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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

First Encounter XXXIX: My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop by Natalia Povalyaeva

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop took place in the beginning of July, 2015. Actually I have the exact date (thanks to Facebook) – it was the fifth of July. I don’t remember why or how I came across this movie – “Reaching for the Moon”, but it was the fifth of July when I watched it for the first time.

I’d never heard about Elizabeth Bishop before that day, and I didn’t know who she was or what position she occupied in American poetry. And on my first watching the movie I wasn’t impressed by the Elizabeth Bishop character at all – mostly because Lota as performed by Gloria Pires sort of filled all the space with her powerful personality (later I did understand how wonderful Miranda Otto and her performance were). But the poems from the movie struck me at once. So I started – quite predictably – with “One Art”. And I knew at once that that was “my” type of poetry. I liked the poem’s deceptive simplicity which covered deep reflection on love and loss and all those things. I liked this “ordinary” tone of speaking, definitely ironical, mixed with true tension. I liked the precise use of every word. And – most important of all, since this is my almost instinctive reaction to any text I like – I felt the desire to draw an illustration to this poem, which I did the next day.

Then it was the “Close, Close…” poem. Again, I was impressed by how Elizabeth Bishop managed to do it: simple and deep at once. It’s a love poem with the image of two lovers in bed – and paradoxically it is not an erotic poem at all. It is about the metaphysics of love, about something eternal and unchangeable in love. And this quality somehow emerges not from the words, but from their background. It was amazing – and of course, I did an illustration

And then it was “In The Waiting Room” – that was a sort of final proof. It was the third poem in a row by the same author I liked so much, and I understood that “this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, so to speak. I liked Elizabeth Bishop’s interest in ordinary things, the small details in this poem, and its “prosy”, narrative structure and tone. I was impressed with how wonderfully Elizabeth Bishop reflected a specific child’s perception of the world – in the image of “different pairs of hands lying under the lamps”. The little girl was too shy to look at adult strangers’ faces, so she looked at their hands and saw them as if they were removed from their bodies or as if they were hollow gloves. I noticed that Elizabeth Bishop’s poems had a lot in common with poems by the  Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, and later I wrote an essay on the poetics of loss in their poetry. And of course, I made an illustration.
 Natalia's illustration of "Manners."

Since that time, I have started reading Elizabeth Bishop every day and  have produced an illustration or two every day. I have read Elizabeth Bishop’s biography, her letters, and some academic materials about her. Somehow, very fast and in very natural way, Elizabeth Bishop became an important part of my life. And what was very important for me is that I’ve had encouragement and support from some people in Elizabeth Bishop’s world – Jonathan Ellis, Sandra Barry, and John Barnstead.

I’ve learned that there were a lot of dark moments in Elizabeth Bishop’s life, but what was amazing about her personality was her ability to meet everything in life with wit and irony. In her letters she had endless funny stories and anecdotes about this and that. And in her poems – even in the most serious and dramatic ones – she sort of smiles or even laughs discreetly, just for herself. She really was “awful but cheerful”, just as her life was. She was interested in everything – in people, in places, in things, in life in general. This interest was the driving force of her writing, and her writing made her a winner

While reading “Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography” I came across following words by John Bernard Myers: “I heard her reading at the YMHA. <…> She didn’t have either a Canadian accent or a New York accent; it was just a very pure way of speaking” [157]. I’d say that Elizabeth Bishop had no accent not only in reading her works, but more importantly in writing her works. She’s speaking not as a woman, nor as an American or Canadian – she’s speaking as a human being addressing another human being, and that is, I suppose, the most precious quality of her work.

Natalia Povalyaeva (b. 1971) is a writer, graphic artist/book illustrator, and a professor of English Literature in BSU (Belarusian State University, Minsk, Belarus). She is teaches modern and contemporary English Literature. She has authored numerous publications on twentieth-century English women’s prose; among them are Polyphonic prose of Virginia Woolf (2003) and Jeanette Winterson, or Rebirth of Lying (2006). She also translated the novel Lighthousekeeping (2006) and several short stories by Jeanette Winterson into Russian. Currently she has completed a book on Victorian Music Hall as a setting and a personage in Neo-Victorian fiction (published in 2014).

Natalia has been drawing since the age of two. She studied at an art studio under the Belorussian artist Vasily Sumarev and has taken courses in sculpture and art history. Her pictures have been sold in many countries around the world, including the USA, France, Germany, Norway, Finland, and Italy. She is doing a lot of book illustrations and book cover designs (mostly for Russian publishing houses) and graphic art in mixed media. Among her works are illustrations to three-part bestseller “Porebrik iz bordurnogo kamnya” (“Pavement border made of curb stone” – a comic book on Moscow – Saint-Petersburg cultural differences by Russian writer Olga Lucas).

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