Three things about Elizabeth Bishop, and a poem.

Poetry

The first thing comes from an interview Bishop gave to the Paris Review in 1978, just a year before her death, and is about her time as a student at Vassar in the 30s and her early thoughts on becoming a poet:

I probably wasn’t a good roommate either, because I had a theory at that time that one should write down all one’s dreams. That that was the way to write poetry. So I kept a notebook of my dreams and thought if you ate a lot of cheese at bedtime you’d have interesting dreams. I went to Vassar with a pot about this big – it did have a cover! – of Roquefort cheese that I kept in the bottom of my bookcase…

The second is also from the Paris Review interview and concerns Bishop receiving the news of her Pulitzer Prize win in 1956 – for her poetry collection North and South. Bishop was, at the time, living in a high mountain house in Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, and in her wonderful book, A Chance Meeting, Rachel Cohen has it that Bishop and Soares would often sit and read for hours and hours and clouds would drift in through the open windows…

We lived on top of a mountain peak – really way up in the air… I was alone in the house with Maria, the cook. A friend had gone to market. The telephone rang. It was a newsman from the American embassy and he asked me who it was in English, and of course it was very rare to hear someone speak in English. He said, ‘Do you know you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize?’ Well, I thought it was a joke. I said, ‘Oh come on’. And he said, ‘Don’t you hear me?’ The telephone connection was very bad and he was shrieking. And I said, ‘Oh, it can’t be’. But he said it wasn’t a joke. I couldn’t make an impression on Maria with this news, but I felt I had to share it, so I hurried down the mountain half a mile or so to the next house, but no one was at home. I thought I should do something to celebrate, have a glass of wine or something. But all I could find in that house, a friend’s, were some cookies from America, some awful chocolate cookies – Oreos, I think – so I ended up eating two of those. And that’s how I celebrated wining the Pulitzer Prize. The next day there was a picture in the afternoon paper – they take such things very seriously in Brazil – and the day after that my Brazilian friend went to the market again. There was a big covered market with stalls for every kind of comestible, and there was one vegetable man we always went to. He said, ‘Wasn’t that Dona Elizabetchy’s picture in the paper yesterday?’ She said, ‘Yes it was – she won a prize’. And he said, ‘You know, it’s amazing! Last week Señora (Somebody) took a chance on a bicycle and she won! My customers are so lucky! Isn’t that marvellous?’

And finally an anecdote taken from an essay Bishop wrote on the death of her great friend and mentor Marianne Moore:

I got to Madison Square Garden very early – we had settled on the hour because we wanted to see the animals before the show began – but Marianne was there ahead of me. She was loaded down: two blue cloth bags, one on each arm, and two huge brown paper bags, full of something. I was given one of these. They contained, she told me, stale brown bread for the elephants. Because stale brown bread was one of the things they liked best to eat. (I later suspected that they might like stale white bread just as much but that Marianne had been thinking of their health.). As we went in and down to the lower level, where we could hear (and smell) the animals, she told me her preliminary plan for the circus. Her brother, Warner, had given her an elephant-hair bracelet, of which she was very fond, two or three strands of black hairs held together with gold clasps. One of the elephant hairs had fallen out and been lost. As I probably knew, elephant hairs grow only on the tops of the heads of very young elephants. In her bag, Marianne had a pair of strong nail scissors. I was to divert the adult elephants with the bread, and, if we were lucky, the guards wouldn’t observe her at the end of the line where the babies were, and she could take out the scissors and snip a few hairs from a baby’s head, to repair her bracelet. She was quite right; the elephants adored stale brown bread and started trumpeting and pushing up against each other to get it. I stayed at one end of the line, putting slices of bread into the trunks of the older elephants, and Miss Moore went rapidly down to the other end where the babies were. The large elephants were making such a to-do that a keeper did come up my way, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Miss Moore leaning forward over the rope on tiptoe, scissors in hand. Elephant hairs are tough; I thought she would never finish her hair cutting. But she did, and triumphantly we handed out the rest of the bread and set off to see the other animals. She opened her bag and showed me three or four coarse, greyish hairs in a piece of Kleenex.

And then this beautiful wild song: across streets, across ages, channelling Whitman in full throated cry:

An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
pl ease come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

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2 thoughts on “Three things about Elizabeth Bishop, and a poem.

  1. Thanks. Really loved reading this. EB and MM such wonderfully distinctive people and poets! I’ll be dropping by here regularly. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel).

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