Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and accomplished poet Lloyd Schwartz spoke at the library tonight, about his editing of volumes by and about Elizabeth Bishop. It was interesting to hear the perspective of someone whose decisions impact the legacy of someone like Bishop, choosing which items and versions to anthologize, including unpublished work.

But Schwartz was also her friend, and he seems exactly the sort of person one would want making those determinations. His appreciation of Bishop's work was infectious today, and he read several of his favorite poems of hers. One of them was "Breakfast Song"--an unpublished piece that he copied by hand when he came across it in one of her notebooks:

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

Schwartz told us he'd kept it to himself for years, expecting that like many other manuscripts the notebook would eventually turn up in this or that collection. But it never has. The most original version that exists is Schwartz's hand-copied one.

I asked him afterward how he'd come across the notebook; he said he was visiting Bishop in the hospital (he'd met with her many times before), and it was there. At some point in the visit, with little to occupy his time, he opened the notebook and felt compelled to copy down the lines.

Schwartz also shared a few of his poems, some of which were produced in the context of his time spent in Brazil studying Bishop. He read his English translation of a poem, "Friendly Song" I think he said, that appears on Brazil's equivalent of a one-dollar bill. The last lines were something like
I am trying to write a song that wakes men up and lets children sleep.