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Book Review: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters (Library of America), Edited by Lloyd Schwartz

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Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters is a book to delve into again and again and be reminded and surprised by the wonderful writing of multi-award winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was Poet Laureate of the United States (1949 to 1950), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1956, for Poems – North & South) and a National Book Award (1970, The Complete Poems).

Bishop’s father died when she was just eight months old. By age five her mother entered a mental hospital, never to see or live with her daughter again. Bishop was shuttled back and forth between her maternal and paternal grandparents until settling in with her aunt Florence Bishop, her father’s sister. As the title states, Bishop’s poems, prose, letters, and much more are all included here — translations, reviews of other poets’ work, short stories. Her chronological biography reads as interestingly as her poetry, detailing the incidents, travels, friendships, and love affairs that made up her life and can be glimpsed in echoes through her poetry. Bishop’s long-term relationships were with women, but she didn’t make them the subject of her work. She was interested in people, but not self-revelation. Even her most “intimate” work is only generally erotic.

From “Vague Poem (Vaguely Love Poem)”

Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose …
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
forming, folding over,
unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex—

She lived an itinerant life. Bishop came from a wealthy family, so she could afford to travel, and she did, often. Even though she made her home in Brazil for 15 years, she used that home as a base to travel from, never seeming to stay in one place for too long. She also lived for many years in writers’ haven Key West. Bishop was an alcoholic. So many writers from her generation became alcoholics that it’s hard not to wonder if the true results of Prohibition were to grain-alcohol poison everyone. Because people certainly didn’t stop drinking during Prohibition — they drank home-distilled versions of liquor that were many times more potent than what we drink now. And they were drinking mostly alcohol, not a recreational Chardonnay.


Whatever poem you’re reading, wherever it is set, whether Newfoundland, New York, Florida, or Paris, you feel that Bishop really “gets” where she is. She has a gift for describing the place, the moment.   

From “A Miracle for Breakfast”

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds — along with the sun

Her letters are interesting, a slightly different voice from her poetry, but still always describing her surroundings. A letter to mentor Marianne Moore describes a visit to her aunt’s farm in such detail — how she had to walk out to the road in the early morning dark and use a flashlight to flag down the only bus to New York City — you feel you are there with her, out on the cold dirt road in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, wondering if she’ll be able to hail the bus and make it back safe and sound to the city.

   

From “Letter to N.Y.”

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

The notes are a fascinating read as well, citing the numerous references in her poems. In “Letter to N.Y.” for instance, which was written for her friend since teen years, Crane Paper Company heiress Louise Crane, the reader learns that Bishop and Crane both traveled and lived together in New York, Paris, and Key West for many years, adding another dimension to the opening line, “In your next letter I wish you’d say where you are going and what you are doing.”

It is impossible to read Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters from cover to cover, as the vast nature of Bishop’s work begs the reader to hop around in time and form, from a favorite poem to a letter she wrote about it, to the biographical notes to see what part of the world she was in at the time she wrote it. Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters is definitely a bedside-table book, that will be on hand, a great companion, for quite a long time.

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