I am reading Elizabeth Bishop on a morning when the the sun is picking apart the trees, the blossom is still and heavy in the orchard and when I walk across the gravel there is overnight rain left in the spaces. The newly sown grass seed in poussaying like anything.
I have been reading the early poems, alongside Anne Stevenson’s ‘Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop’. It’s slow progress reading because I am trying to look at each of the poems that Stevenson quotes from or refers to. Then I read the poem aloud. Interesting that sometimes the early poems in ‘North and South’ can look quite clumsy on the page, as if the lines are too long or bulge in an ungainly way in the middle, sometimes the metaphors appear laboured or difficult to access. Then – when I read them aloud they start to sing and move around in the air in a quite different way.
This ‘awkwardness’ I notice in quite a lot of poets that I like; as if they were trying to squeeze the words to allow the truth to come through. You have to work hard at them to make them into the song and music that they are under that complex skin. Skin, bone, etchings, maps – I am deep into them at the moment as I try to make sense of memory. I am overwhelmed by the remembering. Places, people, incidents, words. They are so sharp and sit in the front of my head: smells, sounds, the silence of the mountains, the women that I have held hands with, embraced. Somewhere in my head they are knocking to come out.
When they do make an entrance it is often in a scribbled note, nearly always in a landscape. I cannot escape landscape it is so intense and perfect here. Ulrike, my French teacher, goes to photocopy all the amazing manifestations of the verb ‘aller’ for me and in that quiet moment, sitting in her garden…
A tractor grumbling in the distance
and the land falling in green folds above the river
at the foot of the hill. A dog ‘salues’ in a gruff voice
echoes bouncing back, threaded on the ring
of a repetitive bird singing on the wire.
I would have been inclined to ignore this – my early journals are a bit like this. Now I suddenly see that this is all a kind of carapace; inside there is a potential life for the words and the image. The problem is there are so many bits of paper, journal scribbles and backs of envelopes that I have to be assiduous in collecting them all and then writing them up as fragments and scribbles. I am encouraged in this by Peter Redgrove’s method of having many poems at different stages on the go at the same time. This is why I am looking forward to next week’s poetry retreat so much and the chance to nudge and open up some of these beginnings. I am stopping worrying about competitions and such like – the real issue is to break open the shell and let out the poems hiding inside!