Volume 24, Issue 1
Thomas Travisano. Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Viking, 2019. 422 pp.
Review by Neil Besner, University of Winnipeg
Readers of the Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin already know what increasing numbers of general readers are discovering: over the last several decades, Elizabeth Bishop has become ever more widely acknowledged as one of the great twentieth century poets writing in English. Several biographies, from several different perspectives and in several languages, have given us Bishop’s story. Now, more fully, more warmly, in more telling detail – more fluently and more dispassionately, and with the mastery developed over the more than forty years he has devoted to Bishop studies, Tom Travisano’s splendid new biography, Love Unknown, gives all her readers the story of Bishop’s life and worlds – plural – in its most engaging form to date.
Every good biography of a writer departs from a premise about the relations between her life and work, and Travisano sets out his thesis early and clearly. The deeply troubled childhood that Bishop endured – the early death of her father, soon followed the loss of her mother, who never recovered from her husband’s death and was institutionalized when Bishop was five; the dislocations from Worcester to Nova Scotia, to Revere, Massachusetts, and back; the various illnesses that afflicted Bishop from an early age – formed the girl’s precocious and determined sensibility into the woman’s and artist’s lifelong vocation to make art informed by courage, exploration, and risk.
We already know most of the details of Bishop’s early life, but no biography has given us as full or searching a portrait of her childhood as Love Unknown. (The title comes from one of Bishop’s favourite poems, by George Herbert.) In the opening chapters tracing that story, Travisano shows how deeply and traumatically Bishop’s childhood affected her; as well, he early establishes one of this biography’s alchemical strengths: the intricate alloying of Bishop’s life with her poems and prose, and with the development of her artistic vision. By “prose” Travisano means not only her narrative pieces; he also means, importantly, her letters, and he makes prodigious use of Bishop’s letters to a wide array of correspondents over her lifetime. Given his long familiarity with Bishop’s letters – remember that he edited the 2008 volume of letters between Bishop and Lowell, Words in Air, for example – Travisano is uniquely positioned to draw on this invaluable archive, and it imparts to his narration a vivid aliveness, a pungent immediacy of voice, that animates and punctuates the story throughout. Travisano reminds us in Love Unknown that Lowell might have been the first to predict that Bishop would come to be recognized as one of the twentieth century’s great letter writers; the generous but careful selection Travisano deploys confirms that prediction and puts Bishop’s letters to lovely use.
For a person and poet as closely conjoined as Bishop was with questions of travel, the plural at the end of “Worlds” in Travisano’s subtitle is a clear signal of just how various, but also necessary, Bishop’s travels were to her life and art. After taking us through Bishop’s school years to her graduation from Walnut Hill at nineteen – years fraught with illnesses that kept her out of school and with her scarring experience of abuse at the hands of her Uncle George Shepherdson in Revere – but also years that, as Travisano shows us in rich detail, saw the genesis of Bishop’s poetics, of her fascination with words and with rhyme – the biography continues its course with chapters on Bishop’s formative Vassar years and her founding, with several like-minded friends, of the journal Con Spirito there, in rebellion against the stiff Vassar Review after Vassar’s official journal had continually rejected their work. Following her graduation from Vassar, Love Unknown makes it clear that Bishop’s life’s work is now clearly in sight for her; by this time, a third of the way through the book, Travisano’s skillful narrative tactics have made it seem only natural that travel will become a necessary vocation for Bishop.
Throughout, the chapter titles of Love Unknown are wonderfully apt; Chapter Seven, “This Strange World of Travel,” is the first to address squarely this central theme in Bishop’s life and work. Here as elsewhere, the chronology is underwritten by brief discussions of the poems Bishop produced at the time; at times the discussions of these poems are in turn related to discussions of earlier poems. Always, these brief analyses themselves proceed naturally from the relevant episodes in Bishop’s life. Here, Travisano’s discussion of her important poem “The Man-Moth” harks back its connections with Bishop’s earlier poem, “The Ballad of the Subway Train”; and both discussions are artfully placed within the detailed through-line narrating Bishop’s first sojourn in Paris; the traumatic episode of the car wreck in which Margaret Miller was so grievously injured; Bishop’s first trip to Florida in 1937; and the onset of the Spanish Civil War. As always, brief excerpts from Bishop’s letters – here, to Frani Blough, Louise Bradley, Marianne Moore, or letters from others about Bishop, here, from Lowell and Louise Crane – interweave themselves in the narration to strong effect. They are never intrusive, never expository. Rather, they impart immediacy and an ongoing sense of Bishop’s voice, less awful than cheerful, more direct than untidy.
Bishop’s life story cannot be told without invoking the many friendships she formed over the years, and of her several most important relationships. We are given compelling portraits of writers and mentors like Marianne Moore; of Bishop’s long history, personal and professional, with Lowell; and of the women with whom Bishop had intimate relationships — Louise Crane, Roxanne Cumming, and Alice Methfessel, for example.
At the heart of Love Unknown – and, arguably, at the heart of Bishop’s travels – are the five chapters Travisano devotes to Bishop’s long sojourn, mid-life, in Brazil. And at the heart of that vital era, compassed beautifully in this biography, resides the story often told, of the arc of Bishop’s most long-lived relationship, with Lota de Macedo Soares, culminating in Lota’s suicide in 1967. There will never be a last word pronounced on Bishop and Lota. But through his careful navigation among the many versions at his disposal – letters, telegrams, testimonies, the accounts of Brazilian and American doctors, psychiatrists, friends, scholars, biographers disinterested or impassioned, some hewing to one school of blame or its opposite – Travisano provides readers with the fullest rendering that we have to date. That virtue alone will benefit Bishop studies on several continents. (As I write, in late November, Travisano’s balanced treatment of Bishop in Brazil might serve, too, as useful reading for those passionately engaged in Brazilian media in an inflamed and often denunciatory debate over Bishop having just been chosen as the first foreign writer in the history of Brazil’s premier literary festival as its 2020 honored writer.)
It seems to me that, happily for his readers, Travisano arrived at the impressive narrative achievements on ample display in Love Unknown by two routes: the first is perhaps apparent, the second, less so. First, as has been evident for decades, Travisano knows and has long worked in the field. By this I mean the whole field: the poems and prose, including the letters; sources such as the Vassar archives; the people who knew Bishop; and, importantly, the history of Bishop studies, the history of Bishop biographies, the history of Bishop scholars, and the history – I should say histories — of Elizabeth Bishop. That long familiarity, impressive and necessary as it is, however, provides only one of the foundations on which this superb biography is built. The second – sine qua non in my view — is the writing itself. On the evidence of Love Unknown, Travisano has over his six years’ work on this biography invented a style admirably suited to his subject. This is a readable biography, engaging us as much with its learning as with its pathos, and it is really Bishop’s story, so finely incorporated with the story of her writing, that is so compelling, and that Travisano so successfully tells by getting out of its way. As he readily acknowledges, Travisano’s biography stands on the shoulders of several other Bishop biographies, and many other books. But this story has never been told as well or as fully anywhere else.
Jonathan Ellis, ed. Reading Elizabeth Bishop: An Edinburgh Companion
Edinburgh University Press, 2019. 360 pp.
Review by Yuki Tanaka, Hosei University, Japan
Reading Elizabeth Bishop grew out of a conference in Sheffield in 2015, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Questions of Travel. It is the third collection of essays on Bishop in the past decade, following Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century in 2012 and The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop in 2014. One important function of such essay collections is to map the steadily expanding field of Bishop studies and inform us of where the new scholarship is heading. In the introduction to Reading Elizabeth Bishop, editor Jonathan Ellis provides a useful overview of the history of Bishop studies. He characterizes three critical phases: the first generation spans the last two decades of the previous century and the early 2000s; the second phase starts from the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in 2006 and extends to 2020, after which new journals and letters by Bishop are set to be published; the third generation will have more ready access than ever to Bishop’s previously published writing. Ellis’s introduction also provides a comprehensive list of secondary sources, listing major works on Bishop as well as insightful but lesser-known journal articles that have not been collected in a book.
As previously unpublished letters and journals are about to come out in the next few years, Reading Elizabeth Bishop is a timely critical intervention, introducing new ways of talking about Bishop. The book showcases works of twenty-two contributors, a fruitful combination of established and emerging scholars. I will briefly summarize each article to suggest the new ground that the book as a whole breaks and explores. Reading Elizabeth Bishop is divided into four sections: “Identity,” “Thought,” “Poetry,” “Prose,” and “Other Places, Other People.” In “Identity,” Linda Anderson revisits some of Bishop’s well-known poems in light of recently discovered letters Bishop wrote to her psychoanalyst Ruth Foster, focusing on the theme of repetition in the letters and poems like “At the Fishhouses.” Vidyan Ravinthiran reads “Manuelzinho,” which Bishop presents as a dramatic monologue involving a rich Brazilian landowner and a poor farmer. Ravinthiran argues that the poem is not just a careful documentation of Brazilian class-relations, drawing our attention to the way Bishop “engages with the problem of making judgments about others” (35). Melissa Zeiger singles out “The Riverman” as a breakthrough poem in which the experience of travel helped Bishop find a new poetic identity. Amy Waite brings the field of posthuman studies to bear on Bishop’s representation of engagement with non-human figures.
Part II, “Thought,” illuminates the philosophical aspect of Bishop’s work. Rachel Trousdale explore Bishop’s use of laughter, which she argues works both as sympathy and critique, creating the “unstable, temporary ground for intersubjective empathy and self-revelation” (77) and thereby rejecting a clear-cut divide between self and other, as well as the sense of superiority that arises when one laughs at another person. Marcel Inhoff discusses two influences on Bishop that have not received enough scholarly attention—Baudelaire and religious tradition—arguing that Bishop’s increasingly personal verse since North & South was in part initiated by her reading of Baudelaire and spiritual autobiographies, especially the writing of St. Teresa de Avila. Angelica Nuzzo finds the theme of change, the mutuality of life, to be at the heart of Bishop’s poetry and considers how change is expressed in her poetic language. Sara Kennedy analyzes the relationship between empathy and what she calls “swerve,” a form of indirection, by explicating “Rainy Seasons; Sub-Tropics,” which creates intersubjective relationship without self-revelation. Deryn Rees-Jones examines the drafts of “Questions of Travel” to illuminate the role of repetition from the lens of psychoanalysis, exploring how the repetition of words in the poem destabilizes the fixed geographical categories of “here” and “there,” “home” and “elsewhere.”
In Part III, titled “Poetry,” Jess Cotton reads Bishop’s strategy of creating a childish, simplistic voice as a way of presenting herself as innocuous while suggesting deep feelings underneath that mask. This seeming lightness, Cotton argues, offers an alternative to the poetry and poetics of her time, where the seriousness of modernist literature and the New Criticism dominated. Katrina Mayson makes a fresh investigation into what has been a truism in Bishop studies—her exact descriptions—and considers why her descriptions can be both exact and ambiguous by discussing the use and significance of the number 3 in her work. Susan Rosenbaum focuses on “Arrival at Santos” and the visual oddity of the word “Falls,” with the “s” appearing at the beginning of the next line; she interprets this work as a visual poem influenced by the international avant-garde. J. T. Welsch approaches the visuality of Bishop’s work by considering the influence of cinema on her work, reading “The Moose” from the perspective of film techniques, especially the poem’s splicing effects.
“Prose” brings together three essays on Bishop’s ever-expanding trove of prose writing. Sophie Baldock reads Bishop’s Brazil poems in relation to the letters Bishop wrote while living there, and she argues that Bishop imported spontaneous energy and immediacy from the letters into the poems, creating the effect of what the poet called “a mind thinking.” Laura Helyer couples Bishop with Katherine Mansfield, exploring similarities between Bishop’s “In the Village” and Mansfield’s “Prelude.” In doing so, Helyer illuinates their shared investment in narrating childhood not through the techniques of linear and realistic storytelling but through symbolism and poetic patterning. Michael O’Neill reads Bishop as a literary critic, surveying not just general statements about poetry, but her reading of other poets, suggesting that although Bishop stated her dislike for professional literary criticism, her statements about poetry are original and merit more critical consideration.
The last section focuses on places and people with whom Bishop was associated. Heather Treseler reads Bishop’s writing from her Washington years, when she worked as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. She argues that through the guise of a postcard, travel writing, and nursery rhyme, Bishop subtly critiqued the Cold War culture of surveillance and jingoism. James McCorkle examines the use of island imagery in Bishop’s work, exploring the themes of identity, visibility and invisibility. Marvin Campbell considers how Bishop’s geographical imagination extends to the Global South Atlantic, and he brings together an unlikely pair—Bishop and Audre Lorde—to illuminate Bishop’s willingness to engage with the issue of race more thoroughly than scholars have previously acknowledged. Ben Leubner elucidates similarities between Bishop and James Merrill in terms of their expatriate experience and binocular vision. Jonathan Ellis explores the question of why so many Irish poets and writers continue to engage with her work through creative as well as critical writing, with particular attention to Seamus Heaney and Colm Tóibín. The book concludes quite fittingly with the future of poetry, as Stephanie Burt discusses works of recent young poets writing in English and how they respond to Bishop or at least share her attitude. Bishop’s poetry is often considered rather conservative because it seems to create a sense of closure, formal perfection, and prose-like coherence. Burt focuses on the word “rainbow” in her work, most famously in the conclusion of “The Fish,” to argue that the word doesn’t symbolize closure, but the illusion of it, and that such coherence may evaporate at any minute in her work. According to Burt, this double vision—suggesting closure while acknowledging its temporary nature—makes Bishop appealing to emerging poets in the twentieth-first century.
I hope my brief summary of each article has suggested the breadth and depth of the articles contained here. Aside from the authors’ sheer depth of research and familiarity with Bishop’s oeuvre, what strikes me about the book is their level of entanglement with Bishop’s work. For example, Ellis’s essay takes on an extremely personal tone at one point, which exemplifies the strong affective bonds these contributors feel with the poet. It is also telling that according to the biographical notes, many of the contributors are creative writers. The study of Bishop’s poetry has a history of attracting astute poet-scholars, as evidenced by the contributors here as well as the important critical and editorial work of Saskia Hamilton and Lloyd Schwartz. The sheer likability of Bishop as a poet and person complements the productive complexity of her work.
Frank Bidart remembers Bishop visiting his apartment. She opened his copy of The Modern Poet, a collection of critical essays edited by Ian Hamilton, and not finding her name in the table of contents, she said, “It’s like being buried alive.” In the twentieth-first century, no poets from her generation have received as much sustained critical attention. As many of these scholars in the book show, Bishop’s work remains relevant today, responding well to a series of “turns” in recent years in the field of literary studies, be it ethical, posthuman, religious, spatial, or affective. Reading Elizabeth Bishop shows the robust present state of Bishop studies and anticipates the field’s bright future.
San Diego, California — May 21-24, 2020
“One Art: Elizabeth Bishop and Friendship”
Thomas Travisano, Hartwick College