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

Monday, May 10, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XIII: Reading Bishop -- Remembering the Art of Losing, by Neil Besner

In the summer of 1990, I was at a conference in Quebec City with my colleague and friend David Staines. We were sitting in the very comfortable bar in the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac, an old and ornate hotel, getting ready to meet with an Oxford U.P. colleague to discuss a short story anthology we were co-editing when I heard a couple speaking Portuguese nearby. Whenever I hear Portuguese – Brazilian Portuguese – in North America, it’s been a reflex of mine to say hello, ask where people are from, etc., and that’s what I did, coming back to David ten minutes later. He was excited. “I didn’t know you spoke Portuguese that well,” he said. I still didn’t understand his excitement; he knew I’d grown up in Brazil. “Do you know Elizabeth Bishop’s work?” he asked. I told him I knew the name, but didn’t know her poetry.

The Oxford colleague, Richard Teleky, arrived. David mentioned Bishop again; Richard knew her work well. I didn’t think much of this. We were more preoccupied, or at least I was, with the table of contents for the anthology.

The next day, at the conference, at Carleton University, David and I were at the book display. He walked over to a shelf of anthologies, took one down, leafed through it, and hurried back. “Read this,” he said.

It was “One Art.” I remember, vividly, standing by some off-white shelves with the anthology in my hand. I also remember an obscure pounding in my chest – a sensation I was often to have over the next several years as I read Bishop, first the Complete Poems, then prose, letters, The Diary of Helena Morley, etc. (I thought to myself, often, of Dickinson’s remark about her sense of a poem about to explode in her head.) The obscure pounding sensation still occurs; no other poet has this effect on me. And the less I understand it, the better. (Although the art of losing isn’t hard to master.)

Neil Besner teaches at the University of Winnipeg.

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