Some Realms I Owned: Elizabeth Bishop in Manhattan


Arts & Culture

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.

I head west to 61 Perry Street, a two-story home once owned by Loren MacIver, an artist who painted Bishop’s portrait in 1942. It was here in the same year that she met Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, and here where the two were staying when Lota committed suicide, in 1967. I conjure the scene: the ambulance waiting out front, flashing lights drawing out neighbors, the weighted gurney being maneuvered down the steps between the two black pineapples that punctuate each end of the railing. Elizabeth would have stumbled along beside it, eyes wide and mournful, hands pulling at her cropped silver hair and squeezing Lota’s limp one. But that was all later. I reach out my own hand and rest it briefly atop the cheerful, cast-iron fruit before moving on.

Like any literary tourist, I am searching for traces of something. Do buildings absorb traces of their former inhabitants? Can yesterday’s private joys and pains retire—like stale nicotine—into the walls? Bishop’s stay at 418 West 20th Street, during the summer and fall of 1939, went largely undocumented. That year, The New Yorker accepted one of her poems for publication—a landmark moment in a struggling writer’s life—but she later claimed to have been miserable. Her habits had “changed drastically”—possibly an allusion to her developing alcoholism. Undeterred, I follow the phantom clack of her footsteps up the sidewalk, taking in the scene like a visitor on the set of her favorite film. Today, foreign students congregate in front of a hostel. A melancholy boy listens to the conversation of passersby from a window ledge. A calico cat saunters along the curb, tail pointing to the sky.

Elizabeth Bishop, 43 Charles Street

Elizabeth Bishop, 43 Charles Street.

I turn south toward a more promising flat, that which Bishop rented at the corner of Varick and King Street in 1944. Though the poet frequently traveled to Key West, she kept the apartment until 1949, making it her longest-standing New York address. When I arrive, I commit the pilgrim’s classic blunder and admire the wrong building. The quaint rowhouse at 43 King Street appears in an undated watercolor sketch she likely made from the bedroom window of number 46—her actual residence across the street, which no longer exists. Glancing around apprehensively, I climb the steps of number 43 and gaze across the block. So this is what it’s like to see the world through Elizabeth’s eyes, I think. In her poem “Varick Street,” she describes “wretched uneasy buildings,” “pale dirty light,” “soot and hapless odors,”  but today the neighborhood is charming, almost idyllic: an enclave of expensive Georgian architecture and blooming flowers. The sun is out today after a long winter; birds sing almost too sweetly. I think how much I love New York.

But Bishop was never happy here; she wrote to her psychologist in 1948 that she disliked the city. The same year, she half-jokingly told Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” After number 46 was bulldozed in the summer of 1949, the poet checked herself into Blythewood, a mental institution. And yet she had just published, in 1946, her first volume of poetry, North & South, which was deluged with critical praise and later won her the Pulitzer. Wasn’t she an established writer, friends with Moore and Lowell? From the perspective of a lowly graduate student, I envy her vantage point: no longer striving to prove herself capable; a seat at the literary round table; a contributor to the cultural dialogue.

I stroll along snapping photos with my camera phone, and a breeze rushes down the sidewalk, carrying with it a dense whiff of urine. I fondly recall the “elongated nostrils/haired with spikes” in “Varick Street” that “give off such stenches.” Before I know it, a dark figure is lunging toward me and I cry out, slumping awkwardly against a gate. When I look up, the thief has bolted with my iPhone. No one is around to see me break into an irrational mixture of tears and hyperventilation. “What do we long for when we see beauty?” Nietzche once asked. “We think much happiness must be connected with it. But that is an error.” Perhaps this is true of success, as well.

* * *

A new film about Bishop, Reaching for the Moon—which enjoyed its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival—confirms how most people remember her: not as a neurotic Manhattanite, but as an expat who spent nearly two decades living in Brazil. It’s what first drew me to the poet, as well. Like many reader-author obsessions, mine began in a single moment when I was barely out of high school. I was then a Barnes & Noble barista in Texas, blending Frappucinos ad nauseum, escaping every few hours to the poetry section for a break. Once, I randomly opened Bishop’s Complete Poems and ran across one titled “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which vividly retells the discovery of Rio de Janeiro:

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—

big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,

blue, blue-green, and olive,

with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a stain under leaf turned over;
monster ferns
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—

purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;

solid but airy; fresh as if just finished

and taken off the frame.

It wasn’t just the beauty of the language that grabbed me. Growing up, my family lived in a crime-riddled area of southwest Dallas, but every year my parents could afford it, we stuffed our suitcases with Bubblicious gum, peanut butter, and other American products our South American relatives requested and headed to my grandmother’s apartment in Rio, where I was born. We had little family in the United States; in Brazil, there were oodles of aunts and second cousins happy to brush my hair, coddle me with sweets, and buy me any pretty thing I saw. In Dallas, superhighways obliterated most green things; you had to plug your nose when driving past the Trinity River, which cut through the city like a sewage pipe. In Rio, lush mountains towered above the cityscape; white sand beaches reached to the streets, filling up by noon on weekdays.

“Oh this incredibly country!” Elizabeth exclaimed to Ilse and Kit Barker in February 1952. Her own discovery of Brazil had come three months earlier, after she boarded the SS Bowplate for a trip around the world. When it docked in Rio, she visited Lota and tried a cashew fruit, which caused her head to swell up “like a pumpkin.” Somewhere during her recovery, she decided to stay, and wound up spending the next sixteen years there, splitting her time between Lota’s Copacabana apartment, their country home in Petropolis, and, later, Bishop’s colonial house in Ouro Prêto. On January 8, 1952, she wrote to her psychiatrist that she felt happier than she’d been in ten years. A year and a half later, she told Lowell: “I was always too shy to have much intercommunication in New York, anyway, and I was miserably lonely there most of the time—here I am extremely happy, for the first time in my life.” In a volume about Brazil for Time-Life, she compared Rio visually to “a child’s drawing”:

Four or five unreal peaks; two cable cars dangling on wires; planes landing and taking off; lights coming on all round the bay … all the elements there to delight the heart of the child — and yet altogether a delicate and slightly mad beauty.

I’d seen a lot of movies filmed in Manhattan, so I told my friends that Rio was the Brazilian New York City set in Never Never Land. Naturally, this sounded boastful, a form of summer vacation one-up-manship—and no one cared, anyway. The curiosity of most American kids peaked at the question, “Do they wipe their butts with banana leaves?” and sometimes, “So you speak Spanish?” But Brazil was more magical to me than Disney World, and my love for it took on absurd dimensions. At the age of ten or so, I taught myself the Brazilian national anthem. I tracked hours listening to the Astrud Gilberto croon “The Girl from Impanema” on repeat and fantasized about the day when, all grown up, I’d proudly renounce my American citizenship. It was like a weird, aberrant hobby, one which my older sister eventually informed me wasn’t cool to talk about.

But by the time I was eleven years old, my grandmother and grandfather had died. When we returned only six years later, I could see how fully American I was. Eventually, Brazil became to me just another image of that ideal wholeness one always misses from childhood.

James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Reading can, at times, walk a thin line between empathy and narcissism; we respond most emotionally to writers who speak to our direct experiences. Bishop’s own early years were spent in Great Village, Nova Scotia, which she left at the age of six after her mother entered a sanitarium. Her father died when she was an infant, so a handful of relatives swooped in and brought her to Boston, where she was passed—“unconsulted”—from relative to relative. She never forgot Nova Scotia, and the poetry of her early Brazilian years reverberated with nostalgia for Great Village:

We lived in a pocket of Time.
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river.

She later told a friend, “What I’m really up to is recreating a sort of deluxe Nova Scotia all over again in Brazil.” Is New York my Rio de Janeiro?

* * *

After spending several hours at the police station trying to file my report, the subway ride home sans iPhone is gloomy. The art of losing isn’t hard to master—the opening line from what is arguably Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poem—taunts me. My quest to visit all thirteen residences cut short; I realize that the project is itself misguided. The author-reader relationship is, after all, a simulated exchange: most writers write, and most readers read, out of loneliness. Robinson Crusoe, the subject of Bishop’s 1976 poem “Crusoe in England”, might as well be a stand-in for the poet; without his isolated island life, Crusoe may never have written his memoirs at all. Steinbeck once said a writer is like “a distant star sending signals” that tell you “you’re not as alone as you thought.” David Foster Wallace wrote that fiction is one of the few places where loneliness can not only be confronted, but also relieved. It’s a paradox, then, that the companionship one seeks and finds between the pages of a book sours in the real world.

Elizabeth Bishop’s relationship with Lota began to fall apart in 1967, and in July she left Brazil for a temporary stay at 61 Perry Street. When Elizabeth finally returned to Brazil following Lota’s death, she felt like an imposter, and eventually found herself back in New York. The last years of her life were spent, unhappily, in Boston. “One Art”, written three years before the poet’s 1979 death, continues:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

As the train emerges from its dark tunnel onto the Brooklyn Bridge, I look out across the Manhattan cityscape, shimmering beneath the bruised evening sky, and I think of Rio. Like so many young writers, I would love to make New York my home, but the logistics of living in an expensive city far from family are sometimes disheartening. Lose something every day, Elizabeth advised, nearing the end of her own life. It isn’t, after all, a disaster.

 Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer and graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Follow her on Twitter.