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This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Inside Cover Portrait: Elizabeth Bishop (David C. Ward)

Portrait of Elizabeth Bishop

by Rollie McKenna
Gelatin silver print, 1951
Image/Sheet: 32.9cm x 25.6cm (12 15/16" x 10 1/16")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna
Copyright 1951 Rollie McKenna

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) lived in Brazil with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares for fifteen years, and after Lota died in 1967 Bishop discovered to her shock just how shallow her roots were in the society in which she had lived. Brazilians she had considered family and good friends fell away, leaving her isolated in her grief as she packed up her belongings to return to the United States. Friends in America rallied around but she struggled until the end of her life to find another place to call home. But rootlessness was always Bishop's métier. When she taught at the University of Washington in 1966 she lived in a motel. Her last years at Harvard were fraught with uncertainty about her appointment, her salary, and where she would live. Domestic arrangements never really worked out for Bishop.

Arguing that creativity comes as compensation for auto-biographical uncertainty - that one creates one's own creative marginality - is reductive. Yet Elizabeth Bishop seemed able to thrive as a writer precisely because she could draw strength from the chanciness of her daily life. Writing filled the voids for her. Her voluminous, sharp-eyed correspondence created a web of relationships on which she could rely. Her hard-earned poems grew, like desert plants, out of the absence of things. If her great friend and poetic peer Robert Lowell was haunted by a New England WASP's sense of decline and loss, Bishop was galvanised by having, she thought, nothing to lose and everything to gain. Concluding 'One Art', she breaks the inviolate seamlessness of her verse and the sestina form which a parenthetical exhortation: 'the art of losing's not too hard to master/though it may look like (write it) like disaster'.

Bishop's sense of a wound - however inflicted: poverty, lack of family, alcohol, depression - meant she always kept her guard up in her work, writing slowly and meticulously, fashioning a world of words that she could control. She was famously dismayed by Lowells' turn towards confessional verse in 1950s. Yet her dismay seems founded on the fact that Lowell used personal documents without mediating them through his own consciousness; it was the element of pastiche that offended. Her own work was grounded in what she lacked. Her poems about Nova Scotia and other half-homes are no less personal than Lowell's. But tone and style mattered and grounded her. You can hear the engraver's burin start to curl in the plate when she beings 'Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance': 'Thus, should have been our travels;/serious, engravable.' Against the pressing weight of what should have been, Elizabeth Bishop wrote what was.


This item is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

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