When I was in school, we mainly read poetry by dead white men with hardly any women represented and nothing contemporary. It is only as an adult that I am filling in the considerable blanks of my poetry education and seeing how much richness and beauty I have missed. It has been a delight to read and enjoy pieces from the 1950’s by a woman who travelled considerably and lived in several very different places.
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Massachusetts, USA and had a very tragic early life; her father passed away before she was one and her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was five. Both sets of grandparents were involved in caring for her in Massachusetts and then Nova Scotia, Canada. This distance of 670 miles may have explained why travel featured so strongly in her adult life. She lived in New York and Brazil as well as travelling extensively in France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and North Africa. Her poetry reflects the journeys she made and what she saw whilst travelling.
Bishop only published 101 poems in her lifetime but received a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award in Poetry and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Questions of Travel is a book of two halves with the first section, Brazil, being a collection of poetry about her time in Brazil and the second half, Elsewhere, a fascinating mix of story telling prose and poems about other places the poet visited.
Bishop’s poetry is full of visual descriptions of the natural world with vivid colours and scenes in each of the poems. This brings the places to life and gives an almost photographic quality to her work. I have never been to Brazil, but this collection has made me want to visit the country to witness the sights and sounds which have been described.
Although Bishop was brought up in a wealthy household, a lot of her poetry describes the poverty and working class nature of the people she saw. Her descriptions are refreshing as she does not try to beautify or pity them; just explain what she has witnessed. “Father wears a dirty / oil-soaked monkey suit”, “Patch upon patch upon patch / your wife keeps all of you covered”, “Mother’s voice, ugly as sin”.
The poem, Questions of Travel asks if all of the travelling is worth the inconvenience and expense, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” It then explores what the writer would have missed without the journey; the trees, a “sad, two-noted wooden tune” of clogs, a bamboo church, a singing bird, and the sound of rain. The description of trees “gesturing / like noble pantomimists, robed in pink” is so evocative. Bishop leaves us with her question unanswered, but she must have enjoyed the travel if she continued to explore herself! It was an interesting question to ponder as a reader; I love to visit new places but sometimes there are issues with the logistics of a trip which I am sure were much worse when she was travelling in the 1950s. Personally, I think the new experiences and tastes of another life make it all worthwhile in the end.
Song for the Rainy Season is my favourite piece from this collection. It describes the physical world in so much detail that it feels like I am watching it on a film. For example, “The brook sings loud / from a rib cage / of giant fern” and “blood-black / bromelias” (a plant species widespread across Latin America). It is visceral and emotive; inviting all of your senses to experience the words. “The lint / of the waterfalls cling / familiar, unbidden”. You can feel the rain, hear the brook singing and smell the mildew. I will re-read this the next time we have a rainy day and enjoy the sensations which the words conjure.
One of the poems from Elsewhere which I particularly enjoyed was Sandpiper, a joyous piece describing the little bird’s relationship with the sea. “The roaring alongside he takes for granted / and that every so often the world is bound to shake.” “A sheet / of interrupting water comes and goes” gives us the movement and surprising nature of the tide. Bishop uses repeated words to convey the bird’s character, “His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied / looking for something, something, something.” It brings memories of watching birds along the seashore and the peace which observing nature always gives me.
As a lover of the natural world this book has been very enjoyable to read; her descriptions and use of colour, alliteration and repetition have beautifully conveyed the creatures and places she is sharing with the reader. It’s a wonderful collection of pieces which has not only made me want to jump on an aeroplane to visit somewhere new but also to read more of her work.
Score 8 out of 10