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The Book That Made Me

Elizabeth Bishop: Complete Poems

Elizabeth Bishop: Complete Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 2004.

I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” the summer I was 13, studied her work subsequently at school, and have drawn the epigraphs for two of my four books from her work.

Her words are compressed, meaning squeezed into every phrase. Some poems are humorous; some are quietly agonising; all are deeply wise and subtly compassionate. They recognize and forgive human folly.

Written without authorial vanity in a style of deceptive transparency, they are secretly riddled with intended contradictions.

Displaced in some ways by her lesbianism, Bishop chose a geographical removal to Brazil, and her poems speak from outside the situations they describe. They are nonetheless courageous evocations of inwardness, of the isolation that can inhere in fierce love.

They also bespeak the impossibility of the one impossible art of reconciling with loss; and the finality of human experience,

our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.