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…

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