"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, July 26, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXIV: The Art of Losing, by Heather Jessup

I’m sure that in my undergraduate American Poetry class we read Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in that red-covered anthology. I’m sure I read “One Art” before I moved to Montréal; but, like so many things that we encounter at a younger age that are good for us — asparagus, afternoon naps, silence, bike-rides — I had to return to “One Art” again, when I was a bit older, to figure out its inherent beauty and wisdom.

I arrived in Montréal from Vancouver during the hottest ember of August. The moon hung so low and bright in the sky it might have touched the tip of the cross on Mont Royal. I had carefully packed up all of my worldly possessions: the beginnings of a novel manuscript; an encouraging letter from a writer I admired; a Las Vegas T-shirt that my friend’s mom had worn in the ‘70s with real glass rhinestones; all of my journals. I parked the car in front of a friend’s apartment on Boulevard de Maisonneuve. The soundtrack in the tape deck had been perfect. Songs about departures and summer wheat and skies with stars. I had left behind a broken heart in Vancouver. This new life was going to be good

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Bishop tells us. And I guess that’s why I didn’t really understand “One Art” before. I hadn’t really lost anything. Sure, in my own life I had made it to the first stanza: I had lost door keys, a badly-spent hour; I had even lost “places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel,” and Bishop was right, it hadn’t brought disaster. But I don’t think I actually read this poem, really read it, until my first week at Concordia University in Montréal, where I was starting my master’s degree, in a life-changing class called Poetry’s Arguments.

After stopping in to say hello at that friend’s house the first night I arrived in Montréal, we went to peer down at the street signs to see whether or not I was allowed to park the car where it was (those who have parked on Montréal streets know how confusing this can be). When we stood on the balcony looking down we saw a man, a broken car window, and the entire contents of the car being carried into an alley. We ran down the spiralling stairs and into the street, but all of it was gone by the time we reached the pavement. Everything I had saved and prepared to begin life across the country had been taken. My novel manuscript, that encouraging letter, the sparkly Las Vegas T-shirt, all of my journals.

Unlike in stanza three of “One Art”, I had not lost “my mother’s watch” nor my “next-to-last, of three loved houses,” but I had lost quite a bit: part of my heart in Vancouver, and now everything I owned, right there beneath that big silver moon on Boulevard de Maisonneuve.

A few weeks later I sat in Poetry’s Arguments. I heard Bishop’s “One Art” for what felt like the first time, finally really listening to that last stanza: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master” she repeats again, faltering in her rhythm, “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” There are seventeen drafts of “One Art” in the Vasser College Archive. Seventeen drafts! I have written in my class notes. (Which, at this stage as a writer, now seems entirely possible). I also have written in those notes, the form of the villanelle is a poetic constraint that allows Bishop to bring a sense of major sorrow into reality. Not only was Bishop able to constrain her own sorrows in this poem, she was also, somehow, able to soften mine.

Like so many of the encounters posted on this Elizabeth Bishop centenary site, Bishop’s poetry came into my life through literature classes and the recommendation of remarkable teachers. (What would we all do without those remarkable teachers?). But Bishop’s words stay with you, like the repeated refrain of the Villanelle, turning life over and over like a worried stone.

When I had the immense fortune to stay at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, and to lie on the patchwork quilts in Elizabeth Bishop’s tiny turquoise childhood room, my novel (the one started, stolen, and resurrected) was sitting in stacks of paper on the kitchen table below. I had a cup of tea in my hand. I was reading another collection of poetry, Brian Bartlett’s The Watchmaker’s Table, and I came across the poem “On listening to a first-year student read Bishop’s ‘One Art’”. Bartlett’s poem ends: “Does she know it’s a gift, this euphony?/ “One Art” held in the breath of Stephanie.” I imagined all of the students who will have the losses of “One Art” befall them (after all, we will all have these “disasters”) and how the worried refrain of Bishop’s villanelle might, years later, sustain them.


Heather Jessup’s first novel, The Lightning Field, is forthcoming with Gaspereau Press in the fall of 2011. She is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Toronto.

[ed. note: Heather promised us a "First Encounter" post some time ago, and it arrived the other day. It is one of those lovely synchronicities that her meditation on "One Art" crosses paths with John's meditation on the same poem. This convergence was entirely unplanned. In the not too distant future, we will be posting information about an open call photographic exhibit being organized for EB100 by photographer Roxanne Smith and ViewPoint Gallery in Halifax, N.S. -- it will be asking photographers to meditate on "One Art" as well.]

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