“Questions of Travel” provided the title for Bishop’s third volume of poetry, and it comes from a group of works that were written in, and take as their theme, Brazil. The poem is at once a series of very precise observations and, obliquely, a meditation on movement in place that suggests movement in the imagination. The dichotomy that is thereby set up between mind and body comes perhaps from the French philosopher René Descartes and echoes earlier literary treatments of the question of travel in works by Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Marcel Proust.

In this poem, the narrator remains submerged, emerging only briefly in the pronoun “we” in the poem’s second group of lines and then again before the final, italicized section as “the traveller,” who (like Romantic poet John Keats’s Grecian urn) writes his or her own motto, on which neither the narrator nor the author comments further. The result is that the reader is left with the ambiguity of knowing merely that this is what the traveler thinks, without knowing whether this is what the reader is to think. As the final section consists largely of questions, it may be precisely these questions that are the final “answer.”

The poem’s first line situates the reader immediately in an alien place, identified only as “here.” All things are relative: From the narrator’s point of view, the streams seem to be waterfalls, but from the point of view of the streams...

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