Elizabeth Bishop, 27 Park Parade

Elizabeth Bishop and Elaine Feinstein

27 Park Parade, along with 31 Panton Street (to be featured in a forthcoming blogpost), is one of the liveliest houses in Cambridge for poetic associations. For a long time it was the home of Elaine Feinstein, one of the heroes of this blog, who played host here to some incredible poets: Paz, Holub, Amichai and Yevtushenko all slept in the guest bedroom at one time or another.

But Elizabeth Bishop isn’t just an incredible poet, she’s the best poet of the 20th century, and houses with a Bishop association are not easy to find in England. I get the feeling she didn’t like it here very much; she visited just four times (in 1935-6, 1977, and 1979), and never stayed long. It must have been in one of the two 1930s visits when she stayed in 27 Park Parade, at that point a boarding house. Feinstein commemorated her stay in a poem:

Park Parade, Cambridge

in memory of Elizabeth Bishop

Your thoughts in later years must, sometimes,
have visited this one-time lodging house,
the wood then chocolate brown, the plaster
veined, this bedroom floating over
spongy grass down to a shallow river.

As a mild ghost, then, look with me tonight
under this slant roof out to where
the great oak lies, its foliage disguised
with flakes of light. Above us, clouds
in these wide skies remain as still as sandbars.

Sleeplessly, together, we can listen
to the quiet song of water, hidden
at the lock, and wait up for the first
hiss of cycle tyres and whistling builders.
Fellow asthmatics, we won’t even cough

because for once my lungs are clean,
and you no longer need to fight for breath.
And though it is by chance now I inherit
this room, I shall draw both tenderness and strength
from the friendly toughness of your spirit.

The ‘great oak’, I think, is the one in the grounds of Jesus College, which is easily visible across Jesus Green from the bedroom window.

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