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

Monday, April 12, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER IX: Death of a Grudge,
by David Hoak

Before I was a failed poet, I was a failed collector of poets. Obsessed with words and the sound of words as a boy, I would spend hours imagining myself as Robert Frost or e. e. cummings. Later heroes would be Wallace Stevens or Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. I collected Bishop, too, and then, like the others, let her slip away. To have been so careless with poets and now to have Elizabeth Bishop so fully in my life is a small miracle.

I was well out of college before my obsession with poets turned into reading their work in any sort of disciplined way. Years before I would enter the world of her poems, I wanted to know more about Bishop, meet her somehow, and maybe even hear her read. In college, I'd gathered certain details of Bishop's life story. I knew she had traveled widely and lived in many places I wanted to visit. Somehow, I had an inkling she might be gay. (A few years later I would visit Key West and fall under the spell of the eccentric, alcoholic, lesbian aunt of a college friend. Another story....or is it?) As a gay man coming out in the seventies, one who had grown up surrounded by independent women, I was drawn to her.

As that decade ended, I was teaching at Occidental College and going to as many readings as I could find. I was a mathematician by day and a word seeker by night. How I wish Bishop had made a trip to read in LA. I'd like to think I would have found her. It wouldn’t be long, however, before any chance of meeting her would vanish forever. I have a vivid memory of a day in October, 1979, when I picked up a newspaper and saw her front page obituary. I'm not sure where I was, or what paper it was, but reading that obituary remains indelible in memory. I can see myself reading through it slowly, as if proofreading it, and feeling something like grief for the lost opportunity of seeing her. Almost twenty years would pass before I encountered EB again, and still it would not be in the poems.

My second “first encounter” with Bishop was through One Art. I had always liked to read collections of letters while on the road and I worked my way through this trove of correspondence over several vacations from the mid to late nineties and beyond. The letters opened a path for me. One Art became a kind of concordance with which I could begin the journey through the poems. I found Brett Millier’s biography and began to search out other Bishop material in earnest. Sometime around 2003, I made the breakthrough that has made so much difference: I realized there must be Bishop communities and that I needed to find one of them. I began a search that led me to the 2003 ALA Bishop conference in Cancun, the way to which was paved by the warmly encouraging ("Don't worry...the Bishop people are fun") and endlessly generous Tom Travisano. Brett was there too, along with many distinguished Bishop scholars and, for good measure, the granddaughter of Robert Frost. My life in a larger Bishop community had begun.

Tom would later tell me about the Great Village house opportunity and I jumped at the chance to join in its ownership. I soon met Sandra Barry for the first time and spent a happy afternoon on the “Moose route.” I count this first visit to Nova Scotia as my final "first encounter" with Bishop. From that day forward, I would discover and rediscover her on a journey with others.

I smile now at "failed poet," but I did bear life a grudge for many years for giving me the heart of a poet and the head of an actuary. Bishop's poems might have fed this grudge. After all, just when you've got the hang of that "mind thinking" thing and inhaled all that "naturalness of tone" you start to believe: I could write this way. But then Bishop creates something so flat out of this world that your brain trips up. You have to stop and take a breath. It happens in a poem as early as "The Map":

These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Not a month goes by that I don't dwell on that image and savor the sibilant pleasures of those peninsulas and the feel of those goods. The other day, I was having some dishwasher work done and completely unbidden the following thought floated in:

like plumbers feeling for the smoothness of pipe threads.

See. You can do it. Bishop makes you believe you can do it. Just take these poems between thumb and finger and you too can make out the rigging of a schooner, you can write salt, clear, moving, utterly free, cool as from underground springs like one long carded horse's tail ... even if your mind is an ignorant map.

But here the existence of a small difficulty must be faced: You can't. Well...if you're me you can't anyway. Bishop is just so flowing and flown that you can't write that way. And yet you love her for it and you always will because she struggled so hard and the untidiness never ended: The poet so battered; the work so shiny. You sing the poems all day long and know that you are an overwhelming success at finding and loving Elizabeth. You almost lost her for good so many times. But you didn't, and now she is yours and will be until the journey ends.

1 comment:

  1. I am currently doing a project on Elizabeth Bishop for school, and I really love her poetry! She is so good at creating an image in the readers mind, and then drawing a metaphor for life from the initial image. "One Art" is truly a work of art. I really liked your blog!