The Literary Tourist

Laura C. Mallonee visited the former New York homes of poet Elizabeth Bishop:

So this is what it’s like to see the world through Elizabeth’s eyes, I think. In her poem “Varick Street,” she describes “wretched uneasy buildings,” “pale dirty light,” “soot and hapless odors,” but today the neighborhood is charming, almost idyllic: an enclave of expensive Georgian architecture and blooming flowers. The sun is out today after a long winter; birds sing almost too sweetly. I think how much I love New York.

But Bishop was never happy here; she wrote to her psychologist in 1948 that she disliked the city. The same year, she half-jokingly told Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” After [her building] was bulldozed in the summer of 1949, the poet checked herself into Blythewood, a mental institution. And yet she had just published, in 1946, her first volume of poetry, North & South, which was deluged with critical praise and later won her the Pulitzer. Wasn’t she an established writer, friends with Moore and Lowell? From the perspective of a lowly graduate student, I envy her vantage point: no longer striving to prove herself capable; a seat at the literary round table; a contributor to the cultural dialogue.

I stroll along snapping photos with my camera phone, and a breeze rushes down the sidewalk, carrying with it a dense whiff of urine. I fondly recall the “elongated nostrils/haired with spikes” in “Varick Street” that “give off such stenches.” Before I know it, a dark figure is lunging toward me and I cry out, slumping awkwardly against a gate. When I look up, the thief has bolted with my iPhone. No one is around to see me break into an irrational mixture of tears and hyperventilation. “What do we long for when we see beauty?” Nietzche once asked. “We think much happiness must be connected with it. But that is an error.” Perhaps this is true of success, as well.

Recent Dish on the relationship between Bishop and Robert Lowell here.