Key Westers bemoan change. You should’ve seen it twenty years ago. You should have seen it last week. But look far enough, and you’ll see we’ve made a habit of proclaiming ruin. Still, it’s better here than not, and gems do turn up in what looks like faceless change. Today, it’s condominiums. Yesterday, it was the Navy. Here’s Elizabeth Bishop, in 1942:
Marjorie and I are leaving for Mexico on the fifteenth. We’re flying to Mérida, where we’ll stay awhile. Then we’re going up to Mexico City and then find a cool place—on a lake—to stay for the summer—in fact maybe for “the duration,” I don’t know. It is impossible to live here any longer. The Navy takes over and tears down and eats up one or two blocks of beautiful little houses for dinner every day. Probably the house on White Street will go, too.
The local build-up for the war was an unprecedented disruption, with thousands of young servicemen and the bustle of war preparations altering the pace of daily life. Though only a part-time resident, Bishop owned a home and had begun to feel at home here. These new transients shook her claim on the place. Who were these crass military men who displaced Miss Bishop?
One of them was 19-year-old James Schuyler, future Pulitzer-prize winning poet, “simply the best we have,” according to John Ashbery, and member of the so-called New York School of poets, along with Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. That’s Schuyler in the image above, enrolled in sonar school in Key West during the summer of ’43, a year after Bishop’s complaint. By delighful coincidence, Schuyler and Bishop worked on the base together as fellow patriots that summer. Neither was aware of the other, but Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore of her adventure in the Navy:
Well, I got the “job” in the Optical Shop and went to work as a “helper-trainee,” taking binoculars apart and putting them together again. … I only lasted five days, I’m sorry to say. The eyestrain made me seasick and the acids used for cleaning started to bring back eczema, so I had to give it up—and I must admit I was only too glad because the work was so finicky and tedious that it was getting to be a torture to me and I was doing it all night long in my sleep, and getting up cranky. But I’m glad I tried it. It was the only way of ever finding out what is going on in Key West now, seeing the inside of the Navy Yard and all the ships, and learning lots of things I had no idea about before. … The men I worked with were all sailors. They worked in their undershirts and were all, every single one, heavily tatooed. … There was a store and the sailors brewed very strong Navy coffee all day long, and passed it around, and they took turns “treating” everybody to ice cream or Coca-Cola in the afternoon.
Bishop returned to Key West again and again over the years. According to a letter to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, she first encountered Schuyler’s work (“… and nice love poems, which are very rare”) in 1971, on the recommendation of James Merrill. Schuyler opted for cooler coastal climes, spending long stretches of time with Fairfield and Anne Porter in their homes on Southampton and on Spruce Head Island, Maine, where he distilled moments like this one:
… I remember I’m
unalone, you are with me,
salty sneezes off Atlantic
Ocean, there, where you are
here, in my heart and head…