For some reason I keep thinking it is spring rather than 9am (Lou) on a Friday morning in late winter. Everything is green and brilliant, the mountains white with snow but trees and bushes budding. A poet friend is coming over for lunch and I shall make a quinoa and millet pilaff, light and fluffy and springlike. I found the original recipe here in Lucy’s Nourish Me (a great title for a food blog) but I toss in broccoli and chopped cashews or almonds, anything I have left over and needing to be used up, Not as sloppy and thoughtless as that sounds, just good vegetables hanging around waiting to be asked to dance.
My poet friend is from an older generation (doesn’t acknowledge the existence of blogs or even the Internet so I can write more freely about her) who lives for small print journals with sterling reputations and zero circulation, no payment for contributors, devoted and slavish copy-editors and a shrinking group of discerning readers, How this depresses me, that poets go on starving for attention… Anyhow. For decades she lived as a deeply closeted lesbian, filled with guilt and savagely repressed emotions which has made for a gloomy life but marvellously restrained and subtle poems. How complex it all is, lives, relationships and creativity, truth-telling or reticence, blurting out confessional details or keeping tactfully silent.
My pilaff might be too frivolous a lunch for this suffering poet. Like me, she has great admiration for the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, another lesbian poet who battled alcoholism all her life (odd to recall that AA was not widely known back then between the 1930s and 1950s and most people put their faith in aversion therapies or long periods just locked up in a drying-out clinic so as to be kept out of harm’s way).
It interests me that Bishop experienced her alcoholism as a physical thirst, a feeling of being parched and arid as a desert, needing liquor as someone dying of thirst might need a glass of water. For many of us the physiological addiction has less effect than the psychological, even if we speak of an ‘allergy’ or bodily craving. Yet in one of her poems, a very richly layered and intense poem, Bishop ascribes her ‘thirst ‘ to the trauma of witnessing a great fire when she was very young. The fire took place in Nova Scotia on 25 June, 1914, when Elizabeth Bishop was three years old, and is termed in Frances Diane Robotti’s Chonicles of Old Salem (1948) “the greatest disaster in Salem’s history.” It devastated 252 acres, destroyed 1 800 buildings, and rendered 15 000 people homeless. This for Bishop may have been the initial trauma that gave rise to her alcoholism.
I’m putting this far too crudely: we know so little even now in the 21st century about alcoholism — despite all the research and neuroscience — that symbolic intuitions and convictions still hold undeniable force. A source of tension and pathos in the poem is the mention of Elizabeth’s mother, who in 1916 when Bishop was five years old would go mad and be sent away to a mental asylum. Although her mother would live on in the asylum until 1934, Bishop would never see her again. A brutal orphaning.
When I was three, I watched the Salem fire. It burned all night (or then I thought it did) and I stood in my crib & watched it burn. The sky was bright red; everything was red: out on the lawn, my mother's white dress looked rose-red: my white enamelled crib was red and my hands holding to its rods-- its brass knobs holding specks of fire-- I felt amazement not fear but amazement may be my infancy's chief emotion. People were playing hoses on the roofs of the summer cottages on Marblehead Neck; the red sky was filled with flying motes, cinders and coals, and bigger things, scorched black burnt. The water glowed like fire, too, but flat. I watched some boats arriving on our beach full of escaping people (I didn't know that). One dory, silhouetted black (and later I thought of this as having looked like Washington Crossing the Delaware, all black-- in silhouette-- I was terribly thirsty but mama didn't hear me calling her. Out on the lawn she and some neighbors were giving coffee or food or something to the people landing in the boats-- once in a while I caught a glimpse of her and called and called--no one paid any attention-- In the brilliant morning across the bay the fire still went on, but in the sunlight we saw no more glare, just the clouds of smoke. The beach was strewn with cinders, dark with ash-- strange objects seemed to have blown across the water lifted by that terrible heat, through the red sky? Blackened boards, shiny black like black feathers-- pieces of furniture, parts of boats, and clothes-- I picked up a woman's long black cotton Stocking. Curiosity. My mother said sharply Put that down! I remember clearly, clearly-- But since that day, that reprimand-- that night that day that reprimand-- I have suffered from abnormal thirst-- I swear it's true--and by the age of twenty or twenty-one I had begun to drink, & drink--I can't get enough and, as you must have noticed, I'm half-drunk now ... And all I'm telling you may be a lie ...