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Her poetry is not always strictly autobiographical but Bishop, an outsider for much of her life, writes indirectly in ‘The Prodigal’ of the outsider and later, in the explicitly autobiographical ‘In the Waiting Room’, she names herself (‘you are an ’) and charts the sense of her child’s mind realising her uniqueness and identity.
Her sexuality and her struggle with alcohol were part of her own sense of isolation.
In a letter written in 1948 to Robert Lowell she said, ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’ Her later work suggests a happier Elizabeth Bishop, but her life was never uncomplicatedly happy.
In ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, she pieces together, as a child’s mind would, the details in order to understand them: ‘Arthur’s coffin was / a little frosted cake, / and the red-eyed loon eyed it / from his white, frozen lake.’ It has been said that Bishop preferred geography to history and it is significant that she remembers reading , contains the idea of opposites but opposites that co-exist.
Yet her descriptions of place are never just descriptions of place.
; she sings hymns to the seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’; she finds love is present in the unlikely setting of a dirty filling station.
When Bishop uses ‘I’ in her poetry it is never alienating or distancing. The poems as we read them are working something out.
Or the feeling is released.’ For example, in ‘The Fish’ she tells us: While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen – the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly – Another example would be where she describes the eyes of the fish.
She says that they ‘shifted a little’ and then she clarifies this further with the more precise observation that, ‘it was more like the tipping / of an object towards the light’.
*** In one of her finest poems, ‘Crusoe in England’, she imagines Robinson Crusoe lonely for his island and his friend Friday; and remembering his time there, she writes: Here we have the voice of Robinson Crusoe, and the voice of Elizabeth Bishop, and the voice of all other lonely, observing, travellers.
It is significant that Bishop was attracted to the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated figure, someone ill at ease having returned to society.