I mentioned last weekend that I had moved many of my books out of storage and the unsightly triple-layer-deep shelves in our basement into the built-ins we recently installed in our family room. The process felt vaguely like a reunion, where I was confronted with titles, authors, and versions of myself I’d lost track of. “Oh, you again,” to The Anxiety of Influence, a slim critical volume that still sends a shiver of performed, often ursine, academic-ness down my spine. Among the spines, I placed a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s complete works, and felt nearly dizzy with memory. Bishop was the first poet with whom I organically connected, and the first meaningful subject on which I wrote in college. Bishop is in many ways my opposite, both from a style and ouevre stand point. She was exactingly precise, a purist. She published only 101 poems in her lifetime, each one a carefully polished jewel. She used the constraint of traditional poetic forms (including, famously, the ancient “Villanelle” form, which she used in her poem “One Art”) as a kind of whetstone, sharpening her language against its elected limitations. She strikes me, in other words, as a woman of tremendous creative discipline. I imagine her sitting down to her desk at 5 a.m., drinking a black coffee, and chiseling away.
I, on the other hand, am a late morning start and a milky latte. I am prone to linguistic largesse. Someone once told me: “If you can catch an adjective, kill it.” Bishop herself might have said it. I have on occasion repeated this phrase, believing it to be a kind of writerly standard to which I should probably subscribe, but in practice, I draw adjectives to myself as though accessories, as though ermine or pearls at the neck. I often write in adjectival triptychs. I enjoy the effect of this pastiche, each word qualifying the prior. And I write volubly, publish too frequently. I resist the ultra-formal, let go of my work before it’s polished. I think of writing more as a process than a product, and it shows, for better or worse.
And yet – there is much in Elizabeth Bishop’s work to which I aspire and — consciously or not — mirror. There is, across her poetry, a great quietness. She talks crisply, but sotto voce, and often focuses thoughtfully on the granular, especially in the natural world. Like Mary Oliver, Bishop consistently reminds us that nature is a live model for accepting change with grace, or — if not with grace — at least without mitigation or the over-thinking to which so many of us are prone. There is little argument and almost no violence in her words. Her poetry gives the impression of a well-polished wooden table: soundly constructed, burnished to gleam, not a scratch or sharp edge to worry about. For these reasons, I think Bishop is often underestimated. This, at least, was my impression in college, when I remember a classmate referring to her work as “kitchen poetry.” (I still spoil for a fight with this comment when I think of it.)
And yet. How wrong those facile readings of her are. There is a startling emotional prehensility in her work that moves me, consistently, as she writes slantedly around the experiences of loneliness, of loss, of grief.
Anyhow – it is probably obvious that many of her motifs, the traits of her text, her naturalism, on which I model my own work.
When I selected “Magpie” as my avatar over a decade ago, I know for certain I was thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Sandpiper.” A different bird altogether, but for some reason, they fuse in my mind, and this makes me sentimental about Bishop and that poem in particular. I remember feeling that I, too, was like the finical bird, “looking for something, something, something.” Of this bird, Bishop writes:
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied.
At the time, I saw myself in the bird’s hunger and watchfulness. Today, I read those words as more of an admonition than an identity. I do not want to be staring so intently at the individual grains of sand beneath my feet that I cannot tell you whether the sea is ebbing or flowing. This is the work I am after, not the hyperrealism or pointillism of portraiture. Bishop, of course, had beat me to the punch there. We have an entire strand on which to wander, she tells us, tells the bird: an expanse that shimmers if we sit back to take it all in.
+The English discipline and “the great Or Maybes.”
+Illumination by spotlight rather than candle.
+If you could go to school to study whatever you wanted tomorrow, what would it be?
+Alert: If you have VIB Rouge status at Sephora, you are entitled to 20% off your purchase! Use this as your time to treat yourself to some Westman goodies, Merit blush, the best eyebrow gel, or luxurious shampoo. More beauty favorites here.
+Eyeing this velvet bustier top for holiday festive attire.
+Love my new Arlette turtleneck from J McLaughlin. It is ultra soft and warm, and the ribbed style is different from anything else I have in my closet. I got it in the chocolate brown and intend to pair with brown faux leather pants!
+These velvet Gap pants have been SO popular with us Magpies this week.
+This popular Dash and Albert rug is on sale!
+These sherpa loafers arrived in the mail and I have not changed out of them in three days.
+This dress, in the chocolate velvet, is divine.
+We just did a big shop for Mr. Magpie and one of my favorite things he bought was this ivory cableknit, which he pairs with ecru denim and a denim button down. He pairs them with these boots we also bought him — the entire look is so rugged / handsome!
+My dear friend Inslee did the artwork for this beautiful set of packing cubes. I’m in love with the desk set she designed, too!
+Adorable personalized beanies.
+OBSESSED with this tree topper – thanks to the Magpie who found it!
+Such a great pink sweater.
+I have this gorgeous John Sargent art book in my cart. I love his portraits.
+Seriously contemplating this rug for my office. I have eyed it for years now! So fun, so happy!
+Will share more of a dreamboard for my office at some point soon, but thought these lucite valet hooks would be SO handy for styling / steaming items / etc.
+After publishing this post on cold weather gear for littles, discovered the most precious new brand of children’s snow attire — how darling is this bunting?
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4 thoughts on “The Sandpiper.”
Hi Jen, Was just rereading this post and thought I would ask if you may have some thoughts/ideas on a reading for a wedding ceremony. My daughter is getting married in December. We have a scripture reading and would like one more, maybe something not from the Bible, perhaps from a poem or a piece of literature. I always look forward to your essays/musings and thought you may have a recommendation.
Hi Benae — Thank you so much for the sweet note. This is not Biblical but it is religious — my Dad has read this beautiful piece on the eves of all the five children in our family’s weddings:
This part always makes me feel weepy and awe-struck at the beauty of marriage:
“That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys, and sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And yet, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. Truly then, these words are most serious.”
I will keep thinking, but those words sprang to mind first.
I have moved a number of times in the past ten years, and unpacking books is always the best part. I know precisely the feeling of reunion, of remembering reading, of stirring up a part of yourself that was shaped by discovering an author or work. I sometimes go so far as to say having bookshelves in your home is like surrounding yourself with friends. And it sounds like Bishop has been a good friend to you <3
Yes! Spot on. I feel strangely comforted by seeing her name stare back at me on the bookshelf!