Boxes of tricks and a trip to the fishhouses with a Bishop.

Art, poetry
I didn’t come across Elizabeth Bishop as a poet until a few years ago, and since that time I have been an admirer of her work, and interested in her as a woman.  That interest is naturally provoked by some poets, when I read their lines, I want to discover something about the human being behind the poem. It doesn’t always happen like that, but when  it does I think it is a natural progression from having a deep reaction to someones words, to wanting to know more about them. I suppose it is a facet of curiosity, and when it does occur it is normally accompanied by feelings of warmth , reciprocity, a real feeling of companionship, whether or not the poet is dead or alive. I felt it when I came across Keats in the museum dedicated to him in the room where he died in Rome, and I felt it when I went to the Hopper exhibition, and more recently when I went to the Lowry exhibition. The recognition invigorates and always impels me to some creative pursuit. That is why I love it when it comes, it invigorates me and connects me to an essence of vitality so often lacking in everyday life. So it is with Elizabeth Bishop. That is why I was delighted to discover her paintings, and her interest in art.  When she came across Joseph Cornell, I imagine she had a similar reaction to his art as I have to her poetry. When Elizabeth was still a young woman she came across one of Cornells boxes, and was thrilled that it contained elements of her own childhood.

“Cornell is superb. I first saw the Medici Slot Machine when I was in college. Oh, I loved it. To think one could have bought some of those things then… When I looked at his show in New York two years ago I nearly fainted, because one of my favorite books is a book he liked and used. It’s a little book by an English scientist who wrote for children about soap bubbles [Soap Bubbles; their colours and the forces which mould them, by Sir C. V. Boys, 1889].” — Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Edited by George Monteiro. (Jackson, MS.: University of Mississippi Press, 1996), pp. 120-121.

To digress, Cornell is a find in himself. He lived all his life(1903 -1978) with his mother until her death, and died himself a few months later, They shared the house for the entirety of his life in Queens , and was a reclusive man and artist.  He was untrained, and produced a delightful medium, later described as ‘assemblages’, that had hitherto been largely unseen in the artworld. He used all manner of found things which provoked a sense of imagination within him, transforming ordinary material into magical dreamscapes.He died in 1972, but over 200 of his works were exhibited retrospectively. You can see a fabulous site showing this exhibition ‘Navigating the Imagination’ here,
His vision of his creativity reminds me of Ellen Dissonayakes understanding that art is about creating meaning by ‘making’.( see He described himself as a maker, valuing his ‘natural’ origins as an artist, being self taught. He believed that the renewal and transformations of materials, ideas, visions gave him the opportunity to communicate the beauty and magic in the commmonplace. Nowadays the box construction is used throughout the art world as a a recognizable form, but Cornell introduced it as an exciting medium. 

So I am going to show some of Elizabeth’s paintings that came to light after her death. alongside some of Cornell’s magical box assemblages. Nice. Oh, and I will find one of her poems for you all, what a treat!!! Her style was never confessional, so even though she suffered various difficulties during her life, her poetry remained aloof from them.  She had defined ,objective perception with an ability to describe accurately, deliberately. In her own words to Robert Lowell,
 “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
  At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
waiting for Christmas. 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.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

You can read more poems by  Elizabeth Bishop at this link

Paintings, go here


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