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The Map of A Poet’s Life

ISSUE:  Spring 1994
Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. By Brett C. Millier. California.$28.00. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. By Lorrie Goldensohn. Columbia.$30.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.

At a recent meeting of writing teachers, a colleague talked about her lack of preparation for a class the day before. In a panic, she told us, she had distributed to her students copies of “The Fish”—one of Elizabeth Bishop’s most anthologized poems (from her first collection, North &• South). She said the three magic words, “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” and sighed, and we all shook our heads in admiration. I have always associated Bishop, who died in 1979, the year I graduated from high school, with the coral pink cover of The Complete Poems and the hazy outline of the windmills and palm trees in the quaint watercolor, that she painted herself, which adorns the book’s cover. For my generation, she is a poet much revered but perhaps not always so well understood: the complexities of her life have always remained rather obscured beneath the mystique of her legacy.

In the first chapter of Brett C. Millier’s substantial critical biography, we find Bishop in primer class, in a schoolhouse in Great Village, Nova Scotia. The poet would remember the pull-down maps used for geography lessons:

They were on cloth, very limp, with a shiny surface, and in pale colors—tan, pink, yellow and green—surrounded by the blue that was the ocean. . . . On the world map, all of Canada was pink; on the Canadian, the provinces were different colors. I was so taken with the pull-down maps that I wanted to snap them up, and pull them down again, and touch all the countries and provinces with my own hands.

This paints such a visceral portrait. This moment of being taken, of deviously dreaming about the snapping maps, of wanting to touch the whole silken-cloth picture of the world. In many ways, isn’t this all we really need to know of Bishop to understand her poetry? Her early preoccupation with global discovery, her physical attraction to objects, her ability to find truth in the symbols that represent reality, her desire to reach out and express herself and to possess, along with the certain knowledge that ultimately she cannot.

Millier’s is a comprehensive portrait of a brilliant, distinguished, though ultimately, disappointing life, rendered in a workmanlike but highly readable style that delves without subjective bias. In other words, oftentimes we forget there is even an author—and this is useful. In this way the reader has to experience the events of Bishop’s life as one experiences her poems. Page by page, Millier reveals a satisfying plethora of detail about this very private person. The childhood years are well documented. It is easy to follow the shaping of Bishop’s identity as she refers to herself as an orphan at the age of five, and Millier provides excerpts from memoirs, early prose, and poems spanning the poet’s life in which she looks back in attempt to memorialize. One reacts. From Bishop’s lonely early childhood, with her mother hospitalized and her father dead, to her “homeless” post-collegiate years, when she began, painfully, to chisel out her identity as a poet; to her chronic bouts with asthma and alcohol; to her lover’s apparent suicide; and through the many depressions and great loneliness of middle age—our sympathies grow as Millier uncovers all the losses. A sense of disorientation sets in due to the almost constant motion that was not necessarily travel, but escape. And thus we are relieved when the 40-year-old Bishop arrives in Brazil at the home of Lota de Macedo Scares (who builds a writing studio for Elizabeth that looks out onto the lush vegetation of Samambaia) and stays for nearly two decades, producing much of the work for which she is most remembered.

We begin to see the invisible fibers connecting Bishop with her poems, placing her poetry on the map of her life.

Elizabeth always liked to feel herself in place on the map and always preferred geography to history. . . to be able to say, “I am this many miles from Rio” or “this many miles from New York,” to be able always to say, whether she faced north or south, that the Atlantic Ocean lay just off one hand is to be able to name her point of view.

This point of view is at any time also shaped in relation to her circle, and we are treated to illuminating details of her pivotal relationships with women and her association with other poets such as her role model, Marianne Moore, her contemporary Robert Lowell, and the young Frank Bidart, a friend of her later years.

Finally, we are left with wonder that this writer was able to write as she did, and to create in the midst of conditions that were often debilitating. Poetry was not easy for Bishop, but it was necessary. She wrote to know who she was and would be:

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth. . .
  (From “In the Waiting Room”)

And, as in these lines from “Poem,” she wrote to remember: “life and the memory of it so compressed / they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?”

Millier’s biography is a solid foundation from which to spring toward other ways of investigating Bishop’s poetry. Lorrie Goldensohn’s innovative study of the poet is almost the inverse of the “objective” approach we find in Millier, for Goldsensohn is very much a part of her own text, which begins with the record of a trip to Brazil, where she became the true discoverer of a Bishop poem, of 24 lines, that had never before been circulated, “It is marvellous to wake up together.” Goldensohn became a pilgrim of sorts, following in the poet’s own tracks so that her “reading of the poetry. . . would not be too narrow or too passive.” We sense she is in awe of Bishop and is fulfilling some dream, one not just associated with literary criticism: “On the bus to Ouro Preto, a couple of hours north of Rio. . . I lean forward in the front seat of the bus climbing heights with an exhilarating recklessness. . . . This is the road that Bishop must have taken every time she left Rio for the house I am going to see.”

Quotidian details, such as those regarding the awkwardness of eating green melon like a traveler, we could take or leave. But the overall effect of this story is exhilarating, as when the “uneasy” Linda Nemer, the Brazilian owner of Bishop’s house, looks over the shoulder of Goldensohn as she unfolds her treasure—a piece of onionskin paper that had been tucked into one of Bishop’s notebooks.

What is most exciting about the discovery of this particular poem at this particular moment in Bishop scholarship is that it is a love poem, as Goldensohn notes, “one of the few in which there is a suggestion of same-sex love.” In it, lovers awaken just as an electrical storm passes overhead. The verses are infused with the delight of unleashed energy and blue light, which awakens in the poet the idea of pleasure and even sensuality, a quality notably absent from most of her published work. This is especially true of the last stanza:

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

Goldensohn argues persuasively that the idea of sexual fulfillment was not the raison d’etre of Bishop’s poetic mission in these lines. And in fact, the discussion of the poem in Chapter Two branches out into an engaging discussion of various images in Bishop’s poetry, including wires, birdcages, storms. “It is marvellous to wake up together” brought many of these images together in the most powerful and “climactic” manner.

The excitement of these early chapters gives way to a potpourri of interesting topics, including explorations of each of Bishop’s three collections. As in Millier’s text, we find a hardy discussion of Moore’s and Lowell’s impact on Bishop, and here we are treated to a lively exegesis of “Invitation to Miss Moore.” Goldensohn introduces us to Neruda’s elegy for Alberto Rojas Jimenez, the drowned poet, which was the inspiration and provided the structural framework for Bishop’s more fanciful tribute to Moore, in which she at once acknowledges her debt to and declares her independence from her early poetic mentor.

Just as useful is a joint discussion of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to Bishop, and Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” dedicated to Lowell. Lowell stated that he was indebted to Bishop for the way his poem is structured and how, in the end, it focuses on the skunk itself. “The Armadillo,” observes Goldensohn, concludes in a more Lowell-like manner, with an italicized quatrain that makes a bold statement, perhaps “to emulate the blaze and finish that excited [Bishop] in Lowell’s Life Studies.” These two poets disagreed about poetic ethics; in the end Bishop found Lowell’s use of the truth to be immoral. Yet it is obvious that she found a necessary openness in his poetry that helped her find more room for the slightly autobiographical in some of her later work.

Geography III, Goldensohn rightly asserts, is not only Bishop’s most mature collection but a book that exhibits full integrity, planning, and unification—a capstone to her other work. The discussion of the poems in this last collection points out Bishop’s various permutations of the idea of loss and ways of surviving it, the most obvious poem in this genre being “One Art,” a memorable villanelle whose formal structure keeps in check an almost confessional burden: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Or Crusoe’s timeworn voice in the last lines of “Crusoe in England”: “—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” In “Night City” even “the sky is dead,” and in “Five Flights Up,” yesterday is “almost impossible to lift.”

Along with a fascinating “Autobiographical Sketch” by Bishop, included here in an introductory section entitled “Biographical Information,” Goldensohn’s study contains a number of wonderful black-and-white photos, some of which Bishop took herself (including one of her Brazilian birdcage). Millier’s book, likewise, includes two inserts. One picture, of Elizabeth wearing jeans and sitting in a wicker chair, captures a face of seeming content, a slight smile, eyes looking sideways and down—away from the lens (the picture graces the jacket, as well). Here, at Samambaia, in 1954, she looks comfortable with herself. Even wise. From reading these two portraits of Bishop, we know such comfort was probably short-lived, that had someone asked her at that moment whether she felt wise, she would no doubt have humbly demurred. We can almost imagine her in her estudio later that day, wondering about the nature of poetry, and wishing she could only write it.


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