Volume 21, Issue 1
Review by Heather Treseler, Worcester State University
White, Gillian. Lyric Shame, The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 350 pages with index. ISBN 978-0-674-73439-5
If literary criticism has an oblique fourth wall, Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry provocatively breaks it, rendering an epistemology attuned to the ways in which poems’ complexities evade our most entrenched (and embattled) modes of reading them. Taking as case studies the reception histories, selected poems, and warring monikers attached to Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Bernadette Mayer, White explores the tendencies—and limiting taxonomies—in dominant reading practices. These include the New Critics’ (and their descendants’) idealization of the lyric as a vehicle for a uniquely personal “speaking” subject. But White also critiques anti-lyricism and latter-day language poetics with its ethical resistance to “expressive” verse, thought to be symptomatic of late capitalism, solipsism, or a neo-Romantic flight from the challenges of post-structuralism and modernity.
Engagingly, White mobilizes the work of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick whose Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003) elucidated the ways in which shame functions as a “‘transformational grammar’” and a “free radical” capable of inducing “‘durable, structural changes in one’s relation and interpretative strategies’” between self and other. White extends Sedgwick’s theory from its intersubjective context to “institutions of literary interpretation” enshrined in the academy, analyzing the ways in which critics employ notions of shame to define, defend, or enliven the aesthetic values they champion in particular poets and poems. The possibility of interpreting—or engaging with—post-war and contemporary American poetry without invoking the affective economies in pro- or anti-lyric stances is the book’s overarching subject, and White’s triangulation of her thesis in analyses of poems by Bishop, Sexton, and Mayer enlivens questions for scholars of these figures while also posing a provocative critique of poetic theory more generally.
White’s book begins with a bark and a wag: she invokes the playful dog in Bishop’s “Five Flights Up” and its owner’s stern response (“You ought to be ashamed!”) to his pet’s show of jouissance as an instance in which Bishop illustrates the dark matter of shame, its incendiary capacity to travel between subjects and objects, and its affective enlistment of the reader in positions of guilt and doubt, projection and abstraction. Taking Bishop’s dog as a metaphor for critics’ tendency to anthropomorphize (and punish) the lyric poem for its tendency to escape the reach of nomenclature, White asks: “What if we interpret the dog that has no sense of shame, as he ‘rushes in circles in the fallen leaves,’ as a figure for what poems do in the current literary culture, circling about amid the question of shame? How does our reading of this poem (indeed, of post-World War II American poetry) produce a sense of shame, especially if the ‘owner’s voice arises’ (and here, we may read ‘owner’ to include critics or the dominant interpretative culture) to call it a lyric poem, to make its I a ‘lyric I’?”
With admirable nuance and dexterity, White glosses a history of the lyric’s defining agents (and detractors) from the Horatian gesture of recusatio in antiquity through John Stuart Mill’s influential model of the lyric as “overheard” speech, mid-century New Critics’ privileging of lyric privacy, Confessionalism’s performative transgressions, and Ron Silliman’s defense of poems’ desirable “propriety” in presenting a “‘compacted persona [who] speaks a kind of metaphorized testimonial.’” White argues that many anti-lyric stances remain “lyric” in their signature gestures, such that poems’ full effect and affect, methods and discursive modes have escaped critics’ appraisal. Reading White’s critique, one can picture Bishop’s seemingly irrepressible dog playing in the yard, “shamelessly” refusing to heed the punitive claims of various “owners” or arbiters of poetic taste, disobeying supposed “rules” that it subverts or refuses to recognize.
The chapter on Bishop, “You Ought to Be Ashamed (But Aren’t)” is of particular interest as White shows how—throughout the course of her career—Bishop managed to exceed or resist both New Critical and post-Language paradigms of poetic value. In connection with Bishop’s early review essay “Unsuperstitious Dr. Williams” and charmingly Freudian doggerel “Now I’m adjusted to reality” from the 1940s, White asserts that Bishop was influenced, from the beginning of her career, by early modernist and psychoanalytic critiques of mimesis and Romantic egotism. Poems such as “Florida” and “The Bight,” in White’s illustrative reading of them, show Bishop working against the centered “speaking” subject of the New Critical idiom with an infusion of Williams-esque solidity and suspicion of a univocal authorizing subjectivity. White argues that Bishop’s poetics stage a “quiet” and “talky” revolt in “rhetoric” and “diction” (rather than syntax), one more subtle than the Objectivists’ allegiance to the concrete, the staged personae of Confessionalism, or the chthonic baseline of the Beats.
Given Bishop’s contest of the “lyrical I” and her insertion of distance where a New Critical reader might expect a first-person epiphany, White concludes that Bishop has often been misjudged by anti-lyric critics who require that political resistance (to an “authoritative-I”) appears as disjunctive syntax. In explications so philosophically careful as to be tender, White tracks Bishop’s dexterous entanglement of subjective perception and social discourse in poems such as “Filling Station” and “Arrival in Santos,” producing what White aptly terms a “metadiscursive” poetry that appears to work both with and against the “premises of an expressive speaker.”
White’s equally illustrative chapters on Sexton, Mayer, and the 1990s “lyric shame” poems of apologetic epiphany draw a portrait not only of these important figures and movements but of a hitherto shadowy part of the critical landscape. Showing where dominant poetic paradigms have punished, shamed, or blindly missed the impish travel of the protean lyric, White’s book calls for a recasting of how we read, teach, and interpret poetry vis-à-vis the panoply of aesthetic possibilities available to poets in this most recent century and now.
Review by David Hoak, Los Angeles, California
Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. 209 pages. ISBN: 978-0-691-15411-4
With On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Tóibín gives us a welcome and rare contribution to Bishop studies. Here is a book by a gay writer probing the dimensions of his own identity with Bishop. Neither detailed biography, nor scholarly treatise, the result is a loving and moving (and sometimes funny) tribute from a perspective that offers readers a bracing glimpse into both writers’ lives.
Bishop fans and scholars will need to be patient in the book’s early going. Perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, Tóibín has assumed little familiarity with Bishop or her poetry and the discussion here, though insightful, can wander a bit. However, the book gathers force and depth as it moves towards its final sections where we find the compassion and eloquence that are the hallmarks of this great writer’s art.
Tóibín was born and raised near the sea in the southeast of Ireland. When he was eight years old, his father developed a serious illness requiring brain surgery. His death four years later, and the silence that surrounded it, left a profound imprint of loss on the boy. Later, leaving the country as a young adult to “escape” its suffocating Catholicism and conservatism, Tóibín seemed to think he might find a “replacement for home.” As his early career unfolded, he began to notice that, regardless of subject or setting, a tone of grief and exile would invariably intrude into his writing. This welling up of Irish memory came as a surprise; he had never thought of his home and childhood as a thing he could or would need to write about. So began his own search for home in the company of another searcher, Elizabeth Bishop, whose Selected Poems, always close at hand, became a “treasured book.”
Tóibín’s experience of loss, of escape and especially of silence opens for him a window into Bishop’s state of mind on her arrival in Brazil. She wanted, he says, “a Brazil…free of memories, a place where our knowledge was not historical.” He intuits her need, early, to “exoticize the country,” to make of it a place where the cessation of rain, as at the end of “Questions of Travel,” could create a “sudden golden silence” to be sought after again and again in her poems. He finds, as others have, a fresh emphasis on landscape and description and observes the poet allowing her new surroundings to “enter her spirit.”
In convincing readings, Tóibín singles out two poems of Bishop’s that he sees as singular within her work about Brazil. The first is “The Armadillo” in which he hears a “frightened, shivering quality…” He traces Bishop’s movement from the “customary casualness” of her opening to her “ominous” comparison of the fire balloons’ paper chambers to hearts. He marks a turning point at the poem’s first imperfect rhyme (“forsaking us” with “dangerous”) as the balloons are revealed to be lethal when they fall from the sky. He sees Bishop’s frantic, final, italicized quatrain as an “enormous risk,” a departure from her preoccupation with the past. With quickening fear and alarm, she has, Tóibín says, “finally let the present into a poem.” Tóibín goes on to read the much later “Santarém” as a triumph of modulating tone and meandering, cautionary, retrospective musing in the voice of “a lone survivor” trying one last time to make comfort of memory. He ends his discussion of this poem with the provocative suggestion that the wasp’s nest is “the closest to a symbolic object in Bishop’s entire work.”
Around the book’s midpoint, Tóibín introduces the poet Thom Gunn. Gunn is another touchstone for the author. He is another poet of silence, another person raised partly by aunts, another person who left where he was from and settled in a beautiful place by the sea, another person who lost a parent (mother, suicide) as a child and needed years to find a way of allowing this loss to enter his work. (Tóibín stops his narrative briefly to note that four authors he had read passionately as an older teenager without knowing they were gay, Bishop, Gunn, Baldwin and Mann, turned out also to be writers who lost a parent in childhood or early adulthood.)
Although neither poet was a particular influence on the other, Tóibín sees Bishop and Gunn as twinned in their need to mask “grief with reason.” He recognizes at the center of their work an “immense and powerful withholding.” Their allergy to what was known as the “confessional” style was absolute, Bishop being well known for writing “you just wished they’d kept some of these things to themselves.” Gunn’s briefer denunciation, in a 2000 interview, struck a characteristically humorous gay note: “I don’t want to be Sylvia Plath.” It is in his discussion of Bishop and Gunn that Tóibín’s book takes flight. You can hear his pleasure in weaving together his love of these two poets. His words sent me back to my copy of Gunn’s Collected Poems for a refresher.
Bishop liked Gunn’s poetry although it’s hard to know how much of it she read. Gunn seems to have kept up with Bishop’s published poetry, included her work in classes he taught at UC Berkeley and wrote an article about her poetry for the TLS in 1990. Ironically, for an author whose poetics had so much in common with hers, he didn’t respond at first to her early work. What changed his mind, according to Tóibín, were the six major poems of Geography III. Tóibín devotes special attention to two of them, “One Art” and “Poem.” He makes a brilliant comparison between the latter poem and Gunn’s well known “In Santa Maria del Popolo.” In its calm poise and formal control, the Gunn poem would have pleased Bishop (it’s possible she knew it; its creation preceded that of Poem by perhaps twenty years). But Tóibín wants us to focus on something else. In each poem, the poet studies a painting and, after several passages of description, encounters a problem: the question of where next to turn. Each solves the problem in the same way with the poet allowed “a sudden recognition” that becomes a means of ascent to an elevated and elegiac finish. In ending his discussion, Tóibín finds his own heightened language, observing each poet “… broken down briefly by something … looked at closely and almost … understood.” Then each realizing “something more important than what they had almost understood,” which “…seemed finally to elude them as well.”
Late in his book Tóibín reflects on Bishop’s relationships with Lowell, Moore and Swenson. On the subject of Lowell he is astute, finding as others have a key to their relationship’s longevity and vitality in the distance Bishop carefully maintained from him. He marvels at her managing both to love and admire Lowell while remaining free of his manic gravity and unscathed by his worst instincts. In her letters to Lowell, he often finds Bishop employing strategies characteristic of her poetry: an instinct for the thing known but not said, or not quite said; the comment expressed but hedged by doubt, or just left unspoken. This restraint finally gave way in Bishop’s scolding of Lowell for the poems he made out of Elizabeth Hardwick’s painful letters. Her charge of “infinite mischief” was followed by her well-known, “But art just isn’t worth that much,” perhaps the single most revealing declaration in all of Bishop’s letters.
Tóibín is well-read in the many twists and turns of Bishop’s relationship with Moore. He quotes Moore’s prescient 1938 warning to Bishop that her “tentativeness and interiorizing” were both “dangers as well as your strengths.” Tóibín sees these two qualities not only as becoming Bishop’s “mainstays,” but as marking a divide between their poetics. One wonders what Moore would have made of the fragments and drafts of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. Tóibín’s view of Juke-Box comes as a surprise. He cites only the untitled poem beginning “Close close all night” as meriting a place in Bishop’s mature canon. To me, this small, perfect poem is as wondrously small and perfect as its neighbor in Juke-Box, the verse beginning, “Dear, my compass…” Lloyd Schwartz, in his review of On Bishop, notes with surprise that Tóibín overlooks the poignant “Breakfast Song.” I share his wonder at this omission. It seems to me that several of Bishop’s other unpublished works manage to clear her high bar but, as Schwartz points out, we’ll probably never grasp completely why Bishop kept them to herself.
As for May Swenson, Tóibín leaves us wishing for more. Among poets, only Lowell and Moore exchanged more correspondence with Bishop over her long letter writing career than Swenson. Although she was little more than two years younger than Bishop, Swenson seems often to have looked up to the older poet with the eyes of an acolyte. There was something else behind that gaze as well. Tóibín quotes from a rough, powerful, unpublished poem about Bishop full of yearning that laments in closing: “…I have never known you years/and years — and love/the unknown you.”
As with Lowell, Bishop managed her distance from Swenson, but clearly came to treasure their friendship and eventually to view her as a trusted peer. Although both poets turned their backs on the religious strictures of their childhoods, Swenson seems to have emerged with the looser attitude towards sex, sexuality and the body. Tóibín can’t resist the irony of Bishop’s insisting on the shape and vocabulary of “Roosters” after the Moores had had their way with it, only to turn around years later and cavil with Swenson’s use of “loins,” “flanks” and “thighs.” Just imagining Elizabeth Bishop pronounce those words makes a scholar smile. Perhaps Swenson had a laugh, too. Undoubtedly, May Swenson never lost her deep kindred feeling for Bishop. Her magnificent elegy, “In the Bodies of Words,” written in the days after Bishop’s death, is as profound and moving a tribute to Bishop as “North Haven” is to Lowell. Tóibín has much to say about “North Haven” but doesn’t mention Swenson’s poem. But we must forgive him if his lamp runs low; by the end of this long and loving appreciation, he has spent much light on his dear Elizabeth Bishop.
Review by Angus Cleghorn, Seneca College and Jonathan Ellis, Sheffield University
Ravinthiran, Vidyan. Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2015. 229 pages with index. ISBN: 978-1-61148-681-0
Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic represents a compelling and fundamental breakthrough in Elizabeth Bishop scholarship as well as in the study of literary genre. It explores Bishop’s prose-rhythms in poems, letters, and other writings and the extent to which she weaves poetry into prose, particularly in hybrid forms, such as the prose poem “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics.” In other words, this book is highly ambitious in its rendering of Bishop’s nuanced poetics and prosaic style.
The book is beautifully written, informed not just by Bishop critics but also by important (and neglected) poetry critics of at least the last 100 years. The focus on the book at first sounds relatively narrow—Bishop’s poetics of prose—but as the argument develops, the author mounts a convincing case for the centrality of questions of genre to Bishop’s entire oeuvre. The focus on Bishop’s letters and the literary prose is particularly welcome. The nuanced close readings are particularly fine, so too the metrical readings of lines of poetry and prose. “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” “The End of March” and “Santarem” are each shown to exhibit unique integrations of prose in poetry, for example. The book will be a building block for further studies of Bishop’s prose rhythms, and her innovative poetics in the ongoing evolution of poetry. Scholars and poets will delight on hundreds of pithy observations, fresh readings and analyses made here.
Still, there is room for development. Ravinthiran’s focus on the prosaic in poetry does not extend through Bishop’s flat-out prose works. Bishop’s Prose is almost 500 pages long, but analysis of the literary prose is confined to half a dozen stories here (‘In the Village,’ ‘Primer Class,’ ‘The Sea & Its Shore’). What about Bishop’s longest prose work, Brazil? Was she right to disown it in later life? And what about her essays, reviews and translations? How do these works fit or float free of the author’s overall thesis? Consideration of these questions would be fruitful.
The awareness of a larger poetic world outside Bishop studies is fresh and new. Bishop is located in a genuinely Anglo-American tradition that includes not just the usual suspects—Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Stevens, Moore and Lowell—but poets such as Auden and Hughes as well. And while many Bishop critics are put to good use, readers will be pleasantly surprised by Ravinthiran’s innovative application of Victorian-Edwardian critic George Saintsbury. There’s a reviewer’s snap to some of the critical judgments that is both engaging and provocative. One has the sense that the author has more to say and is willing to say it at almost every juncture. We have no doubt that this is a book that will both change Bishop scholarship at the same time as refining our understanding of twentieth-century poetic history.
Sheffield Conference Reviews from the Inside Out
1st Review by Sophie Baldock, University of Sheffield
Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel: 50 Years Later
A Conference at Halifax Hall, University of Sheffield
From 25-27th June 2015 the University of Sheffield hosted an international conference to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Elizabeth Bishop’s third collection of poems, Questions of Travel (1965), and in recognition of Bishop as a major influence on contemporary British and Irish poets. As well as an exciting and varied array of 55 papers, the schedule also included three plenary lectures, a wine tasting, poetry reading, and a screening of a short poem-film based on the poem “Questions of Travel,” which was specially commissioned to mark the conference by organiser Jonathan Ellis.
Day one of the conference began on a high note, with a panel devoted to questions of humour. All three papers noted that Bishop’s humour rests on creating relationships between seemingly opposed states. Rachel Trousdale (Northeastern University, USA) argued that in poems such as “Manuelzinho” and “Filling Station”, Bishop creates a fine balance between sympathy for the poems’ subjects as well as a note of superiority, and that it is finally this apparent tension between mocking and humour that enables the poems’ potential for complex interpersonal insight. Hugh Haughton (University of York, UK) found connections between humour and armour, crying and laughing, observing that every poem if it does not make you laugh at least makes you smile. Peter Swaab (UCL, UK) analysed Bishop’s careful deployment of exclamation marks in her work, a wordless sign, yet one that can articulate a (humorous) gap between what is written and what we as readers understand.
The first of two panels on Bishop and animals continued the theme of a potential for interpersonal (and, in this case, inter-species) insight embedded in Bishop’s poems. Amy Waite (University of Oxford, UK) explored Bishop’s poems from the theoretical perspective of the posthuman, linking this to Bishop’s comments in her famous “Darwin letter” about the need for “self-forgetfulness” in the creation of art, as well as Bishop’s fascination with the dream-like world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Bishop’s animal poems, like her humour, perform a balancing act between forms of egotistical and self-forgetful observation. A focus on modes of looking was also at the heart of JT Welsch’s paper (York St John University, UK) on “The Moose,” in which he looked at the poem’s cinematic atmosphere. In a feat of scholarly sleuthing, Welsch re-traced the original Greyhound bus journey that Bishop likely took in 1946, to show how the memory-inflected perspective in the poem is distorted, confusing Nova Scotian place names and figuring the moose as much larger than it could have been in reality.
The relationships between life, art and memory again came to the fore in a panel on “Bishop and Biography.” Jonathan Ellis (Sheffield University, UK) centred his discussion on Colm Tóibín’s recent critical study-cum-memoir On Elizabeth Bishop. Ellis reflected on the brilliance as well as the possible limitations of this highly personal study from the Irish novelist. The book’s merit, Ellis argued, is in the way that Tóibín maps his own feelings of isolation growing up in a small community onto Bishop, subtly drawing out the ways in which Bishop’s work has deeply influenced his own. Although most of the book’s arguments are not new, Ellis observed, they are beautifully and concisely phrased in a manner that pays tribute to Bishop’s own style of omission and reticence. In his paper, Thomas Travisano (Hartwick College, USA) read excerpts from his forthcoming biography of Bishop, focusing in particular on the early part of Bishop’s residence in Brazil. In doing so, he sought to unravel the well-worn story of Bishop’s much-extended initial stay in Brazil after an allergic reaction to the fruit of a cashew tree. Travisano suggested, instead, that the unexpected birthday gift of Uncle Sam the toucan might have acted as a catalyst in Bishop’s decision to stay at Samambaia.
Day one was brought to a close with, ironically, reflections on the way that Bishop’s poems continually resist a sense of closure. Stephen Burt (Harvard University, USA) gave a plenary titled “Irreplaceable Bishop” in which he focused on the recurrence of rainbows in Bishop’s poems, arguing that Bishop is the only modern poet to have returned repeatedly to the image of the rainbow in such complex ways that suggest both freedom and a lack of formal closure. He analysed several examples of rainbows in her work, including those that appear in the spilled oil of “The Fish” and the “rainbow-bird” glimpsed in “Sonnet.” Burt also speculated on the changing meanings of the word “gay” in relation to its use in “Sonnet,” and the contemporaneous creation of the rainbow pride flag in 1978. As alluded to in the title “Irreplaceable Bishop” (perhaps a nod to Judy Garland’s “Embraceable You,” and Garland’s status as another figure with rainbow connections) Burt also looked at Bishop’s rich poetic legacy. He briefly surveyed some of the many contemporary poets whom Bishop has inspired (including Lavinia Greenlaw and Allan Peterson), concluding that none can ever quite match Bishop’s compactly perfect oeuvre.
The second plenary of the conference, given by Linda Anderson (Newcastle University, UK), and titled “A Palimpsestic Journey: Repetition and Remembering in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry,” focused also on Bishop’s return to certain images and ideas in poems throughout her career. Anderson drew on the newly accessible letters that Bishop drafted to her psychoanalyst Dr Ruth Foster in 1947 to argue that repeated motifs in Bishop’s poetry suggest a kind of Freudian working-through of experience. Anderson analysed specific instances of repetition, return and face-to-face encounter in poems such as “Cirque d’Hiver” and “The Prodigal,” citing Bishop’s comment in a letter to Dr Foster, in which Bishop writes (quoting Degas): “Art doesn’t grow wider, it recapitulates.” The Dr Foster letters were a source for others during the conference including Heather Treseler (Worcester State University, USA), who used these letters as a psychoanalytic backdrop to her analysis of Bishop’s Washington D.C. poems. Treseler showed how certain images returned in Bishop’s poem, observing that in the poem “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress” a previous description of Bishop’s “wall-eyed” grandfather returns to merge with the imposing “wall-eyed” stare of the Capitol building.
Another set of newly discovered letters – those sent from Lota de Macedo Soares to Bishop from 1967 in the years before her suicide – were the focus of a roundtable featuring Dave Hoak (Independent Scholar), Regina Przybycien (Jagiellonian University, Poland), Lloyd Schwartz (University of Massachusetts, USA) and Thomas Travisano. Dave Hoak gave a fascinating and moving account of the letters, which were discovered in a locked chest among the belongings of the late Alice Methfessel, and are now part of Bishop’s archive at Vassar. Hoak read excerpts from the letters, which provide a picture of Lota’s lively, polyglot writing style and shed light on her unsettled state and the increasingly strained relationship with Bishop. The letters include a reference to Bishop’s mother’s watch in a discussion of the pair’s wills, which offers clues to biographical details in Bishop’s famous masterpiece “One Art.” Continuing with the theme of discovered letters, Lloyd Schwartz recounted his finding of a letter from Bishop to Lota that miraculously fell out of a copy of Freud’s Collected Works, which had previously belonged to Lota. Written in December 1966 while Lota was in hospital, the letter is one of the very few from Bishop to Lota to survive since most were destroyed after Lota’s death.
Day two ended with a wonderful wine tasting hosted by wine writer Richard Mayson, featuring wines from seven countries that Bishop lived in or visited on her travels. This was followed by a poetry reading given by poets Paul Batchelor, Frances Leviston, Conor O’Callaghan and Caitríona O’Reilly, and later a barbeque.
The final day of the conference began with papers on the relationship between Bishop and Robert Lowell. Melissa Zeiger (Dartmouth College, USA) compared Lowell’s praise for Bishop’s “Riverman” with his earlier poem “Water,” written as a tribute for Bishop, and based on her memory (albeit misremembered by Lowell) of a dream in which she saw a mermaid clinging to a rock. Drawing on the correspondence between the two poets, Zeiger analysed the shamanic figure of the riverman, and the ways in which Bishop creates in the poem an alien underwater realm that in many ways frees her from Lowell’s poetic influence. This led to a fascinating discussion in the Q&A regarding implicit suggestions of sexual transgression contained in the poem’s references to yellow skin and virgin mirrors. Ruth Hawthorn (Independent Scholar) also drew on the poem “Water,” and the role played by remembering and misremembering in the relationship between the two poets. Hawthorn focused on Bishop’s elegy for Lowell, “North Haven”, seen previously by critics as a poem in which Bishop fondly remembers her friend but also subtly distances herself from his poetic style, rebuking him for his poetic bad habit of constantly altering even finished poems “revise, revise, revise.” Hawthorn re-framed the poem, recalling Lowell’s own elegies for his poet friends including Delmore Schwartz, to show how Bishop’s poem in many ways draws on these earlier poems, in part indulging in elements of Lowell’s more romanticised elegiac verses in her own tribute to her friend.
This attention to lines of poetic influence was also present elsewhere in the conference, with other papers shedding light on connections between Bishop and poets ranging from her mid-century peers, contemporary poets such as Sinéad Morrissey, and the French symbolists. Angus Cleghorn (Seneca College, Toronto, Canada) looked at previously neglected connections between Bishop and Baudelaire, demonstrating Bishop’s use of Baudelaire as a hedonistic model in her “Bone Key” poems, which allows her to break free from the restraints of her north Atlantic upbringing and its continuation in the form of Marianne Moore’s mentorship.
Bishop’s prose took centre stage in a panel devoted to the brilliance of her letters and literary criticism. In my own paper I looked at Bishop’s early Brazil letters in conjunction with the poems in Questions of Travel, focusing in particular on Bishop’s fascination with birds in letters (particularly the hummingbird), and as a kind of metaphor for travelling mail. Siobhan Phillips (Dickinson College, USA) analysed the relationships between the personal and political in Bishop’s correspondence in Brazil, highlighting the paradox that letters are positioned as separate from, yet are at the same time vital to, the public realm. Phillips suggested that, through her letters to friends in North America, Bishop cultivated a kind of reverse ambassadorship for Brazil. Phillips argued that the principles of politeness and inter-subjective exchange that letters espouse work to challenge economically motivated relationships between North and South America, and US dominance. Michael O’Neill (Durham University, UK) also addressed the relationship between Bishop’s prose writing and her attention to manners and morals in his analysis of Bishop’s literary criticism. O’Neill argued that, as a critic, Bishop’s watchword is watchfulness, providing the example of Bishop’s accomplished early essay on Hopkins, “Notes on Timing.”
Deryn Rees-Jones (Liverpool University, UK) gave the final plenary, titled “Bishop’s Nagging Thoughts,” which centred on the complex verbal patterning featured in the poem “Questions of Travel,” and repetitions in the volume as a whole (picking up again on the central themes of repetition and return discussed in the two previous plenary speakers’ talks). Drawing on manuscript drafts of Questions of Travel, Rees-Jones demonstrated that the poems contained in the “Brazil” and “Elsewhere” sections were drafted in parallel rather than sequentially. Rees-Jones argued, therefore, that the volume should be read as a whole, and poems that appear separate are closely interwoven. The poems also overlap with Bishop’s story “In the Village,” originally published as part of Questions of Travel. Both story and poems recall a childhood state when Bishop was acquiring language, and show Bishop’s fascination with homophones and word/sound patterning e.g. “would” and “wood,” “hum” and “home.” The plenary was followed by a screening of a poem-film based on “Questions of Travel,” a collaboration between Rees-Jones and artist Charlotte Hodes. The film features an utterly compelling and beautiful rendition of the poem, which formed a visual counterpoint to the themes discussed in the plenary.
Forms of visual and verbal patterning in Bishop’s poetry emerged as a theme of the conference. Susan Rosenbaum’s (University of Georgia, USA) paper honed in on the case of the fallen “s” in “Arrival at Santos,” featuring Miss Breen from “Glens Fall / s, New York.” Rosenbaum read this instance as Bishop’s subtle adaptation of avant-garde strategies, comparing the visual poetics and sense of vertigo in the poem to examples of concrete poetry, and the work of ee cummings, whom Bishop admired. Katrina Mayson’s (Sheffield University, UK) paper on patterns of three in Bishop’s poetry showed a similar attention to visual/verbal patterns. Taking her lead from Bishop’s correspondence with Moore on the subject of Bishop’s “Roosters,” in which Bishop defends her choice of the tercet pattern, although fears she may have “a bad case of the threes,” Mayson pointed out Bishop’s attraction to patterns of three throughout her career, finding in this echoes of the holy trinity.
It is fitting that a conference devoted to Questions of Travel came to a close with meditations on houses and homes in Bishop’s poetry. Jo Gill (Exeter University, UK) reflected on what she termed Bishop’s “architectural poetics,” demonstrating how Bishop’s modes of architectural looking developed in tandem with fast-paced urban change during 1930s New York. Gill drew parallels between the upside-down perspective in Bishop’s “Love Lies Sleeping” and the photographic style of Berenice Abbott, remarking that both share a concern in their work with how to represent the changing city. Moving on to her Brazil poems, Gill read “Song for the Rainy Season,” often seen as celebratory, as demonstrating Bishop’s ambivalent reaction to the house. James McCorkle (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, USA) focused on a shifting sense of home in Bishop’s representation of islands, analysing island poems such as “Crusoe in England,” and comparing the structure of Questions of Travel to a series of island spaces. Fiona Shaw (Northumbria University, UK) echoed a concern with houses that are not homes in a consideration of the relationship between houses and creativity. Drawing on Bishop’s 1937 story “The Sea & Its Shore,” in which the protagonist Edwin Boomer lives in a tiny, partly derelict house, Shaw suggested that the very vulnerability of Bishop’s houses enables their creativity, and that Bishop was able to make a home for herself in her poems, but only while they remained unfinished.
Overall, it was a pleasure and a privilege to attend such a lively, intellectually nourishing and welcoming conference. All those I spoke to agreed that the quality of papers was immensely high, and thus plans for a publication based around the conference are in the pipeline. Parallel panels meant that regrettably I could not attend all of the papers, and I am certain to have missed out a number of excellent contributions in this review. Many thanks go to the conference organiser, Jonathan Ellis, for his sterling work in bringing together Bishop scholars and fans from around the world, and for generously hosting such an unforgettable conference.
2nd Review by Yvette Mulder, Berg en Terblijt, The Netherlands
At the first conference I ever attended, I may have managed to slightly annoy two Creative Writing teachers by bluntly exclaiming that I do believe— and thus agree with Elizabeth Bishop— that the art of writing (anything at all) cannot be taught. Presumably because of this manner of thinking, it is plausible to imagine I’m not at all a writer: I simply never learned the Art myself. Despite of this, or maybe because of it, I sincerely hope you will bear with me and enjoy my very non-academic impression of the ‘Elizabeth Bishop – Questions of Travel: 50 Years Later conference.
Perhaps the only reason I felt confident asking Jonathan Ellis if non-academics were welcome too, was the fact I knew Elizabeth Bishop wasn’t much of an academic herself. It wasn’t unimaginable to me she may have actually appreciated the disruption. Always an avid reader, I am aware how wonderful it can be when words on a page start to speak to you— right there, straight from the pages to the senses. Still, I couldn’t have been prepared for the impact Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry instantly seemed to have on me, like falling head over heels in love – the kind of love which makes it perfectly clear it is here to stay.
Arriving at Halifax Hall the day before the conference would start, my first encounter happened to be with my hotel-room door, which refused to open once I was inside. Feeling trapped isn’t pleasant, so after several attempts at opening the stubborn thing I decided to let go of my pride and call the reception desk. Interestingly, the response sounded as if there had been guests in the past with the same kind of problem (“Oh— you just need to pull that door really hard”). Not at all unacquainted with awkwardness, I was sincerely hoping this confrontation wouldn’t set the tone for the rest of my attending the conference….
The next morning I was considerably nervous before going to breakfast (by then I had managed to conquer the reluctant door). I found myself in luck by running into a friendly Italian hotel guest, Francesco Rognoni, whom I guess was less lucky to be paired with me for breakfast. I had no idea who he was, nor that he was a conference attender as well, but I did learn straight away he was of the talkative kind. It made me feel slightly more at ease, although it meant sacrificing my breakfast altogether. This didn’t matter at all, as my new Italian friend swiftly introduced me to a couple who turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Travisano. Of course I had read Words in Air, really the most exquisite title for a book of correspondence one could think of, though unaware of whom Thomas Travisano was (hereby I do apologize). It is terribly easy to be passionate about something (or someone, if you will) as well as ignorant at the same time.
The much larger, round table next to us turned out to be a place for reunion. It was pleasant to watch, even though I recognized just one person in this group of familiarity. Mr. Schwartz couldn’t possibly be missed: splendidly tall, with outstanding long, white hair. I had seen him on a picture, found while I was searching for his e-mail address, earlier this year after buying the Library of America edition, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. I found myself standing next to Mr. Schwartz at the breakfast counter, searching for something to eat & drink, wishing him a ‘good morning!’, then retreating back to the table where my new Italian friend still kept me sublime company, and would continue to do so throughout the conference.
After a few readings given that morning, and still not entirely sure if, or rather how I fitted in to all of this, I bought a book, which is kind of my personal comforting practice when feeling out of place. It was one I had my eye on for quite a while but had postponed buying (there are oh so many good books on Elizabeth Bishop I could afford in the short amount of time since discovering her), and there it was! Exchanging Hats, displayed on the table of Carcanett Press. Two hardcover editions – many paperbacks. Happily I spent my ‘souvenir’ money on one of those two hardcovers (the best looking one, as the lady selling the books compared the two of them with me). It’s a breathtaking book and one I’m terribly fond of.
A few hours onwards the Dining Room got illuminated by rainbows, rainbows— even when a Harvard professor (Stephen Burt) asks his audience whether or not he talks too fast, one doesn’t really tell him he does. I’d like a transcript of his lecture instead, even though it was delightful, as well as interesting, observing his enthusiasm. I’m sure he made much more sense to those who have English as their first language.
Later that day (‘evening free’) I went out, in search for Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens. On the map it looked like one couldn’t possibly miss them, yet somehow I managed to walk entirely around the area. When I did finally find a gate, a note stuck to it said the gardens were closed – closed early because of a film crew present. Disappointed, still quite early in the evening, I turned round. On my way back to the hotel, a rather large group of people I recognized from the conference was walking in the opposite direction towards town, undoubtedly for dinner, talking animatedly. Back in my room, turning on my computer, checking twitter, I saw that quote – retweeted by Jonathan Ellis – from the Paris Review interview: “Photographers, insurance salesmen, and funeral directors are the worst forms of life.”
I am a photographer! Playing with rainbow colours and loving her poetry— what was I doing here?
The answer provided itself the next morning after the Brazil / Brasil panel, which had the most beautiful paper title of the conference (‘Eros in brushstrokes of light and shade’), and included a talk on a certain 2013 film about Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil. Little did I know beforehand how much Reaching for the Moon appeared to act like an approaching thunderstorm— After all it was because of this film I came to learn about Elizabeth Bishop, just over a year ago at the time of the conference. Yes, I am one of the ‘new ones’, if you like, as one not so subtle student titled me during lunch the first day, when being questioned who I was and what I was doing.
After all of the negative responses following the panel’s paper referring to Reaching for the Moon, I was reluctant yet determined to say at least something positive about the film— whether it was any good or not (depending on one’s taste perhaps – I rather disliked the easy rainy metaphors but enjoyed the setting overall), it had brought Elizabeth Bishop to my attention and therefore I’m very grateful. Factuality easily flies out of the window when it comes to the portrayal of writers on the big screen. They’re always depressed, always difficult and too complex, (doesn’t ‘difficult’ in this respect mean you’re just not capable, or willing to try and understand another human being?) always without a sense of humor. This image serves the public and the filmmaking industry well. Reaching for the Moon had wonderful actresses in complicated roles, as well as featuring exquisite lines of poetry. Quickly after having said all of this or perhaps a bit less or more, I escaped the room, feeling entirely positive I had made a fool of myself in front of these academics. A little while later Mrs. Travisano found me outside, catching some much needed fresh air. She provided the most reassuring words I could’ve hoped for, and after that, and then and there I felt at home—
Throughout an excellent wine-tasting (which perhaps not very surprisingly wasn’t merely a wine-tasting, though one had to take care of not accidentally picking up a glass filled with dubious leftovers) I found myself at one point carrying two filled glasses of wine, each containing a contrasting variety for extra effect – one white, one red – while at the same time being offered yet another. It was during the tasting, I learned Brazil / Brasil has a fairly large island with forty-four beaches, and I (ignorantly) never knew Brazil had an island. In my defence however, I’d like to argue it takes a digital map capable of zooming in closely, when one is on the lookout for it. I´m sure it has everything to do with the countries’ sheer size— The Netherlands is rather visually dominated by its Mohawk of tiny islands. Brazil, of course, doesn’t need this kind of decoration to be recognized.
Oh! What a joy it was contemplating an entire discussion (of “Arrival at Santos”) dedicated to the letter ‘S’! What more could one wish for! No really— waking up reading another news item entirely dedicated to the letter ‘S’ falling out off (or with – who knows) a stanza would make me very happy. Listening, always situated in the back of the room, I was unable to shake off the feeling that Ms. Bishop, had she been present, would have been thrilled learning she initiated this lengthy, amusing discussion of that one— sad— fallen ‘S’, amongst the academics. Let alone a talk claiming it was a Toucan that was keeping her in Brazil, instead of illness. She was of course a Darwinist. Now how I wish the Northern hemisphere equivalent of a Toucan would show up.
Inevitable, perhaps, at an international conference were the interesting cultural differences and equally pleasant discoveries. Much to my enjoyment I learned Americans are very fond of sharing their food, either by taking pictures of it, or by en-masse attacking a little bowl of ‘Whitebait’ I happened to have pushed to the middle of the table, still containing tiny chopped-off fishy heads and tails I didn’t much prefer. I’ll confess to being overly spoilt by having lived nearby one of Holland’s best harbours for years and years, from childhood till I was 23 (I’m 32 now), selling splendid fresh as well as smoked mackerel, and of course the famous herring – eating out of one’s hand, with or without onions, whatever ones preferences are.
Then there is the curious case of asking the British for another cup of tea. Quite possibly anyone except for a ‘Brit’ would fall into this tea-drinking nations’ trap, so when one dear American sitting next to me at our breakfast table in Halifax Hall that Sunday morning, kindly asked the waitress for another cup of ‘English Breakfast Tea’ she almost ended up with another English breakfast instead. The poor waitress looked tremendously puzzled and quite on the brink of quitting her job right then and there. Afterwards I learned the English don’t know the term ‘Breakfast Tea’, so when one wishes a cup of ‘black tea’ one asks for something like Earl Grey. I blame the ‘Twinings’ brand for this confusion, since it successfully sells not only ‘English Breakfast Tea’, but also ‘Irish Breakfast Tea’ and even ‘English Afternoon’! It makes one wish for ‘English Delight (tea!)’….
It has been said people make friends over Elizabeth Bishop and enemies over Robert Lowell— I can’t say anything about Lowell’s admirers, and I’ve been told not every conference about a poet is as favourable as this one truly was, but I’m so glad to have met interesting, as well as profoundly friendly souls.
After the conference was over I spent some days in the Peak District, wandering on my own through this lovely countryside where everyone tends to call one another ‘love’—a landscape nevertheless cruelly divided by endless stone fences and numerous gates (every single one of these seemed to me entirely unique and impossible to open). Late that Sunday afternoon, strolling a bit through the village I was staying in, I overheard a father telling his two young children who were questioning him concerning their plans for the week: “Friday we’ll do this and that” and the only thing I heard was “Friday was nice / Friday was nice, and we were friends.” The poet and her poems inhabiting the world—
Elizabeth Bishop And Dr. Ruth Foster: Questions for Further Research
Lorrie Goldensohn, Cabot, Vermont
Revelations flow thick and fast from any careful reading of the letters that Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Dr. Ruth Foster in February of 1947. Writing first for The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin in 2014, noting the arrival of new documents in the Vassar Archive, and then again for The Yale Review in January 2015, in an article entitled somewhat hesitantly “Approaching Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Ruth Foster” I twice dealt with the complexities and fascinations of these three letters, surviving only in Xeroxed form. Needing to turn to other projects, I found myself unable to drop this material altogether, and so will summarize and make a few comments here on the questions which continue to proliferate for me. The first concerns Bishop’s own engagement with psychotherapy as a means of dealing with her troubled childhood; the second begs answers to questions about the people and books that we now know she consulted directly. Both of these issues need to be addressed by literary scholars with significant backgrounds in psychology; I hope that readers with this training will help to develop a fuller history of Bishop’s aborted and expressed dissatisfaction with the professional help she encountered. The use that she made of psychology stretched throughout her reading life, and letters and notebooks give evidence of her continuing interest in Melanie Klein.
Dr. Ruth Foster died in 1950; she was the only psychiatrist–outside of even briefer consultation with Dr. Decio de Souza in Brazil at the time of Lota’s breakdown–that Bishop ever directly enlisted to help her. In January 1950 Bishop writes from Brazil to Dr. Anny Baumann, and remarks, in passing, in the middle of a plea for various medications, “I’m sorry to trouble you with all these imaginary ailments, but maybe you’ll be able to think of something this side of going to a psychiatrist, which I never want to do again.” From Samambaia, in August of 1954, Bishop mentions her current reading with some excitement: “I don’t know whether you have time or not to read books about psychiatry along with everything else you do – however, I have just read one that I think is extremely brilliant – maybe pushes a little too far – or certainly the thesis could be. – Although I try not to take such reading “personally” I think it has showed me exactly where Dr. Foster and I went wrong, and has made me feel a good deal better (more enlightened) about that particular fiasco. It is called: ‘La Nevrose d’Abandon’ – I’ve only seen it in French – by a French woman Dr.— Guex. Maybe it is already famous and you know it, but it was new to me. A short book, published about 1951.”
It is a small leap to see how powerfully an analyst who indirectly affirms Bishop’s own sense of maternal abandonment as the central feature of her psychic landscape would have affected her. Originally, Bishop consulted Dr. Ruth Foster about treatment for alcoholism. One letter to Dr. Foster exclaims, “Heavens do you suppose I’ve been thinking of alcohol as mother’s milk all this time and that’s why I pour it down my throat at regular intervals?” How pervasively and effectively the link between substance abuse and childhood trauma was ever made to Bishop herself in treatment is not clear. Dr. Foster’s attempt to eradicate Bishop’s dependency on alcohol was quite unsuccessful. Nonetheless, throughout her life, Bishop never stopped making reference to Dr. Foster’s kindness and integrity: she remained “my saintly analyst.” (Why–and how–”saintly”?
In contrast, Dr. Guex ceases to appear in any of Bishop’s papers. Bishop’s initial enthusiasm shows no further contrails. Dr. Germaine Guex was a protegée of Jean Piaget. A little Googling gives Swiss sources, in French, and translates “Nevrose d’abandon,” or “abandonment neurosis”–or “syndrome“–into several languages, and indicates it as a term used by Swiss psychoanalysts. Those interested in pursuing the Wiki entry will find other sources and a great deal of jargon-laden description about etiology (pre-oedipal) and treatment, given a clumsy generality of application. To my doubtless uninformed eyes, this reference contains no convincing information as to why Guex’ approach would have excited Bishop any more than any other she had tried. The word “abandonment” itself may have triggered all the stimulus necessary. Missing the recent advances in knowledge of traumatic affect upon children, such as those discussed by Bessel Van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, it is not surprising that Bishop would have found the rigid foci of the Freudian treatment of the time something of an irrelevancy, however well-intentioned.
Reading through Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Dr. Foster, I was suffused with curiosity about the person to whom Bishop was writing with such spilling openness and trust. Ransacking biographical materials for more help in finding out who Ruth Foster was, apart from her connection to Bishop, has so far proven unsatisfactory. Current biographers know little more than her name. During the course of the 1947 letters, Bishop gives Dr. Foster’s residence “at 87th St” in New York. The factual record is tantalizingly scanty. Those I reached at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute could find no records of Dr. Foster as a practitioner, or evidence of where she may have acquired her training or credentials; nor could the Institute list any publications by Dr. Ruth Foster. This source, however, did indicate Foster’s connection to Kenneth Clark’s Northside Center for Child Development.
Alida Gersie, a Dutch friend whose expertise lies in arts therapy, unearthed for me a few disappointingly small, but provocative facts. Available online is an unpublished and lengthy article by Ralph M. Crowley, M.D., and Maurice R. Green titled “Revolution within Psychoanalysis: A History of the William Alanson White Institute.” Ruth Foster is listed in a footnote, associated with Drs. Clara Thompson, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.” This distinguished group became part of a breakaway attempt from The New York Psychoanalytic Society. The psychological, social, and political reasons for this breakaway, and other later upheavals, account for the formation of significant strands of the American psychoanalytic movement. This history, as it touches on patient autonomy, on the history of the treatment of gays and lesbians, on the necessary respect to be paid to the larger social context, are, quite apart from any interest in Dr. Ruth Foster’s movements, fascinating. Foster’s name occurs again in a footnote in Crowley and Green, showing her as an early graduate of the William Alanson White Institute in 1947, the institute founded on Harry Stack Sullivan‘s therapeutic philosophy. Neither of these citations clarify as to where Ruth Foster received a medical education. Nor do any other scholars offer such information.
Peter Hegarty makes a more nuanced and fuller account of patient issues in “Harry Stack Sullivan and his Chums: Archive Fever in American Psychiatry?” (History of the Human Sciences, Volume 18, Number 3, August 2005.) Hegarty remarks wryly of Sullivan: “Sullivan appears to have believed it is no trivial matter to know the mind of another through his or her own words.” Indeed. But he makes no mention of Dr. Ruth Foster.
The New York Psychoanalytic Institute’s suggestion that I trace Dr. Ruth Foster through Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark’s Northside Center for Child Development offered a little more information. A history of this institution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Children, Race and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center (1966), shows that Dr. Ruth Foster was employed part-time as a psychiatrist at the Center from 1947 through 1950. (From Bishop’s letters, we know that Dr. Foster died in 1950. My attempt to find an obituary through the New York Times was unsuccessful.) In 1950, Stella Chess’s period as Medical Director at the Northside Center also broke off and she resigned, over issues of the Center’s definition of its mission, and its right to direct its own financing. On the Northside board of directors, tensions existed between black community leaders and the liberal Jewish establishment of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysts. Board members and staff disagreed as to what degree therapeutic treatment should acknowledge the factors of race, community, and economic class, or set aside the narrower, classically Freudian focus on infantile drives. A towering figure, Kenneth Clark was a dedicated advocate of educational integration, and the primary voice in testifying in the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. the Board of Education as to the harmful effects on black children of segregation. The Northside Center stood for treatment over punishment for distressed children, and for an emphasis on integration and social change. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark’s papers concerning the Northside Center from the years 1947 to 1972 lodge at the Schomburg Center in New York.
All of these sources locate Dr Ruth Foster within a nexus of people and organizations that were progressive on issues of gender, race, and patient identity and autonomy. Contained within this larger framework would be some further sense of what “direction” or “guidance” Bishop would have received about her sexuality, her gender preferences, her childhood history of maternal abandonment, sexual molestation, her worries about her sexual anatomy, and the relation of all of these elements to her attachment difficulties, her substance abuse, and above all–to the ultimate triumph of her work. The mode of treatment, in its acceptance–or lack of acceptance–of lesbian sexuality, and in its ability to recognize and re-direct traumatized response, would have been undeniably crucial, but maybe oddly, perhaps often even magnificently, irrelevant to the keen study of that work. Still, I look forward to the entry of more scholars into Bishop studies with credentials in psychology and medicine to help us, if not to answer the questions, than at least to bring them into better focus.
New Perspectives on Elizabeth Bishop
Review by Heather Treseler, Worcester State University
Elizabeth Bishop Society panel
American Literature Association conference, Boston
The Westin Copley Place, St. George C
Friday, May 22, 2015, 12:40-2 p.m.
This year’s panel featured three presentations that add to the study of Bishop’s poetics in important ways. In a cheerily crowded room on the third floor of the Westin, auditors heard presentations by George Lensing of the University of North Carolina, Jessica Goudeau of Southwestern University, and the distinguished poet-critic Lorrie Goldensohn.
In “Elizabeth Bishop and the Aesthetic of the Ugly,” George Lensing limned Bishop’s penchant for locating beauty in unappealing or unlikely settings, taking as his point of departure the question at the end of Bishop’s “Santarem,” when a ship passenger, Mr. Swan, asks of the narrator’s empty wasps’ nest, “What is that ugly thing?” Lensing traced Bishop’s interest in versions of beauty “integrated with the blemishes of the familiar world,” focusing on Bishop’s “The Prodigal,” “The Armadillo,” “The Moose,” and “Pink Dog,” among other poems, and comparing Bishop’s interest in ugliness to that of some modernists, including Baudelaire, Eliot, Crane, and Stevens. Among other conclusions, Lensing posited that given Bishop’s resistance to romanticism and to idealized versions of beauty, she might be thought of “not [as] a traditionally lyric poet… [but as] a dramatic poet… [whose] major theme is the plight of victimization.”
Lorrie Goldensohn’s presentation, “Approaching Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Dr. Ruth Foster,” added to her groundbreaking article of that title in Yale Review (January 2015), describing Vassar College’s Special Collections’ new acquisitions from the current heir to Elizabeth Bishop’s literary estate. Among these documents are three letters dated “February 1947” from Bishop to Dr. Ruth Foster, her analyst from 1946 to 1947; Goldensohn carefully glossed and contextualized the content of these “nervy, spontaneous outpourings” noting that they bear “no sign of whether they were ever delivered, or who it was that preserved them or when.” She recounted that Bishop’s letters describe, among other things, her early sexual affairs with women, some relationships with men, her revelatory process of writing “At the Fishhouses,” and sexual abuse from a male relative. Acknowledging the “searching and agonizingly direct” content of these letters, Goldensohn framed some literary, ethical, and biographical questions that might attend our reading of them.
In “‘We loudly protest your sensational untruths’: Elizabeth Bishop and the Rio de Janeiro Press,” Jessica Goudeau revisited the March 1965 article published in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Correio de Manhã, in which journalist Fernando de Castro criticized Bishop’s descriptions of the Brazilian city in her essay “On the Railroad Named Delight,” which had appeared in The New York Times Magazine. While some scholars have found Castro’ response to Bishop’s article “unfair” and “attacking,” Goudeau asserted that Castro’s objections were, in fact, largely legitimate as they identified key aspects of Brazilian language and culture that Bishop seems to have misread. Goudeau also detailed how Bishop’s response to Castro’s critique, translated into Portugese by Lota Macedo de Soares, unintentionally reified Castro’s claims. Providing a translation of both Castro’s article and of Bishop’s response, Goudeau argued that Castro’s article was a warranted retort to Bishop’s “subtly racist and classist representations” of Rio de Janeiro in 1965.
North Haven Symposium
Review by David Hoak, Los Angeles, California
Almost by accident, in 1974, Elizabeth Bishop discovered a summer rental on North Haven island, off the Coast of Maine. She liked the house at Sabine Farm so much she spent part of her last six summers on vacation there. Her well known elegy for Robert Lowell takes its title from the island and is a moving meditation on nature and friendship inspired by its geography. Bishop scholars, poets and fans made their way to North Haven last August 14th and 15th, 2015, for a symposium sponsored by the North Haven Library.
During her summers on the island, Bishop kept a journal of her activities, and observations. The idea for the symposium grew out of a project to publish these journals by the North Haven Library. Participants were able to purchase this lovely new book, Elizabeth Bishop: The North Haven Journal, 1974-1979, during the symposium. The book was edited by Eleanor McPeck, working from transcriptions by Alice Quinn.
Featured participants included Jonathan Galassi, Megan Marshall, Susan Minot, Jan Schreiber, Lloyd Schwartz, Alice Quinn and Deborah Weisgall. Events got underway Friday evening in the North Haven Community Center. Following a catered reception, participants viewed Barbara Hammer’s new film, Welcome to this House, hosted by the producer/director herself. Hammer took some questions after the film and attendees retired for the evening to various inns and small guest houses on the island. About twenty of Bishop’s hardier fans, this reviewer included, returned to the mainland in a chartered lobster boat only to make the trip back the following morning by the same means.
Saturday’s events began in the morning with John Storck, the President of the North Haven Library board, welcomed the group of about eighty with reflections on what the library means to its summer population today and its role in the small community’s cultural life. The symposium, he said, would honor Bishop’s role as guide and mentor. Featured speakers were chosen from among the community of scholars and poets who knew or studied with Bishop.
After recognizing Jeannette Sanger for her financial support of the journal publishing project, Storck introduced Eleanor McPeck, a long-time summer resident of North Haven. McPeck is a landscape architect and historian whose fascination by Bishop’s history on the island led her to undertake the book project.
Following her remarks, invited guests addressed the group one at a time in prepared readings and remarks. Megan Marshall, a student in Bishop’s English 285 in 1975, handed out a copy of one of the course’s take-home exams. “Paraphrase Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour'” begins Question 3. Lloyd Schwartz shared memories of times he was Bishop’s guest at Sabine Farm, recalling trips to the beach to peel mussels off the rocks for dinner. Susan Minot and Deborah Weisgall gave highly personal readings of favorite Bishop poems. Jonathan Galassi amused the audience with anecdotes revealing Bishop’s effective, if highly individual, skills as a reluctant teacher. Following the individual presentations, the speakers took the stage together for a round table discussion.
I wish the symposium had gone on a bit longer. Friday evening and Saturday morning seemed not quite enough time to take the full measure of the place and to plumb at greater length the memories of all those present. Still, it seemed a miracle even to get so many distinguished Bishop lovers onto the small remote island. Elizabeth always reminded Lloyd Schwartz, and other guests returning to Boston, to stop at Moody’s Diner on Route 1 in Waldoboro for its crabmeat salad sandwich. I and a couple of other attendees took this advice on the way home. Perfect!
Review by Neil Besner, University of Winnipeg
Welcome To This House. Barbara Hammer, One Glass Video, 2015
Anyone aware of the circumstances of Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood also knows that in many Bishop scholars’ and biographers’ views, this period perennially shadowed Bishop’s work and adult life, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. To date, Bishop’s biographers have conjured with that narrative with limited success; Barbara Hammer’s documentary film, Welcome To This House, has in my view only added to this controversial facet of Bishop studies. Controversial, because rarely do Bishop scholars concur on either the aims or the merits of Bishop’s biographies, and I expect that this telling ambivalence will also mark responses to this new documentary film.
Although some might question the impressive roster of Bishop scholars, biographers, students, friends, and fellow poets that Hammer interviewed – most of whom appear to powerful effect in her film (where, for example, is Brett Millier, author of a substantial Bishop biography?) – no-one will doubt that Hammer went to painstaking lengths to find an admirably wide range of interlocutors for her project. More is the pity, then, that taken together, the commentaries do not add up to a coherent narrative or an integrated perspective on their ever-elusive subject. The narratives – particularly those by Barbara Page, who offers the most vivid, balanced, and substantial appraisals of Bishop throughout – are all intriguing in their own right; but they do not add up to as much as they should, seeming at times to be poised or posed against each other rather than complementary. And since at one level they constitute what seems to be intended as a companion narrative alongside that of the succession of Bishop’s homes, the cumulative effect adds to the film’s incoherence. Sandra Barry, Lloyd Schwartz, Alice Quinn, John Ashbery, Kathleen Spivak, and many others have striking things to say; but they are too often neither in dialogue with each other, nor in dialogue with the film’s other components.
As its title implies, the essential through-line of the film is constituted by the sequence of Bishop’s houses, beginning with her maternal grandparents, the Bulmers’ house in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where Elizabeth was raised after her mother moved from Worcester following Elizabeth’s father’s death, and ending with Bishop’s last home, her waterfront condo on Lewis Wharf in Boston. But the commentators do not follow that through line as coherently as one might wish, at times leading viewers away from the supposed chronological approach through Bishop’s homes towards a more wispy, inchoate, and fragmented foray into Bishop’s legion complexities, which always need a frame, a form, to constitute the whole labyrinthine person she most assuredly was.
That problem – the disjointedness of the interviews in relation to the chronological journey via Bishop’s homes – begins at the film’s opening, in which famed Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais (I for one did not know of Blais’ familiarity with Bishop or her work, and was both struck and instructed by her two appearances and her commentary, both at the opening and near the film’s end) offers us a view of Bishop as shy, reticent, withdrawn, damaged. All of these qualities, to be sure, form well-known parts of the Bishop persona; but the opening of the film draws on these qualities to a fault, inflecting the presentation of the young Elizabeth and her years in Great Village with a shadow that haunts the rest of the film, as do the interspersed readings from Bishop’s poems, which are not always as effective as they could be. From the outset, three or four films seem to be competing with each other: the portrait of the afflicted, imaginative child who inhabits the adult Elizabeth; the compelling (if inconsistent) portrait of Elizabeth composed by those interviewed; the film’s softly discordant soundtrack; and the chronology followed in presenting Bishop’s homes, in Great Village, in Florida, in Samambaia and Ouro Preto, in Boston.
Perhaps it is Carmen Oliveira, Bishop’s Brazilian biographer (although Oliveira’s biography is often, for somewhat understandable reasons, read as a fiction), who finally offers the most succinct observation, advising near the film’s close that Bishop was “a poet, a very good one; but she was a person, not a very good one. You have to live with that.” In its way, Welcome To This House does try to show us that very good poet, that not very good person; but if Reaching for the Moon, the 2013 Brazilian feature film directed by Bruno Barreto, disappointed those seeking a life of Bishop in film that was at least true to the feeling, if not the facts, of Bishop the poet and the person, then Barbara Hammer’s film might well disappoint those seeking the facts – visual, documentary, or narrative – that would confirm or convey the Bishop that so many of her admirers feel they know.
Call for Papers
The Elizabeth Bishop Society seeks proposals for its two sponsored panels at the annual ALA Conference in San Francisco this May 26-29, 2016. Descriptions of the sessions appear below; applicants are welcome to apply to either or to both panels by sending a proposed title for a 20-minute paper, an abstract of about 300 words, and a short biographical note to Angus Cleghorn (email@example.com) and to Heather Treseler (firstname.lastname@example.org) by January 15, 2016.
Elizabeth Bishop, Class, and Race
New scholarship about Bishop’s engagement with class and race in her poems, prose, letters, and archival documents suggests that the poet’s attitudes were complex and polyvalent. This panel invites proposals focused on Bishop’s aesthetic depictions of racial identities and class differences in any of her “three” geographies—Canada, the United States, and Brazil—during any one phase (or across) her career, adding to the substantial work in this area by Steven Gould Axelrod, Kirstin Hotelling Zona, and Renée Curry, among others.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems and Everyday Media
Bishop’s poetry frequently employs conceits from “everyday” media to include newspapers, songs, broadcasts, postcards, travelogues, nursery rhymes, and diaries. This panel will focus on Bishop’s use of “para-literary” conventions in her published and posthumously published poetry, her evolving reflections on poetics and incorporative practices, and the poet’s license to borrow from popular tropes and contemporary media. Proposals about Bishop’s incorporative aesthetic vis-à-vis those of her peers are also welcome.