Great American poet and beloved wisdom keeper for many a past and present English major, Elizabeth Bishop is now undergoing a posthumous career revival, largely on the strength of the just-published volume of her uncollected work, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, edited by Alice Quinn. At Long Island City’s Sculpture Center, Anya Gallaccio’s boldly monumental “One Art” borrows the title of Bishop’s stricken villanelle, which begins, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”—nor is the art of reading, once Cameron Diaz’s dyslexic In Her Shoes character gets hold of the poem. “One Art” also gets a hearing in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, which spans the 15 years—most of them content, a few of them terrible—that Bishop spent in Brazil with her companion, Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares, the daughter of the aristocracy and future government official known as Lota.
“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” Bishop told her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell just a few years before she met her Lota. Though Safe Harbor traverses many years of domestic bliss, solitude pervades the one-woman play. As Bishop, Amy Irving is alone with her spotlight shadow; she converses with unseen figures or, more often, confides in the audience. Irving is something of a tabula rasa presence: Her face is strangely inexpressive, even when Bishop is in tears, and her recitations of the poems are stolid, and yet she radiates an easeful charm. The actress adopts coquettish body language and flirty, conspiratorial tones when Bishop is at her happiest—the sublime love poem “The Shampoo” seems to bubble over from a particularly ecstatic period. Her chatty monologues on Brazilian culture, love, and work (she wishes she could “sit down and write without having to sit down and not write”) evoke an afternoon’s visit with your curious, well-read, and slightly dotty aunt, at least until Bishop’s drinking and homesickness and Lota’s debilitating work schedule begin to take a grievous toll.
Bishop’s total verse output was slender (and unwaveringly splendid), but she was a prolific letter writer. Safe Harbor creates a voluble pen pal persona rather than conveying the guarded, wistful voice of her poetry, which Octavio Paz once praised for its “enormous power of reticence”—a strength to which Marta Góes’s script does not aspire. Pitched on a rotating stage backed by shifting wall panels, the play rushes through a laundry list of flash point events and unwieldy exposition (various upheavals in Brazilian politics, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc.), and the surplus of scene changes prevents Irving from finding her meter. Where A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop succeeds is in navigating us back toward Bishop’s poetry, its limpid strains of joy, loss, and melancholic epiphany.