Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Freebie: Prose and Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Congratulations to Andrew Beck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Volt by Alan Heathcock.

In this week's book giveaway, one lucky reader will get two books: Prose and Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, essential volumes for any home library which have just been released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Edited by Lloyd Schwartz, these two works are being released on the centenary of Bishop's birth.  Before she died in 1979, Bishop was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (among other accolades).  While I'm a long-time fan of her poetry, it wasn't until I received these two books that I became aware of how marvellous her prose was--or even the size of that body of her work.  Her short story "In the Village," for instance.  Based on her traumatic childhood in Nova Scotia (her father died before her first birthday, and her mother suffered a series of nervous collapses before being committed to a mental hospital when Bishop was five), it begins:
A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies, skies that travellers compare to those of Switzerland, too dark, too blue, so that they seem to keep on darkening a little more around the horizon--or is it around the rims of the eyes?--the color of the cloud of bloom on the elm trees, the violet on the fields of oats; something darkening over the woods and waters as well as the sky. The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memory--in the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forever--not loud, just alive forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.

Her poetry is, of course, as perfect as anything you could find on any shelf of 20th-century verse.  Open the FSG volume of Poems at random and stab your finger down on any page and you're sure to hit words that snarl and growl, alive as the very blood in that fingertip of yours:
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,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

That's from "The Fish," one of Bishop's most heavily-anthologized poems (in fact, it was so widely-used that Bishop herself declared a moratorium on "The Fish" in an interview with The Paris Review).  Continue stabbling with your finger and you'll hit on countless other treasures.  In a New York Times review of her work, David Orr said it best:
The more one reads a Bishop poem, the greater the sense of huge forces being held barely but precisely in check — like currents pressing heavily on the glass walls of some delicate undersea installation. It doesn't seem as if the glass will break, but if it were to do so, we'd find ourselves engulfed by what Frost (her truest predecessor) called "black and utter chaos."

For a chance to win a copy of both Prose and Poems, all you have to do is answer this question:

What 19th-century American writer was famously paired with a juke-box in the title of one of Bishop's poems?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until the contest closes at midnight on March 10--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 11.

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