Presented in two sections, "Memory: Persons and Places" and "Stories," this book offers the collected prose writings of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79), one of America's most celebrated and admired poets. The selections are arranged not by date of compostion, but in biographical order, such that reading this volume greatly enriches one's understanding of Bishop's life--and thus her poetry as well. "Bishop's admirers will want to consult her Collected Prose for the light it sheds on her poetry," as David Lehman wrote in Newsweek. "They will discover, however, that it is more than just a handsome companion volume to [her] Complete Poems. . . . Bishop's clean, limpid prose makes her stories and memoirs a delight to read. . . . One regrets only that this volume cannot be added to in years to come."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux first published Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Prose in 1984, five years after the poet's death. It's now too late to ask whether this deeply private woman would have allowed such an act, let alone approved of the biographies and studies that have begun to appear. It's not too late, however, to praise her editor's decision to gather her fiction and nonfiction together. Without it we would not have the dreamlike "The Sea & Its Shore" (in which a man hired to rid the beach of trash tries to make sense of each scrap of writing he comes upon) or memoirs such as "Primer Class," which begins, "Every time I see long columns of numbers, handwritten in a certain way, a strange sensation or shudder, partly aesthetic, partly painful goes through my diaphragm." Precise as ever, Bishop continues, "It is like seeing the dorsal fin of a large fish suddenly cut through the surface of the water." The collection's two standouts are "Efforts of Affection," a memoir of her mentor Marianne Moore, and the comic masterwork "The U.S.A. School of Writing." The latter is a sly recollection of her first job--at a deeply dodgy correspondence school. "Henry James once said that he who would aspire to be a writer must inscribe on his banner the one word 'Loneliness.' In the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society, but to get into it."