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By Rosalind Brackenbury
“A poet lived there once,” my landlord told me when I first arrived in Key West in January 1992 and rented his apartment on White Street. I was at 628, two doors away from 624 White Street, a big shabby-looking “eyebrow” house with crooked shutters and a front yard full of rusting bicycles and straggly plants, a little set back from the street. The plaque on the gate advertised home-sewn shirts in Spanish. There was no plaque at that time to tell me anything about a poet.
Who was the poet? Elizabeth Bishop. She had owned this house and lived here in the 1940s, I discovered. I settled in to my rented apartment just up the street and sat down to write poems myself, as I was here on a grant from the Scottish Arts Council. I wondered what it would have been like to be Bishop’s neighbor, and if we could have talked and gotten to know each other, or if she would have been too private, and I too shy.
In those days, you could stand in line at Fausto’s grocery store with Jimmy Merrill, or meet Richard Wilbur or John Malcolm Brinnin on the street. It was a few years before I met both of them at parties and heard John Malcolm at the Old Island bookstore on Fleming Street read and laugh about the poem he had written about the wrong house, the house next door.
PS I’ve just read your letter. (Gulp.)
The house you lived in is the one next door
It’s now invisible behind big trees
Except for one high window, facing north.
(Letter from Key West to Elizabeth Bishop. JMB)
The “big trees” would have been the mango tree, two avocados, a soursop, and four banana trees that were apparently there when Bishop bought the house for $2,000 in 1938. As I knew it, the front yard had only a few aurelias, some areca palms, and the contents of a junkyard, although there was still a royal poinciana in the side yard and a big Spanish lime at the back.
The house became more and more dilapidated over time. The front door was often left half-open; in passing, you could peer into the dim interior, but never see much. There was a sign that said “Hippies Use Back Door.” An old Jaguar was parked in the side yard, covered by a tarp that was in turn covered by leaves.
I met and married my husband and we bought our house on Ashe Street a couple of blocks away. Years passed. On our evening walks, we strolled past the Bishop house and wondered who lived there, why it wasn’t better maintained, and why the house of a poet of Elizabeth Bishop’s stature was let go to near-ruin while not that far away, tourists flocked into the Hemingway House on Whitehead and were told invented stories about six-toed cats and Hem’s writing and drinking habits.
Nobody talked about Elizabeth Bishop, it seemed, even though there had been a literary seminar devoted to her in 1992, with Octavio Paz in attendance. I was almost glad. I didn’t want the poet I admired so much reduced to the level of a tourist attraction. But I also worried about the state of the house. It seemed disrespectful, even if I dreaded it going the way of Tennessee Williams’ house and being gussied up beyond repair. At least number 624 had its lonely dignity, its 1940s bare charm, its old Key West decrepitude.
Canadian writer Rick Taylor, who had read a piece of mine in BRICK, happened to be in Florida and came to visit. We had been corresponding, mostly about swimming, as that was both his passion and the subject of my article. After a swim together at Fort Zachary Taylor Beach — where he far outstripped me as a much stronger and more daring swimmer, a real athlete — we biked to the Elizabeth Bishop house and peered in through the windows at its bare floors and ceilings, its hanging light fixtures, its old appliances. At that time it seemed to be empty; perhaps it was between tenants. We discovered that the owner lived in Hawaii and had promised never to sell it. Nobody seemed to know who he or she was, but the family had apparently bought it from Bishop when she left in 1947.
My Canadian friend left, slightly frustrated that we had not been able to see more. My husband and I went on taking our evening walks past the house. More years passed. At some point, a plaque appeared on the gate alongside the notice about camisas with the enigmatic quotation from Bishop: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”
The next person who came into my life through Bishop was the film-maker Barbara Hammer, who had a grant to make a film about Bishop’s various houses and who was staying a few blocks up Ashe Street at the cottages that belonged then to the Studios of Key West. She had already filmed in Nova Scotia and Brazil without any problems getting access to Bishop’s original home and the house of Lota de Soares, Bishop’s Brazilian lover. We had drinks in my backyard and made plans to try to get into the house on White Street.
She went to talk to the archivist at the Monroe County Library. She got the Hawaii address of the owner, Pete Weymouth, and wrote to him. The current tenants firmly refused to let her inside when she knocked on the door of 624. She peered through windows as Rick Taylor and I had done, and she tried filming from outside, looking in.
In a tourist town full of the houses of well-known and less well-known writers, this was at once strange and utterly fitting. It was as if Bishop herself was still in residence, resolutely private, refusing the eyes of the curious, withdrawing into seclusion again and again. Would you want somebody wandering in, staring at your possessions, asking questions, filming without your permission? Well, no.
The month Barbara had at the Studios in Key West was drawing to an end. I suggested that we go out to Safe Harbor on Stock Island, where the shrimp boats still dock and the atmosphere is probably as close to Key West in the 1940s as you can get. We just wanted to poke around a bit, and see if there was anything she could use in her film.
Barbara was fascinated by the shrimp boats, some of them hailing from Louisiana and Texas, some from Georgia and the Carolinas. She interviewed the deck-hands, she filmed the boats’ rust and iron, and their nets that jut like a pelican’s wings when they are out at sea. She learned their histories and trajectories, and I learned how a filmmaker gets what she needs and how time means nothing in the pursuit of the exact image, the relevant story. I followed Barbara and her roving eye and camera up the narrow walkways and quays, and watched her work. But it was not the Elizabeth Bishop house, her main subject, however close it might come to the extinct poetry of the Key West Bight, where Bishop wrote her birthday poem (“…littered with old correspondences.” The Bight, on my birthday — EB). Barbara left Key West and she made her film; but as I watched it months later when it was shown at the Custom House, I was aware of the gaps — the obstacle that got in her way, in spite of letters and phone calls to Hawaii, in spite of all her remorseless determination to penetrate that secret house.
In the early summer of 2019, a neighbor told me that the owner of 624 White Street was home, and that she had mentioned me to him. He was interested in meeting a writer and a Bishop fan. So I went down the street and knocked on the door. The man who greeted me was about my age, a good-looking guy in work clothes, obviously in the middle of something. I apologized for the interruption, but introduced myself.
“No, no, come in, have a look round. My name’s Pete. I’m working on the house, as you see.” Pete had carpentry tools lying out on a table; the ceiling fan was whirring, since the day was hot. He told me that he’d decided to come home, as surfing in Hawaii was over for him; he was too old for it, and he had retired from his job. He was thinking about coming back to White Street to live — get a boat, get out on the water, fish.
“Go on, go upstairs, take a look,” he urged me. I ascended the narrow wooden staircase and glimpsed a camp bed, a half-open bag full of clothes, and a pair of shoes, all in one corner of the big upstairs bedroom. He was camping up here, with no air conditioning and a small floor fan.
“Traffic’s real noisy when I open the window, I hadn’t reckoned on that.” Pete told me. “Everything’s changed. Time was, you could lie in bed here in complete quiet, and look at the moon. No streetlights, no noise, nothing.” Nothing in the house had been changed, apart from a shower he installed years ago for his grandmother when she moved into a ground-floor room.
To others, it was Elizabeth Bishop’s house. “But to me, it will always be my grandma’s house,” Pete explained. “I grew up here, went to high school. It was our house.” His grandmother, Lisbeth Weymouth, had promised Bishop that the house would not be sold or changed. She had kept her word and lived here until her death.
Pete Weymouth and his sister had inherited the house. He was thinking he might live here, but his sister wanted to sell. He led me out into the yard, cleared now of the rusted bicycles, the old car, the incongruous toilet that had been out in the front for years, the sacks of garbage. Yes, it had been hard work, and he wasn’t as young as he had been. He grinned at me. Neither of us was as young as we had been, and the weather in summer in Key West had only got hotter.
“Come back, bring your husband,” he told me before I left. We shook hands at the door and I went home, leaving the house that I had been walking past and thinking about for twenty-five years. A nice man, I thought. My neighbor confirmed it: “Yes, he was friends with my brother at high school, he was the nicest of them all.”
I went back with my husband to visit again. Allen and Pete went around tapping on the walls and examining plumbing fixtures, the way men do. We all stood inside the house, looking out at the busy street and at the housing complex of Peary Court, where there was once a park with big trees. Elizabeth herself would have had this same view more than half a century ago. There’s a photograph of her riding her bicycle on White Street, wearing sneakers and a hat to shield her from the sun. Here was her kitchen, her living room, bedroom, attic, all just as they had been. Pete had had the roof and gutters fixed, and had replaced wood floors where necessary, and now was working single-handedly on the maintenance of a building that had kept its integrity through decades of change, all because of a promise made long ago.
I left for Europe shortly after this, and when I came back in October, I heard that the house was sold. The buyer was none other than the Key West Literary Seminar. Pete must have given in to his sister and changed his mind, having maybe decided that he still had a few years of surfing in him, or that Key West had changed too much for him, I don’t know. But when it came on the market, the Helmerich Trust came up with the money immediately and loaned it to the Seminar. It cost a million-two, I heard.
The house was saved from the remorseless surgery that attacks old Key West houses in the name of renovation. Once again, it insisted on its own terms. Its integrity, the beauty of old Dade County pine wood, the spacious breadth of rooms and high ceilings, would live on. Its windows would look out on the endlessly changing Key West from under the eaves that look like eyebrows. One of Bishop’s “three loved houses” (The Art of Losing – EB), it would once again be brought back to life and poetry.
My last visit there was at the invitation of Arlo Haskell, the current Poet Laureate of Key West and director of the Seminar. We locals were invited for drinks and cake and a chance to roam around the house that had been closed to us for so long. Everyone was enchanted by it. There’s a room for poetry readings, there’s a place for a library; the Literary Seminar will have its permanent home here. We raised our glasses to Elizabeth in a champagne toast. I wished that Barbara could have been there, filming to her heart’s content; I drank a private toast to her too, these two years after her death.
To her, and to Rick, and to all the people who have loved Bishop’s poetry and come here to stand outside her house or peer in through her windows, I wanted to say: sometimes everything turns out as it should.