Elizabeth Bishop's Art Of Losing

The first of Elizabeth Bishop’s losses was her father, who died when she was eight months old. The second loss was more protracted: Bishop’s mother, shattered by her husband’s death, suffered a series of breakdowns. Sometimes loving in her behavior, sometimes violent, she went in and out of mental hospitals and was finally committed permanently, when Elizabeth was five. At the time, in the spring of 1916, the little girl was living with her mother’s family in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, a comforting place where she had often stayed before. Like many uprooted children, she had vivid memories: the pictures on the pages of the family’s Bible, the rhyme that her grandmother made when shining her shoes (using imaginary “gasoline” and “Vaseline”), and, when she was six, being taken away—“kidnapped,” she felt—by her father’s far more prosperous family, to live in their large and loveless house in Worcester, Massachusetts. It seemed then that she had lost a country, too. Although she was born in Worcester and had spent her earliest life there, and although her father had grown up in the same house, she did not feel at home, or even American: when she sang the required songs at school, the words “land where my fathers died” seemed aimed directly at her.

In later years, a psychiatrist told Bishop that she was lucky to have survived her childhood. In fact, soon after arriving in Worcester she developed both asthma and eczema sores, which became so severe that she was confined to bed. It was only when the family feared that she might truly be dying that she was bundled off again, this time to live with her aunt Maud—one of her mother’s sisters—and Maud’s husband, Uncle George, in a run-down harborside town outside Boston. The sea air was meant to do her good, and it did. Far more helpful, however, were the kind ministrations of Aunt Maud and another of her mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace, a trained nurse who came to help coax her back to health. And when the asthma returned, causing her to miss weeks of school, her aunts read her the enthralling stories in verse of Tennyson, Longfellow, and the Brownings, which she absorbed so deeply that she believed they entered her unconscious. She started writing poetry when she was eight. At twelve, patriotically reconciled, she won her first authorial prize, for an essay on the subject of “Americanism.”

This second chance at childhood made her so grateful to her aunts (or so afraid of further losses) that she never told them, or anyone, about how Uncle George touched her when he insisted on washing her in the bath, or how he tried to feel her breasts once she began to have breasts, or even about the time he grabbed her by the hair and dangled her from the second-story balcony. These wretched facts, revealed in Megan Marshall’s new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), derive from a trove of letters, unknown to previous biographers, that Bishop wrote to her psychiatrist, in 1947. (Marshall explains that she discovered the letters in plain sight, in the Bishop archives at Vassar, where they were made available, after being locked away for decades, in 2009.) Bishop’s bluntly objective chronicle of abuse—“Maybe lots of people have never known real sadists at first hand”—adds far more evidence than was needed to convince us that she was indeed lucky to survive.

Despite the book’s often harrowing content, and Bishop’s lifelong drive toward alcoholic self-obliteration, Marshall’s account is lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy. Another newly disclosed group of letters, from the same source, documents a passionate love affair that Bishop began when she was nearing sixty, with a much younger woman, a relationship that lasted until the poet’s death, at sixty-eight, in 1979. (Bishop’s homosexuality was a carefully kept secret in her lifetime.) Marshall, an aspiring poet in her youth, writes from a deep sense of identity with her subject: she studied with Bishop at Harvard, in 1976, and her biographical chapters are interspersed with pages of her own memoir, also centered on family, poetry, and loss. It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher. Marshall seems still sensitive to having given up poetry, the one great thing that Bishop, for all her losses, never let go. There’s an emotional undertow even in Marshall’s treatment of poetic forms (the sestina, for example, of Bishop’s early poem “A Miracle for Breakfast,” or Marshall’s student attempt at the mad complexities of Catullan hendecasyllabics) and in her unwavering reverence for the magic that form cannot explain. The book is ultimately about how words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy.

Because Bishop didn’t just survive. By the time Marshall entered her class, she had won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and an award from the government of Brazil, where she lived for many years. She’d been the subject of a brief biography; Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter had set her poems to music. But the Bishop phenomenon had barely begun. In 1983, the revelation of Bishop’s sexual identity prompted Adrienne Rich, our leading feminist poet, to discern qualities of “outsiderhood” and “marginality” throughout the poems; Bishop’s work now appeared to be not merely good but “remarkably honest and courageous,” and Bishop herself became a contemporary heroine. In the decades since, her relatively small body of work—some hundred published poems, a dozen stories—has been greatly outweighed by volumes of letters, previously unpublished poems and drafts of poems, biography, and criticism. In 2008, she became the first female poet to be published by the Library of America. She even made it onto a U.S. postage stamp, in 2012. As Marshall points out, an Internet search under her name today yields millions of results, ranging from “Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia” to “Popular Lesbian and Bisexual Poets.”

She would have been appalled. Except perhaps for her mentor, Marianne Moore, it is hard to name a poet whose work so thoroughly disinvites private scrutiny. Admirers of Bishop’s early work—Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell—praised its cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.” What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away.

“I hadn’t known poetry could be like that,” Bishop wrote of her first encounter with Moore’s work. Bishop was a literary star at the élite girls’ boarding school where she was sent, at sixteen, courtesy of her father’s family, and maintained a similar status when she got to Vassar. She was a class behind her equally ambitious friend Mary McCarthy. When the stodgy Vassar literary magazine wouldn’t accept their writing, the two young women joined with friends to form a magazine of their own. As the campus poet, Bishop was chosen to interview T. S. Eliot when he came through during her junior year, in 1933. Her own poems at the time tended toward imitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins or of the English Baroque: elaborate, archaic in tone, willfully artificial. Discovering Moore, the following year, changed everything. Here was a poetry resolutely modern and hard-edged yet meticulously structured and linguistically glittering. Perhaps most important, here was a rich new variety of subjects: in place of romantic love or God or childhood, Moore offered poems about animals—snakes, chameleons, a big-eared desert rat—and exotic objects (“An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish”); she even had one about a gritty American coastal town, like the town where Bishop had lived with her aunts. Strong yet mysterious, set in the immediate world, these poems demonstrated a way to proceed. Bishop had no religious beliefs; she couldn’t bear to contemplate her childhood; she couldn’t reveal anything about whom she loved. For all her determination to be a poet, what was she to write poetry about?

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