Autumn Sky Poetry . . . Number 16 . . .

Playing Ping Pong with Elizabeth Bishop

     by Kathleen Spivack

On Monday mornings in your apartment we faced
each other across the net, two poets
having a go at ping pong. Your arthritic hands
gripped the paddle. Determined, you played
against my energy and youth, a tricky game
in which I held myself back, wanting you to win,

not to succumb to your age, or defeat: always to win.
You grinned with delight at the speed of the game,
pressing in for the slow shots, gingerly played
as the ball dripped casually over the edge of the net, handling
your aching body and keeping the poetic
plonk of the white ball going. Wheezing, your face

was childlike. "Please call me Elizabeth." But I couldn't quite face
that. You were "Miss Bishop."  Elizabeth Bishop, Poet,
as in "Miss Bishop's too noble-O." Even with one hand
behind your back, whatever smallest edge you had you played
to advantage as if seeing angles were a game
and as if there were only one way of recording, one way to win

that cancelled all other alternatives. You so easily won
friends, admirers, yet always at play
was your encircled suffering, lack of love hinted, gamely
ignored; the poems and stories in which pain was handled
so far back behind the eyes that the poetry
stood for itself, was really poetry, not pain. You faced

it only obliquely. Once, showing me a photo, the face
of yourself as a baby, small, stubborn, not at all "poetic,"
protesting abandonment in crumpled white lace, your hands
tightly folded as if your dear life, even then, was not a game,
as if you sensed you had something dark to play
out, a despairing intelligence behind that winning

little person. But it was late now. You were winded,
fighting arthritis, the ball. I found myself mentally playing
both sides of the table, cheering your game
so much more than my own. Did I hold back?  Did I hand
you the final point? The match? No, you won on your poems
alone. Your austere inward face

was wickedly triumphant, handing me the paddle. "Shall we play
again?" Lunch was waiting, talk of books and poetry. But facing
winter noons in Cambridge, we started another game.

Kathleen Spivack is the author of Moments of Past Happiness (Earthwinds Editions fall 2007), The Beds We Lie In (Scarecrow 1986—nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), The Honeymoon (Graywolf 1986), Swimmer in the Spreading Dawn (Applewood 1981), The Jane Poems (Doubleday 1973), Flying Inland (Doubleday 1971), Robert Lowell, A Personal Memoir, and a novel, Unspeakable Things.

Kathleen Spivack writes and teaches in Boston and Paris. As an international writing coach she directs the Advanced Writing Workshop, an intensive training program for professional writers. She has been Visiting Professor of American Literature/Creative Writing in France (one semester) since 1990/91. She has held posts at the University of Paris VII-VIII, the University of Tours, the University of Versailles, and at the Ecole Superieure (Polytechnique). She was also a Fulbright Professor in Creative Writing in France. She reads and performs in theatres and also writes song cycles and longer pieces which have been performed worldwide. A recent song cycle, Shining, set to music by Eva Kendrick, was performed in Cambridge (Longy), in Providence, New York, and Los Angeles.

Published in over 300 magazines and anthologies, some of her work has been translated into French. Her most recent work can be seen in the Massachusetts Review and the Virginia Quarterly, among others. Other publications include the New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Agni, New Letters, and elsewhere.

A student and friend of poet Robert Lowell, Kathleen Spivack has written about the poets of his time, notably Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, with a focus on how they approached their work.

She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Artists Foundation, Bunting Institute, Howard Foundation, Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities, is a Discovery winner, recently won two International Solas awards, and has held residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale, Byrdcliffe, Karolyi, and the American Academy in Rome. She also teaches at Santa Fe, Aspen, International Women’s Writing Guild, Skidmore, and other programs throughout the United States as well as abroad.

© 2010 Kathleen Spivack