June 18, 2013 | by Laura C. Mallonee
There are thirteen addresses in Manhattan where devout readers can stalk Elizabeth Bishop’s ghost: seven hotels and six apartments. Because no historical plaques have been hung to mark them, vigilance is crucial. You could pass by any one of them without realizing one of America’s greatest poets once called it home, or some version thereof. If these locales are not enough, peruse the writer’s several thousand letters for additional jaunts. At the entrance to the public library’s main reading room, for example, you can sit on the bench where, in 1936, Elizabeth arranged to meet Marianne Moore. The city is dirty enough that a small remnant of the writer, if only the dust on her soles, might linger there.
The compulsion to visit Elizabeth’s former residences is the same one that drives Shakespeare lovers to Stratford-upon-Avon and Thoreau converts to Walden Pond. Oscar Wilde’s lipstick-covered tomb proves such journeys are never simply educational field trips, but affairs of deep passion. Accordingly, I begin a pilgrimage: I will visit all these addresses. And so I set out on a cool spring day for 16 Charles Street, the poet’s first Manhattan residence, where she spent the fall of 1934. Bishop was then twenty-three years old, a would-be writer whose mind was as much a boxing ring for hope and trepidation as my own. She was sick that New Year’s Eve and spent the night on the floor, perusing a map of the North Atlantic. Doped up on “adrenalin and cough syrup,” she wrote:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
As I examine the wide building where Bishop once lived, my own questions sound comparatively banal: Was this the same brass doorknob she turned every day? When Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber was renovated in the twentieth century, several of the queen’s dress pins were found wedged between the floorboards. I scrutinize the red-brick facade for a similar detail that might bring the poet into focus, but whatever she may have left behind cannot be seen through these stoic windows, all gridded neatly in white, each revealing less than the last. Read More »