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L I T T O R A L

Elizabeth Bishop Has Slimmed Down

03/15/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 

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You love everything written by Elizabeth Bishop. You own all the Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux editions, the trusty coral-colored Poems, the sea-foam-green Prose, and the Bible-sized Letters. You’ve got the tizzy-causing uncollected, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. But you want some new books, too, and your bookshelf is stuffed. Enter Library of America, to the rescue! Their ELIZABETH BISHOP: Poems, Prose, and Letters was released on Valentine’s Day, for you. This is the iPod of Bishop books, nearly a thousand pages, but only a quarter-inch thicker than the Complete Poems, thanks to LoA’s ultra-lightweight paper and dense, yet easy-to-read page layout. It has only a selection of the letters, true, but it does have this unlikely one to T.C. Wilson from 1938:

“I like Key West more and more. In the 1st place we have been gambling at Sloppy Joe’s and winning– L., $35, me, $22. And then we have been invited to a real cocktail party– all the water-colorists, ichthyologists, etc., etc., and a man who sold a story to Esquire a while ago, etc.


We spent yesterday morning in the cemetery. There is one very
elaborate, small mausoleum built by a German scientist, 60, who came
here two years ago and fell in love with a Cuban girl, 18. She died, of
consumption, and he built an airplane for her out on a pier– she had
always wanted to fly and never had, so he planned to take her body for
a flight, but the plane would never take off.”

Bishop’s Key
West letters are rich and strange and full of detail, and it’s too bad
there aren’t more of them here. For the Key Wester walking past her
still-disheveled house on White St. looking
at the sky and trees, they give the impression that you are seeing what she saw from where she saw
it. Along with the drafts and fragments from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,
they complete a picture of Bishop, whose impact, like any artist’s, may
be measured in the terms of just how it was that she was human. Not
just her what she had to say, but how it was she came to say it.

I almost agree with the urge of some critics to
dismiss Bishop’s fragments. I find her a particularly welcome major
writer because her life-long brevity makes her work appear
tantalizingly comprehensible.  And yet she remains just out of reach,
as poetry should be. This book, bringing together all the published
poems and most of the unpublished, along with all the prose, some
letters, a chronology and notes, fools me again into thinking I can
figure Bishop out. It seems like all the clues are there. I just need
to work a little harder. If it’s thousand-page depth flies in the face
of Bishop’s reticence, at least it is easier to keep all of Elizabeth
near.

In 1993, the Key West Literary Seminar devoted its
entire event to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Recordings, including
Octavio Paz’s keynote address, have recently been discovered, and will
be made available online in the near future.

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