Elizabeth Bishop generally wrote about specific people and incidents. (She also wrote often from her dreams, but I am going to ignore that fact because I don't believe the following poem is from a dream.)
For instance I recently learned that her amazing poem, Visits To St. Elizabeth's, was about visiting Ezra Pound during his time in that mental hospital. I had always thought that it came from her visits to her mother who had lived in a mental hospital until her death after Bishop was out of college. (Yes, I know the poem says a "man" but I still thought it was about visiting her mother.) But now I learn that she never once (or so they say) visited her mother there. That may be because, her father having died while she was in her infancy, she was sent away to live with grandparents in Canada.
But the point is that the whimsical and touching Visits to St. Elizabeth's was about a real series of visits to her sick friend. The following poem, I am confident, likewise has a solid basis in a real story of some intimate of Bishop's. I do not know what it is, but I am curious. I wonder who it was, and what was the story that prompted her to write The Prodigal. I also wonder to what extent she was writing about herself in it, although I don't think that could be its sole motive.
The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs' eyes followed him, a cheerful stare--
even to the sow that always ate her young--
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind a two-by-four),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red;
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.
But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern--like the sun, going away--
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.