Elizabeth Spires

b. 1952
Elizabeth SpiresMadison Bell
A critically acclaimed poet and children's book author, Elizabeth Spires lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. In Poetry, John Taylor cited the author for her "subtle, crystal-clear poetry . . . that is constantly philosophically suggestive, while never becoming pretentious or belaboring." Spires won a 1996 Whiting Award for her volume Worldling and has been praised for her poems that use quotidian moments to ruminate upon universal themes such as happiness, mortality, travel, parent-child bonding, and life stages. "Elizabeth Spires is one of the most important young poets in America," declared William V. Davis in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "The auspicious beginning represented by her first books suggests that she will find a secure place in the world of contemporary poetry." Davis further observed that the author "weaves words and images together into a kind of fugue of meaning and emotion." Taylor wrote: "[Spires's] perceptions of the unfathomable mysteries of being have been intensified by mothering. . . . Bearing and raising a child have likewise given Spires a more concrete, moving, understanding of what Saint Augustine termed 'the presence of things past and the presence of things future.'" The critic added: "This is important poetry because it grapples sincerely with the possibilities of being happy, inquiring how we might dwell profoundly in 'the everlasting present of our life.'"

Spires's children's books include With One White Wing and Riddle Road: Puzzles in Poems and Pictures. These companion picture books offer very young children a chance to guess at rhyming riddles, using the illustrations and the snatches of poetry as clues. A Horn Book Magazine reviewer noted: "The pictorial clues ensure that even children in the younger range of the book's intended audience will have a fair chance at solving some of them. . . . They all tweak the imagination." Likewise, a Publishers Weekly correspondent responded positively to the "verbal and visual puzzles," concluding: "The brainteasers here will intrigue and stimulate young minds."

The Mouse of Amherst is perhaps Spires's best known children's book. The brief but beguiling tale is narrated by Emmaline, a mouse who has taken up residence behind the wall in Emily Dickinson's room. Intrigued by Dickinson's labors at her desk, Emmaline finally discovers the poet's talents when a sheet of paper falls to the floor. The inspired mouse responds with her own poetry, and a friendship is struck. "While the idea of the author pairing Dickinson's poems with her own may sound like an exercise in hubris, Elizabeth Spires actually pulls it off," observed Julie Yates Walton in the New York Times Book Review. "Spires is an acclaimed poet herself, . . . but she lays aside her own lush style and mirrors Dickinson's to a startling degree."

A number of reviewers suggested that The Mouse of Amherst rewards readers by offering historical information about Emily Dickinson and an appreciation for her poems, which are liberally sprinkled throughout the book. In Booklist, for instance, Susan Dove Lempke wrote: "The simple story gives young readers a first taste of Dickinson's poetry as well as an idea of the relationship formed between a poet and a reader." Walton concluded that what youngsters will remember from the tale "is a sense of the nourishing power of words. . . . Through a mouse's view of a great poet, Elizabeth Spires makes a convincing argument for poetry's relevance to our lives."

Elizabeth Spires once told Contemporary Authors: "I think by the time I was twelve, I knew I would be a writer, though at the time I thought I would write short stories, not poetry (I was under the influence of Flannery O'Connor at the time).

"My book of poems, Worldling deals, in part, with motherhood and mortality. The first section of the book chronicles the birth of my daughter, Celia. . . . I think for many people the experience of having a child is a transformative experience, one in which you feel your mortality quite strongly; the poems in Worldling try to chronicle, directly or obliquely, how I have been changed by the ongoing experience of motherhood, how it has pushed me deeper into my life. Underlying these poems is the constant tension between the insistent movement of each person towards individuation and the equally strong claims of relatedness, the push/pull of the mother/daughter bond. Some of my new poems, written since Worldling, continue these explorations, although I envision that my next book will reach beyond mother/child concerns, and have a wider (though not deeper) scope. In particular, I feel preoccupied with my sense not only of rapid change in my own life, but in the world around me. This feeling that the world is shaping itself into something new and different will certainly enter into some of the poems I am hoping to write. In fact, it already has."

"My poetry has been influenced by my close reading, and love, of the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, Robert Frost, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Jacobsen, and A. R. Ammons. That's not an exhaustive list, just some of the high points. These are poets who, for me, are always fresh and alive on the page, and towards whom I feel a debt of gratitude."

Career

Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., Columbus, OH, assistant editor, 1976-77; freelance writer, 1977-81; Washington College, Chestertown, MD, visiting assistant professor of English, 1981; Loyola College, Baltimore, MD, poet in residence, 1981-82; Goucher College, Towson, MD, professor of English, 1982—; Johns Hopkins University, visiting professor in Writing Seminars, 1984-85, 1988-96.

Bibliography

  • Boardwalk(poems), Bits Press (Cleveland, OH), 1980.
  • Globe(poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1981.
  • The Falling Star(juvenile), C. E. Merrill (Columbus, OH), 1981.
  • Count with Me(juvenile), C. E. Merrill, 1981.
  • The Wheels Go Round(juvenile), C. E. Merrill, 1981.
  • Swan's Island(poems), Holt (New York City), 1985, reprinted, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1997.
  • Annonciade(poems), Viking (New York City), 1989.
  • Worldling(poems), Norton (New York City), 1995.
  • With One White Wing (juvenile; "Margaret K. McElderry Books"), illustrated by Eric Blegvad, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1995.
  • (Editor) Josephine Jacobsen, The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose,University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Riddle Road: Puzzles in Poems and Pictures(juvenile), illustrated by Blegvad, M. K. McElderry Books (New York City), 1999.
  • The Mouse of Amherst(juvenile), illustrated by Claire Nivola, Farrar, Straus (New York City), 1999.
  • I Am Arachne(juvenile), illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, Farrar, Straus, 2001.
  • Now the Green Blade Rises,W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
  • The Big Meow, illustrated by Cynthia Jabar, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Contributor of poems to anthologies, including five volumes of Best American Poetry, and to periodicals, including New Yorker, New Republic, Mademoiselle, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, Partisan Review, New Criterion, and Paris Review.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Women Poets,St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
PERIODICALS
  • Baltimore Evening Sun,October 9, 1981.
  • Booklist,March 15, 1999, p. 1330; July, 1999, p. 1949.
  • Boston Review,April, 1989.
  • Horn Book Magazine,January-February, 1996, p. 88; May, 1999, p. 347.
  • New Criterion,November, 1995.
  • New York Times Book Review,March 14, 1982; June 1, 1986; April 7, 1996, p. 21; July 18, 1999, p. 24.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer,January 14, 1996.
  • Ploughshares,winter, 1999-2000.
  • Poetry,February, 1997, p. 295.
  • Publishers Weekly,November 4, 1996, p. 10; May 17, 1999, p. 79.
  • School Library Journal,May, 1999, p. 98.
  • Southwest Review, winter, 1995.

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LIFE SPAN 1952–

Elizabeth Spires

Biography

A critically acclaimed poet and children's book author, Elizabeth Spires lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. In Poetry, John Taylor cited the author for her "subtle, crystal-clear poetry . . . that is constantly philosophically suggestive, while never becoming pretentious or belaboring." Spires won a 1996 Whiting Award for her volume Worldling and has been praised for her poems that use quotidian moments to ruminate upon . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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