I was at that quintessentially American institution – summer camp – when I first heard an Elizabeth Bishop poem. I was twelve, anxious about my confused identity, away from home, mawkish in an adolescent way, and I had no idea that Bishop’s work would, in the decades that followed, lend clarity to my thinking even as it embodied complexity. I cathected to that first poem (‘The Fish’) and read it aloud later in the summer on a campfire night. I didn’t then know that I was gay or that Bishop was; I didn’t know that she had been able to become herself largely through geographical displacement (mostly to Brazil) as I would ten years later become myself largely through geographical displacement (to the UK). I didn’t guess how closely despair and beauty, awkward twin obsessions of my own, cohabited in her work and life.
I was a university student when I obtained copies of the four slender books that were her lifetime’s entire work, each named to honour place and peregrination: North & South in 1946, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring in 1955, Questions of Travel in 1965 and Geography III in 1976. In her poems, place is specific, concrete, detailed; it is also metaphoric, imagined, elusive. The epigraph to my novel A Stone Boat came from her poem ‘At the Fishhouses’:
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.
That passage bespoke the transitory loneliness at the root of all intimacy, the desolate relationship we have with time. The novel in which I deployed the lines was based on my mother’s illness and death, and I found Bishop’s restraint bracing as I struggled with unruly tides of loss.
I thought I would not quote from Bishop again in so public a way, but when it came time for my most recent book, Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World, I had no choice, because Questions of Travel had uniquely helped me arrive at my language for my own sojourning. The book is partly a meditation on Bishop’s ambivalent love for Brazil (‘There are too many waterfalls here,’ she writes); it reflects her deeply complicated and often anguished relationship with the love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares; it ponders how one’s inner sense of time expands and contracts with dislocation. The epigraph I took is this:
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?
The day I first read those lines, I was only embarking on my lifetime’s project of travelling the world. Now I’ve been to more places than I’d have dared to hope. But it is still part of my chronic discontent to hope that in one such place, life will suddenly be infused with reason. I love home and I need to escape it; I think of it when I am away and I think of getting away whenever I am there. At home I still feel foreign; abroad, it is often a relief to be as foreign as I feel.
In the course of my research for a previous book, I interviewed a half-Latinx gang member who had grown up in Minneapolis but was now hanging tough on the streets of Guatemala City. I recognised in him, despite the gap in our experience, a feeling of dislodgement to which I was no stranger. Like many other violent criminals, he had not made any particular pursuit of modernist poetry, but after we had reminisced about the prison where I’d first met him some three years earlier and some three thousand miles away, I recited the poem, as much of it as I could, and he dropped the gun that had been in his lap and the bravado that it emblematised and said, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ And I wondered at how the cautious words of a midcentury American lesbian could provoke such a disarming (literally and figuratively) flash of recognition in him.
Why did I move to England? I came to fall in love; I came to escape curbs built into my life in the United States; I came because I could not see where I came from until I was somewhere else. I have spent the rest of my life in someplace, missing someplace; my best friends are Londoners who live in New York and New Yorkers who live in London. No other book has captured the need for displacement as Questions of Travel does. In the poem ‘Manuelzinho,’ Bishop writes of a gardener, ostensibly in the voice of a friend:
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or do I?…
Again I promise to try.
By nationality and by class, Manuelzinho is foreign to the speaker. Bishop shifts in a line from the random self-congratulation of someone who feels superior to a meditation on what all love entails. I have promised over and over again to try, wherever I love. Travel makes concrete the reality that pertains even at home: we are incomprehensible to one another, and the fabric of love is our effort, not our insight. Bishop, the aforementioned gang member and I have all felt like exiles wherever we go. She has conveyed that solitude with an agonising, undemonstrative poignancy and a somehow generous, impeccable precision.