When I first saw the oak outside the Brattle Apartments where Elizabeth Bishop once lived, I was twenty-two, and it was summer, and I cracked open my window to look out at its branches, heavy with leaves, and the air was thick and smelled sour, and I thought of that line in “Crusoe in England” where she writes “I’d shut my eyes and think about a tree, an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere,” and I thought of all her poems I had read and all the letters I had ever held in my hands and all the lines she had written about New England and Nova Scotia and Brazil, lines that I repeat to myself as I walk to class and home again. And those were what informed me that this home could never really be just mine, and that one day I would long for something and somewhere else, as Bishop always had.
In one letter Bishop once wrote that she “always felt a sort of guest,” in the places she lived, and if it is late enough at night I wonder if I feel that same way. What happens when you are young is that you begin to realize that the home you grew up in is not your home forever, and you can go back there and it will not feel right. I know that everyone begins to feel this way sooner or later, but one of the blessings of being twenty and living somewhere new for the first time is that it feels like no one else has ever experienced that sense of dislocation before.
I could not tell you when I began to understand all that. But I am talking here about a time when I was sitting in the archives of Houghton Library touching old letters between Bishop and Frank Bidart reading her sad, faded words that described her new apartment near Radcliffe Yard. It seems to me that the years Bishop lived in Cambridge were her least happy ones and that during that period she must have thought many times of the tall Kapok trees in Sao Paulo and shut her eyes and replayed those days in Petropolis with Lota. Bishop did not want to “write well.” She wrote poetry because she knew of no other mode to express the deep sadness and displacement of her life, pulled perpetually by some “elsewhere”. It would be hard to imagine why Bishop felt strongly towards imaginary oaks and the natural world except that I suppose she saw those trees as comfort because of how they endure, stable and permanent, a foil to her own constant exile.
It was nine, ten o’clock in my dusty room on the 11th floor of an old building, and I was sitting on the cold linoleum floor when I felt Bishop’s homesickness for a place that no longer belonged to me. She missed Brazil but had left nothing there and I knew I could no longer go back to Marine Street in Manhattan Beach and feel like there was anything left for me. It was forty-seven years ago that Bishop was here in the Brattle Apartments and unhappy in New England, and it is no longer the same place it was when she taught poetry workshops in the Thompson Room in Barker. To observe these old trees in the Yard over even the short span of time I have been here is to feel that another presence bears witness to our lives. The past and the present connect and history rhymes, taking up space on the sidewalks that line the square.