We Use Language as a Spade

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In this beautiful personal essay at The Sun Magazine, Christine Marshall considers cats and kittens, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and how writing has helped her to express and process her anger, resentment, and grief after a series of miscarriages.

BISHOP’S POEMS ARE like the sky on a clear night. At first you notice the brightness, stars as thick and close as pores in the face. The stars and moon and planets form patterns and shapes. They remind you how much energy exists in the world. Then you start to notice what’s behind the stars: an eternity of dark.

IN A 1966 letter to her poet friend Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop mentions her cat Tobias, who still flourishes, age fifteen. The 1960s were not a great decade for Bishop, who was embroiled in a painful breakup with the love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop didn’t write about her heartache in her letter to her friend. She stayed light. She chatted about the weather and politics and the neighbors’ children and her cats.

Writing, I decide, is not just a record of our experiences but a reaching beyond what we have known, an opportunity to use empathy and curiosity to broaden our sense of self. There’s a strange assumption in the phrase Write what you know — that we already know ourselves.

We don’t stop at what we know. We don’t use language simply as a mirror. We also use it as a spade.

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