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This article is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

On Elizabeth Bishop Vidyan Ravinthiran
‘An undependable but sometimes marvellous thing’

Elizabeth Bishop, communication, and other people

I’d like to consider, as well as the form and texture of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, aspects of our present political predicament. I refer to the risks and the rewards of communicating across distances – literal, that is, geographic, distances (Bishop: ‘geography must be more mysterious than we realise, even’), but also those to do with opinions, interests, alternative styles of discommoded assertiveness. The hackneyed and necessary triad of race, class and gender. For Bishop is aware, and sometimes writes verse quite directly out of such awareness, that oceans of uncertainty – or, bad, restrictive certainties – may separate two people speaking even in the same room. This is why she tells Randall Jarrell, in the letter of 26 December 1955 which provides this essay with its title, that communication ‘is an undependable but sometimes marvellous thing’.

We can politicise this. I’ll begin with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and the scene where Lucy, wife to the future governor, Willie Stark, wishes to cheer him up after an election loss. The persisting dichotomy of man/provider and woman/homemaker makes this an archetypal situation, in which ambition carries a husband outside of the domestic space it is supposedly his wife’s task to turn into a soothing, curative realm. Lucy’s trying to dismiss his rivals – ‘They’d be crooks, wouldn’t they?’ – but Willie doesn’t appear to be listening:

She kept watching his face, which ...


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