Summer 2006

The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin

Volume 13, №1      “All the untidy activity continues…”      Summer 2006

Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments

Edited and Annotated by Alice Quinn.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

 Review by Charles Berger, Southern Illinois University

The arrival of Alice Quinn’s edition of uncollected Bishop texts makes available to a public readership these tantalizing uncollected pieces—hard to describe as a group— which only Bishop scholars have been familiar with up to now. It will be fascinating to follow the long-term influence of this volume on Bishop criticism. Once the book goes into paperback, it will surely be used by some teachers in advanced undergraduate or graduate classes. Many more quotations from uncollected material will start appearing in scholarly articles, for there’s hardly a poem in this book, in whatever state of completion, lacking in quotable moments. It’s also the case that only a few of these poems strike the reader as strong enough to stand up against the published poems in the Bishop “canon,” though even as I write these lines I find myself rebelling against overly narrow criteria of inclusion.

Bishop worked on poems, as we know, over long periods of time, observing how loosely gathered files of experience could be magnetically drawn into the orbit of the slowly composing poem. The phrase, “God’s spreading fingerprint,” from “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” encapsulates her technique. Playing against E.M. Forster’s “only connect,” Bishop writes: “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’” This ritual plaint against the arbitrariness of parataxis is belied by the connections she ignites in that poem between lines of experience. That Bishop was able to draw so much in, so much together, gives added interest to what she chose to leave out. The intensity of her fused materials, giving off that famous Bishop “polish,” can be exhausting, and some readers may find relief in these less finished pieces, though to hope for deeper layers of revelation would be a mistake. Bishop layered plenty of revelation into her published work. Still, a rougher Bishop promises novelty, and learning to look at her in new ways will invigorate criticism of all her work. There  are  plenty  of  partial finds in Edgar Allan Poe  & The Juke-Box and even when the draft or fragment is slight, an astute reader can learn a good deal about how Bishop’s poetic economy worked. If this volume does not often expose the foul rag and bone shop of Bishop’s heart, it does illuminate, especially in borderline cases, her own implicit ground rules for self-presentation.

In “A Note on the Text,” Quinn briefly describes her editorial method. Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box is, first of all, “a thoroughly representative selection of the draft material in the archive…I have not reproduced all of Bishop’s uncollected juvenilia or work that is restrictively fragmentary, that does not indicate to a certain degree something of her artistic ambition for it or otherwise command interest because of its biographical significance.” Addressing the “State of the Manuscripts,” Quinn explains that since this book “is not a facsimile edition,” she has employed the following criteria of textual presentation: “In all cases, I present the most coherent, intact draft—the fullest and/or most legible available—rather than opt for a less decipherable or less complete version of a more advanced draft. In the notes to the individual poems, I have reproduced many of the revisions and variants I  found.”  Inevitably, questions will arise as to what counts as the most coherent, intact draft, or why the goal of a volume such as this should be to present whole drafts, as opposed to examples that are more frankly fragmentary. Only if one is intent on producing a reader’s edition would textual coherence matter. Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box is indeed a reader’s edition, but Quinn has also done a good job of indicating the difficulties involved in selecting versions of Bishop’s many drafts. She points the way to further textual scholarship on these matters, but also makes the poetry legible enough to inspire interest and fascination in the general reader.

Perhaps the most intriguing question that can be asked of this volume is: what have we missed all along by not having at least some of these poems either published, or worked on until ready to be published? (I realize how comically presumptuous it is to question Bishop in this fashion, but can one avoid such trespass, given the fact of these draft/fragments?) After all, it isn’t as if Bishop’s reputation needs boosting.  The very assumption of a market for unpublished extra-canonical work argues in and of itself for the existence of a canonical body of familiar poetry—and hunger on the part of readers for even more material. Novelty counts, too. Rather than feeding that hunger by obsessive re-readings of the already, but always imperfectly, known poem, there is a natural urge to absorb new avatars of the familiar spirit. These drafts will pull some readers away from Bishop’s published body of poetry, for awhile at least, as we all try to understand the poet’s guiding assumptions about what belonged in her public portfolio.

The third section of Quinn’s selection is derived from the so-called “Key West” notebooks, given by Bishop to her Brazilian friend Linda Nemer upon Bishop’s departure for the United States. (Henry James might have invented this story of literary provenance.) Quinn dates the poems, roughly, from 1937-1947, meaning that some of them might have appeared in North & South. Drafts from these years include a number of poems-in-progress that explore realms of erotic self-disclosure not often found so openly in Bishop’s other poems. “It is marvelous to wake up together” has achieved semi-canonical status through being quoted at the beginning of Lorrie Goldensohn’s poetic biography of Bishop. The poem is a superb aubade, a meditation on natural, non-cataclysmic change; it is a beautiful poem and it strikes one as “finished.” There are similarities to other Bishop poems, of course, but this lyric adds notes not found elsewhere in her work and lacks none of Bishop’s high polish. Selfcensorship appears to be the only way of accounting for the poem’s suppression. “Roosters” is more discreet about its locus—and even that poem drew a rebuke from Marianne Moore’s mother, who objected to mention of “the water-closet door”! Another erotic lyric from the Key West notebook, far different in tone, represents a clearer case of subject matter that Bishop seemed unwilling to pursue beyond the stage of early drafts. “In a cheap hotel,” as the draft is called, is a song of sadomasochistic sexual abjection, searingly cyclical, culminating with these Blakean fetters: “Almost every night —frequently / {every night} he drags me / back to that bed / the ice clinks, the fan whirrs. He chains me & berates me— / He chains me to that bed & he berates me.” An openly revealing fragment such as this will send the reader looking for its permissible permutations elsewhere in the poetry that Bishop allowed to pass.

The poem “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” whether or not it should have served as title for this volume, is one of the more interesting examples of the unfinished poem. Quinn’s long, labyrinthine note to the poem creates an intriguing field of related concerns and it helps the reader to understand the freight of meanings that Bishop tried to load onto this compressed, programmatic lyric. The poem resembles little else in Bishop, but it shows affinity with the kind of analytic ars poetica one finds in Moore, Crane, and Stevens. The notes inform us that Bishop might have intended this poem to serve both as a farewell to Key West—her own version of “Farewell to Florida”—and as the closing poem of her second volume, A Cold Spring. But the notes also refer to the difficulty Bishop experienced in finishing “this last impossible poem”:

Easily through the darkened room

the juke-box burns; the music falls.

Starlight, La Conga, all the dance-halls

 in the block of honky-tonks,

cavities in our waning moon,

strung with bottles and blue lights

and silvered coconuts and conches.

As easily as the music falls,

the nickels fall into the slots,

the drinks like lonely water-falls

in night descend the separate throats

and the hands fall on one another

{down} darker darkness under

tablecloths and all descends,

descends, falls,—much as we envision

the helpless earthward fall of love

descending from the head and eye

down to the hands, and heart, and down.

The music pretends to laugh and weep

while it descends to drink and murder.

The burning box can keep the measure

strict, always, and the down-beat.

Poe said that poetry was exact.

But pleasures are mechanical

and know beforehand what they want

and know exactly what they want.

Do they obtain that single effect

that can be calculated like alcohol

or like the response to the nickel?

—how long does the music burn?

like poetry, or all your horror

half as exact as the horror here?

Think of A Cold Spring concluding with a more final version of “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” rather than “The Shampoo.” Considering the practical issues Bishop faced about the number of poems in the volume, it’s hard to see why she kept this one out. Granted, it might seem to lack a certain patina of exactitude in the precision of its verbal equations, but one could argue that a certain awkward imbalance—between, say, “exact” and “mechanical”—is precisely the point of the poem’s struggle to calculate different kinds of effects and the pleasures they produce. And Bishop puts Poe into play here, just as Crane did in “The Tunnel.” Who better to invoke when describing the fallenness, the fallingness, of all things. A poem that gives you so much to think about, on so many different levels, without giving itself away emotionally, is not easy to forget, once glimpsed and absorbed. Surely there was room for a meditation such as this in A Cold Spring.

Most of the poems in the volume, unlike “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” belong clearly to the category of the fragment—fetching, especially in individual lines, but halting. The student of Bishop will have little difficulty making connections between early drafts and finished products, especially in those cases where Bishop is developing kernel obsessions into more advanced poetic structures. The theme of travel, of course, is a prime instance of a mobile fixation spanning the length of Bishop’s career. So it is no surprise to find at least two intriguing false starts that point the way to successful culminations. “The Traveller to Rome,” which Quinn places in the late 1940’s, offers lines that lead directly to “Over 2,000 Illustrations and A Complete Concordance,” as well as “Questions of Travel.” Those two poems of voyage compress lifetimes of experience and observation into medium lyric length, subsuming and absorbing earlier attempts, but it is still instructive to see the developed motif in rawer form. “The Traveller to Rome” dwells on the question of first sightings as opposed to repeated visitations of favored scenes through the power of memory, anticipating her own predilection for obsessive returns to the site. But the fragment, in fragmentary fashion, argues on behalf of vision situated in presence: “If the first time were the last / would he not have recognized / first the first fact is the fact / galvanized/ of being there, / of the mortal stare, / of presence.” “Crossing the Equator,” from the early 1950’s never quite progresses beyond its haunting opening line: “We all need the horizon, so it hardens.” That sounds like a line headed for a villanelle, but no such poem is forthcoming. Instead, Bishop develops the motive for travel in the trio of masterpieces opening Questions of Travel.

A small grouping of elegiac, epigrammatic poems from the early 1950’s, taken together with Quinn’s excellent notes, deepen the puzzlement surrounding some of Bishop’s decisions about what to publish and what to hold back (or suppress). How does one account for the poet’s reluctance to add “For M.B.S., buried in Nova Scotia,” “Where are the dolls who loved me so…,” “A Short, Slow Life,” and perhaps the somewhat less finished “Syllables,” to the roster of poems she was eager to flesh out into a second book of poems? By highlighting the chronological clustering of these poems in the early fifties, just after Bishop left Key West for Brazil, and prior to the appearance of A Cold Spring, Quinn prompts us to ask whether the crises in Bishop’s life at this time, coupled with her isolation from publishing centers and poetry circles, made her less willing to release certain poems. “For M.B.S.,” an epitaphic elegy for Bishop’s aunt, and “A Short, Slow Life” supplement “Sestina” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” providing even further proof of Bishop’s mastery in the realms of strict, heartbreaking elegiac ethos. (They are very moving poems.) “Where are the dolls who loved me so…” is an uncanny masterpiece of psycho-sexual identity formation and counterformation. This is another poem issued by the “the child” of “Sestina,” focused not on the grandmother, but on the child’s playthings. One wishes that Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich could have seen this poem in A Cold Spring, which might have been issued as a single volume, instead of being coupled with North and South, had the book included more poems, especially in this mode:

Where are the dolls who loved me so

when I was young?

Who cared for me with hands of bisque,

poked breadcrumbs in between my lips,

Where are the early nurses,

Gertrude, Zilpha, and Nokomis?

Through their real eyes blank crotches,

and / play wrist-watches,

whose hands moved only when they wanted-

Their stoicism I never mastered

their smiling phrase for every occasion –

They went their rigid little ways

To meditate in trunks or closets

To let {life and } unforeseen emotions

glance off their glazed complexions

This eerie addition to the permanent corps of ubi sunt lyrics is a small masterpiece of identification, gendered and eroticized in ways predictive of “In the Waiting Room.” The poem’s gothic tinge is fascinating, too, revealing the inextricable packaging of dread and desire. And “blank crotches” is unforgettable.

Reading through Quinn’s collection highlights another oddity of Bishop’s publishing procedures: the strange assortment of “New and Uncollected Work” that she affixed to the end of the 1969 Complete Poems. Now that we can easily see the other choices she might have made, as opposed to the comparatively lackluster poems that she included to round out the volume, it becomes all the more interesting to think about what message she intended to send about the shape of her oeuvre and her career. Was she saving better drafts for a later volume? Nobody can fail to notice the tame, occasional quality of that final section of The Complete Poems, especially when juxtaposed with a number of the poems that I have been discussing. It seems as if Bishop was obscuring some of the reasons that lay behind her resistance to finishing certain poems by publishing less vexed (but much less interesting) examples.

As one follows Quinn’s chronology, even while taking to heart her many honest qualifications about the impossibility of precise dating, it appears that there was a ten or fifteen year lull in the fragmentary record of fragments, running roughly from the early fifties to the mid sixties. This might mean that Bishop finished more of what she started in that period, which was marked by the publication of Questions of Travel in 1965. But the final section of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box presents some intriguing material that either did not pass muster for Geography III (1976), or awaited housing elsewhere, perhaps in a volume to follow. Two of the poems she prints in this section, “For Grandfather” and “A mother made of dress goods…,” should be thought of as permanent entries in Bishop’s chapbook of family elegies, published or unpublished, so close to being “finished,” yet held back, held onto, by the poet. “Salem Willows,” apparently complete, might well be read as a companion piece to “In the Waiting Room,” presenting a complementary vision of vertiginous identity, intimated by reconstructed recollections of early childhood. Many of the poems in this last section seem captured in states of evolution, as opposed to earlier fragments, which seem to have been abandoned. Bishop desperately wanted to add more poems to Geography III, but she could not bring a number of these autobiographical pieces round to completion:they proved to be yesterdays

impossible to lift in time. Questions raised by drafts such as “Dicky and Sister” and “Sammy” are answered, directly and simply, by the sublime ethos of “Five Flights Up,” which itself answers to Stevens’ last vision in “Of Mere Being.” And the many versions of “Florida Revisited” are subsumed by the exemplary expansiveness of “The End of March.”  However, there are enough striking passages among these poems, not to mention drafts that have no clear corollary in the published poems of Geography III (“Memory of Baltimore,” for one), to insure that from now on many readers will find themselves moving back and forth between Bishop’s last slim volume and the poems stored at the end of Quinn’s book, as if we could extend Bishop’s career. But this is true for Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box as a whole: the Bishop canon has been expanded. Thanks to Alice Quinn’s superb editorial work, The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (with its “Publisher’s Note” to the effect that “this book contains all the poems of Elizabeth Bishop”) is now much more complete, even as the very idea of a “finished” Bishop is mocked.

The Nova Scotia “Archives”

Sandra Barry, from McMaster University Archival Conference, Hamilton, Ontario. May 2005

In the early 1970s Elizabeth Bishop said to her friend Richard Howard, “You know what I want, Richard? I want closets, closets, and more closets!” (Fountain 330) Howard remembered that then she laughed.

A decade earlier, in 1964, she wrote a long letter to her favourite maternal aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers. Grace had been contacted by Anne Stevenson, who was then writing the first book about Bishop. Stevenson was looking for information about Bishop’s childhood in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Grace was upset by the inquiry. Bishop responded:

You say ‘Is it necessary to dig back and give details like that?’ Well, yes – I’m afraid it is. I’m afraid this is what they call ‘the price of fame.’ It helps to understand my poetry if the reader knows something about my life. I like to know about the lives of the writers I read, don’t you? I much prefer privacy, myself, naturally – but since people do write about me, it is better to give them the honest truth than to have them start making things up, don’t you think? (Bowers 4 May 1964)

In spite of her ambivalence about biography, a significant portion of Bishop’s oeuvre is directly autobiographical–in part, her attempt to get the facts right before the scholars, critics and biographers got involved. Much of her autobiography concerns her early childhood in Nova Scotia and her mother’s family, by whom she was raised.

I have spent over fifteen years exploring Bishop’s Nova Scotia heritage, as well as describing the archival material related to Bishop and her maternal family found throughout the province. This process has lead me to expand my idea of what composes a “literary fonds.”

A writer’s papers are usually regarded as the most important source of information about the writer’s life and art, but as Bishop’s Nova Scotia heritage reveals, photographs, visual art, objects, houses, modes of transportation, oral tradition, and even an entire village provide direct insights into her artistic development. Indeed, Bishop’s papers map a way back to these originary things.

This paper ponders the ways in which things, such as an old family Bible, a great-uncle’s painting, a map, a church steeple, even the weather must be regarded as much a part of Bishop’s “literary fonds” as poetry manuscripts, letters and journals.

There are dozens of books and countless articles about Bishop, which provide extensive analyses of her life and art. I have chosen to support my assertion not through discursive commentary, but rather impressionistically, mostly using Bishop’s own words.

Everything I mention actually, tangibly exists (or did exist) and possessed both literal and metaphorical power in Bishop’s imagination and memory. Everything I mention is more than merely subject matter for Bishop. The people, places, objects, events and sensory experiences of her childhood shaped her aesthetic sensibilities and artistic practices; they are the primary sources of her literary expressions.

Bishop’s world begins with a cadence, a sound her ill, lost mother utters:

A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies….It just came there to live, forever – not loud, just alive forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it. (CProse 251)

Then comes language, Bishop’s first syllable, an oral tradition:

“Yes….” that peculiar affirmative. “Yes….”

A sharp, indrawn breath, half groan, half acceptance, that means “Life’s like that.

We know it (also death).” (CPoems 172)

You can still hear this “Yes” in Nova Scotia. Here is Bishop again:

Anyone familiar with the accent of Nova Scotia will know what I mean when I refer to the Indrawn Yes. In all their conversations Nova Scotians of all ages, even children, make use of it. It consists of, when one is told a fact,

– anything, not necessarily tragic but not of a downright comical nature, – saying “Yes,” or a word half-way between “Yes” & “Yeah,” while drawing in the breath at the same moment. It represents both commiseration & an acceptance of the Worst. (“Deadly Sandpiles” 3)

After language comes writing – the practice of writing – on a slate, the paradox of impermanence on stone:

I loved the slate and the pencils almost as much as the primer. What I liked best about the slate was washing it off at the kitchen sink, or in the watering trough, and then watching it dry. It dried like clouds, and then the very last wet streak would grow tinier and tinier, and thinner and thinner; then suddenly it was gone and the slate was pale gray again and dry, dry, dry

….The summer before school began was the summer of numbers, chiefly number eight. I learned their shapes from the kitchen calendar and the clock in the sitting room, though I couldn’t yet tell time. (CProse 5-6)

Kitchen, sitting room, calendar, clock, slate – time – all are part of Bishop’s maternal grandmother’s house. For Bishop this house is the first “of three loved houses,” “an inscrutable house,” “my proto-dream-house,” “my crypto-dream-house.” This house still stands in the centre of Great Village, still under the shadow of the towering church steeple with its lightning rod, still beneath the blue sky. In a room in this house Bishop hears her mother scream.Her grandmother hears the scream too:

September rain falls on the house.

In the failing light, the old grandmother

sits in the kitchen with the child

beside the Little Marvel Stove,

reading the jokes from the almanac,

laughing and talking to hide her tears….

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.

The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove

and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Grandmother is elemental, she links to cadence, language, writing, art: “My grandmother had a glass eye, blue, almost like her other one, and this made her especially vulnerable and precious to me.” (6) In the 1940s, in a Florida notebook, Bishop wrote the title for “a possible prose piece called ‘Grandmother’s Glass EYE – an Essay on Style’” (Millier 118).

Bishop’s maternal grandfather also hears the scream. He is a tanner and currier – an artisan. He teaches Bishop about good manners:

My grandfather said to me

as we sat on the wagon seat,

“Be sure to remember to always

 speak to everyone you meet.”

We met a stranger on foot.

My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.

“Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.”

And I said it and bowed where I sat. (CP 121)

Courtesy, decency, civility – these are Bishop’s underlying principals of composition (composing art and life):

I don’t like heaviness – in general….It seems often to amount to complete self-absorption….I think one can be cheerful AND profound! – or, how to be grim without groaning….It may amount to a kind of ‘good manners’….The good artist assumes a certain amount of sensitivity in his audience and doesn’t attempt to flay himself to get sympathy or understanding

(Stevenson 8 January 1964).

Still, Bishop’s childhood home contains heaviness, infused with an elemental seam of irony:

In the cold, cold parlor

my mother laid out Arthur

beneath the chromographs….

Below them on the table

stood a stuffed loon

shot and stuffed by Uncle

Arthur, Arthur’s father. (CP 125)

Here are the next generations: Bishop’s infant cousin, son of her maternal uncle. Uncle Arthur is another artisan, a tinsmith, who teaches Bishop about irony. How do the raw materials, the minerals, in Bishop’s life transform into art?

A tiny tintype photo of Arthur as a boy is the source for a painting done by an unknown itinerant artist. After Arthur dies, this painting is sent to Bishop, who is living in Brazil. Its receipt triggers a flood of memory, which becomes a memoir. She had seen Arthur’s dead child, now she sees Arthur “before he became an uncle, before he became a lover, husband, father, or grandfather, a tinsmith, a drunkard, or a famous fly-fisherman–any of the various things he turned out to be” (CPr 228).

Elizabeth Bishop’s art finds its source in memories from a time before she became a lover, a drunkard, a traveller, a famous poet, are shared with someone she’s never met, but whose art she stares at everyday as a child:

A sketch done in an hour, “in one breath,”

once taken from a trunk and handed over.

Would you like this? I’ll probably never

have room to hang these things again.

Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,

he’d be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother

when he went back to England.

You know, he was quite famous, an R.A…. (CP177)

The link between two artists, the painter George Wylie Hutchinson and his great-niece, the poet Elizabeth Bishop converge both inside and outside of time and space:

I never knew him. We both knew this place,

apparently, this literal small backwater,

looked at it long enough to memorize it,

our years apart. How strange.And it’s still loved,

or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).

Our visions coincided-”visions” is

too serious a word-our looks, two looks:

art “copying from life” and life itself,

life and the memory of it so compressed

they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?

The archives at Acadia University holds a large multimedia collection of material which was created by and belonged to Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family, a number of whom I have just mentioned. This collection is a potent remnant, and when its contents are placed next to Bishop’s poems, stories, memoirs and letters, the vibrations are audible, the result is a multi-dimensional, a 360 degree glimpse into Bishop’s artistic process.

Hundreds of photographs, dozens of paintings, books and artefacts – choose one, locate it in Bishop’s oeuvre: Take, for example, the old family Bible – a repository for family lineage, a text for grandfather’s nightly readings to the family, a press for leaves and flowers, every word on its title page part of Bishop’s longest title, “Over 2,000

Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:

Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”

Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges

of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)

Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen

this old Nativity while we were at it?

–the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,

an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,

colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,

and, lulled within, a family with pets,

–and looked and looked our infant sight away. (CP 58-59)

The Bulmer-Hutchinsons were Bishop’s family with pets, her nativity. The material at Acadia is as much a part of Bishop’s  “literary  fonds”  as  the  extensive  “Elizabeth Bishop Papers” housed at her alma mater, Vassar College. Bishop created her own literary expressions, but she was herself created by her family, her village, her childhood in Nova Scotia. Indeed, her “papers”–that is, their content–are in constant dialogue with what re-

mains in Nova Scotia  (gravestones, tides, architecture, highways, hymns, animals, shipwrecks, seasons, descendants).

In 1916-1917 Bishop attended Grade Primary in the Great Village School (still standing, still used as a school). It wasa truly formative experience for her, memories of which she recorded in one of her liveliest memoirs, “Primer Class.”

Only the third and fourth grades studied geography. On their side of the room, over the blackboard, were two rolled-up maps, one of Canada and one of the whole world….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….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. (CProse 10)

Scholars have, at length, identified many links, and traced many threads in Bishop’s work connected to this passage (to the actual event, to Bishop’s memory of the event, to her record of the event). Bishop, the geographer poet, placed her poem “The Map” first in her first collection, North & South, signalling significance. By offering a handful of verbal echoes from Bishop’s poetry, I want to close by suggesting that this early encounter with a colourful map helped to prime Bishop to become the poet writing the following lines: “With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow (CP 214); “Cold, dark deep and absolutely clear” (65); “black, white, tan and gray, mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst” (131); “brownwet, fine, torn fish-nets”  (68); “grandly, silently, flowing, flowing east” (185);“forever flowing and drawn

…flowing, and flown ”(66).

The Esther Clark Archives at Acadia University has digitized much of the Bulmer-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds and have made it accessible at: http://

Bishop and God

Review by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, Notre Dame University

Cheryl Walker. God and Elizabeth Bishop:  Meditations on Religion and Poetry.   New York:   Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. 157 pp., xi.

Cheryl Walker’s new book is, in every sense of the word, a true lovely book (including, among other things, an exploration of the connection between human longing and the desire for spiritual love). In fact, it might be fair to say that the subtitle of this book is the most revealing of its contents. Constructed as a series of topicallyrelated meditations by a certain kind of “reader” (or a “person of faith,” p. 76), this study ranges over a number of well-known religious writers (among them, Augustine, Ignatius, Kierkegaard, Teresa of Avila, as well as Flannery O’Connor, John Milton, and Jala-addin Rumi), ultimately forming something like a contemporary biographia literaria.

In addition, over the course of her meditations on the ways in which Bishop’s poetry intersects with the insights and thoughts of such authors, Walker reveals much about herself (including facts about her parents, especially her mother, a particular former student-turnednun called “Pam,” and her husband, who seems to have been the specific provocation for Walker’s realized adult conversion).  In this sense, the book also strikes me as verging on the genre of a “confession”—and, indeed, we find a sense of all-too-human personal guilt, implicitly overcome or redeemed, underneath Walker’s meditations on Bishop’s own personal shortcomings and subsequent self-loathings.

This is not to say that Walker’s book does not make a significant contribution to our understanding of Bishop and her poetry.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, one of the most admirable facts about God and Elizabeth Bishop is that it eventually emerges as a finally-wrought biography of the poet, not only in the overt summary of Bishop’s life in the first chapter, but throughout the rest of the book as well.  As Walker explores the various ways in which ethical dilemmas plagued this supposed skeptic, she moves beyond well-known biographical facts about Bishop, concluding with a compelling psychological expose.  By the end, we are convinced that the mature poet went through something like a genuine spiritual journey, from the proverbial “fall” and “dark night of the soul,” through longing and suffering, to something at least verging on spiritual “assent” (and “ascent”).  For “assent,” Walker begins with the early “Anaphora” but then gives excellent readings of “Santarem” and “The Moose,” in particular.  This is truly a side of Bishop we have not seen before, and one which we should heed, for Walker’s perspective gives us radically new and convincing readings of any number of Bishop’s poems, among them “The Weed,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Insomnia,” and most notably “Filling Station.” Of this last poem, Walker convincingly argues that its ending is not ironic (as most critics have found), but rather “a wonderful metaphor for the homely revitalizing love one gets at home—even this observer [in the poem], it seems, can refuel” (p. 67).  In fact, Walker successfully demonstrates that Bishop, herself, was not “always and forever” that “ironic observer” (p. 29) we have generally thought her to be, but rather a morally complex, serious thinker whose ethical concerns ranged from abstract notions of guilt and grace to concrete actions in our actual world (particularly when it came  to the poor).

Occasionally Walker’s meditations seem to go too far.  I just can’t find the religious or spiritual element Walker does in “Faustina, or Rock  Roses.”  Nor do I think  that the “clogs” and “holey hat’ of “Manuelzinho” form “a triangle (or trinity) of representations of the poor” (116). In addition, there are wide stretches in which Bishop’s poetry is not the subject at all, but rather a given spiritual topic whose explorers have ranged from Matthew Arnold and Martin Buber to those admittedly closer to Bishop (such as George Herbert, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell).  But these are very minor complaints about a book that not only gives us a completely new insight into Bishop, her poetry, and her prose, but also a very measured meditation on the seemingly inevitable intersection of religion and poetry.

Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman

Review by Sue MacLeod, Halifax

Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman was held at the Dalhousie Arts Centre in Halifax on March 6, 2005. Subtitled Reflections on the Life and Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the event was anything but ordinary. The Aeolian Singers, under the creative direction of Susan Crowe with Cathy Porter and Jacqueline Chambers, brought theatre, song, and poetry together. The result: remarkable artistic and emotional power.

In Susan Crowe’s words, the pieces that made up the evening were meant as invitations for each audience member to discover Elizabeth Bishop in his or her own way. “It is a collage,” she wrote, “a shadow-box, in which we arranged a selection of Bishop’s poems with songs and dramatic readings—the ordinary stuff of a daily life. Sometimes these things pull on each other, sometimes they push.”

In this third annual Women’s Day fundraising performance, the 45-member Aeolian choir graciously shared the stage with performers and soloists including Martha Irving and Marcia Kash, who acted and read poems; Lisa Lindo and Cindy Church, who sang and read poems.

Highlights included Irving’s and Kash’s portrayal of Bishop and her partner Lota in scenes drawn from Donna E. Smyth’s play, Sole Survivors. The scenes were short but evocative, and the acting strong. The joy and tragedy of the two women’s lives and love were rendered tangible, as was a sense of Bishop’s lifelong and complex connection to Nova Scotia and to Great Village, in particular.

The large audience included a sprinkling of poets, and I think I speak for most of those when I say we could take a lesson from the way Bishop’s poems were read. Each reader’s approach was distinctive, with Lisa Lindo’s riveting and rolling presentation of “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” among the most memorable. But what struck me in every reading was the full-bodied enthusiasm with which the words and rhythms were savoured. The actor/readers didn’t over-dramatize the poems, but they allowed us to see how much they loved them — something poets are sometimes embarrassed to do when reading our own words.

I want to close this brief review by saying that the heart of the evening was in Bishop’s own words—”The Shampoo,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Moose,” and, of course, “One Art,” among other poems that were read. But that would be a partial truth. The heart of the evening was also in the tribute to “ordinary” local women, through the reading of two lists of names, one “In Honour” and the other “In Memoriam.” And the heart of the evening was also in the music.

The closing song was Susan Crowe’s own composition, “When the Day is Over,” a song that asks us all what we intend to do, that urges us to discover what we must do, with our lives. The extraordinary evening left me—and many others, I know—with a deepened gratitude that Elizabeth Bishop found a way, despite much pain and difficulty, to do what she was given to do with hers.

A Bishop Evening in Brazil

Tatiara Guimarães, Librarian, U.S. Embassy, Brasilia

The poems, interpretations and a specially produced film comprised an IRC-sponsored program on US poet Elizabeth Bishop in Brasília on May 5, 2005. Elizabeth Bishop scholar Maria Clara Bonetti Paro, of the State University of São Paulo, and Lucia Sander, professor emeritus, Federal University of Brasília, presented a tribute to Bishop, who lived and wrote in Brazil from 1951 to 1970.  Ms. Sander produced the film, comprised of readings set to special effects and original music.  The program at the Casa Thomas Jefferson (CTJ) binational center was scheduled as the second evening in an E. Bishop mini-festival. Unfortuately the first evening, scheduled at the Brasilia American Corner’s Sala Elizabeth Bishop, was cancelled due to closure by a strike of Brazil National Library employees. The 40 attendants lingered late into the night at CTJ to discuss literature and poetry.

ALA 2005 Panel on Correspondences

Bethany Hicok, Westminster College

The Elizabeth Bishop Society organized the panel, “Correspondences,” for the American Literature Association conference held in May in Boston. Ross Leckie of the University of New Brunswick chaired the panel. Each of the panelists considered the theoretical implications of Bishop’s letter writing. In “(Making) The Casual Perfect: The Brazil Letters of Elizabeth Bishop,” Monica Peal (University of Manchester), began with these questions: How do letters function for writers? How do they function specifically for expatriate women writers? For Bishop, she argued, writing letters across space is about establishing distance, privacy and intimacy. Intimacy then becomes “possible because of   distance” for Bishop, allowing her “the pleasure of the personal, which she seemed incapable of otherwise.” In her letters, Peal argued, Bishop “makes the casual perfect” and in so doing closes the gap between formally perfect poetry and the seemingly casual correspondence. Is it form, then, that makes privacy possible? Peal asked. Peal’s questions were provocative in their consideration of the art and form of both poetry and correspondence.

Provocative, too, was Jonathan Ellis (University of Reading), whose talk, “Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor and the Art of Letter Writing,” might be best compared to a thrilling conference version of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Ellis spoke of his own scholarly odyssey of trying to locate the correspondence between O’Connor and Bishop. Some of O’Connor’s letters to Bishop are at Vassar, but eight apparently wonderful letters from Bishop to O’Connor remain in private hands, and Ellis, who finally tracked them down, was then told he could not see them, raising questions of ownership, value and scholarship that are important to all of us who are engaged in archival research. Ellis’s own correspondence with O’Connor’s cousin, Louise Florencourt, who has the letters, formed the core of the paper and provided their own testament to the lost art of letter writing.

True to his Byatt-like epic of literary quest, Ellis took a refreshing, postmodern approach to his situation by providing three possible versions of his paper. Beginning with the question, “What happened to this paper?” Ellis presented Version 1 as the original idea to “address the art form of each writer’s correspondence and […] the extent to which both Bishop and O’Connor considered letter writing a distinct literary genre with its own expectations and rules.” Version 2 considered the correspondence between Ellis and Florencourt over possession of the letters. Florencourt, suddenly realizing the possible value of what she had on her hands, graciously declined to let Ellis see the letters, worrying that such a move might diminish their value and therefore their potential benefit to O’Connor’s estate. The ever-persistent Ellis wrote back, trying in vain to persuade O’Connor’s cousin to relent, knowing that “handling and reading” the letters himself would be “thrilling” and promising not to quote directly from the letters at the conference.

Version 3 was a sort of confession: “I know where the letters are, but I don’t have access to them.” And, although Florencourt will probably sell these letters eventually to a library, we don’t as yet know which one. In the end, Ellis’s paper really did manage to theorize the subject of letter writing, and raised important questions about archiving letters, the “art” of letter writing, and copyright, while at the same time suggesting the romance behind our scholarly endeavors.

Ann Shifrer (Utah State University), on the other hand, did have access to Bishop’s letters. She gave the final paper for the panel, “Human Animals: The BishopSwenson Correspondence,” in which she considered the significant correspondence between Bishop and May Swenson between 1950 and 1979. The complete correspondence between these two writers contains more than 260 letters. Shifrer considered how the two poets use their description of animals to convey their differing ideas of humans and the human body, so that “the problem of writing the body” can be read in their correspondence. Swenson’s use of animals enables her human subjects to embrace sexuality and desire; Bishop creates in her letters and poetry an interface between animal and human suffering (Bepo, the family dog; “Pink Dog”). Shifrer discussed the contrast between Swenson’s “ecstatic, utopian body” and Bishop’s “shamed bodies.” Both poets in their correspondence, she argued, struggled over the appropriate representations of the body.

ALA 2006: Approaches to Teaching Bishop

Frank Kearful, Bonn University

The May 2006 Society session on approaches to teaching Elizabeth Bishop, organized and chaired by Laura Jehn Menides, with George Lensing as moderator and Alan Soldofsky as respondent, drew a lively audience of fortythree. My ears picked up remarks along the lines of “best conference session I have ever attended,” and many stayed on for the Elizabeth Bishop Society’s business meeting, which turned quickly to further discussion.

Thomas Travisano led off with a paper on “Teaching Bishop with Her Poetic Peers” that suggested ways of cross-reading a Bishop poem and a poem by a poetic predecessor, successor, or contemporary, using formal analysis, biography, and literary history. Examples included “The Man-Moth” and Moore’s “The Jeboa” as well as “Exchanging Hats” -as read by James Merrill and Merrill’s   poem addressed to Bishop. Travisano focused, however, on “The Armadillo” and Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” Beginning students might be asked, “Can you see any reasons for the mutual dedications?” and encouraged to note the parallel shaping of the relatively informal stanzas, what Lowell called “drifting description,” how surprise is effected, and the closing turn toward violence. Other questions: “Which was written first?” (“The Armadillo.”) “Which received the first dedication?” (“Skunk Hour.”) Travisano, editor of the BishopLowell correspondence (publication, 2007), presented fascinating biographical material from their thirty-five pages of correspondence about the poems. An advanced class could explore how Bishop and Lowell were decisively influenced in their work by the other’s poem.

Lloyd Schwartz’s paper “‘Breakfast Song’: Bishop’s ‘New’ Poems and What They Tell Us about Her Work” previewed his Bishop graduate seminar this fall, which will include material Alice Quinn made available in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. One issue that arises in teaching Bishop is her range, which Quinn’s volume effectively extends, offering poems that contend with such central issues in Bishop’s life as her sexuality, her aging, her drinking, her politics, her mother’s mental breakdown, her decision to live in Brazil, the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares – subjects barely or rarely touched on directly in the poems Bishop published. Schwartz discussed several love poems, including “Breakfast Song,” a late lyric in her most heartbreaking direct style, her version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Students will be asked to speculate on possible reasons for Bishop’s withholding such accomplished finished poems. Were they simply too private, too sexually frank? Or did she just underestimate how good these poems are? Or?

Brett Millier had tales to tell from the classroom trenches in her paper on “Bishop and the Biographical Burden.” It is good to know that even Bishop’s biographer encounters problems the rest of us do. Sample: once she helped students along to a reading of “The Bight” that suggested the poem might be considering, among other things, the poet’s struggle with alcohol. Thereafter they read every Bishop poem – “The Map,” “One Art,” you name it – as “really” about alcohol. Millier also related heartening teaching experiences that motivate her to continue to share with students her interest in how poems get made, what circumstances in a poet’s life caused the poem’s genesis, and why the poem turned out the way it did. Launched upon its career in the world of readers, the poem belongs to us all, and any reading or approach that can justify itself with evidence is legitimate and at least potentially valuable.

In her probing of “Bishop’s Subversion of Genre,” Jacqueline Vaught Brogan discussed Bishop’s uses of fixerd fixed forms and associated poetic conventions as an ironic poetic “prison” within which she is able to pro duce reticent but ruthless and reverberating commentaries. Bishop’s prose piece “In Prison,” an ironically concealed poetic manifesto, provides a key to her poetic practice: the very structures about which she would like to make rebellious commentaries are also the very structures needed through which to make those commentaries. Showing how Bishop’s subversions of genre have gender implications, Brogan outlined her teaching approaches to Bishop’s uses of the sestina in “Sestina” and in “A Miracle for Breakfast,” which also makes ironic use of the reverdie and the aubade; her use of the villanelle in “One Art”; nursery rhyme in “Visits to St. Elizabeths”; daily news reports in “12 O’Clock News”; and the broadside or goodnight ballad in “The Burglar of Babylon.”

Focusing on “The Assimilation of Voices in the Brazil Poems,” Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins suggested how one might encourage students to recognize different voices in poems such as “Squatter’s Children,” “Manuelzinho,” “The Burglar of Babylon,” “Brazil, 1959,” “Going to the Bakery,” “Under the Window: Ouro Preto,” and “Pink Dog.” Students can share ideas about what social, cultural, and historical factors are implicitly conveyed by multiple voices, and can look for connections among different voices in different poems. Theoretical readings such as Bakhtin’s notion about poetry as “unitary” discourse may be introduced depending on the level of the class. Having students themselves read the poems aloud, giving attention to different voices within them, can be especially useful. Related matters for classroom exploration include relationships between Bishop’s device of multiple voices and her “power of reticence,” the carnivalization of language in “Pink Dog,” her subversions of poetic genre and fashioning of hybrid poetry.

Speaking on “Bishop and Place: Florida,” Betty Jean Steinshouer related how she brings to students’ attention the centrality in Bishop’s life and work of her fortyyear relationship with Florida. References to Florida, she observes, permeate Bishop’s poetry, not simply poems which focus on Florida but, for example, “Crusoe in England,” with its blue tree snails, and she notes that Bishop almost called her second book Bone Key instead of A Cold Spring. Florida locations such as Cape Romano and Keewaydin, Bone Key and Everglades City are also to be found in the prose, she points out. Bishop’s identity was deeply affected, she argues, by her “double affiliation” with Louise Crane and Florida, and she suggests that Bishop’s poetic development was markedly influenced by the failure of her love life in Key West.Steinshouer notes that Bishop, given the use of houses through Louise Crane, returned periodically to Florida, the last time in 1977.

Ron Strauss introduced an interdisciplinary approach with his paper “Parenthetical Moments in Bishop’s Poetry: Teaching Medical Students to Listen.” Strauss, who is on the staff of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Francisco and is a member of the clinical faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, spoke of the increasingly time-constrained doctor-patient encounter and challenges physicians face to be both astute observers and compassionate caregivers. Medical educators are therefore tasked with finding innovative ways to help medical students and residents develop these skills. Strauss related how in teaching “Five Flights Up” and “One Art” he focuses on how Bishop’s use of parenthetical comments transforms the poems. Similarly, parenthetical remarks made by patients to their physicians can transform how the physician perceives or understands the patient and his or her medical problems – but only, of course, if the physician is observant enough to notice among all the details what has been tucked away in de facto parentheses. Reading Bishop helps.

Responding to the papers, Alan Soldofsky spoke of his undergraduate creative writing workshops, in which Bishop poems provide models of texts that either transparently disclose or emblematically disguise their personal lyric content. His students write poems emulating “In the Waiting Room” and “The Man-Moth.”

The day’s pleasurable labors were followed by a superb dinner, arranged by Tom and Elsa Travisano. I  hope these events will also be followed up by a book on approaches to teaching Elizabeth Bishop, which thanks to the conference and Laura Jehn Menides’ dedicated efforts now has a running start.

Call for Papers on Quinn’s Book

The Elizabeth Bishop Society will sponsor a session on “Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box” at the American Literature Association’s annual conference to be held in Boston in May, 2007. This session will ask scholars to consider the impact of Alice Quinn’s publication this year of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, an edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments. Send papers, abstracts and inquiries to:

Bethany Hicok Westminster College

Deadline for Papers: January 1, 2007


Bishop Society Business Meeting & More!

Thomas Travisano, Society President

The Elizabeth Bishop Society Business Meeting at the ALA Conference on Saturday May 27, 2006 was more than just a business meeting. Since the roundtable on teaching Elizabeth Bishop organized by Laura Menides was large, there was little time for questions or discussion at the end of the session. Therefore, it continued at the business meeting of the Society, which immediately followed the panel. About 20 members were present at the business meeting. The first announcement was that the 2007 ALA in Boston would feature a double panel on the new Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox with Bethany Hicok as chair. Also, it was announced that a full share in the Elizabeth Bishop house in Great Village, Nova Scotia was available (and recently acquired by Society member David Hoak.) Finally, the ALA dinner of the Bishop Society was announced for that evening at San Francisco’s Delancey Street Restaurant.

With the announcements concluded, a lively discussion of the previous roundtable followed. Much praise was directed to the panel as described here by Frank Kearful. Ron Strauss was able to tell us more about his background as both a medical doctor and a student of Bishop’s poetry. However, stimulated by Lloyd Schwartz’s roundtable presentation of the poem “Breakfast Song,” the discussion quickly veered toward the controversy over Quinn’s edition of Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox. While many reviewers had praised this collection, others had attacked it strongly. The resultant controversy attracted media attention to Bishop scholarship.

Opinion on the book was divided within the business meeting. Some Society members contended that the book was inappropriate because it published poems that Bishop had herself rejected. The further point was made that some of the poems are inferior as poetry. Defenders of the book responded that, while the poems varied in quality, they also revealed much about Bishop’s working methods, and that almost all the poems, even if not polished wholes, had good lines. Also, it was argued, Bishop’s tendency toward self censorship caused her sometimes to suppress poems of strong literary and biographical interest. Moreover, many of these poems were already in the public domain due to frequent scholarly citation. Some contended that among the books drafts and fragments were several that were completed works of art. However, even some of the book’s proponents expressed ambivalence about the book’s propriety, and those made uncomfortable by the book as a whole tended to concede that Quinn had done a thorough and informative job of editing and annotating. With time running out, the Society president concluded the meeting by suggesting that next year’s ALA forum would  enable  continued  discussion  on  this  subject.

The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin, a semi-annual publication of The Elizabeth Bishop Society, is edited by Angus Cleghorn at Seneca College, with assistance from Josie Sage.

Elizabeth Bishop Society Advisory Board

Sandra Barry, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, Notre Dame University
Bethany Hicok, Westminster College
Laura J Menides, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Barbara Page, Vassar College
Camille Roman, Washington State University
Thomas Travisano, President, Hartwick College

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