‘The Hanging of the Mouse’ by Elizabeth Bishop

This is going to make a hypocrite of me. 
I once encountered, in a book of criticism about Bishop, the critic referring to ‘The Hanging of the Mouse’ as a short story. In an essay I was writing at the time, I went to great lengths to absolutely rinse this critic: ‘It’s not a short story, it’s a goddamn prose poem,’ I screamed at the sky. I haven’t changed my opinion about that, but I do think it’s so clever in how it approaches genre that neither me, nor the critic, had the right to classify it in simple terms. The piece is, I think, an incredibly interesting exploration into genre subversion. Like how Rimbaud’s ‘Conte’ (another ostensible prose poem) plays with narrative expectation through syntactic dismantlement, Bishop plays with narrative expectation through the assumption of a familiar tropes: in this instance, the tropes used are those of the fable. In the story-cum-poem, animals gather in a square to witness the public execution of a mouse. What do we expect from a fable? Some sort of didacticism, I guess, possibly wrapped up in folksy cuteness. The last two lines are: “It was all so touching that a cat, who had brought her child in her mouth, shed several large tears. They rolled down onto the child’s back and he began to squirm and shriek, so that the mother thought that the sight of the hanging had perhaps been too much for him, but an excellent moral lesson, nevertheless.” The punchline is that there is no moral lesson: we never find out the reasons for the mouse’s execution, and the mouse itself is a quivering, plaintive, sympathetic creature. The whole piece works to deceive us with its trappings. 
(I also think much of the language and turn of phrase used is Bishop exploring her own anxieties about the writing of poetry, but that’s something for me to go on and on and on about another time.)

First published in The Complete Poems, 1969

‘The Sea and its Shore’ by Elizabeth Bishop

I probably read more poetry than fiction these days but for the entirety of my twenties I read poetry very narrowly and sporadically. There were a small handful of poems, totems, that I’d return to in moments where I craved stillness of mind, contemplative space away from a gradually darkening cacophony of a social life centred on music and drenched in alcohol. Elizabeth Bishop was the poet I held in highest regard during that time. I knew ‘In the Waiting Room’ and parts of ‘The Moose’ well enough to recite. I had no conception of her as a prose writer back then. It was a thrill, therefore, to encounter this stunning story years later, when my life contained more prolonged periods of stillness. It’s about a man called Boomer who cleans a beach, keeping for himself any scrap of paper with writing on it (of which there seem to be millions, because the beach and Boomer’s house, are somewhat metaphysical, places of fable, a spinning, perhaps, from some other’s imagination). Boomer is drunk a lot of the time, especially when he is out collecting. The time he is not collecting, he spends reading the fragmented words of countless others, making his own patchwork sense from them. It’s the literary life cast in an ambiguous light because there is something confused and pathetic about Boomer. He’s a dwindled Don Quixote. The story, written in a beautiful elegiac tone, affects me on a very personal level. For some reason, it has made me cry.

First published in Life and Letters Today, Winter 1937. Collected in Prose, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011