Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead

Gellhorn

I’ve long wanted to know more about Martha Gellhorn. Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings.

At 29, Gellhorn went to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Magazine. She went on to cover the twentieth century’s wars, including WWII and Vietnam, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, only retiring from journalism after covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, when she was 81.

She was desperate to see things for herself, visiting the front lines, talking with soldiers, looking for the little things that would make her reporting come alive. Instead of talking about strategy or interviewing generals, she preferred to write about ordinary people, just as she had in her first job as a journalist. Hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she traveled around the U.S. to learn how the Depression was affecting people. That experience left her with a lifelong commitment to battling poverty by bringing it out into the open.

Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with a strict father, loving mother, and two brothers. Dissatisfied with this conventional upper middle class life and the narrow opportunities it offered for women, she was determined to create a life for herself. And that life was to be a foreign correspondent.

At the time, it was a highly unusual choice for a woman. Throughout her career, men held her back, officials refusing her permits and visas, publishers refusing to hire her, military officers trying to keep her away from the fighting. Even critics, enthralled by her affair and brief marriage with Ernest Hemingway, dismissed her as a pale imitation of her famous partner.

In addition to her journalism and nonfiction books about war and travel, she wrote novels and short stories, though she found writing terribly hard. Moorehead captures her conflict:

Having hitched her vision of herself so firmly to writing, and having inherited from both parents extremely high standards, Martha effectively created for herself a perilous and demanding world. If to write was her duty, her reason for being alive, then not to write was to fail. To fail as a writer was to fail at life, to be adrift in a formless and uncertain universe with nothing to hold on to.

A headstrong woman, she never backed down from the basic certainties she developed in her youth, many of them from her parents. Although she fell out with her father, who was dismayed by her flaunting of convention, shortly before his unexpected early death, she remained close to her mother, whom she called her North Star.

Passionate about her causes, Gellhorn hated dishonesty, cowardice and complacency. Although she sometimes fell out with friends, she was never happier than when hanging out with war correspondents who had become friends when they were under fire together in various hotspots. Moorehead says of her:

Something of Martha’s occasional deaf ear to the sensitivities of other people was connected, at least partly, to her strong feelings about social life . . . the world was divided between real friends—to whom she was, for the most part, very loyal and devoted—and everyone else, who mattered not at all.

Late in life she became the center of a group she called “the chaps”, men and women forty or fifty years younger that she. Writers and reporters who admired her work, which had recently become popular, they flocked to her flat in Cadogan Square. I’m glad that she was not isolated during her last years when her physical woes were mounting.

The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

Have you read any of Martha Gellhorn’s work?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 2

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This post is a continuation from last week, looking at the work of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, in particular those whose work I didn’t know well. There’s a great introduction to the Harlem Renaissance poets and a selection of their work at the Poetry Foundation website.

As you may know, the Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the emergence of a group of Black writers, artists, playwrights and musicians in the early 20th century when the Great Migration brought large numbers of Blacks, especially from the south, to work in northern cities. Clustered in Harlem, artists of all kinds came together, influencing and encouraging each other

Fenton Johnson began writing and publishing before the start of the Harlem Renaissance, and spent most of his life in Chicago, where he grew up in a well-off family. Still, he is claimed by Harlem Renaissance poets as a forerunner. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories, plays and essays. He worked as a college professor and journalist, as well as editor for several small magazines. Many of his poems take the form of spirituals, such as “How Long O Lord”:

How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
My honey’s resting near the brook.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
I pray she’ll rise on Judgment Day.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!

Other poems capture what it’s like to be a Black man in this society, such as “Tired” which starts “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization” and builds to “It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

James Weldon Johnson (no relation) combined social activism with his writing activities. Head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, he also found time to author studies of Black poetry, music, and theater. He’s known for his realism in his novels and for capturing the rhythms of Black life—schooled and unschooled, preachers and orators. For example, in A Poet to His Baby Son” he sees the beginnings of a poetic imagination, but cautions the child not to be a poet:

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
. . .

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Countee Cullen went in a different direction, calling for Black poets to work within a traditional framework, naming Keats and Houseman as his poetic models. Yet he wanted to reclaim African arts (a movement called Négritude) and was politically active, becoming president of the Harlem NAACP chapter. He was married to Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. No surprisingly, anger at racism was one of his main themes, as in “Yet Do I Marvel”:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing.

William Waring Cuney’s musical background, attending the New England Conservatory of Music, emerges in his poetry. Infused with the rhythms of jazz and blues, his poems bounce and swing. Here’s the beginning of his tribute “Charles Parker, 1925-1955”:

Listen,
This here
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
Listen,
That there
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
This here,
bid-dle-dee-dee
bid-dle-dee-dee . . .

It’s interesting to see the different approaches to working within or combining various traditions. I’ll certainly be looking to read more of their poetry.

If you write poetry, what traditions influence your work? If you read poetry, what traditions are you drawn to?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 1

HR poets 2

Books are my primary focus on this blog, with an occasional foray into magazines and music. Today it’s a website. While pretty familiar with the more well-known writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to delve into the work of other, less familiar poets. The Poetry Foundation website is a great place to start.

The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of creative and cultural life in the early 20th century, loosely dated from 1916-1935. Partly a result of WWI, a huge wave of southern Blacks moved to northern cities to take advantage of job opportunities and a seemingly less oppressive society. Known as the Great Migration, this influx brought together a significant number of Black artists and writers as a group for the first time. Harlem alone saw over 175,00 new Black residents. This new sense of social and creative community was fertile ground where the arts could thrive.

Claude McKay, born in Jamaica and committed to social justice, is the author of “If We Must Die”, an enduring trumpet call for freedom which begins: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”. But it is his poem “America” that moves me to tears and stays with me week after week as we ride the current wave of potential change. It begins:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

His love for this country despite its failures is front and center in this poem. Grateful for its gifts, he comes as a rebel but one without malice. Change is coming, he says. It may take time; it may take a lot of time, but it is inexorable.

Like a number of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Anne Spencer never lived there, but was close to several key figures and worked with them to establish the Lynchburg, Virginia chapter of the NAACP. Her tribute to Paul Dunbar, a forerunner and model for the Harlem Renaissance poets, is brief but wrenching. And her poems such as “Lines to a Nasturtium” are a master class in how to use nature to explore the human heart.

Poet, playwright, and novelist Jean Toomer brings his background to his calls for racial unity. Of both White and Black heritage and having attended both all-White and all-Black schools, his poems combine elements of both cultures. In “Banking Coal” he uses the extended image of banking the coals of a fire with ashes overnight, working it first one way and then another before the shocking but perfect middle:

I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up

He continues to add nuances and layers of meaning without leaving his image, until the stirring end.

Georgia Douglas Johnson lived in Washington, D.C., but her salon became an important meeting place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems more than any others I read evoke the despair that comes from constantly having your dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes put it. Being a woman in a male-dominated society is hard enough, but is magnified exponentially by the intersection with race and class. Here is her poem “The Heart of a Woman”:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

The ambivalence introduced by the last two words—that bars not only confine but also shelter—harkens back to McKay’s difficult love for “this cultured hell”. They, along with my memories of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s), remind me that times of great change may involve destruction but are fueled and formed by love.

Go to the website and explore their work. More next time.

What poets of the Harlem Renaissance have you read?

Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, by Dorothy Gilman

pollifax

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. We were never close. I had a passel of younger siblings and, what with one thing and another, she seemed largely absent as I was growing up. Looking back I can see and appreciate the small, generous things she did for me, but at the time she seemed like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons: offstage, uttering strange quacking sounds.

Once I had children, I appreciated her more, not surprisingly. We developed a casual friendship where we emphasised the things we had in common and didn’t discuss the many areas where we disagreed. We both liked watching ice skating competitions and Masterpiece Theater. I became infected by her love of dark cherries and sandwiches made of parsley and cream cheese. In return I taught her to use mushrooms in cooking and to make bread. Together we learned how to can peaches from Baugher’s in Westminster, Maryland.

We both liked reading Georgette Heyer’s novels, she for the romance and me for the wit and historical accuracy. And we both loved Dorothy Gilman’s series of Mrs. Pollifax novels. Although we believed ourselves to be complete opposites, my mother and I both saw ourselves in Emily Pollifax. If we were a Venn diagram, Gilman’s character sits firmly in the sliver shared by our two circles.

Becoming somewhat bored with her New Brunswick, New Jersey life, her Garden Club and nosy neighbors, Mrs. Pollifax, a widowed senior citizen, decided to do something new, something she’d always wanted to do. She walked into the CIA and applied to be a spy.

As it turned out, the CIA had a use for someone who didn’t look or sound like anyone’s idea of a spy.

In this seventh book in the series, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Hong Kong to check on an agent, one well known to her from a previous adventure. This agent has gone curiously silent, and the CIA has become convinced that his superior in Hong Kong is compromised.

On the flight out she meets a gentle man who turns out to be a psychic, though he can never see his own future. And in the hotel, to her surprise, she runs into a reformed cat burglar she met in an earlier story, now posing as the third richest man in the world.

One of the fun quirks in these stories is the way Mrs. Pollifax meets odd people, some of whom turn out to have skills she needs. I love discovering the interesting qualities they are hiding and also her thought process as she decides whom she can trust. Another wonderful aspect of the series is the exotic locale of each, astutely described: just enough to give you the flavor without overwhelming you.

In Hong Kong Mrs. Pollifax is taken aback by her reception at Feng Imports, where the agent she is looking for should be working undercover. Complications ensue, with danger around every dark corner. Suspense builds to a nail-biting climax.

If I can ever hold off being gripped by the story, maybe someday I can work out how Gilman manages to balance humor with these dark and dangerous adventures. Mrs. Pollifax herself is one way: the surprise of a suburban grandmother who enjoys gardening and espionage, who has tea with her neighbors and takes karate lessons.

I think it is this clear-eyed view of how complex an average woman can be that appealed to both my mother and me. We loved Mrs. Pollifax’s normality, her practical and no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong. We liked these tales of an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary situations, bringing to them the same courage and common sense that women everywhere display when faced with concocting a dinner out of what’s in the frig or dividing a pie among a horde of hungry children.

My mother has been gone for 13 years now, but I still buy cherries for her when they first appear at the grocer’s in June. And I still get the urge to pick up the phone and ask her if she’s read the latest adventure of Mrs. Pollifax.

Do you and your parents or children share books with each other? What are some that appeal to both of you?

Passing, by Nella Larsen

passing

There is much to be unpacked in this brief novel, first published in 1929. As it opens, Irene is reading a letter from Clare, someone she knew as a child, asking to see her. For some reason this letter angers Irene.

It turns out that while visiting her father in Chicago two years earlier, Irene had run into Clare by accident at a Whites-only hotel. Irene had been feeling faint and the kind taxi driver who’d taken her there hadn’t realised that the light-skinned Irene was Black. Needing to rest, Irene was confident she could pass at the hotel restaurant.

Unlike Irene who lives in Harlem and is married to a dark-skinned man, Clare has been living as a White person ever since she’d left Chicago after her father died, when the two lost touch, and is married to a wealthy White man who does not know she is Black. Clare presses Irene to visit her, seeming desperate to reignite the friendship, but the visit doesn’t go well, as Clare’s husband appears and, taking Irene to be White, launches into racial invective.

Now, two years later, Clare has turned up at Irene’s home in Harlem and, when Irene pretended to be out, sent this letter begging to see her, saying that she needs a break from her husband’s racism. Irene agrees but continues to be wary of the beautiful and charismatic Clare, who rapidly inserts herself into Irene’s private and social lives, winning over Irene’s husband and sons, attending parties and dances whether she’s invited or not.

Irene is afraid of what might happen if, seeing her at Harlem events, Clare’s husband were to learn she was Black. Irene is also afraid for her own marriage, as her husband spends more and more time with Clare when Irene is absent. Although unspoken, there seems to be a fear as well for herself. Irene’s awareness of Clare’s sensuous beauty and her own inability to say no to the woman signal a deeper attraction.

The story revolves around this issue of pretending to be someone you are not. We see Clare’s frustration and weariness at the pretense she must maintain and her yearning to explore the Black life she might have lived. We see Irene’s attempts to maintain her façade of perfect wife, mother, hostess and civic volunteer, knowing she must do more than any White woman if she is to live up to these ideals.

I was reminded of Du Bois’ idea of the double consciousness Black people must maintain, always seeing yourself not just as you but also as Whites see you, and modulating your behavior accordingly. A White friend pointed out that we all do this to some extent, for example, behaving differently at work than at home. This particular example was brought home to me some years ago when I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, once at work and once at home for a class. My results were diametrically opposite. As a result, I began consciously bringing the two closer together.

However, these mild experiences don’t begin to compare to the soul-crushing constancy of the watchfulness Black people must maintain in navigating a world designed for and controlled by White people. The stakes are higher; the potential consequences more dangerous: handcuffs, a gunshot, a noose.

There is so much in this seemingly simple story of two women: the questions around identity, the effects of secrets and lies, the tradeoff between freedom and safety, the absurdity of racial categorisation and the appeal of racial belonging. Larsen offers no easy answers, instead leaving room for the reader to ponder these ideas, indeed to be haunted by them for a long time after closing the book.

Have you read a book by a Harlem Renaissance author that provides insight into today’s issues?

Green Card & Other Essays, by Áine Greaney

green

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be home. Many people are working from home these days. All the years I worked in offices I desperately wanted to work from home. Even now I remember each and every snow day when I was allowed to work remotely as a sacred and blessed time.

I know there are many who struggle with this new reality, extraverts who miss the interaction with others. And it’s true that I valued being able to step down the hall and get Laura or Jonathan’s input on some task. Still, this being at home to me is nirvana, to be able every day to be in this space that I designed for myself.

But home is more than this house, this place we’ve carefully adapted to our needs. It is also the places where we suddenly and unexpectedly know we are where we belong. For me, that was the first time I crossed the Tappen Zee bridge into New England. And again that early morning landing in England, a March morning, frosty and cold. Faced with a standard transmission car with the gear shift on the opposite side and traffic patterns that challenged my orientation, still, for all that, I knew suddenly that I had come home. I was in the right place. Many return visits over the years have only confirmed that initial sense of belonging.

For Greaney, that’s not the point. These brief essays fold us into the experience of leaving one not-unloved-home for another, of trying to find your way in an alien culture where you don’t recognise most of the references and your accent is legitimate fodder for jokes.

Immigration is much in the news these days, but it’s important to notice, as Greaney points out, that there are plenty of immigrants who are welcomed without question. When someone who has been complaining about immigrants says to her “Oh, not you . . . We weren’t talking about you,” Greaney appropriately responds, “’English speaking? White?’”

Interactions like this show up the racism inherent in today’s discussions about immigration. A white friend of mine who emigrated from South Africa, likes to challenge people by saying, accurately enough, “I’m African-American.”

Greaney explores the lingering strangeness. Not just the bizarre experience of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., but also seeing what U.S. prom night is like versus a quiet 1970s mass after Leaving Cert exams, commuting among pumpkin and alfalfa fields, wondering if the New England Methodist church down the road might hold a way forward for a Catholic girl.

One of the most affecting essays in this collection calls on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn where

. . . once Elilís Lacey (the daughter) steps aboard that ship, there are two separate and mutually invisible narratives—the tale of Eilís in Brooklyn and that of her widowed mother and stay-at-home sister back in Enniscorthy. Between those stories is an emotional firewall that blocks all knowledge of the other’s experience and, by extension each other’s respective wounds and losses.

Any of us who have left our first home for a new and different world can identify with this dual storyline, this firewall: a parent who cannot or will not imagine our new lives. Excitement and terror and sadness swirled together to forge determination.

These are beautiful essays: short, intense, emotionally precise, moving. I loved the essay about the gifts her father slips to her as she is leaving to return to the U.S. “’You’ll need this over yonder,’” her says, and Greaney pulls us around to see, yes, oh yes, they are needed.

What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

Learning to Die, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky

learning

While the title of this slim volume sounds tailor-made for this pandemic with its hundreds of millions of deaths, the subtitle clarifies its theme: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Its two essays and Afterword give us perspective on the environmental catastrophe through which we are living.

These are not attempts to quote scientific studies to persuade us of the seriousness of our Anthropocene Era, though statistics are given and backed by numerous endnoted sources. Instead, the two essays address our inner selves and how we relate to the world, while the Afterword refutes a recent book which proclaims that there is no problem because more progress will save us.

In “The Mind of the Wild” Bringhurst reminds us that life survived and regenerated after each previous global extinction event, though it wasn’t the same life as before. I can’t help but think again about our current time, when it appears our post-COVID 19 world will not ever be quite what it was before.

Bringhurst goes on to say that after the coming catastrophe, it will be the wild—defined as “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control”—that “will rescue life on earth, if anything does, because nothing else can.” Humans may not survive; any that do will find their culture eviscerated.

He refers to an 1858 speech by the physicist Michael Faraday, who in a lecture on electricity said, “I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your mind. ” He goes on:

Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is an exercise in a certain kind of thinking: letting something happen instead of forcing it to happen, and simultaneously letting yourself be enlarged. Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is a way to practise thinking like an ecosystem, thinking like a planet, thinking like a world. But in order to let the facts form a poem in your mind, you have to have some facts to start with.

And of course you must have a mind in good working order. Increasingly we have been learning that one of the best ways to get our minds in order is to go out into the natural world, the wild. Bringhurst says that there we “enter a larger, possibly stricter, moral sphere” and encourages us to bring that “heightened sense of morality” home with us.

There is much more to this moving and persuasive essay. It is reinforced and expanded by “A Ship from Delos” by Zwicky. The title comes from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, which was delayed by the custom of not allowing any executions during the annual voyage to Delos to honor Apollo. The sight of the ship returning tells Socrates that his life will end the next day.

Zwicky says that “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with the black sails has been sighted.” Building on Bringhurst’s appeal to our moral selves, she proposes the virtues that Socrates embodied, starting with awareness (attended by the humility to recognise what we don’t know).

Here it is the recognition of our own mortality, which she describes beautifully as “to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music.” She goes through the other virtues, showing how cultivating them will serve us well as we enter our extinction event, both by perhaps postponing it a little and by giving us tools to handle it.

For the Socratic virtue usually translated as piety, she substitutes contemplative practice, saying:

At the heart of contemplative practice of any sort is attention. As [Simone] Weil observes, prayer is nothing other than absolutely unmixed attention . . . The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it.

I recommend this small book to anyone who wishes to go deeper into an understanding of who we are and who we are becoming as our culture rocks and is remade during this time of great change.

What writers help you to adjust and find your best life during difficult times?

The Complete Poems 1927-1979, by Elizabeth Bishop

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Although she won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, Bishop’s was not well-known during most of her life except among other poets, overshadowed by poets such as her friends Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, as well as the Beat poets, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell and others.

When she began teaching during the last decade of her life, first at the University of Washington and then at Harvard, she did begin to achieve a wider fame, but it is only since her death that her reputation has risen into the stratosphere. Now she is considered one of the best poets of the 20th century.

I’m not entirely sure why that is. Partly it’s a reaction to the explosion of confessional poetry set off by Lowell’s Life Sentences, the rise of political and feminist poetry, and the general abandonment of formal poetry: all trends that she rejected.

Partly it is an appreciation of her attention to craft. A perfectionist, she labored for years over most of her poems, refusing to publish them until she was satisfied. While she often creates her own form, sometimes she uses forms such as sestina and villanelle. One of her most famous poems, “One Art”, is a villanelle beginning:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

What I like best about her poetry, and possibly the most significant reason for her popularity today, is her use of the things of this world. Her poems have precise descriptions of objects and animals, often insignificant things, such as an old French horn hung on a wall or leaves drifting in the Seine. In the best poems, these descriptions carry an emotional weight far beyond the thing itself.

As a writer, this use of subtext is what I’m always striving for. It’s far more powerful than explicit text because you are leaving space for the reader to have their own experience. You are creating the gaps that Robert Bly speaks of in Leaping Poetry, the kind of gaps that the reader must leap over, an opening for the unconscious or for buried memories to bubble up. This space is also what gives imagery its power.

In this excerpt from “The Fish”, we can see her use of imagery, choice of details, and surprising adjectives not only to bring the fish to life but to invest it with meaning.

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers . . .

We learn that “five old pieces of fish-line” hang from his lip. Through this “battered and venerable” fish we are caught up in her themes of surviving trauma, of loneliness, of grief and loss. And note the resonances around those two adjectives: “battered” carrying also the image of a sizzling frying pan, “venerable” not just old but something to be honored.

There was controversy around the posthumous publication of this collection because it also includes juvenilia and unpublished poems, which seemed to many an insult to a poet so meticulous about what she allowed to be published. Still, it is interesting to see something of her development as a writer and what she still considered works in progress.

Do you have a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem?

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

Splendid

I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

Elizabeth Bishop, by Brett C. Millier

Bishop

I’ve been tiptoeing around Bishop’s poetry for many years, intrigued but wanting to carve out a chunk of time to really concentrate on it. The last few weeks have been that time.

Subtitled Life and the Memory of It, a quote from one of Bishop’s poems, this is a critical biography, meaning that it not only tells the story of Bishop’s life, but also discusses her poems. Of course, there’s long been a kerfuffle in the literary community over the relevance of a writer’s life to her work, and in other arts communities as well. Shouldn’t a poem or film stand alone? Don’t we bring our own experiences and outlook to a book or painting?

Well, of course. Yet, many years back, when I finished school and started creating my own study programs, I found that in addition to hunkering down and reading all of a writer’s oeuvre, I wanted to know about their lives. I felt that I knew something about them through their work, but needed to know more, especially in those early years when I was figuring out what my own writing life might look like.

I’ve felt a curious tie to Bishop because I knew that she was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years, very close to her home in fact. From Millier’s book, I’ve learned that Bishop’s time there was brief. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was in and out of mental institutions for a few years, moving between Worcester and her family’s home in Nova Scotia, before being committed in 1917. At that point, Elizabeth’s father’s family brought her back to Worcester for a miserable few months before sending her to boarding school. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Elizabeth essentially had no family home for the rest of her childhood.

She made lifelong friends at school and later at Vassar and in the literary community at large. Two friendships in particular shaped her as a poet. While still in college she met Marianne Moore who became a mentor as well as a friend. Moore cheered on the young poet, initially critiquing her work and later suggesting places she could submit her work. Later, living in New York, Bishop became friends with Robert Lowell and the two continued to exchange poems, letters and visits until Lowell’s death.

Those of us who write stories are advised to constantly raise the stakes for our protagonist, or if we’re writing nonfiction—memoir or biography—to point out where the risks and rewards have increasing consequence, thus creating tension and suspense. Millier does this admirably for Bishop.

It’s hard enough to be a poet, let alone one without a home or family, a victim of early trauma. Let her be a lesbian in an era when homosexuals were closeted. Give her some chronic illnesses: debilitating asthma and alcoholism. Make her a perfectionist, and put her in New York’s very competitive atmosphere; then give her some early victories and very successful friends to add even more pressure.

Plenty of suspense, then, to keep this biography moving, interleaved with excerpts from letters to and from Bishop. It’s not all sad; Bishop traveled a lot, had strong relationships, created homes that she loved, and most of all wrote and revised and revised again, never letting a poem go until she was sure it was the very best she could make it.

Plus there are Millier’s insightful discussions of the poems. I was glad I had a copy of The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979 at hand to dip back into. I will discuss the poems themselves and Bishop’s thoughts about poetry in another post.

One of the things I enjoyed here was seeing the humorous side of this poet, as in this excerpt from a letter; Bishop was living in Brazil and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

Lota went to market, to our regular vegetable man, and he asked her if it wasn’t my photograph he’d seen in the papers. She said yes, and he said it was simply amazing what good luck his customers had. Why, just the week before, one of his customers had bought a ticket in the lottery and won a bicycle.

If you haven’t read her poems, this biography will make you want to read them. If—like me—you feel that there are layers in her poems that you are missing, this book will help open them up for you. Most of all, if you are curious about the life of a poet, particularly one who stands alone, not part of a literary movement, or the life of a brilliant but challenged woman in the mid-twentieth century, this is the book for you.

Have you read a biography that you’d recommend?