Complement to Blue by Janice Colbert

Complement to Blue by Janice Colbert Olivia (painted by Elizabeth Bishop c.1941) Key West, Florida St. James First Missionary Baptist Church   watercolour and gouache, 5 x 7 inches    The belfry clanged a one-note bell, electric in the blue sky,   as Elizabeth sketched the pocket church on paper scrap   small enough to line a cigar box.  The lump of a steeple cut the edge of the page,   the heavens limpid sienna wash,   the same for the earth where she stepped.     The timber-shingle roof, batten-and-board   wall, louvered shutters and steps, dog-eared  fence and power pole are opaque  umber, like dried leaves of tobacco.     In her northern village back home, wool carpets,   hooked rugs sent from her great-uncle, a missionary   in India, cozied her grandparent’s sitting room.   Psalms her grandmother crooned were Elizabeth’s  prelude to poetry. The familiar hymns stayed her for life.      In this tropical fishing village, mothers with babes   on hip watched, children played barefoot in dirt   lanes. Spanish-lime boughs, lashed to a stick were for sale.   Laundry died in the coral dust. Awash with salt,   winds of brine shuddered the bow of homes despite bolts   anchored to native coral. Floors were plank, paint   could not last long, the houses blighted.   An aproned-flock of black churchwomen baked Saturday  pies, timed the boil on cauldrons of chopped   sweet potatoes. Malleable butter   joined the drained cubes. Egg congealed   the cooled orange puree. Prodigal pinch of  cinnamon and nutmeg, one-quarter cups sweet   milk and sugar, smoothed into short-crust shells,   take-away lunch for sale, after Sunday service.    The ill-starred bell was strung   rope to a beam. Restorers  discovered the frayed strands poised   to drop anchor on the parishioners.    Shortly after, when Elizabeth quit this island,   brick walls muted the wood building.   In time, white plaster blooming erased it all.    Copyright © Janice Colbert  Janice holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and a BFA in Visual Art from OCADU. She winters in Key West, a childhood home, where in 2019 she joined other Elizabeth Bishop enthusiasts to launch the Elizabeth Bishop Committee, to champion her achievements. In 2020 the group, in conjunction with the Key West Literary Seminar was able to have the city declare February 8 as a public day of recognition for EB. Each year at the celebration Janice reads one of her (often ekphrastic) original poems about Bishop.