Losing a Continent, But Finding Herself

By Michael McLeod

Bethany Hicok, a visiting scholar at Rollins College, made a friend in Brazil — a smiling sloth — while researching a book about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Chances are good you’ve never heard of the lost continent of Zealandia, and even better that you’ll never travel there. That’s because despite having all its continental credentials in order — mountains, valleys, the works — the vast land mass just east of Australia slipped beneath the Pacific eons ago.

Which is something we shouldn’t hold against it — at least so say scientists who recently launched a campaign for Zealandia to be recognized as the globe’s eighth continent.

I wonder what Elizabeth Bishop would make of all this, given that she once, rather famously, lost a continent herself.

Bishop, born in Massachusetts in 1911, grew up as an orphan: Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother, perhaps unhinged by grief, was institutionalized a few months later and forever disappeared from her daughter’s life. Elizabeth spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between caregivers and became an introspective outlier, adventurer and philosopher as an adult.

“Geographic curiosity leads me on and I can’t stop,” she once wrote to a friend. Crisscrossing the globe in a lifelong embrace, searching for a place to land and be loved, she chronicled her efforts in poetry that welded together worlds seen and unseen, winning her a Pulitzer Prize.

Of the half-dozen poems that I can all but recite by heart, two are Bishop’s, which explains why I spun around when I heard her name mentioned at a recent Rollins College reception and wound up making an instant literary BFF out of Bethany Hicok.

She’s a visiting scholar, more or less, on sabbatical from Westminster College, just north of Pittsburgh, where she is professor of English and director of the honors program. Her husband is Jonathan Miller, director of Rollins’ Olin Library. Theirs is a commuting marriage — not uncommon among academics these days.

Hicok has published several essays and books about Bishop. The most recent is a volume that explores the poet’s connections to the continent that she would eventually immortalize as “lost,” and to the country where she would find not just a measure of personal peace, but inspiration for some of her best work. The book is entitled Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil (University of Virginia Press, 2016).

Bishop was 40 when, on the first leg of a planned journey around the world, she arrived in Brazil, fell ill, and was nursed back to health by a friend and later lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. The Brazilian aristocrat and self-taught architect not only invited Bishop to stay as a guest at her rambling mountainside home, she also built a studio for her on the grounds.

The unexpected burst of generosity was a long-awaited elixir for Bishop, who had been raised by relatives who were both neglectful and abusive.

“She once wrote to a friend that she felt like she had the status of a family dog — one that was not particularly well-liked,” says Hicok. In Brazil, for the first time in her life, “somebody really took care of her.”

Bishop wound up immersing herself in Brazilian politics, culture and geography. A key experience was a trip via riverboat down the Amazon, whose lushness overwhelmed her.

It was a journey Hicok duplicated, as part of her research, in a two-deck craft similar to the one Bishop must have used. She shared a cramped room with another Bishop scholar and, briefly, a spider the size of a catcher’s mitt. That’s assuming Hicok wasn’t using poetic license when she told me about an encounter that did not end well for the arachnid.

Though Bishop left South America after 15 years to teach poetry in the United States, the impact of her years there stayed with her for the rest of her life. She gave it a place of honor in the literary canon via a much-anthologized poem she wrote in 1976, three years before her death. It’s called One Art — perhaps because it’s the one art we all have to learn.

The poem is about accepting life’s inevitable losses with poise, qualities she embodies with her choice of a difficult-to-execute, brilliantly compressed rhyme scheme called a villanelle.

In tones that blend wistfulness with wry, self-effacing advice, she argues that loss doesn’t equal catastrophe if one masters “the art of losing” everything from car keys to “hours badly spent” to beloved people — and, in this stanza, places.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster
Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even, and perhaps especially, if they bespeak places where you finally found your peace.

Michael McLeod is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.

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