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Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979)

She disliked being photographed and usually hated the result. The whitening hair grew thick above a face each year somehow rounder and softer, like a bemused, blue-lidded planet, a touch too large, in any case, for a body that seemed never quite to have reached maturity. In early life the proportions would have been just right. A 1941 snapshot (printed in last winter’s Vassar Bulletin) shows her at Key West, with bicycle, in black French beach togs, beaming straight at the camera: a living doll.

The bicycle may have been the same one she pedaled to the local electric company with her monthly bill and Charles Olson’s, who one season rented her house but felt that “a Poet mustn’t be asked to do prosaic things like pay bills.” The story was told not at the Poet’s expense but rather as fingers are crossed for luck—another of her own instinctive, modest, lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman, someone who during the day did errands, went to the beach, would perhaps that evening jot a phrase or two inside the nightclub matchbook before returning to the dance floor.

Thus the later glimpses of her playing was it poker? with Neruda in a Mexican hotel, or pingpong with Octavio Paz in Cambridge, or getting Robert Duncan high on grass—“for the first time!”—in San Francisco, or teaching Frank Bidart the wildflowers in Maine. Why talk letters with one’s gifted colleagues? They too would want, surely, to put aside work in favor of a new baby to examine, a dinner to shop for and cook, sambas, vignettes: Here’s what I heard this afternoon (or saw twenty years ago)—imagine! Poetry was a life both shaped by and distinct from the lived one, like that sleet storm’s second tree “of glassy veins” in “Five Flights Up.” She was never unwilling to talk about hers, but managed to make it sound agreeably beside the point. As in her “Miracle for Breakfast” she tended to identify not with the magician on his dawn balcony but with the onlookers huddled and skeptical in the bread-line below.

This need for relief from what must have been an at times painful singularity was coupled with “the gift to be simple” under whatever circumstances. Once, after days of chilly drizzle in Ouro Preto, the sun came out and Elizabeth proposed a jaunt to the next town. There would be a handsome church and, better yet, a jail opposite whose murderers and wife-beaters wove the prettiest little bracelets and boxes out of empty cigarette packages, which they sold through the grille. Next a taxi was jouncing through sparkling red-and-green country, downhill, uphill, then, suddenly, under a rainbow! Elizabeth said some words in Portuguese, the driver began to shake with laughter. “In the north of Brazil,” she explained, “they have this superstition, if you pass underneath a rainbow you change sex.” (We were to pass more than once under this one.) On our arrival the prisoners had nothing to show us. They were mourning a comrade dead that week—six or eight men in their cavernous half-basement a narrow trench of water flowed through. They talked with Elizabeth quietly, like an old friend who would understand. It brought to mind that early prose piece where she imagines, with anything but distaste, being confined for life to a small stone cell. Leaving, she gave them a few coins; she had touched another secret base.

In Ouro Preto literary visitors were often a matter of poets from other parts of Brazil—weren’t there 15,000 in Belem alone? These would arrive, two or three a week during the “season,” to present her with their pamphlets, receiving in turn an inscribed Complete Poems from a stack on the floor beside her. The transaction, including coffee, took perhaps a quarter of an hour, at whose end we were once more by ourselves. The room was large, irregular in shape, the high beams painted. Instead of a picture or mirror one white wall framed a neat rectangular excavation: the plaster removed to show timbers lashed together by thongs. This style of construction dated the house before 1740. Across the room burned the cast-iron stove, American, the only one in town. More echoes, this time from “Sestina.”

I was her first compatriot to visit in several months. She found it uncanny to be speaking English again. Her other guest, a young Brazilian painter, in town for the summer arts festival and worn out by long teaching hours, merely slept in the house. Late one evening, over Old-Fashioneds by the stove, a too recent sorrow had come to the surface; Elizabeth, uninsistent and articulate, was in tears. The young painter, returning, called out, entered—and stopped short on the threshold. His hostess almost blithely made him at home. Switching to Portuguese, “Don’t be upset, José Alberto,” I understood her to say, “I’m only crying in English.”

The next year, before leaving Brazil for good, she went on a two-week excursion up the Rio Negro. One day the rattletrap white river-steamer was accosted by a wooden melon-rind barely afloat, containing a man, a child of perhaps six, and a battered but ornate armchair which they were hoping to sell. Nothing doing. However, a “famous eye” among the passengers was caught by the boatman’s paddle—a splendidly sanded and varnished affair painted with the flags of Brazil and the United States; it would hang on her wall in Boston. When the riverman understood that the eccentric foreign Senhora was offering, for this implement on which his poor livelihood depended, more money ($6, if memory serves) than he could dream of refusing, his perplexity knew no bounds. Then the little boy spoke up: “Sell it Papá, we still have my paddle!”—waving one no bigger than a toy. Which in the event, the bargain struck, would slowly, comically, precariously ply them and their unsold throne back across the treacherous water.

Will it serve as momentary emblem of her charm as a woman and her wisdom as a poet? The adult, in charge of the craft, keeping it balanced, richer for a loss; the child coming up with means that, however slow, quirky, humble, would nevertheless—

Nevertheless, with or without emblems, and hard as it is to accept that there will be no more of them, her poems remain. One has to blush, faced with poems some of us feel to be more wryly radiant, more touching, more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime, to come up with such few blurred snapshots of their maker. It is not her writings—even to those magically chatty letters—whose loss is my subject here. Those miracles outlast their performer; but for her the sun has set, and for us the balcony is dark.

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