Some of the many pleasures of working as a librarian are ordering books (spending money on books – what could possibly be more fun or interesting or even challenging?), and then actually seeing the book once it has arrived, holding the book in your hand, and (lovingly) placing it on the new books shelf, where it will hopefully be swept up soon by an interested reader. If you are a lover of books, and a believer in the value of reading, receiving an ordered book is kind of akin to actually handing a book to a patron who has been looking for that particular book. Although it’s not the same exchange, both carry a suggestion of possibility – the possibility that this book will open new worlds, will utterly absorb the passionate reader, will even change the reader’s life. Whether I am directly handing the book to a patron, or placing it on the shelf for a future patron, both allow me as a librarian to express in a quiet way my love for the act of reading.
I say all this because today, one of my favorite books of all time came into the library this afternoon. If you know me, you could probably guess that it’s a book of poetry – and it is. The book is simply called “Poems,” but it is actually the collected poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, a 20th century American poet who was born in 1911 in Massachusetts and died in 1979, and wrote what I believe to be some of the best poems of the 20th century.
So why all the hyperbole? What is so special about Bishop? For me, there has always been something special about Bishop’s eye – her powers of description are so intense and unique and funny and interesting, and the details of her description often build in power, and end on just an amazing note. Her poems are so artful, and they are also deeply intelligent. It feels like she saw the world in such an interesting way, and then had the ability to translate this unique vision into language and poetry.
All of which is to say, that today, because the book came in (and I should say that it’s not a new book, but it is a book I believe our collection needed), I wanted to celebrate Elizabeth Bishop’s life and work by sharing a poem by her with you. It was very hard to decide on which poem to share, but I thought the poem she wrote called, very simply, “Poem,” is a great place to start, a poem she wrote later in her life. The poem is about a painting Bishop finds, or sees, or discovers anew. Here it is:
About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
– this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free, it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic
handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.
It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
– that gray-blue wisp – or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)
A specklike bird is flying to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?
Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It’s behind – I can almost remember the farmer’s name.
His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
titanium white, one dab. The hint of steeple,
filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,
must be the Presbyterian church.
Would that be Miss Gillespie’s house?
Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time.
A sketch done in an hour, “in one breath,”
once taken from a trunk and handed over.
Would you like this? I’ll probably never
have room to hang these things again.
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he’d be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R.A….
I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided – “visions” is
too serious a word – our looks, two looks:
art “copying from life” and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
-the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
I have read this poem many times, and it still remains fresh, “crisp and shivering,” like the iris in the last stanza. What is amazing to me about this poem is that no matter how many times you read it, the epiphany that is at the heart of the poem – the way in which the speaker of the poem gradually realizes that she recognizes the painted scene, and then is able to reflect really deeply but reticently about the meaning of such a scene – always feels surprising and spontaneous and real. Somehow, Bishop was able to kind of encode a dawning realization into her language, and this realization always feels intensely significant. What she is chronicling is in many ways a different way of seeing things, starting with the inherited painting, moving into the recognition of the scene painted, and ending with what the painting means to her. And this is done so wonderfully, without too many linguistic pyrotechnics, humbly, in a kind of plain (deceivingly plain) language. What a great poem.
If this poem captures your attention, and you are interested in reading more of Bishop’s poetry, please come to RRPL and check out the book! Here is a link to put a hold on it. Also, below are some resources to learn more about Bishop’s life and work. She is a poet who rewards many rereadings. With that said, Happy Reading!
Paris Review interview:
New Yorker articles about her biography:
Poetry Foundation Profile, with Poems: