Tuesday, 28 July 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you lose your purse.
Recently, when I lost my purse – or rather, just after it was stolen from me – I felt a momentary version of the grief that accompanies far greater loss. Numbness, shock, anger, denial, acceptance, played out in half an hour, and then it seemed unseemly to care. After all, no one had died; it was only money that had been stolen from me; the loss was of an inanimate object.
And then a friend reminded me to re-read ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop, with its beautifully controlled opening stanza: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’ The poem comes from Bishop’s final collection, published in 1976, three years before her death; and, like its title, appears to suggest that the art of losing is reflected in the art of writing, and vice versa. If, as in life, every loss reminds us of a previous sorrow (the vanished purse, the missing lover), then Bishop (a Pulitzer Prize winner and US Poet Laureate) offers mastery of language to contain the messiness of long-lost or looming disaster.
Bishop herself was no stranger to loss: her father died when she was a baby; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum; and one of the great loves of her life, a Brazilian woman with whom Bishop lived for 15 years, committed suicide. A self-confessed opponent of self-confessional poetry, unlike many of her contemporaries (‘Art just isn’t worth that much,’ she wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell, after he used his wife’s letters in his writing), Bishop nevertheless gave some clues to the grave losses she suffered. ‘I lost my mother’s watch,’ she writes in ‘One Art’, as if in passing; though the material loss of a watch was also an echo of her mother’s absence in childhood; of the loss of both parents to watch over her.
‘One Art’ emerged out of 17 drafts, evidence of the tension between a poet’s artfulness and the artlessness of grief; of what happens when words fail us (‘it may look like (Write it!) like disaster’), as does love; not that we ever stop searching for what we have lost, and what we might still be looking for.
NB: for more (far more), on Elizabeth Bishop's drafts, there's a very good article at Slate.