Typical of Bishop's poetry, "A Miracle for Breakfast" is a pictorial poem with vivid descriptions, a poem that incongruously conforms to strict form as a sestina while it evolves into surrealistic ambiguity as the concrete images of place become the self-referential imaginings of the speaker's mind. For, Elizabeth Bishop held that close observation of material reality wrought the likelihood of perceiving that which lies beyond "the pasteboard mask" as Herman Melville expressed it.
Within the sestina form of six stanzas and six lines that conclude with a three-line stanza, the same set of six words ends each of the lines of each of the stanzas, although in each stanza the word order differs. In this poem, those repeated words are coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun, and river. This repetition of words and ideas that appears almost obsessive is what lends a surrealistic atmosphere to the images, a atmosphere that generates the imagination of the speaker who, after closely observing the wealthy man who disdainfully drops crumbs to the people on the pavement, "saw it [her own mansion] with one eye close to the crumb."
Thus, the speaker objectifies her loss and dream of relief from her poverty. This is the turning point--"a liminal moment"--of the poem:
I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
--I saw it with one eye close to the crumb--
The speaker creates from her crumb the dream of ownership; it is an inward dream of hope:
I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.
Clearly, the controlling metaphor of Bishop's poem is the crumb, the meager shaving of bread which is the symbol of life. This crumb, a symbol of the staple of life, then generates surrealistically from the images of place--the mansion and the moving river--the dream of ownership and the "miracle" of enjoying life for the speaker as she envisions comfort:
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.
Indeed, the artificial objects of the baroque balconies, mansions, and coffee reflect what critics call the "self-referential" in "A Miracle for Breakfast."