up. The class is howling with laugher. Give it, he says. When you look at me my hips get all trembly and I start to sweat. I keep reading until the end, feeling triumphant and ashamed, while he walks out of the room. I keep his phone for three days until I meet with the Assistant Chair of the English Department who demands I relinquish it, suggesting early retirement might be in order. I suggest she go straight to hell and since I have tenure she doesn’t force the issue.
I’ve never said they should respect Elizabeth Bishop, whose mother was mentally ill, who had to hide the fact she was a lesbian, who suffered from depression, whose relationships ended badly, whose gravestone inscription reads “all the untidy activity continues/awful but cheerful.”
I see Mihir in a coffee shop, years later. He’s hunched over a laptop typing, with headphones jammed in his ears. When he spots me, he pretends we’ve never met. I like to think he’s writing more poetry, sending it out into the world for everyone to see.
I’ve never asked anyone’s forgiveness.
Bishop once said: “I don’t think I believe in writing courses.” I agree. I couldn’t teach how to write like she does. Her poems gleam like mica in stone, like stardust that’s whisked from the mind, leaving pieces of words in its wake.
Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland Review, KYSO, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Panoplyzine, Sun Star Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, 3Elements Review, the Rappahannock Review, Gloom Cupboard, and The Delmarva Reviewand is forthcoming in Sou’wester and Compose Journal. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has written five mystery novels.
j4 is a collective of four persons, all given names beginning with j, who are compelled to explore transindividual composition. Their work can be found at j4work.wordpress.com and j4work.tumblr.com.
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