‘The Sea and its Shore’ by Elizabeth Bishop

I probably read more poetry than fiction these days but for the entirety of my twenties I read poetry very narrowly and sporadically. There were a small handful of poems, totems, that I’d return to in moments where I craved stillness of mind, contemplative space away from a gradually darkening cacophony of a social life centred on music and drenched in alcohol. Elizabeth Bishop was the poet I held in highest regard during that time. I knew ‘In the Waiting Room’ and parts of ‘The Moose’ well enough to recite. I had no conception of her as a prose writer back then. It was a thrill, therefore, to encounter this stunning story years later, when my life contained more prolonged periods of stillness. It’s about a man called Boomer who cleans a beach, keeping for himself any scrap of paper with writing on it (of which there seem to be millions, because the beach and Boomer’s house, are somewhat metaphysical, places of fable, a spinning, perhaps, from some other’s imagination). Boomer is drunk a lot of the time, especially when he is out collecting. The time he is not collecting, he spends reading the fragmented words of countless others, making his own patchwork sense from them. It’s the literary life cast in an ambiguous light because there is something confused and pathetic about Boomer. He’s a dwindled Don Quixote. The story, written in a beautiful elegiac tone, affects me on a very personal level. For some reason, it has made me cry.

First published in Life and Letters Today, Winter 1937. Collected in Prose, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011

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