21 May 2011

Elizabeth Bishop in Boston, Massachusetts

A pedal-powered swan boat on the lake in the Public Garden, Boston, pulls into dock at the end of a tour. It was of an event during one such ride, a number of years ago, that a future major American poet later spoke.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her father died when she was eight months old. Her mother was institutionalized in 1916, when Elizabeth went to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia. Bishop never forgot the occasion when she was about three when she went for a ride on a swan boat with her mentally ill mother still wearing her widow's weeds, and her mother feeding peanuts to a swan which bit her and drew blood through her black glove. She later tried to write a poem about it but never managed to complete it.

Bishop's friend Robert Lowell (1917-77), born in Boston, wrote a poem titled 'The Public Garden', in which he speaks of a 'jaded flock of swanboats', and 'the arched bridge' from which I took this photo.

(Another book which includes the Public Garden is the children's story The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) by E. B. White (1899-1985), which concerns the trumpeter swan Louis, who is mute, but on learning to play a real trumpet becomes a celebrity on the swan boats before moving to richer pickings.)

Toward the end of her life Bishop lived for a few years at 60 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, but preferred Boston (particularly the North End with its Italian butcher shops, and bakeries for macaroons), and at the beginning of July, 1974 she moved to 437 Lewis Wharf, off Atlantic Avenue, on the fourth floor, where she had a superb view of the Atlantic Ocean. A late interview by Elizabeth Spires made at Lewis Wharf and published in the Paris Review is here.

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