Sheep, Golden Syrup, Elizabeth Bishop

By Michael Farrell

Do not a civilization make. Do they? Cozy up to the fleece of a sheep, take the lid off Elizabeth Bishop’s head and get a spoon. Do not eat yet; do not swoon. There will be hours for that. First there is a long war march. Then there are other animals to press into the barn before the lightning storm comes to cook the grass and rinse it and make a mess. But this is all outside and you need never go there. Can you ride a tin? Yes, you can, says the child detective. The poet lies under the sheep, reading of Robert Menzies, his wife Pattie, and their pets. “We had a lovely weekend,” they tell reporters. Just months later their cat’s dead. Robert turns from the golden syrup, while deciding whether to use a knife or a spoon, the television on though it’s only 8 am. Elizabeth was reading her poetry aloud into a woolly microphone. She thought she saw the top of Robert’s head pass by the window.

She was thinking of the story “Marmosets” she was translating, by Clarice Lispector. A spirit moved out of the shadows and found an unopened tin in the cupboard and threw it at the window, causing the monkeys on the verandah to flee from the glass. You can hear it on the recording at PennSound. A shearer found glass in a sheep’s fleece months later. “Lucky.” “Why lucky?” “Lucky it didn’t take your thumb off.” That was what Bishop heard about it. She wanted something to give to Clarice. Something in wool or a painting. She saw the earth tipping up, as if she was falling over while looking out the window, and she was traveling to Australia via a flying tin of golden syrup, where there were sheep all ready to cushion her, but it wasn’t necessary for she fell into the arms of the Prime Minister. “Tilted space age pastoral,” she thought, but “marmoset” was what she murmured up at him. He could hear his wife crying that their cat was dead. “It was bloody ASIO!” she bawled. Saying sorry, he dropped the unexpected visitor on the lawn and went to his wife’s aid. He spread one of the scones he’d baked earlier and made a fresh pot. “I don’t want any of that ASIO muck,” Pattie grizzled. Robert turned to Elizabeth to see if she could hear, ready to explain how upset his wife was. Elizabeth had found a curious black spread in the cupboard and was helping herself. “That’s not food,” baa’d the sheep detective. Lightning struck where they’d been sitting just minutes before. “Life is not flat, that’s for sure,” Elizabeth thought to herself, remembering the sheep in the window back home, and starting to write a poem. It would be about flying through the air, and strange food, and the floury arms of a patriarch.

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