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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Bishop’

Some Realms I Owned: Elizabeth Bishop in Manhattan

June 18, 2013 | by

Elizabeth Bishop, "Interior with Extension Cord." Undated; watercolor, gouache, and ink.

Elizabeth Bishop, "Interior with Extension Cord." Undated; watercolor, gouache, and ink.

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 »


The Art of Losing

March 7, 2013 | by


Writers often hate talking about the book they’ve just written. On the one hand, books are an exercise in preservation, an old-fashioned sort of external hard drive. But for the author personally, a book can also be an elaborate act of forgetting. I wonder sometimes whether I’m driven to write about certain things, especially difficult things, just so I’ll never have to deal with them again; I’ll capture my subject and be done with it. From a particular angle, the writing life for me is a gradual process of self-erasure—first the crisp details go, then the plot, the underlying obsessions—or else each book is a box in which something of myself can be stored away forever.

I’ve never felt this shrinking, unpublic side of writing as strongly as I have with the book about real-life murders I just finished—work it’s just not possible for me to be “done with.” The book tells the stories of killings, but I didn’t want to recount the cases with the heavy hand typical of stories that turn on crime and justice. The buffoonish, Wayne LaPierre–esque division of the world into good guys and bad guys may be an easy, reflexive way to organize the life around us, a busy firing of synapses that adds up to something less than thinking. I never saw the point of it, but I admit, in this instance, it would have made terrible stories easier to forget.

It’s stressful to keep in the forefront of our minds how real lives are pixelated with good and bad acts. It’s even worse when the real lives you’re writing about belong to murderers, and the acts—at least one of them—are as bad as possible. After all my research and all the interviews, I felt the weariness I imagine sin-eaters feel—the people who take responsibility for the world’s sinful deeds so others won’t have to. Read More »


House of Poesy: At the Grolier Poetry Book Shop

February 26, 2013 | by

2344815284_eef84104c5The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both a misnomer and an anomaly. It has long dedicated itself to the task of promoting the reading and writing of poetry and has, for eighty-five years, served as a niche for poets the world over. While its reputation has bloomed over the years, thanks largely to word-of-mouth praise, it has never fared well financially, partly due to competition from larger stores and the Internet, partly because poetry has never been popular with the masses, and partly because its founder seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that his store not be turned into a business.

Located on Plympton Street in Harvard Square, the Grolier occupies just 404 square feet of space and is dwarfed by the neighboring Harvard Book Store. A white square sign with meticulous black lettering juts out near the top of the store entrance. The font size decreases from top to bottom, much like on an eye exam chart, and one can just make out, at the very top, a finely done illustration of three cats (or is it the same cat?) dozing, grooming, and turning their backs on the viewer.

Upon ascending a small flight of steps, one is greeted by the sight of an abundance of colorful spines—approximately fifteen thousand—neatly arranged against nearly every flat surface of the shop. These volumes are neatly balkanized into several categories, including anthologies, used, African-American, early English, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, Latin, classical Greek, Japanese, Korean, East European, Spanish, and Catalan.

Above the towering shelves are approximately seventy black and white photos (many courtesy of the photographer Elsa Dorfman) of poets and other members of the literati for whom the Grolier has served as a meeting place for well over half a century. Among the Grolier’s most illustrious visitors, most of whom are smiling or gazing sagely and serenely ahead in the photos, are T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Marianne Moore, James Tate, Donald Hall, and Helen Vendler.

Off to one side at the front of the store sits a lean shelf of chapbooks and a donation jar; a small note says that the chapbooks have been generously donated by the author and that monetary contributions to the shop would be greatly appreciated. Directly across this bookcase is the cash register, propped up on a desk and flanked by sundry items, including bookmarks, promotional literature, pamphlets, business cards, and commemorative pens. On the wall right adjacent to the register hangs a certificate from Boston Magazine honoring the Grolier as the best poetry store of 1994. Read More »


Scary Children Reading, and Other News

December 6, 2012 | by

  • Even terrifying people love books.
  • “A bedbug had crawled out of a copy of True Blood while she was reading it.” When library books get bedbugs.
  • “It is awful to think I’ll probably be regarded as some sort of authority on Brazil the rest of my life.” Benjamin Moser on Elizabeth Bishop and her adopted homeland.
  • Might selling used books become illegal?
  • “Al and the TAs are like reality-show TV contestants: regular people who suddenly have a huge audience.” Elliott Holt takes an online literature course.


    “repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise”: Poets Mourning Poets

    November 19, 2012 | by

    “I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”

    The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.

    Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.

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    Map Quest

    September 4, 2012 | by

    The draw of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s classic breakup song “Maps” is that it is as plainly sad as possible. “Wait,” the band’s lead singer, Karen O, sings over and over, “they don’t love you like I love you.” But “Maps” is also enigmatic: beyond its abject chorus, the lyrics are cryptic, with verses that are brief and opaque—“Packed up / Don’t Stray / Oh say, say, say / Oh say, say, say.” Karen O repeats maps, plaintive and without context, stretching the word’s aaa over four bars.

    According to fan mythology, “Maps” is an acronym for “my Angus please stay,” referencing Liars lead singer Angus Andrew, whom Karen O has said the song is about. There may be other ways to read the song’s title, though. “Maps” evokes the physical and metaphorical distance that is felt from a lover who is leaving. It is a kind of emotional cartography, mapping two people’s painful journeys away from one another. This will serve as our foundation: maps aren’t impersonal, objective. They aren’t.

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