The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

08 February 2011


But I felt: You are an I,
you are an Elizabeth

Today is the hundredth birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, as fine a poet as America produced in the twentieth century. I have a sense that, for the most part, Bishop is a poet's poet, one of those brilliant souls known by everyone in the tribe and not much remembered by those outside it. That may not be true, judging by the number of books by and about her on Amazon, but whatever her popularity, she has been by my side all my adult life. She is one of my oldest companions and most enduring spirit guides. The connection we make with the poets closest to us, alive or dead, is a powerful and intimate one. They exist perpetually in the present tense, speaking in our ears or whispering to our hearts; singing, casting light, or simply standing beside us with the assurance we are not spiritually alone.

I have turned to Elizabeth Bishop time and again for a certain deft insight that is at once bracing and consoling. Her poems have the lonesome, soulful music of the muted trumpet, a sound tinged with pain but detached from nostalgia. They grow from incidental scenes and small moments, finding immense dignity in the simple act of being wholly present come what may. This is "simple" the way the Tao is simple: a state unburdened by fear, illuminated by humility, opened to life. Few of us dwell in such grace; Bishop's poems embody it.

--Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus's hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man's voice assures us
"Perfectly harmless. . . ."

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
"Sure are big creatures."
"It's awful plain."
"Look! It's a she!"

Taking her time
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

Pansies,  by EB, watercolor and gouache, 1960

Bishop possessed an enduring empathy for life's frailties, perhaps as a result of her own suffering. When she was a small girl her father died and her mother was institutionalized for mental illness, never to return. She spent the rest of her childhood living among relatives or in boarding school, one of those experiences, I have been told, that can be at once achingly lonely and liberating. A note of loss pervades her poems, but whatever torment she carried she bore with a sort of tender stoicism, if such a thing makes sense. Grief is always present in her work, but she treats it matter-of-factly, neither nursing it nor turning it away. Vulnerability was Bishop's path to comprehension; she held to it without possessing it. Her candor is not confessional but, to quote W. B. Yeats, "as cold and passionate as the dawn." 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
. . .
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing isn't hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This is the first time I've been moved to articulate what it is about EB's influence that remains potent to me. I think that influence has everything to do with the recent recurring motif of this blog, love, that matter I have fathomed so incompletely.  Through loneliness, failed relationships, alchoholism, and a pervasive sense of displacement, Bishop's spirit remained courageous--courage, with its French root coeur--heart--being love's essential element. True courage allows for passion, for commitment, for empathy, for vulnerability--the components of love, be it for another person, for one's art, for life. Sometimes the teacher appears before the student is ready, and remains patiently in waiting.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Excepts from In the Waiting Room, The Moose, One Art, and The Sandpiper, from Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979.  Watercolor as seen in Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings


Abby said...

Tim, a most lovely meditation on Elizabeth Bishop-
I recently read (Writer's Almanac) that she only published 101 poems -- a meticulous writer/poet.
Adrianne Rich wrote a poem in response to Bishop's poem on "The Art Of Losing" -- addresses Elizabeth.
Take a look at it. --Ab

Gayle Sulik said...

I love this "meditation" on Bishop, as Abby describes it. Funny word, love. How often it is used in casual conversation yet lives at the center of the most meaningful elements of our lives, our work, our relationships; how it frequently conjures up religious imagery that, in truth, can barely capture its essence; how bringing the concept to the fore and making it explicit reveals how love can fuel the desire of artists, writers, healers, researchers, teachers, leaders, and others to make sense of the social world and perhaps seek to change it as a result of that understanding.

I love your statement that, "True courage allows for passion, for commitment, for empathy, for vulnerability--the components of love..."

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