Interviews January 2006

Paper Trail

How best to piece together the unfinished work of a consummate poet's poet? Alice Quinn reflects on the delicate task of vetting Elizabeth Bishop's notebooks

The first poem, "I introduce Penelope Gwin...," is a long comic poem about a wandering woman who spurns family life for travel, and hides from her aunts behind potted plants. It's a bit of an early self-portrait by Bishop, isn't it?

Yes, definitely. And it gives us a sense of Bishop's insouciance as a young woman of seventeen or so. It's a very accomplished comic poem and an uncanny early portrait of the kind of woman Bishop would become—a traveler and an unsparing artist.

There are other youthful poems just as illuminating—"Washington as a Surveyor," for instance, which recently ran in The New Yorker. It has the most wonderful opening, "Lord I discovered when I discovered love / That day a continent within the mind..." Her love of geography and her pressing need to explore the subject of love in her twenties are on display here.

What were some of your favorite discoveries?

I kept being struck by the things—the sights and conversations—she dwelt on. A little note in the journals, "begonias ghostly in a galvanized bucket," gives us the young Bishop in Key West, possibly on a bicycle, taking in that apparition in a glance and immortalizing it in her notebook.

I love the drafts of a poem alternately titled "Hannah A." and "Mrs. Almyda," which enshrines her housekeeper in Key West in the 1940s. In it, Bishop settles on the image of the prehistoric pelican tearing feathers from her breast to line her nest as the apt metaphor for a demanding kind of love. She writes: "No trick, like balancing / but endless worrying/ at such discouraging/ details with small result," and she's describing her housekeeper's relationship to her. But we also see that Bishop puts a premium on love that involves tremendous attention and sacrifice.

Bishop kept beautiful letters from Mrs. Almyda all her life. I quote them in the notes to that draft. One has a recipe for "cocoanut pie" and the depth of her feeling for Bishop is just indelible: "Miss you, sure do miss the ones you love. Hope you're doing well with your writing."

I was also struck by the way the drafts and fragments sometimes give us her familiar voice but in a new tone. For instance, in her beautiful poem, "Filling Station," the speaker wonders aloud at the reason for decoration in the little ESSO station: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret?" That's a tone I might call plaintive interrogative—here reflecting a penetrating, sweet assessment of how people try to make their lives prettier. In the drafts, we encounter this plaintiveness again but in a different register. In "On the 'Prince of Fundy'," a poem set on a ship in Nova Scotia, the speaker drones about the noise on board, "Someone has a heavy tread, above. / Someone else—a woman—is singing. Why? / And why does she sing so high?" Another draft titled "Ungracious Poem" is focused on nurses—Bishop logged a lot of time in hospitals—and the refrain is "Why do Nurses talk? / What do they talk about?" Those questions are less charming; they reflect irritation and impatience, and are less mediated by art.

One of the poems that we considered for The Atlantic is called "Florida Deserta" and it has a little note on it "For Bone Key" which is, of course, a collection of poems—or an idea for a collection—that never did materialize. Why do you suppose it didn't? Were there any clues? Do the letters provide any sense of why?

"Bone Key" is a group of seven or eight poems Bishop developed and earmarked as a sequence. She never published them, although several—particularly "Key West," now in The Atlantic, and "The Street by the Cemetery," which ran in The New Yorker—appear to be finished. It's clear that she had a sequence in view or, perhaps, was considering "Bone Key" as a title for her second collection. Other titles—for sequences or for collections—mentioned in her journal from the Key West decade are "Geographical Mirror" and "Hotels."

The late thirties through the early forties was an important period in her development and one not extensively reflected in her finished work. I consider the drafts from this time the kernel of the book. The work she began is often dramatic and deeply sorrowful. She was so uncertain of her life's direction and the drafts about love are often heartbreaking.

Another of the drafts from the Key West journal begins,

I had a bad dream,
toward morning, about you.
You lay unconscious
It was to be
for "24 hrs."
Wrapped in a long blanket
I felt I must hold you
even though a "load of guests"
might come in from the garden
at a minute
& see us lying
with my arms around you
& my cheek on yours.

The draft closes with lines about the loved one "a thousand miles away" and the speaker trying to hold on "with the numb arms of a dreamer" and experiencing a "loneliness like falling on / the sidewalk in a crowd / that fills one with shame, some / slow, elaborate shame."

That's an indication of the isolation Bishop often felt in Key West. But in the end she didn't have a full collection of Key West poems. Her second book, A Cold Spring, which she published when she was forty-four—in a volume that included a reissue of her first book, North & South—begins with a beautiful poem set in Maryland. It has only three poems explicitly set in Key West, and it doesn't contain a single one from this clutch of poems she'd been returning to on and off for years.

But why? Any sense?

I can only speculate. Perhaps it's because they summoned up a period she was happy to have behind her.

So, what do we learn from looking at the unfinished work of a perfectionist?

A big part of the pleasure and understanding to be gained is in knowing what was on her mind during those years and in discovering new phrasing of hers, new avenues into her vision. Anyone who knows Bishop's work will recognize gestures in these poems that are more fully realized or at least differently fulfilled in her truly finished poems, but you can take so much pleasure in everything she was noticing and considering as material for poetry. Rough drafts bring you into the laboratory and feel more personal, overall.

For instance, here's a poem that provides some testimony about her relationship with Louise Crane, with whom she bought the house at 624 White Street in Key West in 1938, now a landmarked site. There's an entry in her notebook, "the lime trees, unexhausted by the bees." In the note to the draft, I quote this, along with several other entries about lime trees, but I leave it to the reader to interpret their significance with respect to this dramatically symbolic poem, which seems so clearly about betrayal.

We hadn't meant to spend so much time
       In the cool shadow of the lime.
You played with three green leaves all afternoon,
    —Three green leaves and a red heart.
       Now it is growing dark.
I can't stand your arrangements anymore.

They were that shadow; real dark is the truth:
       The lime tree is a little booth
Outlined with leaves, one clotted heart displayed,
       On the outskirts of a sad suburban fair.
       Now look behind the dirty curtain where
Harlequin lies drunk in his checquered clothes...

I think readers will be interested to ponder the different ways that the journal entries relate to the drafts. And in reading this material, I'm always aware of the many different eras reflected. The figure of the harlequin was prevalent in the early part of the century both in the work of Picasso and in the French poetry of that time. Wallace Fowlie, a scholar of French literature whose work Bishop followed, entitled one of his books The Clown's Grail. Even so, the personal aspect of this seems undeniable.

In general, I feel that a lot of the material in the book floats free of her finished work. We're not looking at early drafts of work she published. It's just really different stuff. One isn't pressed into a frenzy of comparison. And, sometimes it is hard to say what these things are. Is the poem I just quoted finished or a partial draft? I can't say. In any case, she decided not to publish it. Many of these drafts and fragments strike out into territory that will impress readers as quite distinct from that of her established canon.

Presented by

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, published by the Poetry Society of America in 2003. She is The Atlantic's assistant poetry editor.

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