On Elizabeth Bishop’s “It is Marvellous to Wake Up Together”
Written on 3/20/20
I’m drawn to this poem on what is basically day 1 of my COVID-19 quarantine; a ‘shelter in place’ order is effectively in action in New York as Cuomo has ordered all bars, restaurants, movie theaters, barber shops, nail salons, non-essential travel, etc. SHUT DOWN for the foreseeable future. Gatherings of people are discouraged. B and A, Roman’s two dear friends and roommates, are going to City Hall today to get their marriage license. They cancelled their May wedding in anticipation of several more months of life disrupted by this tiny particle, one that needs a living host to survive, one without malicious intent but with devastating consequences socially, financially, and of course physically. (Update: City Hall was shut down, so B and A had to turn around and postpone even further.)
Elizabeth Bishop’s “It is Marvellous to Wake Up Together” is a fantasy of romantic domestic bliss amidst danger, its ending a frank yet still sheltered acknowledgement of itself as fantasy. The poem begins with a proclamation of delight: “It is marvellous to wake up together / At the same minute; marvellous to hear / The rain begin suddenly all over the roof…” This is a delicious image, however cheesy (cue Norah Jones’ “And I want to wake up with the rain / falling on a tin roof / while I’m safe here in your arms…”). The fantasy lies not only in the rain greeting your rested morning body in sound alone while you are nuzzled close and warm and hopefully dry in the arms of your partner, but also in the perfectly synchronous wake-up. (Like a perfectly synchronous orgasm, such is a once-in-a-long-while kind of an occurrence.) Such a morning would be marvellous, and its pairing with the tantalizing call of an approaching electrical storm only excites us further. Still, our narrator previews danger with the image of the gnarled “black mesh of wires,” a nod to some domestic disarray like a mounting pile of dirty laundry—ominous but not yet threatening. The “light falling of kisses” continues.
But the electrical storm is close, and it prompts in our narrator a hypothetical. What would happen if this home were struck by lightning? What would happen then? Our narrator seems to think she already knows the outcome—one crafted from her cozy shared bed. This fantasy is shared with her partner via pillow talk: “We imagine dreamily / How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning / Would be quite delightful rather than frightening.” This home as bird-cage image is electric, not claustrophobic, dangerous, or even scary—it’s a spectacle.
This, I think and will try to remember, is the day 1 quarantine view. Living together with Roman is new and exhilarating, for now. He and I delighted in waking up next to each other this morning to shared smiles and backrubs. We were privileged to wake to plenty of provisions, good friends, and plans for self-improvement. Yet lightning has struck this town with 1,195 reported cases of COVID-19 in Brooklyn alone and 26 dead from the virus in the city as of yesterday. But for now, its danger to us and our newly shared home is hypothetical. I wonder if this perverse spectacle we are currently sheltered from serves to help us nest into the indoor comfort of our newly-made bed of “we.”
But Bishop’s narrator ultimately acknowledges her gut—her “simplified point of view,” humbled further by the reminder that she’s “flat on [her] back” with a flattened, partial perspective. “All things might change equally easily,” she says. “Always to warn us…[are] these black / Electrical wires dangling.” The same image that she pushed away or could rationalize as the conductor of such an electric spectacle “in the sky” may actually be a threat to the home. What would happen if COVID-19 struck our home? What would happen then?
Our narrator isn’t an alarmist—she doesn’t spell out the possible alternative of a home lighting strike: a giant ball of fire with humans roasting inside. Instead, she prompts us with a gentle turning over, a shift in the bed, in the partnership: “Without surprise / The world might change to something quite different, / As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking, / Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.” The home, the relationship, the quality of the kisses are liable to shift, to change, to burn. COVID-19 could strike this home, and it wouldn’t have the tune of a Norah Jones song. Or, more likely than a lightning strike, the “kisses [could change] without our thinking.” The romanticized hideaway of new or, in the case of B and A, more familiar love can waver. Laundry and tensions and fear can pile. It’s in our hands to try and sniff out lightning storms and weather them without romanticizing them and instead prepare with the necessary precaution, communication, and care. It’s in our hands to keep washing our hands, caring for each other, and helping others as we can.
Art by Olivia J. Robbins and Roman Shraga
Olivia J. Robbins resides in Manhattan, where she loves eating toast with jam in her small kitchen. She spends most of her time encouraging high schoolers to write. Olivia received an A.B. in English from Princeton University and a M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania. Check out another recent essay of hers, "Something So Small," on Siren. Olivia can be reached at email@example.com.