Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop

A friend of mine recently divulged his personal favorite among Bishop’s poems, "The End of March," which I immediately sought out, the end of March bearing some significance to me, now. I’d always thought of Elizabeth Bishop as a short story writer, and having sought out the Library of America edition of her collected poems, prose, and letters, I discover that I like best of all her essays, which read to me like her poems must read to others. Her essays are the real thing—life--in color, with context, in language as carefully chosen as any of her poems. She manages to pick among the all the true things in an experience for particular words which tell us volumes…she was a careful curator of the authentic, one with a true artist’s eye.

Bishop has a fearful darkness at the core of her writing. I don’t know why—it almost seems as though she must have an illness that tired her and reminded her how close nothingness is. I did not read any biography of her; perhaps I should. Why it is that poets can make blackness blacker than any other artists, I could not say. But even in her short stories, for instance "The Last Animal," there is an air of menace, a whiff of death. In the essay, "Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939" we know right from the title that the character we read about is dead, or will die, as it happened. We had forgotten that at the promising start, all hot sun and bright flowers, the shade of palms and the act of creation (paintings) make us forget that death is waiting, and not patiently.

The poem "The End of March," it shouldn’t surprise us, is also about death. Walking along the beach with a cold biting wind freezing one side of the face, two walkers come upon a splayed "man-sized" tangle of kite string "but no kite" washed up on the shore. At the same time, one walker glimpses a boarded-up beach house tethered by a wire (electricity?) to something off beyond the dunes. The walker imagines a retirement there,
"....doing nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."

Robert Pinsky was asked in this week's The New Yorker poetry podcast to choose a poem to read from the New Yorker archives and he chose a Bishop poem first published in that magazine in 1947. Called “At the Fishhouses,” the poem Pinsky calls "plain" has something of the “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” description that she reprises more than once.
"…I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
Slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
Icily free above the stones…

…It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
Drawn from the cold hard mouth
Of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
Forever, flowing and drawn, and since
Our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown."

As it often happens in the way of things, Colm Tóibín has recently published a book with Princeton University Press, On Elizabeth Bishop, whom he has been reading for forty years. Tóibín shares his thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop and the poet Thom Gunn in this article in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Lavinia Greenlaw reviews Tóibín's new book. Each of these yields great insights into Bishop's life and style.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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