The South

Colm Tóibín

  • One Art: The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop edited by Robert Giroux
    Chatto, 668 pp, £25.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6195 7

Even in the morning in that year the two-hour hotels were in bloom. The city was full of desire. It was hot. I stayed for a while in a narrow street near the Flamingo Park and went out some days to swim at Copacabana. It was that time between the death of Elizabeth Bishop and the appearance of the first biography and this volume of letters, when the ordinary reader on this side of the Atlantic knew very little about her. I did not know that for 15 years she stayed in an apartment overlooking the beach. ‘It is such a wonderful apartment,’ she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1958,

that we’ll never rent it again, no matter what heights rents soar to, I think. Top floor, 11th, a terrace around two sides, overlooking all that famous bay and beach. Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery, people walk their dogs – same dogs same time, same old man in blue trunks every morning with two Pekinese at 7a.m. – and at night the lovers on the mosaic sidewalks cast enormous long shadows over the soiled sand.

I remember the shock of the first Saturday I was there, how there were dozens of football matches being played with extraordinary speed and ferocity on the beach, most of the players black and beautiful, the supporters letting off bangers every time a goal was scored, and the bangers echoing against the apartment blocks and hotels. They played until it grew dark, and then another drama began. In her book Brazil, written with the editors of Life, Elizabeth Bishop wrote: ‘Frequently at night, on country roads, along beaches or in city doorways, candles can be seen glimmering. A black candle, cigars and a black bottle of cachaca, or a white candle, white flowers, a chicken and a clear bottle of cachaca – these are macumba hexes or offerings, witnesses to the superstitious devotion of millions of Brazilians to this cult.’ She must have stood on her balcony as the sky darkened, watching the first candles appearing.

On one of those Saturdays I saw a woman in her forties kneeling at the edge of the sea and a girl who must have been her daughter. They had left red roses on the sand and lit several candles around the roses. They had left a glass of alcohol on the sand. The fireworks and the shouting from the football matches were over now, a faint memory. The two women were facing out to sea, watching the grey waves come in, wringing their hands in desperate concentration.

This is the space in which the best of Bishop’s poems survived. She conjured up what Robert Lowell in 1947, in his review of her North – South, called ‘something in motion, weary but persisting’, and then moved to something exact and specific, something human and fragile, what Lowell identified as ‘rest, sleep, fulfilment or death’. She delighted in the exotic, in the passing, noisy, frivolous moment, but in the end her eye was caught by the flame and the woman kneeling by the sea, and in her work she played one off against the other.

In 1985 when I stayed in Rio I did not know much more about her than what she told us in her poems, the short biography in her books and the shadowy figure described in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, which appeared in 1983. In that same year Denis Donoghue, in a new edition of his Connoisseurs of Chaos, wrote:

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, February 8, 1911. Her father died when she was eight months old. Her mother, mentally ill, spent long periods in hospital: she was taken, when Elizabeth was five, to a mental hospital in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elizabeth never saw her again. The child was brought up partly by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, partly by her mother’s older sister in Boston. When she was 16, she went to a boarding-school near Boston, and from there to Vassar College. When she graduated, she moved to New York, and travelled in France and Italy. From 1938 she spent ten years in Key West, Florida. In 1942 she met, in New York, a Brazilian, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares, and beginning in 1951, they shared a house near Petropolis in Brazil, and an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Bishop wrote a book about Brazil, and stayed there for 15 years, writing her poems and translating some poetry by modern Brazilian poets. In 1966 she returned to the United States, teaching poetry at various universities and especially at Harvard; in 1974 she took an apartment in Boston. She died in the winter of 1979. So far as appearances go, her life was not dramatic. But one never knows about drama.

There was, however, one piece of evidence which suggested drama. In 1970 Robert Lowell published ‘Four Poems for Elizabeth Bishop’ in Notebook. The first was a reworking of his poem ‘Water’; the second poem was more obscure, containing several personal references; the third was called ‘Letter with Poems for a Letter with Poems’ and was in inverted commas. It began:

‘You’re right to worry about me, only please DON’T,
though I’m pretty worried myself. I’ve somehow got
into the worst situation I’ve ever
had to cope with.’

It included the lines:

‘That’s what I’m waiting for now:
a faintest glimmer I am going to get out
somehow alive from this.’

The fourth poem ended with lines of homage to Bishop as an artist. In Notebook they read:

you still hang words in air, ten years imperfect,
joke-letters, glued to cardboard posters, with gaps
and empties for the unimagined phrase,
unerring Muse who scorns a less casual friendship?

In ‘History’, published three years later, Lowell improved the lines:

you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase –
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?

These words seemed reasonable: Bishop’s poems were full of unimaginable phrases, there was a calm austerity in her tone which could lead her readers to believe that she worked for years on each poem. She sought a quiet perfection, which was remarkable at a time when her contemporaries like Lowell and Berryman were writing unending and imperfect sequences. But the tone of the third poem, in which Lowell had quoted from a letter, was strange, a dramatic, personal and highly-charged tone which had never entered into Bishop’s poetry; it suggested that Bishop had an epistolary manner which was closer to Lowell’s own work.

In his review of Bishop’s North & South Lowell identified a banal note in some of her poems, ‘as though they had been simplified for a child’. ‘Florida’, for example, opens: ‘The state with the prettiest name’; and ‘The Fish’ (which used to be her most popular poem) opens: ‘I caught a tremendous fish’; and ‘Filling Station’ opens: ‘Oh, but it is dirty!’ There were no poems to her dead father, or her insane mother, and her story ‘In the Village’, which deals with her mother’s madness, had to be made into a poem (‘The Scream’) by Lowell, as though she herself was unable to handle such material in poetry. It was easy to misread her as someone who avoided the personal entirely and stuck to blank description of certain landscapes in North America and Brazil, and whimsy. It seemed that whatever was happening to her in Lowell’s third sonnet did not enter the body of her work.

And yet there is a sense of pain and loss buried deep in her poetic diction; there is a peculiar and steadfast concentration in her tone which is at its most powerful in ‘At the Fishhouses’:

If you should dip your hand in
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

She shared with Hemingway a fierce simplicity, a use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words. The search for pure accuracy in her poems forced her to watch the world helplessly, as though there were nothing she could do. The statements she made in her poems seem always distilled, put down on the page – despite the simplicity and the tone of casual directness – only with great difficulty. ‘The Prodigal’, for example, came in the shape of two sonnets. The first one ended:

And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile another year or more.

The second ended:

But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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