Neil Besner, University of Winnipeg
Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil. Bethany Hicok. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2016. 178 pages.
Let me not pretend to a dispassionate eye: with Tom Travisano and Dave Hoak, I was the fourth with Bethany on the summer 2011 trip down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarém that she describes so vividly in the closing pages of this splendid book’s last chapter, “Amazon Worlds.”
The significance of Brazil in Bishop’s work and life has long been widely discussed, but no scholar or critic to date has given us both the finely detailed synthesis and clear-eyed overview of this vital subject that Bethany Hicok achieves in this excellent book. Her careful archival work with Bishop papers at Vassar and elsewhere, as well as her judicious use of Bishop’s letters, unpublished manuscripts, stories, poems and other recently collected material, make Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil an invaluable text both for scholars seriously interested in the subject and for Bishop’s wider readership.
I liked the prospect of this book very much when I read it in manuscript. I loved it when I reread it for this review. It brought happy tears of warm remembrance; it inspired and rewarded rethinking, reassessing, remembering Brazil in Bishop, Bishop in Brazil.
One of the most admirable and successful facets of this book is Hicok’s unique organizational method. Each of the four chapters traverses Bishop’s vital Brazilian years – 1951 to 1967, and more intermittently after Lota’s death, until 1974 – through a differently focused lens: in “Samambaia and the Architecture of Class” she begins the journey with an excellent discussion of modernist Brazilian architecture, bringing us to Bishop from her early years with Lota in Samambaia, and linking architecture to Brazilian class structure, reminding us of Lota’s elite position in the culture. That striking overview opens out into fine readings of several key Bishop poems in this context – here, “Song for the Rainy Season”, “Electrical Storm,” “Armadillo,” “Manuelzinho,” and “Squatter’s Children,” and of pertinent Bishop work unfinished or unpublished in her lifetime (such as “Gypsophilia,” from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box). This method – opening a chapter with a careful overview of a vital element in Brazilian culture, widening to place it in an international and theoretical context, and then proceeding thus informed to readings of several important Bishop poems – supplemented with Bishop’s notes, letters (and often, Lowell’s to her) and a wide array of other relevant writing – invites readers to traverse these years several times, and each time as if anew. The effect is cumulative, apt, and exciting, given Bishop’s own engagements with life and the memory of it.
The second, third, and fourth chapters unfold similarly, but the effect is anything but repetitive. “Letters from the Road” remaps the temporal zone of Chapter One, this time taking travel – such a crucial element in Bishop studies – and situating it specifically in Brazil, but also drawing on overarching ethnographic and anthropological theory to widen the reach of the analysis. In this chapter and throughout Hicok addresses another often overlooked but consequential factor for studies of Bishop and Brazil: Latin American studies in general, and particularly through North American eyes (ironically, for Bishop studies) remain poor first cousins in relation to the more robust work ongoing in other hemispheres, while Brazil (and by extension South America) remains to this day too easily exoticized, fetishized – tendencies that Bishop, as we know, fought off and that Hicok understands and exposes. Of course “Questions of Travel” gets loving and careful attention here, as does “a long typewritten account of the car ride from Rio back to Samambaia, dating from the mid-fifties” that Hicok quotes from generously – more evidence of the wonderfully recursive nature of this text. And alongside an excellent reading of “Filling Station” Hick gives us an extended discussion of “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto,” reminding us that Lowell carried the poem in his wallet to keep it close by.
There is no chapter in this study that will not bring Bishop readers (a Brazilian friend and colleague – Carmen Oliveira – has for decades referred to us wryly as Bishopologas/os – untranslatable, really, this gentle dig) a widened and more integrated appreciation for Bishop’s years in Brazil; but I admit that this third chapter on translation is my own favorite because it brings readers so close to the heart and the epicenter of another major preoccupation for Bishop: travelling between and among two very different languages. I’m not aware of a fuller treatment of Bishop and translation, save for pieces on particular poems (here as elsewhere, Hicok’s research looks comprehensive to me). It is wonderful to have in one place a treatment Bishop’s Diary of Helena Morley; a very good introduction to Clarice Lispector’s place in modernist writing and in Bishop’s Brazil; of Bishop’s translation of her stories, particularly “The Smallest Woman in the World” and its significance in relation to “Brazil, January 1, 1502” – and all of this prefaced by a probing overview of Bishop’s thinking about the whole problem of translation. Again, Bishop’s exchanges with Lowell on the subject illuminate another strand in the DNA of that complex relationship.
With “Amazon Worlds” Hicok modulates the tone of her wide and warm engagement with Bishop’s Brazil – and retraces once again that wide arc from Bishop’s earlier years to her memories of them, culminating, literally and figuratively, in Santarém the place and the poem. I admitted early that I can’t pretend to objectivity in this review; in another register, nor can Bethany, as she declares early and late. The central places of “The Riverman” and “Santarém” not only among Bishop’s best poems set in Brazil, but in all of her work, have been undisputed for decades; but it is especially apt and inspiring to have this discussion of these two poems appear here as one culmination of, one frame for Bishop’s nearly thirty-year engagement with Brazil (recall that she wrote “The Riverman” before having travelled herself to the Amazon, and that “Santarém” was finally published in her last year) – and for Hicok to frame that discussion within a moving account of her own journey in 2011 down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarém.
It is not that others have not written excellently about Bishop and Brazil, and Hicok has, I believe, read and learned from them all. (A quibble: the only major work I missed in Hicok’s “Bibliography” was David Kalstone’s gorgeous 1989 study, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell.) But no-one to date has given us a book on this subject so careful and caring, loving and astute. Muito bem feito, e parabéns, Dona Elizabetchy!
Angus Cleghorn, Seneca College
Eleanor Cook, Elizabeth Bishop at Work. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2016. 308 pages including index.
What is it about Bishop that makes scholars want to make her their own? It could be that her persistent search for home causes readers to want to house this traveler and the tragic circumstances in her life somewhere. It might also be the casual perfection of her artistic expression – such a master of tone that readers get frustrated when others apparently make mistakes. The latter is evident in Cook’s corrective monograph. Scholars are occasionally chastised and some praised in this effort: “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right,” as Wallace Stevens wrote in “Adagia.”
Eleanor Cook, Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, is an accomplished critic who has gotten it right in her written work, most notably in her Poetry, Word-play and Word-war in Wallace Stevens (1988), a fundamental scholarly work explaining how Stevens connects with the world through his poetry’s rhetorical description. Although Cook is accurate in this new book’s analysis of Bishop’s oeuvre until 1979, it reads like a series of noted responses gathered over years of reading Bishop and her critics. Yet the aim is true; Elizabeth Bishop at Work is motivated by Cook’s “curiosity about exactly how she did it, this master poet of the twentieth century” (1). Wouldn’t we all like to know? This noble objective leads to strong readings of Bishop’s diction, tone, rhythm, allusion and compositional coherence in her volumes, yet the book as a whole presents Eleanor Cook at work more evidently than its titular claim about Bishop. Still, readers can learn a lot about Bishop’s poetry here, in analysis of Biblical allusions for example, and yet there is much that’s already been said well before. I had the same sense with Colm Tóibín’s very different, more personal take On Elizabeth Bishop last year. With Cook’s book the scholarship is more apparent, yet many poems seem discussed for the sake of thoroughly covering Bishop’s volumes.
One of Cook’s correctives focuses on apparently excessive biographical criticism: “In fact, I found myself frustrated by those who were fascinated by her biography but not her work” (3). I agree that some literary criticism is over-determined by Bishop’s personal life, and that her detailed use of language is most fascinating, but Bishop’s overall art excludes nothing. Propping up bio-critical borders only limits what’s going on in the work. Cook knows this too, so her analysis of Geography III in chapter eight begins with three pages about Bishop’s relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares.
Chapters one and two progress in a meandering associative style. Many poems are covered with various interesting tidbits of information, yet purpose and direction aren’t clear enough. Cook writes in a stylistic progression resembling the ‘finical’ “Sandpiper,” pecking at grains with little held on to or carried forward. Finding Blake and Coleridge in Bishop might be interesting to some readers and not so much for others. Yet Wordsworth in chapter three becomes an undeniable journeyman guiding Bishop with narrative direction and more. There is developmental sustenance in this chapter, “On the Move: From New York to Key West, via France,” as The Prelude is used as the model, along with fresh readings of “Paris, 7 A.M.,” “Roosters” and “Anaphora.”
Shakespeare, Herbert, Baudelaire, Whitman, Hopkins, Eliot, Stevens and Auden arise quite often. The latter poet’s “tension between natural speech and musical demands (which should be felt in every good lyric)” (124) is at the core of Bishop’s accomplishment from A Cold Spring on. Critics such as Penelope Laurans and John Hollander are cited, and Cook excels at analyzing Bishop’s skill in this regard; however, it is unfortunate that Vidyan Ravinthiran’s 2015 book on Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic, which is very adept at intricately demonstrating how her poems work, is absent. Perhaps it came out after Cook’s manuscript was submitted to the publisher, as Jonathan Ellis suggested to me.
By chapter six on Questions of Travel it is clear that Cook enjoys participating in the mastery of poems like “Brazil, January 1, 1502” and “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Still, I am left wondering whether this 52 page chapter needs to cover almost all of this significant volume. There is an interesting section on Bishop’s use of Anthony Trollope for a comparative “outsider’s viewpoint,” yet I found myself wondering why Cook did not strengthen this link with the posthumous essay, “A New Capital, Aldous Huxley, and Some Indians,” in which Bishop uses Trollope’s remarks on Washington D.C. to try and come to terms with Brasilia as the new capital. In the introduction to Elizabeth Bishop at Work, Cook quickly disregards the “mostly unfinished” posthumous drafts. I’m not so sure that drawing this line benefits critical insight.
This minor limitation does not account for chapter seven’s nine pages, a “Brief Interlude on Genre,” which begins with a general critique of “recent discussions of genre” as “a pigeonhole” relying on excessive categorization. Some notes on generic play in various works follow, but “In the Village” is absent. Cook had earlier praised it as a masterful short story. To me its brilliance also derives from its opening and closing as a prose poem, as well as its centrality as a memoir that coheres the whole of Bishop’s life-art.
Chapter eight on Geography III demonstrates the necessity for Bishop to recollect “Life and the memory of it” in consistently unique and rewarding poems. Cook also attends to the jacket design of this volume, including illustrations drawn from James Monteith’s First Lessons in Geography. But it is this chapter’s section on tone that is most stimulating for future critics. Cook precisely explains how Bishop’s tones are difficult to discuss and pinpoint, and yet she illustrates tonal effects beautifully in readings of “Crusoe in England,” “The Moose,” “Poem” and “The End of March.” And “12 O’Clock News” is discussed as a prose poem influenced by Bishop’s 1948 reading of Henri Michaud. I suggest that Michaud and Rimbaud also lead to “In the Village,” written soon after.
The last two chapters continue to enjoyably laud the late great poems; “Sonnet” gets extra praise for its compressed formal play and “astonishing breadth of intimation” (267). Its mere 40 words also rejoice in a freedom that Bishop built in her oeuvre. As Cook tells us, “free” did not appear in North & South, began to gain currency in “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton,” and is felt by readers in the golden imaginations of “The End of March” and “Santarem.”
Cook the practical teacher offers little exercises for students along the way. She is modest in approach. Not many grand claims, and yet there are some new convincing interpretations: Bishop’s geographical volumes are imprinted with the compass rose, and the intricately measured compositions cohere with carefully placed sequential poems. Each work is unique and Bishop’s artistry grows over the years. Some potentially difficult veils and ambitions in North & South are fleshed out in the natural renderings of A Cold Spring. With Questions of Travel Bishop finds mastery that is sustained and seasoned in Geography III and late poems. It’s a calm mastery most evident in tone; the beautifully controlled shifts are heard effortlessly by readers. The voice closely held in the mind is one that we don’t want others to mess with. Cook rightly couples Bishop’s spoken words with her word-play, showing that Bishop guides us rhythmically to hear and see her pleasure craft.
Recording Elizabeth Bishop
Dave Hoak, Oakland, California
This summer I finished recording all of Elizabeth Bishop’s published poetry for the online “poetry spoken” archive, Voetica. I discovered Voetica three years ago in a rather unlikely way. One evening in December, 2013, I was in my seat waiting for a performance by the acclaimed men’s a capella chorale, Chanticleer. Paging through the program, I spotted a singer’s bio that mentioned his passion for poetry and went on to say that he had joined something called Voetica as something called a “vocalist.”
My imagination and interest were stirred. I visited the website and made an initial inquiry. Voetica’s founder, David Juda, a Berkeley poet of uncommon generosity and goodwill, seemed skeptical. I was in Los Angeles and all his readers lived and worked around the San Francisco Bay Area close to the Voetica studio. So I was six or seven hours away on a very good day. Furthermore, I imagined many of his readers were actors or singers whose professional interests might have led them to spend time in a first class recording studio. I was a mere aspirant, a former choral singer whose singing days were twenty-five years behind him.
Looking back, David’s concerns were perhaps more about the distance. Although Voetica’s roster contains many readers with substantial voice background, it is not because he in any way insists on it but because, starting with his theater and poet friends, his vocalist group was built by word of mouth. David’s credo is that Voetica is for its readers and that anyone who loves poetry and can get to his friend’s Berkeley studio on time is qualified (this is key: perhaps my greatest achievement in recording all of Bishop is living almost 400 miles away and never having been late to a studio session).
For my first reading, on February 9, 2014, we made a modest plan. I would choose three Bishop poems and aim for a thirty minute session. I decided to choose a short poem, a long poem and an unpublished poem from Jukebox. I finally settled on “The Man-Moth,” “The Riverman,” and “It is Marvelous to Wake Up Together.”
In some ways my first recording still feels like my most successful one. Later on, each recording would beget ideas about how to do the next one differently, or to prepare in a different way and I would often veer into overthinking things. It takes time to develop a “studio style.” Recording is in large part about concentration and for an amateur it can be hard consistently to summon one’s best focus.
For my recording of “The Riverman” I studied the poem intently and kept in mind Bishop’s reply during an interview by Ashley Brown to his question about the dramatic monologue as a form: “…..You can say all kinds of things you couldn’t in a lyric. If you have scenery and costumes, you can get away with a lot.” Indeed, I allowed the “The Riverman” to become something of a performance and I think my reading surprised David. I wouldn’t be Gielgud or Burton but I knew my Bishop. I was something different for Voetica: a Bishop scholar, not just a Bishop lover. (This is not said to take anything away from Voetica’s other talent: there are sublime moments among the thousands of tracks laid down by now. It’s just that, well….a scholar in the studio….who would have thought….)
Although the principal focus of my Bishop sessions has been to read for grammatical clarity, “The Riverman” was not the only poem for which I allowed “scenery and costumes” to inform my reading. I did the same thing for some others, including “Invitation to Marianne Moore,” “The Burglar of Babylon” and “Pleasure Seas.” “Invitation” is one of Bishop’s singular one-offs. I can’t read it without wanting to give it an incantatory, almost ecstatic, spin. Read this way, which Bishop might have frowned on, it becomes a celebration of “priceless vocabulary,” even of poetry itself. In the overall grandeur of Bishop’s oeuvre, it is perhaps a minor work, but it’s minor in the way Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is minor. It may fade from memory among the company it keeps, but to revisit it now and then is to receive a bracing jolt of stunning virtuosity.
I didn’t begin my Voetica career intending to record all of Bishop’s published poems. However, it wasn’t long before that ambition crossed my mind. As I became skilled at choosing exactly 52 minutes of reading (for me, the right amount for an hour of studio time) I realized that I was making good progress in getting through Bishop’s “Complete.” At twelve to eighteen poems per session, I was able to get through most of the work in six sessions. By the eighth session I was able to record several of the early poems Bishop published in The Blue Pencil and Con Spirito.
To record all of Bishop, that is to prepare an approach to every single line and stanza, is to become quite certain of the overriding architectural feat at the heart of her work: it is the coexistence of the justly praised natural and conversational tone alongside the astounding flights of virtuosic grammar and extraordinary vocabulary. The marquee poems of her later life emphasize the former, but miracles of syntax abound there as well. As is well known, the first six stanzas of “The Moose,” arguably her greatest work of art, form a single arching sentence enclosing six small, vivid landscapes. Getting this poem off the ground presents a bracing challenge for the reader. (In some way that I did not by any means try to imitate, Bishop’s own reading of “The Moose” achieves this lift.)
Even Bishop’s “forgotten” poems, poems we don’t talk about too much, can be a challenge to parse. Take, for example, “Faustina, or Rock Roses.” “Faustina” was one of the toughest poems to prepare. Apart from the multiple voices and a vocabulary that includes “stupefaction,” “undazzling,” “conundrum,” and “proliferative,” the poem abounds in brilliant syntax and enjambed narrative. We enter the poem in a domestic scene that could be set as follows: “Tended by Faustina the white woman whispers to herself.” But, of course, Bishop doesn’t start that way. Instead, dividing that sentence between “Faustina” and “the,” she begins the first stanza with the first half and begins the second stanza with the second half. The reader is invited to join the two halves without skipping the rest of stanza one.
“Faustina” is a small masterpiece of suspense in which we move slowly around a tawdry bedroom, drift into a meditation on class and race, pause mysteriously and humorously for a sip of “coñac,” and then finally leave the room entirely and enter the mind of the poet herself. How Bishop accomplishes this levitation does, paradoxically, have something to do with those unusual heavy words. When words like “conundrum” and “proliferative” turn up in the bedroom of an aging Key West matriarch, we know a magician is at work. Weighty words in Bishop are often conjuring words, words the magician speaks, not unfamiliar but intended to produce a kind of caesura of thought. The mind pauses long enough to afford a glimpse of what, only a moment before, was not there. The reader must mark these weighty words without breaking the magician’s spell.
After so intensive a dance with Bishop’s work, one might be thought to have arrived at a favorite poem. I suppose I could name a favorite five or ten, but letting the question “proliferate” might be more interesting. I’ve already nominated “The Moose” as Bishop’s greatest work of art. One might offer other categories. Could there be a most important poem? I would suggest “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” a work of monumental tone and gravitas which, along with “At the Fishhouses,” may occupy the summit of her pre-Brazil output. It is known to have gobsmacked three of the greatest poets of the 20th century, May Swenson, James Merrill and John Ashbery. On the basis of that fact it must have astounded many others as well. It remains one of Bishop’s most splendid evocations of the interplay of memory and observation. I enjoyed experimenting for days trying out various readings of its luminous final stanza.
An incident from my recording of “Illustrations” offers a lesson for those who spend time wondering “how Bishop does it.” At the height of this grand poem’s grandeur, the end of the long second stanza, Bishop closes with one of the most brilliant and unexpected lines in all her poetry, “In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.” One hardly knows where to start in unpacking this assertion. There is genius enough in the smartness of that burnoose and the perfectly spaced chime of “dour” following “bur.” But Bishop goes a step further suspending the reader somewhere between mild levity and laughter. We get levity, but not laughter, because of the near, but not exact, sibilant rhyme of “burnoose” with “amused.” Try the line taking the “s” of “amused” off the voice so that the word rhymes with “juiced.” Now you burst out laughing and this is what unaccountably almost happened during my recording. Why “amuiced” never entered my mind until I was in the studio reading the poem, I do not know? I had to stop and pull myself together before reading that sacred last stanza. With Khadour and the smart burnoose, we have a Bishop moment, par excellence. Who else, ending a passage of such exquisite elevation, would so slyly dare a smile.
A third category could be considered: the personal. Is there a most personal poem of Bishop’s? This is completely subjective, of course. We have learned to read Bishop’s biography in almost every one of her poems. However, I always come back to “The End of March.” Started over a visit, perhaps even a walk on the beach, at John Brinnin’s and Bill Read’s seaside home in Duxbury, Mass (get a map and look at that beach), Bishop begins a lengthy rumination on a structure far down the strand. There is no question of performing “March.” One might inhabit the voice of the child prodigy of “Waiting Room,” or of the protagonist of “Crusoe,” but “The End of March” is a lament in the voice of a 63-year old Harvard adjunct on a much needed weekend getaway. Symbols are rare in Bishop, and with humorous italic gloss, she grounds the house at the end of the beach (“there is a chimney”). Still, one can’t help but think of Stevens’s “palm at the end of the mind,” perched on a different edge, heavy with the weight of a long life’s imagination.
Robert Lowell famously helped Bishop with the sublime final stanza of this poem. However, for me, it’s emotional climax comes just before when the brave reader, imagining a wistful long last look up the beach, must pronounce the most desolate lines in all her work: “But — impossible. And that day the wind was much too cold even to get that far, and of course the house was boarded up.”
In August of 1955, a few years into their long and vital correspondence, May Swenson sent Bishop what may be the greatest piece of fan mail she ever received. Swenson had picked up a copy of Bishop’s second book, the recently published Poems, with its Loren McIver cover, and sent Bishop a catalog of observations and ecstasies marking her as one of Bishop’s most astute and passionate early readers. She had seen about half of the poems earlier in various publications. However, the thrill of seeing and reading them all together, along with those new to her, sent her into flights of praise. Apparently, she could be found walking around Greenwich Village for hours reciting them to herself.
Bishop, deeply affected, replies saying she’s “been in a rosy glow because of your letter for eighteen hours or so” and says if only she had “1,000 readers like you” she’d feel that her life had been “worthwhile.” More important, for my conclusion here, is an astonishing statement she goes on to make a page later: “I am touched to think of your reading these poems aloud…I mumble to myself sometimes but mostly it embarrasses me too much even to do that.” Bishop’s aversion to reading in public is well known, but….even to herself? Could it be that Bishop’s allergy to readings rests on deep feelings that her poems were just too personal, perhaps – literally – unspeakably personal?
It’s heartbreaking to realize that Bishop didn’t live long enough to know that she would have vastly more than “1,000 readers like you.” What would she have made of anyone taking the trouble to stand in a recording studio and recite every poem she ever published? The scholar-reader feels a trembling, uncertain presence in the recording booth.
(David Hoak is a Bishop scholar who lives in Southern California. You can find his recordings of Bishop at Voetica.com. Click the “Poetical Variations” link to find Dave’s personal page, “In the Village.”)
Call for Papers: “Voice, Tone, and Music in Elizabeth Bishop’s Writings”
Chaired by Thomas Travisano, Hartwick College
ALA Panel, Boston, May 25-28, 2017
Sponsored by the Elizabeth Bishop Society
Bishop’s layered and nuanced handling of voice, tone and music in her poetry and prose has long been the object of admiration, but what was she actually doing in her writing? And how did she actually do it? This panel invites papers on Bishop’s handling of voice and tone, and her subtle and influential treatment of the music of poetry. Targets of exploration might include her complex handling of personae, her deployment of irony, understatement, or word play, her mastery of timing, her legerdemain with rhyming, metrics and free verse, or the various ways in which she achieves surprise. Papers may look at specific writings or examine persistent characteristics that run throughout her work. Please send abstracts of approximately 250 words to email@example.com by January 15, 2017.