Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is about the things we lose, and the extent to which we’ll go to convince ourselves that we’re coping, that loss is a part of life, that it isn’t, in her words, ever truly a disaster. If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, but you’re a fan of the movie In Her Shoes with Toni Colette and Cameron Diaz, you may remember it as the one that Maggie has difficulty reading to the professor. The entire process helps her to begin to overcome her struggle with what seems like dyslexia, and to understand that the idea of loss has particular significance for her.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
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 losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
A poet of the 20th century, Bishop was born in 1911 and died in 1979. She published only 101 poems, and was known to strive for a technical perfection that caused her to spend large amounts of time writing and rewriting. We reap the benefits of her intense focus; her poems tend to come across as conversations that pull us in easily, yet pertain to difficult subjects like loss and longing, and a sense of finding where we fit in the world. Although she made it look effortless, she often wrote in some of the most challenging poetic forms. “One Art” is written in a particularly mind-boggling structure called the villanelle, but its difficulty is the very thing that makes it so easy for us to read. Bishop calls losing an “art” and begins the poem by hinting that some things are so prone to being lost that it’s not even our fault when it happens. She moves on to specific examples like keys and extra time, and encourages us to accept the “fluster” of loss and even attempt to “master” it. She suggests that its actually easy, and that once we become experts at accepting the small losses, we can move on to bigger and bigger things. She has lost her mother’s watch, three houses, cities, rivers, and continents, and none has brought disaster. This all begins to feel like a bit of hyperbole from Bishop and we’re starting to wonder where she’s going with it, but then we arrive at the final stanza. Ah, now it all makes sense. She’s lost someone she truly loved, and it really is a disaster, so much so that she has to tell herself to “write it” just to get the words on the page.
The process of losing anything is never easy, and I would venture to say that it is something that most of us will never master, particularly when it comes to losing a person. It certainly doesn’t help that regret often becomes an additional factor. There are the things we didn’t say but wished we would have, or the things we thought we’d have more time to construct just perfectly. We often put off feeling the acuteness of the loss by telling ourselves that we’re okay, that we’re coping, that we’re doing remarkably well. The loss becomes like water dripping slowly into a sponge. There is a period of time in which it can remain contained, but eventually that sponge becomes saturated and cannot hold one more drop. At that point it begins to leak, and then gush, and there is no holding back all that we are feeling. We have to wring the sponge out, and let it become buoyant again before it can resume its role as a reservoir for the emotions we cannot allow to be seen. Perhaps it’s better to find a way to feel that grief, as Bishop does through her art, and to allow our own acknowledgement of it, even if it’s just from time to time, so that the load on the sponge becomes less and eventually we don’t need it anymore. The loss can then become absorbed by us, and make its way into the very fabric of who we are, but remain contained, have its rightful place, and know it will never be forgotten.
For today’s cocktail, I began with Mad March Hare Irish Poitín (po-CHEEN) because any unaged whiskey can seem like an insurmountable challenge at first, much like loss, but time, patience, and gentleness can bring an appreciation for the rawness of its power. Cynar (CHEE-nar) and Barrow’s Intense Ginger liqueur are equally powerful on their own, and they combined with the poitín to become a potent base. I needed to temper that base with gentler ingredients, so I added the sweetness of a cola syrup, an apricot nectar, and muddled figs, and then I balanced that sugar with just a splash of lemon juice. Charred cedar bitters contributed a smokiness that echoed the poitín. The end result was surprisingly like an old-fashioned, which allowed me to serve it over one large cube and to let some of the fig remnants into the drink in a “new-fashioned” kind of style. It felt balanced and deep, with a certain level of sweetness, but its power was still there under the surface, contained, yet still recognized. Cheers everyone. Happy Monday!
The Art of Losing
1¾ oz Mad March Hare Irish Poitín
¾ oz Cynar
½ oz Barrow’s Intense ginger liqueur
1 oz Yoga apricot fruit nectar
¼ oz lemon juice
½ oz Tippleman’s Barrel-Aged Cola syrup
2 dashes Black Cloud Charred Cedar bitters
2 ripe brown figs for muddling
Muddle the figs in the apricot nectar and cola syrup in a shaker tin. Add the remaining ingredients, along with ice, and shake until very cold. Strain into a cocktail glass allowing some of the pulpiness of the figs to pass into the glass. Enjoy!