A Novelist in the Poet’s Village: On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toíbín

On Elizabeth BishopOn Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Toíbín
Princeton University Press, 2015

1.
The critic David Kalstone said about Elizabeth Bishop in 1977 that “she is probably the most honored yet most elusive of contemporary poets.” How does one capture such an elusive prize? This is the challenge faced by Colm Toíbín. Bishop upped the ante as well when she said in an interview in 1950 that she was not opposed to all literary criticism but that she “was opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it.” Colm Toíbín rises to the occasion with his slim, elegant book, simply title, On Elizabeth Bishop, which embodies two of the qualities Bishop valued most: modesty and concision.

Though Toíbín, known primarily as a writer of fiction, might seem an odd choice for this assignment, commissioned as part of the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series (other titles include Notes on Sontag, by Phillip Lopate, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams), it is clearly an “effort of affection,” to borrow the title of Bishop’s appreciative essay for her mentor and friend, Marianne Moore. In these pages he talks about the poets who were important to him as a young man and nascent writer, recalling a trip to Dublin when he was 15 in which he bought Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. By the time he reached university in 1972, he had read some poems by Robert Lowell and came across Bishop’s name. He may also have learned about Bishop from Heaney, who succeeded Bishop in her position at Harvard and was a friend and great fan of her work. He picked up Bishop’s Selected Poems, published by Chatto and Windus, in the Compendium Bookshop on Camden High Street in London during the Easter break in 1975. As a teenager in Cleveland around the same time (I see from Toíbín’s bio that he is older than I am by one year), I was making similar stealth purchases (such expenditures were never encouraged) that got packed into the car when I headed to college in 1974 (a truly mixed bag: May Swenson, T.S. Eliot, Diane Wakoski, Howard Nemerov). But alas, I do not share Toíbín’s cultural inheritance of poetry recitations on the beach by his “Auntie Maeve,” as described in his introduction to The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems (2011).

The story of his growing affinity to the work of Elizabeth Bishop is one that Toíbín wants, even feels compelled, to tell, and the personal narrative is woven gracefully throughout the book. He sees Bishop’s early losses and subsequent itinerant life as analogous to his own. On page two he says, “In certain societies, including rural Nova Scotia where Bishop spent much of her childhood, and in the southeast of Ireland where I am from, language was…a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.” This is also the territory of Toíbín’s most recent novel, Nora Webster, which he has said in several interviews is drawn from his early memories related to the death of his father.

He clearly loves Bishop’s poems and knows them well. He also knows what others have said about them. Readers who are not already well-versed in Bishop’s work and life may find this a good place to start, as Toíbín provides a useful framework that can be applied to future reading. I hope also that readers who have enjoyed Toíbín’s novels but remain, like a large proportion of the reading public, poetry averse, will open this book in admiration of the author but will stay with it because of the arresting power of Bishop’s poems.

The first authoritative biography of Bishop, Brett Millier’s Life and the Memory of It, came out in 1993 (University of California Press). Since then, the public has gained access to her letters, early drafts, and unpublished work, and this material was available to Toíbín as well, as he clearly states.

2.
Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the first and only child of Gertrude Boomer and William Bishop. Her father died of acute and chronic kidney disease when she was eight months old, after which mother and daughter moved to Great Village, Nova Scotia, the home of her maternal relatives. When Bishop was five years old, her mother was committed to an insane asylum, where she remained for the rest of her life. Bishop’s story “In the Village” is a recollection of the scream she associated as a child with her mother’s illness and abrupt departure; she would never see her mother again. She was sent away from her well-loved maternal grandparents to live with her father’s parents in Massachusetts and from there to boarding school and Vassar.

Though she never knew her father, his family’s modest wealth provided her with a small income that meant for most of her life she did not need to work. After college, Bishop moved from New York to Key West, spent time in Paris, and later settled in Brazil, a stop on a planned trip to visit a college friend and a woman she had met once in New York, the self-taught architect and aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares. When Bishop became seriously ill from an allergic reaction to cashew fruit Lota nursed her back to health, and the two fell in love. She lived with Lota for 15 years in the mountain town of Petropolis, with an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. That relationship ended tragically with Lota’s suicide in New York in 1967. After a short sojourn in San Francisco, Bishop moved to Boston to take over Robert Lowell’s teaching position at Harvard while he was on leave. She remained in Cambridge and Boston until her death in 1979.

After Millier’s biography, and a delightfully readable oral biography, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), the next big event was the publication of a large volume of Bishop’s letters, edited by Robert Giroux, called One Art, in 1996 (FSG). A decade later her 30-year correspondence with Robert Lowell was gathered into a separate volume called Words in Air (FSG, 2008). The letters collected by Giroux are funny and sad in turn and make good reading, illuminating aspects of her life that would otherwise be hard to capture in narrative form. The letters between Bishop and Lowell are more than that; they document an important and rare literary friendship for which there are few precedents.

Newly extended compilations of the work unpublished in book form before she died later became available, including a condensed volume from the Library of America in 2008, but the most contentious volume by far is a selection of Bishop’s unpublished poems, drafts, and fragments edited by former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, titled Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (FSG, 2006) This book provoked the wrath of the estimable critic Helen Vendler, who stated parenthetically in her scathing review in the New Republic, “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts”—to which Quinn’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, responded: “Most of them [poets] should relax. Elizabeth Bishop is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of American poets, which means that everything she wrote is of interest.” Galassi went on to say that the aim of the book was not to “present these texts as canonical” but to give her passionate readers a better sense of how she wrote. Lloyd Schwartz, a critic and poet who became close to Bishop toward the end of her life, says that “Bishop never really ‘repudiated’ most of her drafts. If anything, she was quite prepared for their posthumous publication, since her will actually gibes her literary executors ‘the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the process.” (Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century; University of Virginia Press, 2012)

3.
Toíbín uses these resources well. He mentions, for example, a letter from Bishop to Lowell from 1958 that describes the apartment Bishop shared with Lota in Copacabana, Brazil: “Top floor…a terrace around two sides.… Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery.” He also cites an unpublished Bishop poem set in Brazil, “Apartment from Leme,” from 1969, which describes the beach seen from her apartment window in the morning. Although Toíbín knew Bishop’s work when he himself visited Brazil in 1985, he would not have read this letter and this poem. In addition to making good use of this new material, Toíbín also shows his skill as a close reader of primary sources. He sees a pattern in the way her seemingly casual narrative poems often begin with a simple statement of fact that cannot be argued: Here are a few of many examples: “I caught a tremendous fish” (from “The Fish”); “At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee” (“A Miracle for Breakfast”); “Here is a coast; here is a harbor” (“Arrival at Santos”). Then, as Toíbín observes, Bishop habitually corrects or qualifies herself, “often as a duty or a ceremony,” as in “The Map,” where, Toíbín goes on, “she wrote the word ‘Shadows,’ and then wrote, ‘or are they shallows.’” The same movement occurs in such poems as “The Weed”: “I lay upon a grave, or bed” and in “The Armadillo”: “the stars…planets, that is.” These are conscious moves toward a precision that is the least the poet can offer in this shifting world where what we see cannot be trusted to stay in place.

Sometimes Toíbín’s enthusiasm leads him a bit astray. As a novelist, he may be overeager to prove his “poetry chops” in detailed analyses of Bishop’s prosody. Mostly he gets it right, but a listing of some of Bishop’s paired rhyming words along with their precedents in the work of other greats, including Shakespeare, seems like overkill. Another quibble is that he dedicates a full chapter to a comparison of Bishop’s work with that of Thom Gunn. Clearly, Toíbín is passionate about both poets, and his insights about the way each obliquely works through the trauma of an early loss are worth sharing, but the chapter feels like a stand-alone piece. It is a bad fit for this book.

I was also disappointed in Toíbín’s characterization of the poet May Swenson, whom Bishop came to know at Yaddo in the early 1950s and described, in a letter to Robert Lowell, as “a nice girl” and “not a bad poet.” In a portion of the book that looks at Bishop’s relationships with other women poets, Toíbín recounts a familiar story of the rift that grew between Bishop and Marianne Moore when Moore sent Bishop a revision of Bishop’s poem “Roosters” (about, yes, roosters, and set in Key West). Moore and her mother had spent most of the night working on this revision, in part to eliminate the language they saw as coarse or crude, like the term “water closet.” This anecdote leads Toíbín to conjecture about Moore’s possible discomfort with the sexual implications of some of Bishop’s poems; he brings Swenson into the discussion because he sees her as being more receptive to the sensuality in one of Bishop’s more explicit love poems, “The Shampoo,” than Moore might have been. Unfortunately, he uses as an illustration a bad and embarrassing poem that was not published in Swenson’s lifetime. Many better examples are available, like this lightly flirtatious poem from Swenson’s book, Half Sun Half Sleep (Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1967), written in the form of a letter to Bishop in Brazil:

Yes, I’d like a pair of Bicos de Lacre—
Meaning beaks of “lacquer” or “sealing wax”?
(the words are the same in Portuguese)
“…about 3 inches long, including the tail,
Red bills and narrow bright red masks…”
You say the male has a sort of “drooping
mandarin-moustache…

Toíbín does a disservice to both poets by setting up this false dichotomy, and he should know better. Bishop is, after all, the poet who said jokingly to Richard Howard “I want closets, closets, and more closets.” And Toíbín’s fictional treatment of Henry James in his earlier novel, The Master, makes it clear that he understands well the language of constraint and secrecy. In Bishop’s work, identity might be masked by the lack of third-person feminine pronouns or through elaborate conceits about flora and fauna, but this characterization needs to be interrogated further. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s insistence that she painted flowers, not genitalia. We cannot know the poet’s intention, or that of the painter, but the quality of the artist’s attention (and we know that Bishop was very attentive) makes every gesture personal. The sexual act also serves to dissolve that layer of self-consciousness and may be better approached by indirection.

A small handful of the drafts in Alice Quinn’s compilation clearly depict lovemaking between two women, with no need for a magic decoder ring. One of these starts as a plainspoken description of a rock formation that resembles the shapes of roses but then takes a major leap into what Lloyd Schwartz calls a “remarkably rhapsodic conclusion”:

rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate rose of sex—

The ending long dash is Bishop’s own. It is more of a ripple than an end stop. Whether Bishop held back such a poem because it was not quite finished or because it made her feel too exposed, I am grateful to have it now.

Further down in the “Bicos de Lacre” poem, Swenson says she’ll make the birds “a little Brazil on Perry Street.” That would be Perry Street in Greenwich Village, where Swenson lived with her then-partner, “P.S.” I got in touch with P.S. on the advice of another poet, and we quickly became friends who would meet for an occasional dinner in New York and exchange letters in between. In one of those letters, she asked me if I would like her to send me the two letters she had received from Bishop in 1968 when Bishop had left New York for San Francisco after Lota’s suicide. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. One of them is a folded note card with a child-like graphic showing a parachutist, an American flag, the sun, and a small house or barracks. It is signed, “Love, & gratitude always—Elizabeth.”

In 1993, when Brett Millier’s biography had just come out, I took a week off from my day job and made a road trip with my partner to Key West for a Bishop festival. Alice Quinn was there as well, along with such poetry notables as Richard Wilbur, Frank Bidart, and J.D. McClatchy. I was on assignment from Lambda Book Report and had an essay on May Swenson coming out in Kenyon Review; I had dreams of a book contract and eventually being able to quit my day job. Life turned out otherwise, but James (Jimmy!) Merrill’s recitation from memory of Bishop’s poem “Exchanging Hats” is still with me today: “Costume and custom are complex./The headgear of the other sex/inspires us to experiment.” The experiment continues.


Sue Russell’s essays, book reviews, and poetry have appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Library Journal, Lambda Book Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Killing the Buddha, and the Readerville Journal. She lives in Philadelphia and works in medical publishing.

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