The art of losing

Ever since leaving my jacket, I’ve been thinking about lost things, and my ruminations on the subject will likely appear as entries around here sooner or later. Such thinking has reminded me also of that great duchess of lost things, Elizabeth Bishop—or more precisely, of Dear Elizabeth, Sara Ruhl’s recent theatrical account of Bishop’s relationship with Robert Lowell.

Sarah Ruhl's  "Dear Elizabeth" at the Yale Rep; Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays star

Composed almost entirely in letters between the two poets, the play was moving and haunting, documenting the emotional closeness between two very close friends (just friends?) even as they were physically separated for most of the years they knew one another. And the images, oh the images! Water would unexpectedly flood the stage. A moon dropped down from the sky so that Bishop could ride it to the stars. A depression-banishing lantern was gifted across the stage on a clothesline.

Like all great art, the play has grown in my mind, at once etched in permanent detail, veiled by passing time, embellished by emotion, and distilled by imagination. Having seen the play half a year ago, it’s hard to grasp at much more than the ephemeral power of the experience, the feelings attached to my memory like gum on the bottom of a shoe. Perhaps that, in fact, is the allure of lost things: Unable to be reclaimed, they can only be forever stuck to our soles as we pass through our days.

And so a poem. (For those who want a bit more poetry, I suggest also seeking out the Bishop poem that gives this post its title, “One Art”):

North Haven
by Elizabeth Bishop
In Memoriam: Robert Lowell
I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse’s tail.
The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have—
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise—
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.
This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
buttercups, red clover, purple vetch,
hackweed still burning, daisies pied, eyebright,
the fragrant bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.
The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first “discovered girls”
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had “such fun,” you said, that classic summer.
(“Fun”—it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue…And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.