Thomas Travisano | Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop | Viking: £18.99

That Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry had autobiographical roots, even as it eschewed the ‘confessional’, was acknowledged in the reception of her work from the beginning. Randall Jarrell, ‘the most severe and exacting poetry critic in midcentury America’ reviewed Bishop’s first book, North and South, with the comment, ‘instead of crying, with justice, “This is a world in which no one can get along,” Miss Bishop’s poems show that it is barely but perfectly possible – has been, that is, for her.’ That ‘for her’ suggests that Jarrell felt that the impulse to ‘get along’ in the world was part and parcel of the drive for the poetry. Thomas Travisano in his new, and, for the moment anyway, definitive biography of Bishop comments that Jarrell ‘had intuited through Bishop’s poems her complex moral awareness’. Clearly that phrase ‘complex moral awareness’ is Travisano’s sense of Bishop and not Jarrell’s. And what Travisano is at pains to emphasise in this book is how Bishop did actually ‘get along’, in a way which was, indeed, barely but perfectly possible.

There have been good biographies of Bishop before; Brett C. Millier’s Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of it was the first and set the bar very high, although its proximity to Bishop’s death meant many who knew Bishop were still alive and might possible have influenced some of the perspectives on her life. Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast came out only a couple of years ago, and was a well-written and sympathetic portrayal of that clearly complex inner life. Marshall had been a student of Bishop’s at Harvard. And her book explores the intersections between the poetry and the secrecy which was habitual to both Bishop and the writing. There is also Fountain and Brazeau’s fascinating Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. This gathers a range of reminiscences of Bishop, from people such as John Ashbery and Thom Gunn, who remembered ‘a wonderful moment when I passed joint between Elizabeth and Freewheelin’ Frank, the literary Hells Angel’; and others such as Joanna Dos Santos Da Costa, who had worked for Bishop as her maid in Brazil. The composer Ned Rorem who describes working on and his attitudes to setting some of Bishop’s poems to music; and Bishop’s evident disappointment at the results! In addition, there has been the release of much of Bishop’s correspondence, and the publication of nearly all her prose and poetry.

Travisano is perhaps different from the previous biographers; not only has he got all the extra material to work from but he has been working on that material for over forty years. His own critical book Elizabeth Bishop: her artistic development was published in 1988, and he was the founding President of the Elizabeth Bishop Society. Travisano is also good at writing about the poetry, which might seem like damning with faint praise, it is after all a basic qualification for the job. But Travisano is good at working the poetry from and with the life, without allowing one to suffocate the other, when they are clearly not the same.

For Travisano, Bishop’s life was lived in the long shadow of her childhood. And Travisano is willing to call this ‘long shadow’ what we would call today PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, adducing academic descriptions of PTSD to back up his comments. The losses of her father, who died when Bishop was only eight months old, the loss of her mother to insanity when she was five, the move from her beloved Bulmer grandparents in Canada to the much richer but far less emotionally available Bishop grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. There, it is possible that she was physically and certainly emotionally abused by her uncle Jack; these events are now well known. For Travisano, the accumulated traumas from these events in Bishop’s early life lead to a life of chronic illnesses such as asthma and eczema, her debilitating allergies and which lead to her alcoholism. Travisano comments that Bishop, herself, traced her alcoholism to the time at Vassar that she learned that her mother had died. At which point she got very drunk and was capable of going on benders for the rest of her life.

Famously, Bishop told Robert Lowell that when he wrote her epitaph that he must write that she ‘was the loneliest person who ever lived.’ Yet, her biographers, and Travisano is good on this, showed that Bishop’s life was full of people. As we can see from the publications of her letters, Bishop was good at keeping up friendships. These epistolary relationships started with her friendship to Louise Bradley forged at her first summer camp Camp Chequesset, when she was thirteen. Of the friendship with Kit Barker, the English painter and his wife, Ilse, Travisano notes that when Bishop visited them in Sussex in 1964, ‘she had written them more than one hundred letters from Brazil but had not seen either of her dear friends in fourteen years.’ The collection of her letters, One Art, published in 1994 runs to some 670 pages, and since then her correspondence with Lowell and her correspondence with The New Yorker have been published separately. It is also clear from Travisano’s notes that the correspondence with the Barkers is barely tapped in One Art. Travisano has been an assiduous reader of Bishop’s letters and they offer rich substance to his narrative.

The habit of secrecy and, to some extent, an evasiveness was inculcated in Bishop from her early childhood. The letters may offer substance but what they actually show is how the poems both conceal and reveal in an exquisite balance that Bishop perfected over her writing career. In part that was a secrecy over her sexuality; Bishop constantly refers to her lovers and those of others as ‘friends’. That kind of secrecy was a result of the times through which she lived. At the same time that secrecy ran concurrently with her ability to see and notice everything. One of her greatest poems, ‘The Shampoo’, based on Bishop’s washing of her lover, Lota’s, hair, was rejected by The New Yorker on the grounds that ‘this is a personal poem in which you do not quite seem to have described the occasion involved. At least it does not seem to us that you have conveyed it at all; for instance, what was the dear friend too demanding and too voluble about?’ Travisano notes that ‘demanding and too voluble’ in the draft sent to The New Yorker were changed in the final published version to, ‘precipitate and pragmatical.’ Travisano also speculates that The New Yorker staff ‘may well have feared [that the homoerotic subtext] was already too apparent.’ What might strike us now is how Bishop organises the poem from its first description of lichens on rock and their analogy to the rings around the moon. The meditation on the longevity of the universe and the place of love in that time scale moves to the poem’s final summons, ‘- come, let me wash it in this big tin basin, / battered and shiny like the moon.’ It is the closely woven, beautifully balanced mix of observation, speculation, and, yes, eroticism, that makes the poem so attractive. Bishop had that almost painterly sense of which colour/detail goes best next to another that bring them all to their most effective and vibrant.

The reception of Thomas Travisano’s fine and authoritative biography of Elizabeth Bishop has felt a little subdued, particularly as it is likely to stand as the definitive account for some time. However, given Bishop’s voluminous correspondence, the 121 boxes of her papers currently in the Archive at Vassar, along with material related to those she met, and material held in other collections, it is inevitable that Travisano’s account will be supplanted. There is clearly a dilemma here. One is left with the body of almost perfect poetry that was published in Bishop’s lifetime; which was then adroitly extended in the Centenary edition of the Poems. That work seems enough. For all the troubles of her own life, her poetry seems poised and sane beyond measure; as if she were always the adult in the room. Its central feature is usually compassion, compassion for the seal she sings to in ‘At the Fishhouses’, compassion for the sandpiper in the poem of that name, even for the Burglar of Babylon. That compassion drives the observation as surely as the observation drives the compassion. Out of that relationship emerges the kind of humanity which draws readers to the poems. At the same time, Bishop lead such a fascinating life she almost cries out for a biographer of the stature of a Holroyd or a Holmes.

by Ian Pople

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