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This review is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

TALKING POEMS ANNE STEVENSON, Between the Iceberg and the Ship. Selected Essays. (University of Michigan Press) £12.50
ANNE STEVENSON, Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (Bellew) £14.95

'I sometimes suspect that I am drawn to poetry because it embraces contradiction,' writes Anne Stevenson in a recent edition of Thumbscrew (Winter 1998-9). In two new works, the contradictions Stevenson finds alluring are explored (in her second study of Elizabeth Bishop) and embodied (in a selection of essays ranging from 1977 to 1995).

The Bishop study consists of five essays, each corresponding to a major theme or volume from Bishop's oeuvre. The book - the first in a handsomely-produced series of Agenda/Bellew Poets on Poetry - concludes with a detailed chronology, in which the curious will find many of the salient biographical details of Bishop's life; maps (of Nova Scotia, Brazil, Florida); notes; index; and selected bibliography.

'My object,' writes Stevenson, 'has been to suggest ways of reading Bishop uncategorically in the light of her insistence on looking at the world and finding there the solid correlates for the marvels, griefs, and contradictions that shaped her personal geography'. Marvels, griefs, contradictions there were, translated into a landscape of tears, rain, fallen wires, totemic animals - 'anchor[ing] the unbearable in the ordinary', in Stevenson's memorable phrase. Or again, 'the artist in his or her freedom is called upon to transform the terrible into the marvellous'. That Bishop achieved this at great personal cost is clear ('you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived', letter to Robert Lowell, 1948). What Stevenson so successfully does in this study, however, is relate the personal cost ...


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