Friday, December 11, 2009

1599 Pacific Avenue

We have a guest blogger this week. Montreal poet Julie Bruck is the author of a superbly crafted, emotionally compelling collection of poems called The End of Travel (Brick Books, 1999). Here, she describes her efforts to recover some remembrance of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who once lived in the same neighbourhood in San Francisco that Bruck now calls home.

For many years, I've read and reread Elizabeth Bishop's poems and prose, as well as biographies and critical studies of her life and work. So, when "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell" was published last year, I spent a vacation week deep in those 30 years of letters. Between Bishop's characteristic reticence, her "immense, glistening, sibilant loneliness," and Lowell's combination of New England uprightness and brutal manic episodes, the letters of these long-time friends were often most moving for what was left unsaid between them.

After the suicide of her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, the corrosive effect of Bishop's drinking became more apparent in her letters (she was good at covering, but she'd begun to break bones in falls during blackouts). I read the last third of the book with a mounting sense of dread, as both her own and Lowell's lives seemed to spiral downward with an awful, accelerating inevitability.

One particular surprise to me in the letters was that Bishop had lived in San Francisco in 1968, my current home, just months after Lota's death. Like many periods of Bishop's life, this one was notable for her feelings of limbo--she was, typically, between jobs, loves, and homes. But she and a young friend "found a rather funny but comfortable flat on Pacific Avenue--a steam laundry (almost silent) on one side--a body painting place (for CARS, that is!) across the street and also the Cancer Society." Her letters describe the place as a "...pea green wooden early 20th-cent. building--4 bay windows—2 fireplaces--I really like it, and right near Polk Street..."

1599 Pacific Avenue is just a few miles from where I live. I typed the address into Google Earth's search engine, and Google placed 1599 right on a traffic island in the middle of Pacific and Polk--a busy intersection. So, I wrote the number down, and drove across town. After circling what should have been her block, I concluded that the apartment must have been torn down, since there seemed to be no building with that number. When I got home, I saw that I'd transposed the numbers. No matter, I'd go back another day. And I did, on a day when I was running an errand in that part of town. This time, though, I forgot the slip of paper with her corrected address on my desk.

I'm not going back. I am still grateful for the new collection of letters and I hope, one day, to visit the house in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she spent her early years. But 1599 Pacific Avenue, whether or not it's still standing in the shifting San Francisco light, is now outside my frame of reference. I got the message. Instead, I'm going back to her poems, where Bishop continues, as James Merrill observed, her "lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman," and where, in her own words, "All the untidy activity continues,/awful but cheerful."
For a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Bishop see the "Great Poems" link in the right hand column. Also, Julie Bruck's "This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin". Bruck is currently working on a manuscript of poems to be published in 2010.
Next week: an interview with one of North America's foremost authorities on metrical poetry, American poet Timothy Steele.

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