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Illustration: Polly Crossman

MY LIFE IN POEMS

A poem about moving on and losing what you once loved

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop shows that loss is best dealt with word by word, one step at a time, says Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

The year I moved to London, I lost my bank card seven times. When I did it the sixth time the man at the bank dropped his professional manner to say, amazed: “What, again? Are you serious?”

Reader: I was serious. And then I did it again.

I have always been sort of faintly amazed by my capacity to lose things. I spend half my life wandering round plaintively saying, “Has anyone seen my phone? My glasses? My pen?” and holding my hands up to my face in a vague approximation of the thing I’m hoping to find: thumb and first finger out for my phone, thumbs and forefingers looped for my glasses, a vague can-I-get-the-bill scribbling motion for my pen.

It doesn’t happen for work things, and it doesn’t happen if I’m looking after things for other people: it’s just my things that go walkabout. It’s as if they want to be lost: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster…

It’s only my own things I lose, and I’m starting to think it must be subconscious. That’s what my therapist would have said, anyway. If I can keep hold of things for everybody else, why can’t I keep hold of my own? Do I secretly want to be a person who loses things? What would it mean to be a person who loses things?

If you, too, are a person who loses things, this is a poem for you.

It’s a famous one, this week: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. You probably know it; if you don’t, you can read it here. You’ll notice that it’s got actual rhymes, unlike the poems we’ve talked about in other weeks: I feel like the chaos of losing things needs the careful structure of rhyme and rhythm to balance it out.

Besides, I like rhymes. Rhymes seem like maybe they are out of fashion in a lot of modern poetry, but then in a lot of ways this poem is a bit old-fashioned. It’s a kind of poem called a villanelle. People don’t tend to write villanelles much now. I can only think of this one and maybe two others, and one of the others is bad.

Another thing I like a lot about this poem is that we have got all 17 of Bishop’s drafts of it, and they are all quite different. Here’s a bit of the first draft that we have:

This is by way of introduction. I really / want to introduce myself—I am such a / fantastic lly good at losing things / I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

I got that from this essay about all her drafts – and isn’t it great? I love that you can see exactly where the idea started, and you can see too that she felt like she needed that villanelle structure to properly get the idea across without it being somehow overwhelming.

Because losing stuff is overwhelming. It is overwhelming, and you’ve got to get a handle on it because if you don’t, it can sweep you away. I’ve been simultaneously closing a few chapters of my life in the last few weeks: my teenage years out in the Middle East, my early twenties in Paris and then in London. I lost two cities, lovely ones…

You can lose a city, just like anything else. You can lose anything if you have to.

I’ve lost my plan. I haven’t lost John, but I’ve lost our life together as it was. I miss it. I miss it often

I had this desk when I was a teenager: a big old ugly orange pine table, which I had covered with newspaper clippings and PVA glue. I loved it. I spent weeks on it. I thought (when I was 15) that I’d have this decoupage desk forever.

I spent yesterday – with soap, nail varnish remover, and elbow grease – scrubbing all those newspaper clippings off. The table won’t fit in my parents’ new home. I can’t really see it fitting in wherever John and I make our home next. The Tiny Flat, beloved though it is, is really too tiny. I don’t know where we’re going, and I don’t want to have things floating in storage indefinitely.

So off the newspaper clippings came, and off went the table to someone else. I tried not to feel guilty about it: this happens to everyone, sooner or later. You have to go through and decide what you’re going to keep, and what you’re going to lose.

I’ve been pretty ruthless: I’ve thrown out a dozen binliners of stuff, maybe more. It got easier the more I threw away. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, Bishop says, but what she means is that it isn’t hard to master if you put the effort in: lose something every day…

You have to put the hours in to get good at anything. You have to do 17 drafts to get a villanelle that works; you have to lose your keys to lose a lover.  Like we said last week, things take time. Poetry is work. Losing things is work. Life is work, and you have to put the effort in for all of it.

Maybe that’s why I sold that desk: I’ve been losing things for years. I started by losing my bank card; then pens and glasses and keys, like Bishop says. Then I lost those cities, and the houses I lived in in those cities.

The last couple of years I’ve lost bigger things: I’ve lost what I thought my life was going to be like. I’ve lost my plan. I haven’t lost John, but I’ve lost our life together as it was. I miss it. I miss it often.

But here’s the thing: I don’t suppose many people get to live their life according to plan. Does anyone? That’s why it’s work. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We are all people who lose things. We can’t hoard everything. We have to learn to let go.

And that’s what this poem is for, I think.

That’s why you need the rhyme: it’s a kind of mantra, something to repeat to yourself as you lose your phone or your home or your idea of yourself. It’s almost a lesson: the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

It might not be exactly true, of course. The poet is still having to make herself write it, even right at the end. Even after she’s lost everything else, this is hard. But she’s writing it, all the same. Seventeen drafts of it.

She’s doing it: one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other. She’s getting on, and so can you –wherever we end up, however many things we lose along the way.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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My life in poems
Poetry

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