In this book, novelist Colm Tóibín offers a deeply personal introduction to the work and life of one of his most important literary influences—the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Ranging across her poetry, prose, letters, and biography, Tóibín creates a vivid picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has helped shape his sensibility as a novelist and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own. What emerges is a compelling double portrait that will intrigue readers interested in both Bishop and Tóibín.
For Tóibín, the secret of Bishop’s emotional power is in what she leaves unsaid. Exploring Bishop’s famous attention to detail, Tóibín describes how Bishop is able to convey great emotion indirectly, through precise descriptions of particular settings, objects, and events. He examines how Bishop’s attachment to the Nova Scotia of her childhood, despite her later life in Key West and Brazil, is related to her early loss of her parents—and how this connection finds echoes in Tóibín’s life as an Irish writer who has lived in Barcelona, New York, and elsewhere.
Beautifully written and skillfully blending biography, literary appreciation, and descriptions of Tóibín’s travels to Bishop’s Nova Scotia, Key West, and Brazil, On Elizabeth Bishop provides a fresh and memorable look at a beloved poet even as it gives us a window into the mind of one of today’s most acclaimed novelists.
Colm Tóibín is the author of eight novels, three of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: The Blackwater Lightship, The Master (the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year), and The Testament of Mary. His other novels include Nora Webster and Brooklyn. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books.
"Toibin’s close readings of Bishop’s poems in this deft suite of essays are admirably acute, but what’s truly special is that Toibin offers not an elegant study of Bishop’s achievements as a poet, but also a shadow account of his own development as a writer, and thus an incidental treatise on the ways writers affect one another’s process."--Joel Browner, New York Times Book Review
"[The book’s] pull on the reader is almost tidal . . . it’s still impossible for a reader to resist getting sucked into the orbit of Robert Lowell, the rapaciously brilliant and royally messed-up literary lion whom Bishop considered her closest friend. The cat-and-mouse dynamic of Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence remains, in Mr. Tóibín's telling, as riveting as a series on Netflix or HBO, and probably ought to become one."--Jeff Gordinier, New York Times
"The Irish writer's valentine to the Canadian-American poet: a beautiful meditation on shyness, sex, art, and family."--Dan Chiasson, New Yorker
"Tóibín’s little book on Bishop is a writer’s exercise in rechristening himself, a second time through with Bishop as his chaperone. The narrative draws us back to moments when the discovery of Bishop, and later of Thom Gunn, drew Tóibín forward. This is the kind of beautiful relay that great writers provide for each other, and it gives you hope that some young person somewhere who finds himself in a bind will pick this short book up and find in it not one, but two companions."--Dan Chiasson, New York Review of Books
"On Elizabeth Bishop is an engaging introduction to her life and work, and also an essay on the importance of her work in his [Tóibín’s] life."--Matthew Bevis, London Review of Books
Table of Contents:
No Detail Too Small 1
One of Me 9
In the Village 15
The Art of Losing 30
Nature Greets Our Eyes 41
Order and Disorder in Key West 62
The Escape from History 77
Grief and Reason 96
The Little That We Get for Free 115
Art Isn't Worth That Much 135
The Bartók Bird 162
Efforts of Affection 174
North Atlantic Light 193