Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up” simply gives the poem a place to be: a vantage point.
While the titles of some poems feel like they would be better suited as a first line, and others introduce an idea so unfathomable that I cannot reconcile their belonging anywhere near the poem itself, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up” simply gives the poem a place to be: a vantage point. The contents of the poem that follows could easily be observed from a first floor apartment, or a house in the suburbs, but “Five Flights Up” solidifies the separation of the speaker from the outside world, by nature of her birds-eye view. From within the confines of what I assume is the bedroom in her apartment, Bishop’s speaker observes the oncoming day with subtle descriptive language, personification, and meditations that invite existential thought.
Comprising four stanzas, the first being the longest, with nine lines, the second as the shortest, with five, then the last two each containing six, the poem’s ever-changing form mirrors the ambiguity of Bishop’s language. Each stanza is also composed of a varied number of sentences, which often include interjections or even quotes. There is no standardized rhyme scheme, but like in many of her other works, Bishop compensates by crafting a poem rich with repetition, lists, unusual word pairings, and internal rhymes. Images depicting an “enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous” or the “glassy veins” of a tree, firmly center the reader within Bishop’s unique poetic sensibility, and in an environment that is somehow both recognizable and arguably foreign, perhaps a reality beyond our own. 1 Her repetition of words like “inquires,” “questions,” and “answered,” give the reader a consistent, inquisitive thread to hold onto, in a poem otherwise entrenched in vagueness.
The poem begins with a fragmented sentence: “Still dark.”2 Not only does this leave the speaker and their tone ambiguous, the time of day comes into question as well. The succinct wording suggests that the speaker is tired, groggy even, and may very well be waking up too early in the morning, while longing for light. Following this interpretation, the speaker seems to awaken in the next few lines, as they expand into full sentences. The first words of the next stanza confirm the time of day, describing an “enormous morning” with “gray light streaking each bare branch.”3
Bishop’s speaker observes the world through a constantly brightening lens, as her poem begins with total darkness, and watches the transition into a bustling “today.”4 Words with a dark or tired connotation, like “sleep” and “yawn,” are found closer to the beginning of the poem, which then brighten into words like “bounces” and “rushes” in the second half.5 Bishop goes as far as to say that “questions” are “answered directly, simply, / by day itself.”6 Emphasizing this point, Bishop’s use of adjectives and adverbs in this poem is fascinating and often contradictory, with words like “little” and “enormous,” “unknown” and “usual,” “stern” and “cheerfully,” as well as “lightly” and “impossible to lift.”7 Her verb choices follow suit, including “inquires” and “answered,” “sits” and “runs,” and finally “yawns” and “rushes.”8 Though not always directly next to each other, the simple inclusion of these contrasting words and ideas creates a back and forth, a muddled environment, and the sense of a grasp for control.
Though Bishop’s observer can be assumed to take the form of a human, especially noting that they most likely live and observe from a five-story walk-up, she focuses almost solely on animals, namely the bird and the dog. The first one mentioned, in the second line of the opening stanza, is the “unknown bird” on “his usual branch.” Like the other adjectives in this poem, this pair of descriptors threw me off, because I wondered how someone could consider a bird “unknown” if they see and recognize his “usual branch.”9 His anonymity is only apparent to the reader, who, unlike the speaker, has no way to access his appearance; only his actions are described. The dog isn’t much better; we know he is “little” and “black,” yet, possibly due to the speaker’s height and distance away from the action, that is all.10 In a poem that manages to describe one mundane morning as “enormous, . . . ponderous, [and] meticulous,” one would think that Bishop could extend her evocative word choices toward her leading creatures.11 The omission of description tells me that the bird and the dog are simply vehicles, two-dimensional figures seen by the speaker from her high window, through which she funnels and simplifies her observations of the world around her.
As with many of Bishop’s poems featuring prominent animal or animalesque figures, the brief portrayal and inclusion of a human is negative and quite grumpy. The role of the man in this poem is to break the numbing haze and darkness of morning by shouting at his dog, not a simple command, but the statement, “‘you ought to be ashamed!’”12 In turn, his outburst allows the speaker to ask what the dog has done, and to note that “obviously, he has no sense of shame.”13 She then goes on to assert that the dog “and the bird know everything is answered,” which further characterizes the dog as all-knowing in a simple, satisfied sort of way, and the man as silly for having such ridiculous expectations.14 “Five Flights Up” manages to very subtly orbit around the concept of expectations, the ones we have of our pets, our schedules, our knowledge, our patterns and more. It seems we have an expectation for everything, just by nature of having lived every day, over and over again. The speaker is surprised to have woken when it was “still dark,” instead of waking to the sun, and through that observation, the rest of the poem’s content was realized.15 The poem seems to make a mockery of our expectations, by highlighting that the dog and the bird have none, and are perfectly happy in their respective bubbles, while the man has plenty, and, as a result, is angry at the crack of dawn.
The poem ends with the quote “Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)”16 With the full realization of the bright day at hand, Bishop’s speaker takes a moment to reflect on the day she has left behind, after centering herself in the present through her monotonous viewing of her surroundings. Though these two lines conclude the fourth stanza, they are separated by a dash, setting them apart from the rest of the poem. The only other instance of this dash is in the first stanza, where Bishop initially mentions, “questions—if that is what they are—” referring to the sounds the dog and bird make in their sleep.17 While these ideas enclosed with dashes are rare, they appear to be the starkest emergence of Bishop’s own raw emotions or thoughts in a poem otherwise dulled by the haze of a mind possibly in need of caffeine. In the first instance, “if that is what they are” takes an inference made by the speaker and further emphasizes her lack of knowledge on the subject. That phrase is presented like a dismissal, a place where the reader can choose whether they want to buy into Bishop’s personification and expansion of her observed creatures, or to realize this whole description could be the incoherent babblings of an exhausted poet.
Placing the dash before the last two lines has a similarly jarring effect; it is almost as if the speaker is changed within the confines of the dashes, more alert and possessing a broader perspective. The tone of these lines is different as well, with the hope and optimism of the first weighed down by the melancholy reflection of the latter. The word “lightly,” describing the passage from yesterday to today, is followed by an exclamation point, indicating that the speaker is ready to move on from her past troubles and remain in the present, much like the animals she has spent the poem chronicling.18 Alone, this line would undoubtedly be positive, but considering the previous slow and gloomy depiction of the morning, and her rumination on the significance of shame, the sentence exudes a sense of falsehood. How can the morning she just described be thought of as light? It is possible that the morning is not what she is referring to at all. Maybe “today” begins at the end of the poem, as a span of time the reader is not able to witness.19
The last line tells of “a yesterday,” one which possesses the opposite qualities of the light and airy today, and is curiously enclosed in parentheses.20 That encircling of this sentence results in its being removed from the poem twice; once by the dash and once by the parentheses. The set off statement is decidedly more negative than its predecessor, and therefore matches the tone of the rest of the poem quite well. The reader knows nothing of “yesterday” besides its heavy burden, and it is probable that this weight influenced the speaker’s voice throughout the entire poem. Another conceivable theory is that this grueling “yesterday” never ended, and the speaker never fell asleep. This would explain the first line, “still dark,” as if we are just joining the speaker in her tedious wait for the sunrise. She waits for the new day, and with it, she hopes all her questions will be answered, which leads her muse on whether the dog and the bird have questions of their own. Bishop chooses to insert this line about “yesterday” at the end of the poem, effectively creating a loop, sending the reader back to the beginning, where that “yesterday” is slowly coming to a close. This cycle is a perfect reflection of the rotation between the todays and tonights and tomorrows which we all slog through unconsciously.
Elizabeth Bishop seems to make a habit of identifying our instinctive patterns so that she may poke and prod at them, ultimately forcing us all to question our dependency on routines. Though she is physically looking through a window five stories high, by simply being curious, and extending her curiosity towards non-human lifeforms, Bishop manages to craft an utterly original perspective. Her language and structural decisions inform her view, but the most significant contributor to her inventiveness is those thoughts left unsaid, and the questions left unanswered. It is the questions (and answers) Bishop encourages her readers to form that bolster her already complex poems, and complete her captivating works of art.
- Elizabeth Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 10; 13.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 1
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 10; 11.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 25.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 3; 5; 14; 19; 20.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 7; 8-9.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 3; 9; 2; 16; 19; 25; 26.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 5; 8; 2; 14; 20.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 2.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 3; 15.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 10.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 17.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 21.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 22.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 1.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 25-26.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 7.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 25.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 25.
- Bishop, “Five Flights Up,” 26.