I want to kick off my stint here with a painting, a favorite poet, and a poem called “Poem.”
At the beginning of last year I paid a visit to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery for what felt like a belated Christmas gift. It was one of those January days in New York – cold but sunny, no snow, milder than a January day ought to be – when you half-forget it’s winter, and I had brought my wife along to check out a compact but wonderful show of pictures by Elizabeth Bishop. “Small paintings on paper,” the Times called them; a selection of her works in watercolors, gouache, ink and graphite.
Some I recognized from other places. Merida from the Roof you would know as the cover art of The Complete Poems 1927-1979, the salmon-colored paperback we all owned (and probably still have, because it’s so portable) before the Library of America edition and the one simply called Poems were published. And her painting of a tiny-looking Louise Crane kicked back on an enormous bed I’d seen reproduced in The New York Review of Books, in a piece celebrating her centennial.
The show also included an assortment of “Bishopiana” (the Times again) such as a pair of her binoculars (produced by Abercrombie and Fitch!), two of her desks from Brazil – heavy, rough-hewn, rustic-looking things – as well as some folk art sculptures from South America, a birdcage (I think it was a birdcage) and a couple of paintings. The desks didn’t thrill me the way I thought they might, though I did run a finger along the edge of one just to touch it.
No, the moment of amazement came when I looked up from that desk and realized what else I was looking at, hanging a little off to one side. It really was “About the size of an old-style dollar bill”— or so I’d imagine, never having seen one. (I take it on faith, since EB said so.) 4 and 3/16 by 9 11/16 inches, oil on masonite, in an old wooden frame. A mini widescreen landscape: one-third sky, blue-gray and cloudy; one-third dark ground, with light and dark houses and barns; one-third water, vaguely (cloudily?) reflecting the sky and clouds. Poor painting, it didn’t even have a name – or a date. Untitled, nd, by George Hutchinson – “Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George.”
It was the painting Bishop describes – and in describing, gradually arrives at a sort of definition of what a poem is for her – in the poem she called “Poem”:
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how we live, how touching in detail
– the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
I snapped a quick picture when I had the little room to myself, but it came out blurry. (You can click through a slideshow of all the pieces here; this painting is image #19.) And I thought – just for a minute, just to enjoy thinking it – what if I bought it, what if I could take this relic home and hang it over my desk? Because it seemed amazing to me that, all these years later, here it was: the actual painting. It existed. Because if it were in someone else's poem, it might not, but because it was in Bishop's, it did. And because this was a gallery, almost everything on show was also on sale. Though of course the thirty-something-thousand-dollar price tag was beyond me, and anyway I think it was already marked "sold."
But just to know it was still out there, that it might again hang over someone’s desk, or in their foyer (as it once did in Bishop's aunt's house), made me very very happy. There's a poem in this that I haven't written yet. And I'll have more to say this week about Bishop's poem and what it means to me.