For nearly thirty years I have been thinking about the little innocuous dog in “Five Flights Up.” This poem, though not Bishop’s most famous or quoted, has a quietness I love. I live now in Madrid, on the fourth floor, and beneath me, oddly, there is a little dog that is often scolded and is often barking, and back comes this gentle, meticulous poem; as the years pass this poem beckons me to find gratitude for the day before me.
Five Flights Up
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.
Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins . . .
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.
The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.
Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)
The modern American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her collection Poems: North & South. A Cold Spring, the National Book Award for The Complete Poems (1969), the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1976, and many other distinctions and accolades for her work. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. She traveled widely as an adult, living for years in France and then Brazil, before returning to the United States.
Spencer Reece is a poet and priest. His first collection, The Clerk’s Tale, won the Bakeless Prize in 2003. He has received an NEA grant, a Guggenheim grant, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Scholar, and The New Republic. He served at the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses, and works for the Bishop of Spain at the Reformed Episcopal Church, Iglesia Española Reformada Episcopal.