A very peculiar thing happens to me when I discover an author I come to cherish – I feel a momentary sense of panic at the thought that I might never have discovered their work in the first place. I fleetingly imagine my life without their words and feel an odd sense of loss. This is how I feel about Elizabeth Bishop – panicked at the thought of my life without her.
Alarmingly, it was only by chance that I discovered her work when I came across the film ‘Reaching for the Moon’, a biopic of Bishop’s life in Brazil with her lover Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares (Lota). I remember hoping that the film would be well acted and well made. It was.
And then I heard ‘it’, her voice, revealed in the opening stanza of Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, spoken in the background of a scene in the film,
‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’1
It may have been the actresses’ voice that spoke the words but it wasn’t her voice that I heard – it was the voice of the poem – it was the voice of Elizabeth Bishop.
I could hear it immediately – warm, yet clipped, controlled, measured. And that’s how I know when I like a writer, when I hear them, when I feel them, when their words affect me.
Shortly after the film, I feverishly hunted down second hand copies of her work online and was thrilled days later when the demure brown cardboard packages started to arrive.
I thumbed through line after line of her poetry, pausing reverently at the closing stanza of ‘One Art’, absorbed in the beauty of its understated expression of personal loss.
‘-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’1
‘One Art’ is everything I love about writing – clear and unfussy, yet clever, skilful, and moving.
Clear and unfussy writing, however, is not achieved without great effort. Bishop was a perfectionist and I imagine the edge of her hand stained with ink as she drafted and re-drafted each word.
I was particularly intrigued by one book, which arrived late on my doorstep, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker – the complete correspondence’. It had ‘San Diego County Library’ stamped on its flyleaf, and I wondered why the library had given it away or indeed whether it had been furtively slipped under a jumper, a thought that lent my purchase an illicit allure.
Not that I needed any alluring, as I plunged further, chest deep into Bishop’s world, exploring more of her poetry, her short stories, and her prose recollections.
The deftness of her descriptions of people and places drew me in. At the turn of a page, I was privy to the intimacies of her friendships with artists, poets, and editors, or I would travel with her imagination to distant places I had never been, fixated on the extraordinary detail of the everyday world she carefully depicted.
In the short story, The Village, I found myself standing in a country lane in Nova Scotia, and for a moment, I am transfixed by a cow doing what a cow does naturally…
‘Nelly, oblivious, makes cow flops. Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.
It is fascinating. I cannot take my eyes off her. Then I step around them: fine dark-green and lacy and watery at the edges.’2
It seems to me, heady with reading, that no detail is too small or unimportant for Bishop and moreover, no emotion is too big or too real for words. The right words, mind, expressed with the utmost care.
As I reluctantly put her work aside, I turn back, glance at the reassuring stack of her books, just to check that she is still there.
Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979)
- One Art, p.40-41, Geography III, by Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2008.
- In the Village, p. 263, Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose, The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.