With only illegible mental notes at hand, it’s hard to remember which star-powered Boston poet shed celestial light on which garden-of-earthly-paradise Elizabeth Bishop poems at the April 24th celebration of the recent publication of Bishop’s posthumous collection, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. It’s hard enough to remember which endearing biographical details Alice Quinn, the New Yorker poetry editor who put the poems together with a bursting appendix of notes, voiced over her PowerPoint reproductions of Bishop’s doodled drafts at the onset, and which were already public knowledge.
Was it Lloyd Schwartz, Boston Phoenix music critic and writer of tender free verses in his own right, who read Bishop’s semi-secret love poems so well, including the short-lined apostrophe “Breakfast Song” and the metaphorically extended sonnet “Washington as a Surveyor,” where love is “a continent within the mind, / Unstable on the sea, boundaries unlined / Which now I slowly take the measure of”?
Was it Jorie Graham, Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of abstruse post-mod poems, who gave a nod, in the poem “Keaton,” to Bishop’s great humor and her wish not only to “love but not impose my feelings,” but to “serve and serve / with lute” or “not say anything,” and to inhabit a poet’s paradise where “lovers hold hands / and everything works”? And was it Graham as well who addressed Bishop’s legendary xenophilia with a fine reading of the canonized “Questions of Travel”?
Oh, and was it Robert Pinsky, translator of Dante, affable creative writing professor at Boston University, and former U.S. Poet Laureate, who promoted the socially sympathetic aspect of Bishop (the aspect responsible for a good poem such as “The Burglar of Babylon”) by reading about “A Baby Found in the Garbage” and the rhyming tercets about a poor bare fork’d “Pink Dog” wandering the impoverished streets of Rio?
And was it Frank Bidart, like Schwartz and Pinsky an acquaintance of Bishop in Boston before her death in 1979, who read, in the same dramatic manner with which he delivers his own dramatic monologues, the great “Salem Willows,” set on a carousel in an amusement park where the electric plant now stands—a poem that brings out the best of Bishop’s tendency to charm her grown-up readers into a longed-for state of childlike wonder?
It hardly matters, really. Afterwards, it was easy to keep going “around and around and around” on the golden lion (“his tongue / enameled red; his eyes / brown glass with golden sparkles”) “to the course, mechanical music / of the gold calliope!”—and to think that reading the small but abundant body of Bishop’s smart but sweet work is a bit like going on a carousel ride on the American poetry fairgrounds, her unforced gravity and natural levity taking the reader up and down, up and down, around and around and around, till the lucky reader achieves a happy equilibrium and gets what Frost called a “momentary stay against confusion.”