Dear Miss Moore / Royal Poinciana

The Royal Poinciana trees have just begun to set out their flowers. By the end of the month, the entire canopies will be full of the bright red or orange blossoms.

Elizabeth Bishop was 26 years old when she first visited Key West in 1938. Her letters from that year, especially those to her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, are filled with descriptions of the subtropical island’s flora and fauna.

Here’s an excerpt from one of them:

May 5, 1938

It is spring here now and the Royal Poinciana trees are in bloom all along the streets– brilliant flame color or dark red. Also a large tree– Spanish lime?– that sheds in some places fine green powder all over the streets, very pretty. Jasmine makes the whole town smell sweet at night– and all the cats have kittens. There has been the ugliest mother cat I have ever seen, and two kittens, in the yard of the little house we’re buying, for five days. I don’t want them– they are crosseyed, mangy, and mixtures of white, black, orange, gray, and tiger– but they are growing so thin I couldn’t stand it, so I took over a bottle of milk, and now they obviously consider themselves mine. The mother looks just like Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker.

Though 72 years have altered Bishop’s Key West immeasurably, she’d still recognize the house she bought that year at 624 White Street, which remains miraculously untouched. And she’d know the fine green Spanish lime pollen dusting the cars and sidewalks outside our office, the red Poinciana blossoms which have just begun to open, and the jasmine and jasmine-like perfume of the 21st-century night.

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