Elizabeth Bishop: A Couple of Facts and Some Fabulousness


I just adore this photograph of Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil road-tripping with Minnow, her tuxedo cat.

This week was Elizabeth Bishop's birthday, she would have been 112 on February 8th. Happy Birthday, Miss Bishop! Although we both lived in the Boston, and our times overlapped a little, I was 10 years old when she died, quite suddenly, at the age of 68 of a cerebral aneurysm in her home on Lewis Wharf which was right on the Boston waterfront and newly renovated. Miss Bishop had very refined tastes!

Here's a story about her I love and that has never been told in print as far as I know. I was saving it for the book on my poetry mentors that I may or may not get around to writing.

When I first moved to Seattle (where Bishop also lived for a short time) I was invited to teach a one night class at  the Elliott Bay Book Company, the most beloved bookstore in my adopted city, then and now. I was young(er) and felt perfectly fine teaching Bishop's work to whomever showed-up. It was very informal, a weekday evening----more an appreciation of some poems than an academic class. One woman in a fur coat, and her friend were clearly retirees and thrilled to be in a small circle discussing poems (there were also University of Washington students clearly there for extra credit).

As the evening wrapped-up, the woman in fur came up to me and let me know that she, too, came from Boston. "I  have a gift for you," she said excitedly, In fact, this woman had a close friend that had lived just underneath Bishop's condominium on Lewis Wharf. Her friend was not exactly a fan of Bishop-the-neighbor and this is why: one night Bishop was planning a dinner party and she came down to knock on her neighbor's door. Bishop wanted to know if she could borrow the neighbor's dog, Pekingese. Bishop told the woman's friend that the dog's face looked exactly like a pansy and she wanted her friends to see the striking resemblance.

The woman's friend was not the least bit amused. "She didn't invite me to the party, only my dog," the neighbor said.  And yes, it was rude and perhaps unkind to want to borrow a neighbor's beloved pet to be a party favor but it also seems so quintessentially Bishop: to carefully observe one thing and see another. The woman in the fur coat smiled broadly and disappeared into the night.

I believe I've read every book about Elizabeth Bishop's life and work. At this point I know the narrative of her life as if it were my own: the death of her father, followed by her mother's being sent to a psychiatric hospital (never to return), Bishop's dislocation between sets of grandparents, her meeting Marianne Moore just after college, a trip to Brazil and intense allergic reaction to the fruit of a cashew. Her lifelong alcoholism; her many lovers --- including the assistant secretary in the English department at the University of Washington---with whom Bishop moved to San Francisco with....and then disastrously to Brazil...but that's another story.

Somewhere, in all that reading I came across this little known fact: Elizabeth Bishop always kept a compass in her pocket. (If you know where I read this please, let me know!) I found this fact revelatory. Bishop wrote about her love of binoculars and this seemed to offer a sense of continuity in the image I had formed of her: birdwatcher, traveler, watercolorist --- and brilliant poet. I had tried writing about her before but this "little-known fact" somehow was the portal I needed.

If you are a poet, and if you love Bishop, there's a good chance you are one; I offer this suggestion: find an obscure fact about a poet you admire and see if the object can open a doorway into a new poem for you.

Thank you to the Alaska Quarterly Review for publication of this poem.