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

Saturday, May 27, 2023

EB event on 1 June 2023

Grolier's Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA, will host a Bishop conversation (in person and virtual) on 1 June at 7 p.m. Click here to learn how to register: Upcoming Readings — Grolier Poetry Book Shop

Monday, May 1, 2023

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia 2023 Annual General Meeting

 EBSNS Annual General Meeting

Saturday, 17 June 2023, 1:30 p.m.

Elizabeth Bishop House,

Great Village, N.S. 

No admission. Everyone is welcome!

Special guests will be writer Rita Wilson, author of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop, and the book’s illustrator Emma FitzGerald. They will talk about the creative process for this delightful and important book about Bishop’s deep and abiding connection to Great Village.

Monday, April 10, 2023

New additions to the Elizabeth Bishop House

Some years ago (pre-pandemic), the EBSNS set up an exhibit of Elizabeth Bishop and Bulmer family artefacts in the sanctuary of St. James Church in Great Village, N.S. It remained there, with items being changed periodically, ever since. Recently, the church was sold and is now in private hands, the sanctuary being transformed into a concert space. The EBSNS decided that it was now time to move the exhibit to another place. The board is delighted to report that this new place is the Elizabeth Bishop House in the village. The principal elements of the exhibit were two stunning hand-made cabinets built by Great Village carpenter Garry Shears. Early in April 2023, EB House administrator Laurie Gunn secured the assistance of several strong fellows and the cabinets and their contents were removed from the church and taken across the road to the EB House. A minor adjustment was required to the larger cabinet, so it would fit, which Garry Shears kindly did – and now both cabinets are installed in the house. The larger cabinet is in the front room (the good parlour). The smaller cabinet was put on the upstairs landing. The EBSNS board wishes to thank all those who had a hand in this transfer. That it was done so quickly is all due to Laurie Gunn. While not as public a space as the original location, it is felt that the cabinets and their precious artefacts are now in a safe space, and one that is entirely appropriate to them. Here are a few photos of the cabinets in situ. 

(Photos by Laurie Gunn)

Stay tuned for more information about the EBSNS AGM, to be held on Saturday, 17 June 2023 at the EB House, Great Village, N.S.

Monday, February 20, 2023

World premiere of new Elizabeth Bishop inspired choral work

Word just in from the Elizabeth Bishop Society in the US: We are pleased to announce the world premiere of a choral work titled The Unknown Sea by renowned composer David Conte. This new choral orchestral work is inspired by the texts of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and will feature mezzo soprano Lena Seikaly, chorus, piano, and chamber orchestra. Conte himself will be in attendance and participate in a pre-concert conversation led by the former Poet Laureate of California, Dana Gioia

The concert will be performed by the Washington Master Chorale and will be held on March 5, 2023, at 5:00 PM at Washington’s National Presbyterian Church, at 4101 Nebraska Avenue, NY in Washington, DC.

According to the Master Chorale, "The Unknown Sea will be paired with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterful cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem based on Walt Whitman’s poems, as well as texts from the Hebrew Bible and Latin Mass.”

This world premiere was originally planned for the spring of 2020, but the premiere was delay by the outbreak of Covid. We are very pleased that the event will now be held.

More information may be obtained by contacting Travis Hare: travis@kendrarubinfeldpr.com

Friday, February 17, 2023

Sable Island “Total Immersion”: A response to “Geographies of Solitude”

On Wednesday evening, 15 February 2023, at King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal, N.S., I had the privilege of attending a screening of “Geographies of Solitude,” film-maker Jacquelyn Mills’s stunning documentary about Sable Island and its long-time “inhabitant” Zoe Lucas, who first arrived on the island in 1971, and who has spent time there every year since then.

“Geographies of Solitude” is a visual and sonic feast, an intimate and profound exploration of Zoe’s decades-long connection to one of the most mythical and historical islands of Canada. At once richly factual and breath-takingly lyrical, by turns earthy and ethereal.

I met Zoe about 20 years ago and thanks to her invitation, I had the even greater privilege of going to Sable Island in May 2008, with our mutual friend Janet Barkhouse. I was there only for a day, but it was a day I will never forget, a trip of a life-time. I was keen to see Mills’s film and was thrilled by its scope, from the microscopic to the celestial, the great sweep of the island and the ocean were the backdrop for an unfolding of Zoe’s remarkable work (research, recording, education, advocacy) that includes geology, meteorology, zoology, botany, etc. She has been involved in one way or another with all the research work that has happened on Sable Island in the past half-century.

(Photo by Janet Barkhouse. Sable Island from the air)

One of the many reasons I wanted to go to Sable Island was that Elizabeth Bishop visited there in 1951.  Her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson had been shipwrecked out there in 1866 and she was keen to see the Ipswich Sparrow, which nests only Sable Island. Her intention was to write a piece about the island for The New Yorker, which she tentatively titled “The Deadly Sandpile,” an acknowledgement of its more famous moniker, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Sadly, she never finished the piece; but her interest in the island remained with her for the rest of her life.

(Photo by Zoe Lucas. L. to r. Gerry, Janet, Sandra on the south beach)

Zoe’s first landfall there in 1971 overlapped for a few years with Bishop, who died in 1979. I like to think Bishop would have been as intrigued, as thousands are, about this young woman who ended up devoting her life to the place and the cause of Sable Island and environmentalism in general. Towards the end of the film, Zoe observes that there wasn’t an actual single decision she made that put her there, but a series of small decisions that in and of themselves didn’t mean much, but added up: then “something happens.” This idea about how life unfolds was one Bishop herself shared.

Mills’s film, shot on 16 and 35mm film, is a feast for the eyes and ears. The soundscape is especially rich and vibrant, even at times a bit overwhelming (which is saying a lot because the images are astonishing, one after another after another). One fascinating expression is the sound of invertebrates walking: beetles, snails, ants somehow Mills was able to bore down into what is inaudible to human ears (especially in an environment like Sable where the wind blows and waves crash continuously). And then somehow, using magical technology, the sounds of these creatures moving is transformed into music! Bishop was passionate herself about music and would have been awed by this wonderful gesture in the film. We also hear the horses, the seals, the birds (one newborn seal sounds hauntingly like a human baby – we are not separate from the natural world, though our daily, political and social realms often create walls/barriers that keep us from feeling the connections and to our peril).

And most importantly we hear Zoe talking about her connections to the island the history of her time there, details about her work, reflections on all manner of experiences. All the while we follow her on purposeful wanderings across the dunes and beaches, hearing that wind blow, while, pen and notebook in hand, she records everything she sees and finds; and we sit with her in her inner work spaces sorting and washing garbage, inputting data into colossal spread sheets that are searchable by dozens of categories.

There is so much glory and tragedy and mystery connected to Sable Island and Zoe has thought about all of it, noting at one point that after decades of living there, she still can come upon something and say, “Wow!” That actually happens in the film when she finds an especially large (terrifying) spider among some flora and puts it in a specimen jar. Exciting!

Of course, the horses are the great wonder of the island (even more so than the tens of thousands of seals that congregate there to have their pups) – and Mills gives us a great dose of them in all their splendor – in life and death. Mills does not look away from the natural cycle of life on the island, which is uplifting, rather than sad. What is sad and deeply troubling, however, is the garbage that Zoe has been collecting and documenting minutely for decades. Mills makes us look right into the heart of the results of our gross consumption and disposable society. Zoe has been recording this impact long before there was the global consciousness of the immeasurable amount of plastics in our oceans.

(Photo by Janet Barkhouse. Zoe and foal)

To account for all the elements in this intimately shot, intricately woven documentary is not possible it must be seen because it is immersive. But there are often distilled, crystalized moments, always thought-provoking, that shine. For me, one of the most delightful is the archival footage of Jacques Cousteau in 1981 landing on Sable Island in the helicopter from “The Calypso,” being greeted by a young Zoe Lucas, who takes him on a tour. How cool is that!

Bravo to Mills for doing her own “total immersion” on Sable Island, looking through her lens so directly and deeply at the wondrous scope (temporal, physical, existential) of this unique place on our planet. A few years ago, Zoe and other keen supporters of her work and of Sable Island formed the Sable Island Institute. I was glad to see the institute so directly mentioned at the end of this film. Check out its website and learn more; this site is also a “total immersion” among many things, it shares dozens of Zoe’s astonishing photos of the island. I suggest that Zoe has taken more photos of it, collected more diverse data about it, and has shared more knowledge and insights about the island than any other person on the planet. It was a good thing, for us all, that she just happened to end up there!


Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Long over due post

It has been some time since we last posted, and missed marking Bishop’s birthday last week (112th). The Bishop Society has been rather dormant recently and it is taking time to wake up and stir into action, but slowly it will happen. The society will be hosting it Annual General Meeting on Saturday, 17 June 2023, at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village. The society is excited to welcome writer Rita Wilson and illustrator Emma FitzGerald to speak about A POCKET OF TIME: THE POETIC CHILDHOOD OF ELIZABETH BISHOP. There will be more information about the AGM on the society’s website and on this blog, as the date approaches.

The American Literature Association conference in Boston from 25-28 May 2023, will feature two Bishop panels of exciting presentations by scholars such as Neil Besner, Rebecca Bradburn, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Thomas Travisano.

Here are links to two fascinating Bishop inspired projects. It is great to see so much creative response to Bishop’s life and art continue. 



And, finally, here are two images of a needle art project done by Brenda Barry, inspired by the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S. (a petit point cross stitch rendition of this iconic and much loved house). I am happy to report that the artist retreat at the house is going strong, already well booked up for 2023.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Exciting Poetry Reading at the Elizabeth Bishop House, 29 October 2022

If you are anywhere near Great Village on Saturday, 29 October 2022, get yourself to the Elizabeth Bishop House for an exciting poetry reading, hosted by writer-in-residence Margo Wheaton. A stellar group of poets will reading! After all the damage and challenge presented by Hurricane Fiona, it is great to see the literary arts alive and well in the village.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Hurricane Fiona and Great Village

One of the most iconic buildings in Colchester County was damaged by Hurricane Fiona, which roared through the eastern part of Nova Scotia on 23-24 September 2022. The 112-foot steeple of St. James Church, now the Great Village Arts and Entertainment Centre, took a direct hit from wind, which knocked it off its axis. This structure, a registered heritage property, has stood for over 125 years, taking all kinds of weather. So that the winds of Fiona caused this damage indicates just how intense a storm it was.

All who drive along Highway 2 from Truro to Parrsboro see this building, which stands at the centre of Great Village. It is the heart of this historic community, which has been immortalized in the writing of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who grew up under its spire.

Below are some images of the damage and the process to remove the steeple. Just what will happen is still up in the air (no pun intended). From my perspective, I hope the will and the resources either to repair and restore it, or to rebuild/replace it) exists.

Great Village Antiques (directly across the road from the church) has been sharing images and updates on its Facebook page. As has the Arts Centre, on its Facebook page. Word about this damage has spread far and wide, especially in the EB world. I have received messages from people as far away as the U.K. and the U.S.

In today’s Chronicle Herald, John Demont has written about the damage to the church, and to other natural iconic structures that did not survive the force of Hurricane Fiona:

JOHN DeMONT: How disasters teach us to how to master loss | SaltWire

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Viewing Window for John Scott's Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing

The full version of Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing will be available online via Eventive for a short window beginning Friday, August 26th, at 12:00 Canadian/US Eastern time (13:00 Atlantic; 13:30 Newfoundland; 15:00 GMT) until Sunday, August 28th, at 24:00 Canadian/US Eastern time (Monday, 29 August at 01:00 Atlantic; 01:30 Newfoundland; 03:00 GMT) at this link:

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia -- Annual General Meeting in Great Village

We are excited to announce that the EBSNS will hold an in-person AGM in Great Village, N.S., on 25 June. We will welcome writer Laura Churchill Duke as our special guest. We also have an exciting announcement about the acquisition of an important Elizabeth Bishop artefact. Everyone is welcome!

(Click image to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Riverside Reading of EB Poems as recalled by Emma FitzGerald

To mark the closing of National Poetry Month, LaHave River Books in LaHave, Nova Scotia, hosted an afternoon reading of Elizabeth Bishop poems on Saturday April 30th, 2022. 

There were 4 readers: Lisa McCabe, a poet based on the Dublin Shore; Janet Barkhouse (“Jannie B”), a self-described fan of the bookstore, as well as a writer of books from Clearland; Sandra Barry, my host here on the blog, as well as a Bishop scholar based in Middleton, and Black Point’s Carole Glasser Langille, a poet and author of the newly released collection of poems Your Turn. 

(The readers, left to right: Janet, Lisa, Sandra, Carole.

Photo by Brenda Barry. Click images to enlarge.)

The setting, as always when at LaHave River Books, was pinch yourself picturesque. The interior of the bookstore, so homey with its wooden bookshelves, chairs, floors and even a piano, with geraniums and cacti at the window, and of course, books upon books.

(Interior of LaHave River Books. Photo by Brenda Barry) 

Beyond the windowpanes the LaHave River, more ocean than river, lay flat and blue grey, and along the shore some small buildings surrounded by sparse trees were in view.

(River through the windows. Photo by Brenda Barry)

The room was full and after introductions from book shop staff member Marion, the poems were read: 

1. First Death in Nova Scotia (read by Lisa McCabe)

2. Filling Station (read by Lisa McCabe)

3. Sestina (read by Janet Barkhouse)

4. Poem (read by Janet Barkhouse)

5. At the Fishhouses (read by Sandra Barry)

6. Sandpiper (read by Sandra Barry)

7. The Moose (read by Carole Glasser Langille)

8. Don't Kill Yourself (a poem translated by Bishop, written by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, read by Carole Glasser Langille) 

This was followed by an encore: 

9.  Shampoo (read by Lisa McCabe)

10. The Bight (read by Janet Barkhouse)

11. Five Flights Up (read by Sandra Barry)

12. One Art (read by Carole Langille)

(Those gathered. Photo by Brenda Barry)

What followed was a lovely chat, a kind of volley back and forth across the room, of warm reminiscences. 

First there was a memory of hearing Bishop speak at the Guggenheim in NYC (Carole), which was followed by a memory of reading “Primer Class” for the first time and seeing her own early school days in the Maritimes described, hatching a lifelong thesis (Sandra). Then there was a discussion of that strange indrawn breath described in “The Moose” and finding its echo in Scotland (Carole), adding resonance to Lisa's initial sharing of visiting Bishop's grave in Worcester one cold day in “sloppy snow” and finding a vintage robin's-egg-blue typewriter on the grave, and Janet's declaration that Bishop wrote “The Bight” in Florida on her own birthday. The personal seemed so intertwined with each reader's experience of getting to know Bishop and her work, and you can't help but sense that it is a never-ending journey. 

It was a very satisfying time and was followed by the serving of a “Queen Elizabeth Cake,” big enough to feed everyone present. Andra, the owner of the bookstore, ever gracious and cheerful, had made it for the occasion. It provided a nice, sweet snack before we dispersed and made our way back to our respective homes on an appropriately cold spring day. 

(The cake, almost gone! Photo by Brenda Barry)


Emma FitzGerald is an illustrator living in Lunenburg, N.S. She illustrated Rita Wilson's A Pocket of Time, about EB's childhood. Her most recent book, with writer Andrea Curtis, is City Streets Are for People.

One of Emma's drawings of the riverside reading was of Sandra Barry.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Reading of Elizabeth Bishop poems in Key West

From our Key West correspondent Malcolm Willison: To mark National Poetry Month members of the Elizabeth Bishop Key West Committee held a virtual reading of her poems which was recorded by Valley Shore Community Television. You can access the reading online by clicking here. The reading is about an hour long and features a number of writers, including Malcolm, with strong ties to Key West.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Review of Jonathan Post’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2022) by Angus Cleghorn

This very long series of over 700 volumes may not always be introductory. Such is the case with this fine book by Jonathan F. S. Post, Distinguished Research Professor of English at UCLA. The writing is clear enough for an introductory reader and compounded by expertise that displays knowledge of English poetic history as well as Bishop’s oeuvre. I was happy to bounce around from poem to poem to consider similarities and developments. A first-year college reader might drop a few balls with the mental pinball machine. Still, I would recommend this book to any reader of Bishop because Professor Post’s insights are fine-tuned with a good ear and extensive poetic foundation. The author cites Eleanor Cook; this book has a similar down-to-earth perceptive mastery that one finds in Cook’s books, such as Elizabeth Bishop at Work.

In order to find references to scholars the reader has to turn to References at the back of the book as there are no in-text citations or footnotes. I found this annoying because I had the sense that some of Post’s information was coming from sources but I could not see any. It makes the pages appear to lack academic integrity. I suppose the Oxford series is aimed at a general reader who prefers not to be weighed down by academic references, but Dr. Post’s academic skills and experience are such that I’d prefer to see where some ideas come from. I’ve always found footnotes cumbersome, but basic in-text citations would help. It wasn’t until I was a few chapters in that I finally turned to page 127 to find References. Nothing in-text leads the reader there.

Upon first reading page 1 from this Very Short Introduction, I was concerned because the first heading is “The Bishop phenomenon,” which is a recognizable title of a well-known essay by Thomas Travisano, and yet there is no citation for it: is this mere coincidence or a gaffe? It is troubling in a book that’s supposed to have authority. Two pages later a poem title was incorrectly printed as “Sub-Tropics” when Bishop’s prose poem series is actually called “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics.” The first part of the title is crucial in this “vignette,” as Post describes the three substantial prose poems on sub-tropical critters. My growing sense of dread was compounded by repetitious mis-appellations of “Machedo” Soares. Bishop’s lover’s name was elsewhere spelled correctly as Lota de Macedo Soares. Sloppy editing in the Oxford University Press machine. Several pages later Dr. Anny Baumann was described as a “lifelong friend,” however, Bishop only began seeing her in 1947 at age 36 as the “Timeline” at the back notes.

Post began to win me over as he described the “perfect pitch” of speech in “The Moose.” Also, since I had been wondering about the approach taken in this book series, I was relieved to find this in chapter one’s “Biographical beginnings”:

the focus of this Very Short Introduction is to introduce new

readers to her verse, the one truly inexhaustible ‘story’ of

Bishop’s life. From this perspective, biography is an

important first step because places and people, heightened by

memory and travel—those features of inner and outer geography

so crucial to Bishop—are part of the fabric of her verse. (10)

Nice balance there.

It’s the readings of the poems where Post excels. With Bishop’s late autobiographical poem “In the Waiting Room,” Post describes the retrospective narrator’s experience as a “child’s frightening identification of herself as female” while listening to her aunt cry out in pain in the dentist’s office, leading to Bishop’s self-consciousness amidst humanity: “But I felt: you are an I / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” Post plays with numbers adeptly:


Yes, ‘one, too’, a female, that is, but as ‘one’ becomes ‘two’, the young

girl, having been made uneasily aware of her body, her gender, and

her connection to others, separates from the child and, assuming

the adult poet’s consciousness, comes into the ‘night and slush and

cold’ of Worcester on the ‘fifth | of February, 1918’. The date

reminds us that ‘The War was on’, outside as well as inside. (13-14)


Complex and accurate. We next read about “Sestina,” also from 1976’s Geography III. I especially like how Post does not try and fill in biographical particulars beyond what the poem offers. There is a tendency in Bishop criticism to inject copious details from the life into the art, which Post does not do, and which is a measure of respect:


We don’t know why the grandmother is crying, although she hints that her

tears are environmental and seasonal, and are possibly connected,

moreover, to a larger world of fate as foretold by the almanac.

Since only the grandmother talks, we’re also not sure of the exact

bond between adult and child, the family ties behind an afternoon

teatime ritual, although the child certainly wishes to please the

grandmother by proudly showing her a drawing of a house. (16)


It’s important for readers to not say too much and make assumptions about the object of the poem’s grief. Is the man with tear-like buttons Bishop’s father or grandfather? It is a child’s drawing so we can’t pinpoint identity beyond the poetic representation. 

Next are “Filling Station” and “First Death in Nova Scotia.” By the end of this very substantial chapter 1 it’s evident that this is no breezy Introduction. “Filling Station” is potentially linked, rightly so, to the gas station across from the Bishop-Bulmer house in Great Village (now Wilson’s). “Somebody loves us all” finishes the poem with potentially divine and parental overtones. “To the psychoanalytic critic, she is a compensatory sign for the mother Bishop lost …” (20). Here we see theoretical framework and, beyond that, interpretation extends to Bishop’s greatest prose story, “In the Village,” which begins with “mother’s wrenching scream” (20). Not many introductory readers will have read “In the Village” but this interpretive reach is necessary to read Bishop’s poetry in connection with the life in her One Art. Post returns to the end of “Filling Station” and its “loves”:


Not all of these contexts are equally persuasive, but one more

suggestion is needed. I think it is possible to read this gesture

rhetorically, that is, on its own terms, as an evocation of hope by

someone momentarily ‘filled’ by what she has seen. Bishop’s poems

often end in an open space, leaving us not so much reaching

irritably after facts as simply recognizing, as in ‘The Moose’, that

‘Life’s like that’. A person, the speaker, moved to questioning the

place of things, including her place in an initially foreign setting

like a messy filling station, can sometimes arrive at a better, more

generous understanding and say just this sort of thing.

(Scilla in bloom at the Elizabeth Bishop House, April 2022. See Wilson's service station in the background. Photo by Laurie Gunn. Click to enlarge image.) 

Casual expressions of life experience are intrinsic to reading Bishop. Much of the pleasure comes from being an accidental tourist accompanying her travels. This chapter ends by touching on “Questions of Travel”:


But surely it would have been a pity

not to have seen the trees along this road,

really exaggerated in their beauty,

not to have seen them gesturing

like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.


“Yes, surely. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this fantastic venture?” (24) To many readers the appeal of reading Bishop is adventure – geographic and verbal. 

Chapter 2 is on “Formal matters” and here Post really excels. Contemporary readers will appreciate his vast knowledge of the poetic tradition through centuries. “Bishop’s supreme valuation of formal variety as a means to singularity was certainly one of the reasons she was drawn to George Herbert, and perhaps a reason why, rather surprisingly, she never quite embraced Emily Dickinson” (29). It’s important and enjoyable to trace Herbert’s formal inventions as they affect Bishop’s poetic workings. Other influences near and far such as Robert Frost and the Brazilian cordel make their way into Bishop’s variety. Bishop’s collaboration with Marianne Moore is discussed in an excellent reading of “Roosters.” Here again, though, the lack of clear reference is frustrating when Post mentions the poem’s ‘“violence” of tone’ in quotation marks just like that. Not many introductory readers would figure out that this “violence” harkens back to a letter that Bishop wrote about “Roosters” to Moore, or that Thomas Travisano wrote an essay on Bishop’s ‘“violence” of tone’ in Elizabeth Bishop and the Music of Literature (Palgrave 2019). There is no reference at the back of the book for Travisano’s essay, Bishop’s letter, or anything to explain the odd punctuation here. Sloppy editing. 

This is not Post’s fault. He excels as formal reader of all kinds of Bishop poems, such as “Questions of Travel,” in which he brings in the Baroque and Hopkins to pinpoint prosodic iambs, dactyls, extra syllables, spondees, and Anglo-Saxon beat in this poem that to me sounds like water falling. “Here is not description per se, but the act of experiencing in the mind what the eye sees.” This goes back to a reference that is acknowledged in the text to an essay from 1929 by Morris Croll, “The Baroque Style in Prose.” George Lensing has written beautifully about this in a 1995 special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal focused on Bishop and Stevens. Croll and Stevens depict “a mind thinking,” which is part of this section’s heading.


To some degree Wallace Stevens set the table for his modernist

contemporaries when he wrote in ‘Of Modern Poetry’, ‘The poem

of the mind in the act of finding | What will suffice. It has not

always had | To find: the scene was set; it repeated what | Was in

the script’ (my italics). There is a great deal of Stevens in Bishop;

Harmonium was a book she said she had almost by heart; she

elsewhere spoke of admiring the ‘display of ideas at work’ in his

poetry. And there are lines in her poetry that, without the example

of Stevens, seem unthinkable in their majestic play with

perception: ‘This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as

angels, | flying as high as they want and as far as they want

sidewise | in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections’ (‘Seascape’).

But ‘if accuracy of observation is equivalent to accuracy of

thinking’, as Stevens himself observed in Adagia, it is Bishop, not

Stevens, who best fulfilled the modernist ideal of poetry as the act

of finding on a human scale in a world of familiar and not so

familiar objects. (42)


Bishop often found the unfamiliar through animals; this otherness helped her sometimes criticize human morality, something she found in Marianne Moore’s poetry


… without condescension, ‘without “pastoralizing” them as [the critic]

William Empson might say, or drawing false analogies’. And in this

‘unromantic, life-like, somehow democratic, presentation of animals’

Moore helped Bishop (who was also aided by her reading of Darwin) to

write about animals and, more broadly, nature from a sympathetic but

not exclusively human-centred perspective …. (51-52)


This enables Bishop’s poetry to be read now as a critique of the Anthropocene age. Sometimes Bishop’s animal poems are more closely linked to humanity, as in “The Armadillo” dedicated to Robert Lowell. Chapter 3 focuses on Lowell and Moore as influential practitioners for Bishop’s animal descriptions. 

One of Bishop’s most critical poetic representations of humanity occurs in “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which Post discusses with subtlety: “her delving—to redeploy an idiom from ‘The Map’—into the shadows that inhabit the shallows” (55). Those shadows become the forest canopy under which indigenous women retreat while being attacked by rapacious Portuguese colonizers. Post weaves Ovid’s Philomel story from Metamorphoses as well as Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece into the poem’s tapestry to show that Bishop is


appropriating one kind of violence (sexual) through another (artistic),

to reveal a world long familiar to the reader but now seen mysteriously

anew, as only the closely woven fabric of her marvellous art can do.

For Bishop the explorer, coming to terms with the cheerful natural landscape

means coming to understand the sometimes awful footprint of

human history. (59)


Chapter 4 on poetry and painting includes some of Bishop’s paintings from Exchanging Hats by William Benton and continues fine analysis: “We might regard ‘The Fish’ as a painter’s paradise, and also a reader’s” (67). I feel the same way about “Seascape” and “Pleasure Seas.” Excellent examples from “A Cold Spring,” “Santarem,” and “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” are canvased. Post precisely notes that only “Large Bad Picture” and “Poem” are technically ‘ekphrastic,’ meaning “a poem about an artwork, usually a painting. The doors open wider if we use ‘ekphrasis’ in the original classical sense of any verbal description of something seen (think ‘Cape Breton’) …” (75). As with many of Bishop’s readers, Post reads “Poem” with delight, as did Howard Moss when he received it at The New Yorker: “I wish I could read a poem like that every day for the rest of my life” (80). 

This book features six illustrations, two of which are photographs by Rollie McKenna somewhat similar to the cover of Elizabeth Bishop in Context, which Post wrote to me that he regretted not having read by the time his book went to press. Chapter 5 on “Love known” begins by finding Thomas Travisano’s 2019 biography Love Unknown an unclear title aside from the allusion to the Herbert poem. For Bishop knew love, as the posthumous poems “It is marvelous to wake up together,” “Breakfast Song” and “Vague Poem (vaguely love poem)” display in different ways. Post does nice work with more subtle expressions of desire such as “Quai d’Orleans” and “Four Poems,” the latter of which he reads as an experimental poem. A section entitled “Still explosions” examines “The Shampoo,” and finds its first stanza perplexing: “Odd to think of lichens exploding” (93). Really? On daily walks I observe lichens on rocks and their various amoebic shapes do burst (perhaps my eyes perceive via Bishop’s painterly descriptions). I can forgive Dr. Post’s different aperture when I read this rich conclusion about the final stanza:


… set off with a dash (for spontaneity) and a comma (for a pause),

the single word ‘Come’, a directive that carries lightly the weight

of an entire tradition of carpe diem poems in English. (Think

Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me’ or Ben Jonson’s ‘Come my Celia,

let us prove | The sports of love.’) And in that directive, we might

fancy Bishop taking control of those loose black hairs in ‘O Breath’

that were flying around, intolerably blown about, and weaving

them into a love-knot about something as domestically simple and

sensual as washing a companion’s hair. (94)


While it may not quite be an entire tradition’s weight, we might also find Emily Dickinson’s dash and comma style here. Earlier in the book Dickinson was understandably downplayed in favour of Herbert, but her signature pauses may figure in “—Come,” and in the delayed foreplay of “Four Poems” and its spaces. After “The Shampoo,” Post finds that another domestic poem about Bishop’s love for Lota de Macedo Soares. “Song for the Rainy Season” “… continues the association of eros and aqua, both life-giving forces in Brazil” (97). 

“Bishop is the great travel poet of our modern era,” chapter 6 begins authoritatively (103). “[L]yric time and leisurely thinking” are observed by Bishop in a 1965 letter to Robert Lowell referring to “Walking Early Sunday Morning.” At the back of the book we can find reference to Roger Gilbert’s influential Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry from 1991. Post locates “‘The End of March’ [a]s a ‘walk poem’ along the shore south of Boston …” (104). Complexity overflows from this poem, especially its accumulative ending. As often the case, Wallace Stevens is read into this poem’s mechanics. To me, the whole poem can be read as a dialogue with Stevens’ metrical form and his imagination embodied in lion figures; Post chooses the “lion of the spirit” from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” Back in 1991’s Questions of Mastery, Bonnie Costello discussed Bishop’s use of Stevens’ lion sun while referring to Harold Bloom’s prior interpretations. The richness of “The End of March” and Bishop’s meta-dialogue with Stevens endures — partly because Bishop’s poem is so playful with its “artichoke” crypto-dream house and flaming “grog a l’americaine” Stevens would enjoy, also because readers can choose a suitable measure of rich textural engagement within the basic message of the poem: “Go for a walk, especially along a beach. It might change your mood, your inner weather, for the better” (116). 

From the influential author of “Sunday Morning” to “Bishop’s ultimate Sunday poem,” (117) we go to Santarem where the poet’s mind is in motion again; amidst the “dazzling dialectic” of converging blue and brown rivers, an older Bishop plays with self-correction, as pinpointed in Post’s knowledge of rhetorical figures:


the device of ‘metanoi’, meaning ‘afterthought’, for the first time

she confuses church and cathedral, then again as ‘epanorthosis’

or ‘emphatic correction’, by enjambing the phrase across a stanza

break and adding an exclamation point: ‘the church | (Cathedral,

rather!)’. (117)


And yet everything is so well remembered about this place “in which contemplation wins out over commerce” (119). This subtle use of Bishop’s “Large Bad Picture,” and its dialectical “commerce or contemplation” is doubtfully picked up by many introductory readers, and so it remains an unacknowledged reference. 

Jonathan Post in his epilogue does refer to “the classroom. For a number of years, I taught Bishop in a seminar called, simply, ‘How to Read a Poem’” (120). It is this pleasure that jumps off the page. One feels the company of a master who makes it easy, in his own words,


… because Bishop is so good at taking you through the steps.

First step, look closely; second step, look closer still; third step

look even more closely, but especially now with an eye to where

the poem is going, not to where you think it should be going,

but where its diction, syntax, grammar, and punctuation

lead. This means listening to the poem, bringing the ear out of

hiding in order to help the eye to see and the mind to think.

Bishop’s poems are always about surfaces getting deeper, about

knowledge as process. (121)


She “makes us feel that we’re all there as part of the poem’s creative energy at the moment of its arriving” (123). 


Angus Cleghorn teaches English at Seneca College in Toronto, and once explored the Moose route in Nova Scotia during a stay at the Bishop-Bulmer house in Great Village.