January 17, 2012 | by Caleb Crain
Elizabeth Bishop was a painter as well as a poet, and the paintings that she left to her partner Alice Methfessel, who died in 2009, are now being sold. I’ve been to see the paintings a couple of times: last winter in the office of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, and a few weeks ago in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
The paintings are quiet. Some are domestic still lifes, including pansies in a wicker basket, a candelabra on a table, a tea set, and a doll-like lover asleep in bed. Others feature vernacular architecture: a Greenwich Village apartment building of ivy-covered brick, a wooden church in Key West, a county courthouse grand in the way of the nineteenth-century South. Most are in watercolor and gouache on vellum paper, whose delicate translucence no reproduction quite captures; lines are sometimes drawn in ink or pencil. Bishop didn’t have a steady or a precise hand, but her eye for color was fine, and she understood how to make the most of patterns, such as the radiations of a palm leaf, the stripes of a comforter cover, or the palings of a fence. She also had a Walker Evans–ish appreciation of the way that words, when they appear in the world as things, can seem both monumental and silly. The county courthouse is childishly labeled as such on a gable. On a street near a cemetery, each of five tombstones leaning against a shack reads “FOR SALE.”
The choice of subject and the modesty of style suggest that the paintings were for Bishop a personal matter. She usually signed them, when she signed them at all, with her initials or just her first name. They record what it looked like in the rooms and on the streets where she happened to be living. To judge from the pleasure she found in the colors and patterns, they also record what it was like to be happy there. And yet, though the images place Bishop, they don’t seem to anchor her. They convey a sense that she has only been placed provisionally. The security in the images, to the extent that there is any, doesn’t appear to be of a permanent kind. All the lines waver; the angles of the trays, tables, and walls are askew; things float, not quite settled.
I first came across Bishop’s paintings in Exchanging Hats, a book by William Benton that reprinted them. At the time, I hadn’t been doing so well. I had dropped out of graduate school to write a novel, and I was having a sort of punctuated nervous breakdown. Panic attacks were waking me up in the middle of the night. In addition to a rapid heart beat, cold sweat, cascades of adrenaline, and pure fear, I experienced a conviction during these episodes that my personal pronouns were broken. I remained aware that the word I referred by convention to the body attached to the mind that happened at the moment to be uttering it, but the knowledge wasn’t accompanied by a sense that there was anything necessary, special, or meaningful about the reference. During one episode I had the impression that my missing self, or soul, or whatever it was, wasn’t far away—that it was fluttering around somewhere above me, like one of those birds you sometimes see battering themselves nervously against the ceiling of a bus-station terminal. I wasn’t hallucinating; I knew that this was just a metaphor. Or rather, the mind that had generated the impression was aware that it was a metaphor.
Elizabeth Bishop also had trouble with her pronouns. “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” she wrote in her poem “In the Waiting Room.” Maybe it was because I recognized the discomfort in these lines that I bought Benton’s book. One of the pieces of lore I picked up around this time was that magic worked, as far as panic attacks go. If you feel that an object can make you secure, then it has the power to make you feel secure. I bought Benton’s book intending to look at it during my next panic attack.
That, at any rate, is my memory, which turns out to be mistaken. The copyright on Benton’s book is 1996, and according to my journal it was in 1994 that I dropped out and began to have panic attacks. My memory seems to have collapsed one thing into another. I did write the novel. It wasn’t much good, in part because it gradually turned into a novel about a person having an identity crisis, a topic on which I had little perspective. No perspective. By 1996 my anxiety had abated somewhat, so it’s doubtful that I ever did look at an Elizabeth Bishop painting during a panic attack. But there must be some reason that I remember her art as a talisman against disintegration.
Benton described Bishop’s image of a Key West county courthouse as “a view composed of what obstructs it.” Trees in the foreground interrupt the lines of the building, as do black power lines, which not only cross the frame but also connect awkwardly to a widow’s walk atop a turret on the courthouse roof. Bishop’s eye didn’t distinguish what she saw from what she wanted to see. Every line was a connection. In a painting of hers now owned by Vassar, of a white room with an open door, an extension cord runs up one wall, across the ceiling, and down another wall. It’s incongruous, when you think about it, that a force as ethereal as electricity should be obliged to follow a path as mundane as rubber-insulated wire. Such detail also betrays dislodgement in time: a viewer is reminded that when twentieth-century people lived in nineteenth-century buildings, the wiring had to be jury-rigged. There’s a similar honesty in William Eggleston’s photograph of Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973: against a red ceiling, white extension cords converge for power on the sockets of a bare-bulb light fixture. Eggleston may have taken the photo in a bordello; the poster in the lower-right corner of the frame depicts sexual positions.
It makes sense that a person who didn’t feel securely attached to himself would have been drawn to art that took such an interest in connections and their matter-of-factness. More than a decade and a half later, I have to face again some of the questions of identity that then gave me so much trouble, because in the past year I finished a new novel. I don’t think it would feel natural to most people to take on a new identity for the first time in their forties, and it certainly doesn’t feel natural to me. It has been uncanny to find myself taking comfort in Bishop’s paintings again.
Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.