"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Evelyn White reviews new Elizabeth Bishop film

 I Like Negro Voices Anyway

 By Evelyn C. White

As a 1970s era scholarship student at Wellesley College (in Wellesley, Massachusetts) I found myself in the realm of two poets with ties to the leafy enclave about 20 miles outside of Boston: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974).  The former had grown up in the town and in a turn of events worthy of The Twilight Zone television series, I’d once spent an afternoon visiting prison inmates with the late poet’s mother, Aurelia Plath.  I was a sophomore at Wellesley when Anne Sexton (who’d also been reared in the town) committed suicide in nearby (and equally tony) Weston.

At a time when Black authors such as Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had begun their arduous ascent in the white, male literary world, I was hard pressed to fully understand why privileged white women writers such as Plath and Sexton had killed themselves.

Indeed in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me,” Lucille Clifton put it this way: “between sunshine and clay, my one hand holding tight my other hand; come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and failed.”

Then there was Ntozake Shange who, in her milestone choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” declared:  “I found god in myself & I loved her/I loved her fiercely.”  I was down with Shange, on the real (as Black folk say). I also empathized (then and now) with those whose sufferings deplete their will to live. 

As for Elizabeth Bishop, it was not until long after her death that I remembered the briny, cherrystone clams that I’d devoured at a seafood shack in the once low-rent Lewis Wharf area of Boston; a district that would later give rise to luxury condos such as the one Bishop purchased in 1973 and where her lover, Alice Methfessel, found her deceased on October 6, 1979 — forty-two years ago, today.

By the mid-1980s, I’d moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I later crossed paths with  lesbian poet Adrienne Rich.  There, I learned that Rich (whose husband killed himself when their marriage began to falter) had failed to persuade Bishop to come out of the closet.

This brings me to Elizabeth Bishop and The Art of Losing, a documentary by John D. Scott that premiered last month at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax.  I suspect that Bishop scholars will present more substantive critiques.  However, for me, the 84-minute hodgepodge of re-enactments, eerie screams, talking heads, portraits of royalty with moving eyes, and a recurring replica of a dead, slip-clad Bishop sprawled on a floor, provoked an unexpected response: I soon found myself losing interest in Elizabeth Bishop.

And it was not lost on me that Scott, in a humblebrag-ish remark before the film began, shared news that a reviewer had pronounced the release “a masterpiece.” “But I don’t think it is,” he said, with a laugh. Well… 

My reaction to the film stands in stark contrast to my feelings about other Bishop-related offerings. Notably, Welcome to this House (2015) a documentary by Barbara Hammer (1939-2019); Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-made” Poet (2011) by Sandra Barry and the Carmen L. Oliveira book Rare and Commonplace Flowers (1995).

The works are mercifully devoid of the rococo flourishes that, in my view, undermine Scotts effort. Granted, Im not among the Bishop experts whove immersed themselves in every aspect of her life and art. But as a cursory reader of the poet, Id venture that bling — as depicted in excelsis in Scott’s film — was decidedly not Bishop’s modus operandi.   

Consider the observations that Dana Gioia puts forth in his spectacular book: Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life (2021). “[She] rarely attracted more than a dozen unenthusiastic undergraduates,” Gioia writes about his coursework with Bishop at Harvard University. “Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of [the school], her conversation not designed to impress. She wanted no worshipful circle of students, and got none.”

He continues: “By the second class, the dozen original students had dwindled down to five. … I remember one rainy afternoon when a flu epidemic had decimated [the campus]. Only one other student besides me showed up for class. … All of us were coughing … and especially Miss Bishop who would still not stop smoking … Had a stranger suddenly been transported into the room, he would hardly have thought this was a seminar at Harvard University. It looked more like three old people in a rest home playing bridge with a dummy hand.”

I’ve got no quibble with those who’ve built careers on the tragedies and triumphs of Elizabeth Bishop.  But set against the backdrop of so-called “racial reckonings” in Canada and the US, I’m hoping that the Bishop canon, as deified by predominately white voices, can begin to expand.

For example, in Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (1998), author David Leeming discusses Bishop’s friendship with the Black, gay Harlem Renaissance painter that James Baldwin revered as a father figure. Noting that Bishop met Delaney at the Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York, in 1950, Leeming writes: “Bishop and Beauford shared an interest in the blues, classical music, conversation and drinks.”

He continues: “With Bishop [Beauford] was somehow ‘maternal.’ The two friends would sit in rocking chairs in the area between their studios each afternoon and have a number of drinks before joining the other guests for dinner. Both had symptoms of manic depression — Bishop more acutely so at the time — and they did a great deal of soul sharing.”

I would have had more patience with Elizabeth Bishop and The Art of Losing had the film dialled down on the hocus-pocus and included even a soup├žon of info about the poet’s relationship with Delaney who predeceased her, by seven months, at St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane, in Paris. I can’t help but wonder if they kept in touch.

As for the ongoing veneration of  “One Art” (an admittedly superb villanelle),  I’m mindful that poet Gwendolyn Brooks also delivered a stunning exploration of loss.  Found in her collection A Street in Bronzeville (1945), “The Mother” pre-dated the publication of Bishop’s poem by five years and reads, in part: “Abortions will not let you forget/You remember the children you got that you did not get …You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh/Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.”

Moreover, in May 1950, Brooks became the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize — for her collection Annie Allen (1949). As such, she bested Elizabeth Bishop on the Pulitzer front by six years. Two months before Brooks’ landmark achievement, Bishop rendered her views on the volume in The United States Quarterly Book Review (March 1950).  Her piece read, in part: “Like Miss Brooks’ first book of verse, this explores the life of the Northern urban Negro. … [T]he wildly colored images and symbols shake into a design both stirring and moving.”

Those inclined to venture beyond the standard Bishop tropes presented in Scott’s film should note that the Houghton Library at Harvard boasts a collection of the writer’s books that includes a copy of Annie Allen that Brooks inscribed: “For Elizabeth Bishop, excellent poet and personality, Gwendolyn.” 

Writing about the death of a cherished childhood friend in her acclaimed 1953 story “Gwendolyn,” Bishop declared:  “… Her beautiful name. Its dactyl trisyllables could have gone on forever as far as I was concerned.” In an April 2010 blog entry (“Nova Scotia Connections — Graves and Gwendolyns”), Bishop champion Sandra Barry recounted her discovery of the grave of Gwendolyn Patriquin at the Mahon Cemetery in Great Village, NS. The inspiration for Bishop’s story, Patriquin died at age nine, in 1922.

Brooks and Bishop. “The Mother” and “One Art.” To my mind, there’s a mountain of material that can replace “the scream” as the sine qua non of Bishop’s life — especially in the hands of seasoned writers of colour.  After all, this was a poet who claimed as her favourite line of iambic pentameter, “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,” as crooned by Bessie Smith in the W.C. Handy composition “St. Louis Blues.” And in a 1959 letter to May Swenson, Bishop raved about Black singers.

“I haven’t had the time yet to play Odetta all through,” Bishop wrote. “… [B]ut she certainly has an extremely beautiful voice, and of course, I like Negro voices anyway — have most of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, etc. … I never heard of this girl before — please tell me what you know about her.” 

Two weeks after attending the premiere of Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing,  I know that I’m grateful for having seen, earlier that day, Ruth Weiss: The Beat Goddess directed by Melody Miller. The exquisite documentary chronicles the life of a largely unheralded writer who, having fled Nazi Germany, melded jazz and poetry in 1950s-era San Francisco. 

Dismissed by the sexist literary honchos of the day, Weiss continued to write poetry and perform (with a jazz band) until shortly before her death last year at age 92. Among other highlights in the film, Weiss shares memories of  Gwendolyn Brooks whom she met, in the late 1940s, while living in a housing complex for artists in the author’s hometown of Chicago.

Dismayed but not surprised by the racial demographics at the screening of Scott’s film, I’d gotten settled in the cinema when a young Black woman took her seat in the row ahead of me. There, in the dim light, before the movie began, I took note of the woman’s face which was framed by beautifully coiffed dreadlocks. Leaning forward for a better glimpse of her features, I channeled a Bishop catchphrase (see: On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toibin) and, thunderstruck, thought to myself: “Heavens, could that be Amanda Gorman?”

As God is my witness, I pulled out my cell phone and excitedly dispatched a text to my partner: “Dead ringer for Amanda Gorman just sat in front of me. We are the only Black people here.”

About the Los Angeles-based poet who’d rightly garnered international praise for her crafting and recitation of  “The Hill We Climb” at the January 2021 inauguration of US president Joe Biden, Joanne responded: “And why would she be in Halifax?” Unspoken but inferred in her reply rested the rejoinder — at 9:30 pm on a Monday, during COVID-times? Get a grip, Ev.

Reluctant to risk disappointment, I resisted the urge to gently tap the woman on her shoulder and ask: “Are you …?”  Instead, taking a page from Elizabeth Bishop, I decided to write it!

Halifax resident Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life. For research purposes, she longs to be driven in a vintage Rolls Royce.