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BOOK REVIEW / Curios in paradise: Jamie McKendrick explores the minute and splendid joys of Elizabeth Bishop's letters

Elizabeth Bishop: Selected Letters Ed Robert Giroux Chatto & Windus pounds 25

At first it's hard to reconcile the sheer abundance of these letters with Elizabeth Bishop's poems - that mysteriously compact body of work which is almost without its equal in the last 50 years. The letters, though, bear the same signature of a personality which refuses to dull its primary gift of perception. Apart from some desperate times, most terrible of all the illness and suicide of her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop's letters are unusually frugal about complaining, and meet her afflictions - asthma, allergy, alcohol - with characteristic restraint. In the face of often heart-rending difficulties, she maintains an interest in everything around her.

One unflagging interest, both for her poems and letters, is geography - a peopled geography of two continents; cities, towns and villages from her native Nova Scotia to Brazil ('perhaps the only home I ever had') where she lived for 15 years. Neither a travel-writer nor an anthropologist, she has a faculty for empathy which draws her quickly past barriers of race or class or culture, though for some time in Brazil the language hampered her. Anyone who has suffered this fate will leap with recognition at her account of 'bleak stretches in which I wonder, my God, what am I doing here? - who am I, anyway? - did I ever have a personality?'

Perhaps because it enacted the movements of her orphaned childhood, travel for Biship was a kind of internal necessity. Being abroad was her only home, and the act of travelling was like a moulting of all stale reflexes, a way of staying supple. In her elegy for Robert Lowell, the recipient of some of her finest letters, what she regrets most is that death has become fixity both for him and his poems: 'Sad friend, you cannot change'.

Late in her life she travelled to the Galapagos Islands, describing them as 'like one's idea of Paradise'. Besides toucans, seals, kittens and so on, on the evidence of these letters, Bishop's Paradise would have to have room for Herbert and Darwin, and everyone would sing Baptist hymns, Blues and Samba. Of Samba, she writes 'I suspect they're some of the last folk poetry to be made in the world.'

Another feature that links the letters to the poems is what Lowell called 'the minuteness and splendor of her descriptions' - 'no detail too small' as she writes in her poem 'Sandpiper'. She insistently speaks of herself as a 'literalist', prizing, above all, truth and accuracy. This quality of the imagination is distinct from, but in perfect sympathy with, 'primitive' painting, as her shrewd essay on the painter Gregorio Valdes shows. And as with some primitive painting, it's the way the tiny particulars belong inside an enormous panorama - in Bishop's case both Americas - that weirdly brings two conflicting scales of perception into harmony.

Bishop is at her most joyfully descriptive in her letters to Marianne Moore, sending back curios from her travels and vying with the older poet's otherwise incomparable palette. The parrot fish is 'all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-mouth like turquoise'; a crab's 'enormous claws, bright red and blue, fit around the body like parts of a puzzle together'. The natural phenomena she describes render Bishop's interior world semi-visible - like the waterspouts which are 'translucent and you can see the water or mist or whatever it is going up inside in puffs and clouds, very fast, just like smoke up a chimney - and the top of the chimney is lost in a storm cloud'.

At times there is a sudden, uncanny change of pressure in the writing which signals her chancing on a poetic subject. 26 years after a letter that records an encounter with a moose in Nova Scotia, she will finally complete one of her masterpieces, 'The Moose'. But even before mentioning the animal, the atmosphere of poised wonder in the letter is unmistakable. 'It's the richest, saddest, simplest landscape in the world.' There are many other examples, such as the firefly 'that floats steadily towards you with a really big milky blue light - it can be quite frightening, like a burglar, or a distant train even' that finds another home in her great poem 'Manuelzinho' as 'a few / big, soft, pale-blue, / sluggish fireflies, / the jellyfish of the air'. Only very occasionally is the direction reversed as when, homesick for the birds of Brazil, she buys a mynah bird and teaches it her favourite line from her own work 'Awful, but cheerful'. You can almost hear the bird marking the comma with an exact pause.

Although the letters are not at all 'literary', her responses to contemporary literature are startlingly sure and concise. And beneath the frequently expressed doubts, there's an unwavering sense of her own direction. In her early twenties, she justifies a line in a poem of hers by writing 'sometimes I think about certain things that without one particular fault they would be without the means of existence'. Behind this remark lies a whole aesthetic.

Robert Giroux has selected a small fraction of her letters to make this huge volume. His difficulty has been solved, rather than resolved, by making frequent cuts (as many as 18 in one crucial letter after Macedo Soares' suicide). This allows for more letters but is worrying, distorting the shape of them in a manner Bishop would have been unlikely to approve. His excuse of 'occasional longueurs' hardly fits the case. Nevertheless, in the absence of a collected letters, this is an utterly indispensable book for anyone interested in Bishop, as well a sure way of becoming so for everyone else.

(Photograph omitted)