Tuesday 24 October 2017

Tombstones for Sale by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop preferred painting to poetry, but it's as a poet that she is best known. In thousands of Irish homes she's a household name – just ask anyone preparing for this year's Leaving Cert.

A very likeable, companionable, welcoming poet, she's a poet with a painter's eye. She looks at a fish, a filling station, Brazilian waterfalls, a dentist's waiting room and writes about them in a fresh, memorable and original way.

She loved to travel and the 26-year-old Bishop visited Ireland in June 1937.

Landing in Cobh, she visited Blarney (but didn't kiss the stone), rode through the Gap of Dunloe, then to Dingle, Tralee, Listowel, Limerick, Ennis and Galway, where she stayed at Kylemore Abbey as a guest of the nuns.

Next, Clifden, Castlebar, Sligo, Dublin, Derry, Belfast, and though there's only one glimpse of her Irish trip in her poetry, in two lines she brilliantly, sensuously paints a picture of her time in County Kerry: 'In Dingle harbour a golden length of evening / the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.'

Of her paintings, and there are about 40 in all, Bishop said: "They are Not Art - NOT AT ALL." But many would disagree. In this little work, six by nine inches, the poinciana tree in full blossom spreads itself across the paper. It stands tall against a closed, shuttered building.

The vertical black ink lines on the façade are picked up again in the vertical railings by the roadway. Painted in Florida, which Bishop called "the state with the prettiest name", this is pretty, too, until you spy the five headstones awaiting customers in the bottom left corner. The tombstones for sale bring us down to earth and remind us of where we are going.

Opposite them, potted plants, alive and well, beyond the railings more greenery. In only two of her paintings has Bishop included the human figure; she preferred to focus on landscape, interiors, still lifes. Bishop is an honest artist. She also has a wry humour.

On her own tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts, she asked that the following lines, from her poem The Bight be carved: "All the untidy activity continues,/ awful but cheerful."

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