Every week, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the week’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the week, click here.
The current book of the week is…
Poems, Elizabeth Bishop: 15-21 February 2019
It’s LGBT History Month so all through February we will be featuring poets who belong in some way or other to the LGBT community, celebrating their lives and their work. This week, our book of the week is Poems by Elizabeth Bishop.
A fantastic, comprehensive collection of Bishop’s poetry, this includes her writing from early, outward-looking observations of landscape and place to her later, more inward-looking reflections on life and loneliness. Her voice is singular, distinctive and clear and her keen eye for detail can be heartbreakingly perceptive. ‘Filling Station’ describes the dingy forecourt of a petrol station, notices the “wicker sofa” on which sleeps a “dirty dog”, a “big dim doily” draped over a table: “Somebody embroidered the doily. / …Somebody arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO-SO-SO-SO / to high-strung automobiles. / Somebody loves us all.”
Sadness and bereftness pervades Bishop’s poetry. She lived a full life, travelling widely, teaching at Harvard, winning poetry prizes – and yet she asked friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Her turbulent and several long-term relationships with women inform much of her poetry, though she is often evasive as to her sexuality and the gender of her lovers (not least because of the mid-20th century hostility against and prejudice towards homosexuality). Nonetheless, the poetry is tender and full of love. ‘The Shampoo’ for instance describes washing her lover’s hair, “The shooting stars in your black hair / in bright formation…Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin / battered and shiny like the moon.” In ‘Breakfast Song’, she aches over the idea of dying before her long-term (much younger) partner, Alice Methfessel: “How can I bear to go / (as soon I must, I know) / to bed with ugly death / in that cold, filthy place, / to sleep there without you”. The poems are specific, about Methfessel’s eyes, “awfully blue / early & instant blue”, but they have a universal quality in their longing and yearning for connection with another person.
Possibly her best known poem, ‘One Art,’ is the swan song of her relationship with Methfessel. This is a poem for anyone who’s prone to misplacing things, imploring: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. / The art of losing isn’t hard to master” but ends more poignantly on losing a lover, that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Loneliest person who ever lived or not, here at OPL we are so grateful to Bishop for having written her experiences of solitude and loss. It helps us feel less alone.