Bishop, after all

By SVEN BIRKERTS  |  February 5, 2008

The poetry selection, which includes along with the work from the published books a generous sampling from the work that Quinn gathered, reminds us not only how rare the truly realized poem is but also that the ideal marriage of craft and expression creates art that never does not feel fresh. To enter a Bishop poem with the mind and senses wide open is to be scrubbed back to first principles; the order of things feels reminted. A reviewer could lose a morning dithering over which few lines to quote. Here, taken almost at random, is a small descriptive section from “At the Fishhouses”: “The water seems suspended/above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones./I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,/slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,/icily free above the stones,/above the stones and then the world.” Even in so short an excerpt, Bishop’s poetical qualities are in high evidence. We find precision — phrasing so right it seems a part of the rightness of nature; but we find also the unobtrusive presence of a comprehending sensibility that knows to write “slightly, indifferently” and thus bring human tension into what could otherwise almost pass for detached observation. Consider this degree of visionary care, and then project it across a full geographical and moral spectrum, each expression making its claim in its own terms, and you begin to get some idea of Bishop as poet.

But Bishop was also a prose stylist of great distinction, her sentences marked by a no less subtle titration of feeling into observation, her grip on the world exhibiting the same steady deep regard. Reading her — and I don’t find this with many writers of high-resolution prose — I get a sense of an experience having been fathomed fully before it makes its way, word by word, onto the page. Bishop wrote wonderfully about her childhood, about Brazil (including a tour de force documentary account of her travels with Aldous Huxley), her friendship with Marianne Moore, among many other subjects, but once again a short excerpt will have to serve, this from a memoiristic essay called “Primer Class”:

The slate pencils came two for a penny, with thin white paper, diagonally striped in pale blue or red, glued around them except for an inch left bare at one end. I loved the slate and the pencils almost as much as the primer. What I liked best about the slate was washing it off at the kitchen sink, or in the watering trough, and then watching it dry. It dried like clouds, and then the very last wet streak would grow tinier and tinier, and thinner and thinner; then suddenly it was gone and the slate was pale gray again and dry, dry, dry.

A hundred gifted stylists could have written the first three sentences, but only Bishop could have embodied evanescence itself in the fourth, and then risked that peculiar — but wonderfully apt — repetition.

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