As you all know, tonight is the night of the full moon, half the world over. But here the moon seems to hang motionless in the sky. It gives very little light; it could be dead. Visibility is poor. Nevertheless, we shall try to give you some idea of the lay of the land and the present situation.


The escarpment that rises abruptly from the central plain is in heavy shadow, but the elaborate terracing of its southern glacis gleams faintly in the dim light, like fish scales. What endless labor those small, peculiarly shaped terraces represent! And yet, on them the welfare of this tiny principality depends.


A slight landslide occurred in the northwest about an hour ago. The exposed soil appears to be of poor quality: almost white, calcareous, and shaly. There are believed to have been no casualties.
Almost due north, our aerial reconnaissance reports the discovery of a large rectangular "field," hitherto unknown to us, obviously man-made. It is dark-speckled. An airstrip? A cemetery?
In this small, backward country, one of the most backward left in the world today, communications are crude and "industrialization" and its products almost nonexistent. Strange to say, however, signboards are on a truly gigantic scale.
We have also received reports of a mysterious, oddly shaped, black structure at an undisclosed distance to the east. Its presence was revealed only because its highly polished surface catches such feeble moonlight as prevails. The natural resources of the country being far from completely known to us, there is the possibility that this may be, or may contain, some powerful and terrifying "secret weapon." On the other hand, give what we do know, or have learned from our anthropologists and sociologists about this people, it may well be nothing more than a numen, or a great altar recently erected to one of their gods, to which, in their present historical state of superstition and helplessness, they attribute magical powers, and may even regard as a "savior," one last hope of rescue from their grave difficulties.
At last! One of the elusive natives has been spotted! He appears to be - rather, to have been - a unicyclist-courier, who may have met his end by falling from the height of the escarpment because of the deceptive illumination. Alive, he would have been small, but undoubtedly proud and erect, with the thick, bristling black hair typical of the indigenes.
From our superior vantage point, we can clearly see into a sort of dugout, possibly a shell crater, a "nest" of soldiers. They lie heaped together, wearing the camouflage "battle dress" intended for "winter warfare." They are in hideously contorted positions, all dead. We can make out at least eight bodies. These uniforms were designed to be used in guerilla warfare on the country's only snow-covered mountain peak. The fact that these poor soldiers are wearing them here, on the plain, gives further proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childishness and hopeless impracticality of this inscrutable people, our opponents, or of the sad corruption of their leaders.

Elizabeth Bishop - 1976

Vocabulary: 1. escarpment: a steep bank under a defensible mound
2. glacis: the outer sloping bank of a fortification
3. calcareous: like or containing lime
4. shaly: like or containing the thin, split-able rock, shale
5. reconnaissance: a preliminary survey to gain information; esp., an exploratory military survey of enemy territory
6. hitherto: to this point; up until now
7. anthropologist: someone who studies human history and behavior
8. sociologist: someone who studies the interactions of humans
5. indigenes: native animals or plants
10. inscrutable: not easily researched or understood
Exercises and Reflection Questions

1. Read the poem, once aloud and once to yourself, and keeping in mind that nothing here is as it seems.  Once you've read and got the basic idea, attempt to draw the poem's landscape exactly as the "reporter" has described it.  When done, try to guess what each item really is and what this entire poem is actually describing.  You should also color your picture as time allows. Oh, and just so you know, in the unadulterated version of this poem, what each item is what indicated in the left column next to each stanza!

2. Find the various images and word choices in this poem that refer to ideas of war, religion, and science.  What do you think Bishop was trying to say about each?

3. From whose or what's point of view is this poem spoken?  With that in mind, what do you think Bishop might have been saying about point of view?

4. Why do you think Bishop chose to give that person's or thing's persona one of a reporter?  What is unique about a reporter that makes the poem's bias so ironic?

5. What is the tone of this poem?  How do you know?  Based on that tone, what do you think are Bishop's intended theme or themes?  Explain.

6. Do you like the poem better without the labels (without knowing what each stanza or what the entire poem is actually about) or with that information.  Explore how each version affects how you read the poem.