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Elizabeth Bishop by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (2000)

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375409645, Audio Cassette)

In her readings, Elizabeth Bishop extended what James Merrill termed her "instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman." Eschewing the grandiosity--the extended pauses for effect, the stately self-wonder--that could strike her contemporaries and seems epidemic among her descendants, she opted for a brisk clip. In fact, in "The Map," which opens The Voice of the Poet, she sounds as if she can't wait to escape New York's 92nd Street Y. The collection includes 23 poems from six different readings, the first taking place on October 17, 1947, and the last 30 years later, when she was clearly congested. It is also accompanied by a booklet containing a fine essay by J.D. McClatchy and the poems themselves.

Bishop offers few remarks, so each one, along with each slight alteration of text, is precious. For example, she brings "Large Bad Picture" to a sudden, marvelous halt with "And I must change that--he never was a schoolteacher. I think I liked the rhyme." She is in finest form at the Coolidge Auditorium in May 1969, and particularly loose with the magical "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore." Perhaps this has something to do with its vocative mode and its irresistible repetition of "please come flying": "We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying."

Despite Bishop's attempts at invisibility, her art again and again makes itself felt. One is grateful that she was caught narrating such masterworks as "At the Fishhouses" and "The Moose" as well as the lovely "Poem" about a miniature painting, with its "tiny cows, / two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows" and celebrated riddle: "A specklike bird is flying to the left. / Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?" The tape also includes such lesser-known pieces as "Cirque d'Hiver." Only Bishop could instill a wind-up horse and rider with such desperate beauty, wit, and desire for connection:

His mane and tail are straight from Chirico
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul

and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.

Bishop never once refers to her performances in her letters, and though she was to grow more comfortable with the requirements of her role, as late as 1976 an article on her was titled "Reading Scares Poet Bishop." She may not have been keen on the sound of her own voice, but those lucky enough to catch it now will savor each revelation of her formal, melancholy soul. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:56 -0400)

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