Elizabeth Bishop


The New York Times

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.  Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.       

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore    


From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,

      please come flying.

In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,

      please come flying,

to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums

descending out of the mackerel sky

over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,

      please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing.  The ships

are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags

rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.

Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing

countless little pellucid jellies

in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.

The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.

The waves are running in verses this fine morning.

      Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe

trailing a sapphire highlight,

with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,

with heaven knows how many angels all riding

on the broad black brim of your hat,

      please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,

a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,

      please come flying.

Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan

is all awash with morals this fine morning,

      so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,

above the accidents, above the malignant movies,

the taxicabs and injustices at large,

while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears

that simultaneously listen to

a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,

      please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave

like courteous male bower-birds,

for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait

on the steps of the Public Library,

eager to rise and follow through the doors

up into the reading rooms,

      please come flying.

We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,

or play at a game of constantly being wrong

with a priceless set of vocabularies,

or we can bravely deplore, but please

      please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions

darkening and dying around you,

with grammar that suddenly turns and shines

like flocks of sandpipers flying,

      please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,

come like a daytime comet

with a long unnebulous train of words,

from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,

      please come flying.







embroidered nature . . . tapestried landscape.

Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark



Januaries, Nature greets our eyes

exactly as she must have greeted theirs:

every square inch filling in with foliage —

big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,

blue, blue-green, and olive,

with occasional lighter veins and edges,

or a satin underleaf turned over;

monster ferns

in silver-gray relief,

and flowers, too, like giant water lilies

up in the air — up, rather, in the leaves —

purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,

rust red and greenish white;

solid but airy; fresh as if just finished

and taken off the frame.



A blue-white sky, a simple web,

backing for feathery detail:

brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel,

a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate;

and perching there in profile, beaks agape,

the big symbolic birds keep quiet,

each showing only half his puffed and padded,

pure colored or spotted breast.

Still in the foreground there is Sin:

five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.

The rocks are worked with lichens, gray moonbursts

splattered and overlapping,

threatened from underneath by moss

in lovely hell-green flames,

attacked above

by scaling—ladder vines, oblique and neat,

‘one leaf yes and one leaf no’ (in Portuguese).

The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes

are on the smaller, female one, back-to,

her wicked tail straight up and over,

red as a red-hot wire.







Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite "The boy stood on
the burning deck." Love's the son
        stood stammering elocution
        while the poor ship in flames went down.
Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
        or an excuse to stay

        on deck. And love's the burning boy.









The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens.  For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.






Here is a coast; here is a harbor; 
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery: 
impractically shaped and--who knows?--self-pitying mountains, 
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,
with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue, 
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world, 
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately, 
after eighteen days of suspension?
Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming, 
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag. 
So that's the flag. I never saw it before. 
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,
but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen. 
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward, 
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,
descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beaus.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen's
skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy, 
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall, 
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall
s, New York. There. We are settled. 
The customs officials will speak English, we hope, 
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,
but they seldom seem to care what impression they make, 
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter, 
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps-- 
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat, 
either because the glue here is very inferior 
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once; 

we are driving to the interior.








[Brazil. A friend of the writer is speaking.]
Half squatter, half tenant (no rent)—
a sort of inheritance; white,
in your thirties now, and supposed
to supply me with vegetables,
but you don't; or you won't; or you can't
get the idea through your brain—
the world's worst gardener since Cain.
Titled above me, your gardens
ravish my eyes. You edge
the beds of silver cabbages
with red carnations, and lettuces
mix with alyssum. And then
umbrella ants arrive,
or it rains for a solid week
and the whole thing's ruined again
and I buy you more pounds of seeds,
imported, guaranteed,
and eventually you bring me
a mystic thee-legged carrot,
or a pumpkin "bigger than the baby."
I watch you through the rain,
trotting, light, on bare feet,
up the steep paths you have made—
or your father and grandfather made—
all over my property,
with your head and back inside
a sodden burlap bag,
and feel I can't endure it
another minute; then,
indoors, beside the stove,
keep on reading a book.
You steal my telephone wires,
or someone does. You starve
your horse and yourself
and your dogs and family.
among endless variety,
you eat boiled cabbage stalks.
And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged 
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you'd been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word "potatoes"
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.
The strangest things happen to you.
Your cows eats a "poison grass"
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else's does.
And then your father dies,
a superior old man
with a black plush hat, and a moustache
like a white spread-eagled sea gull.
The family gathers, but you,
no, you "don't think he's dead!
I look at him. He's cold.
They're burying him today.
But you know, I don't think he's dead."
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night!
And then you come again,
sniffing and shivering,
hat in hand, with that wistful
face, like a child's fistful
of bluets or white violets,
improvident as the dawn,
and once more I provide
for a shot of penicillin
down at the pharmacy, or 
one more bottle of
Electrical Baby Syrup.
Or, briskly, you come to settle
what we call our "accounts,"
with two old copybooks,
one with flowers on the cover,
the other with a camel.
immediate confusion.
You've left out decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.
in the kitchen we dream together
how the meek shall inherit the earth—
or several acres of mine.
With blue sugar bags on their heads,
carrying your lunch,
your children scuttle by me
like little moles aboveground,
or even crouch behind bushes
as if I were out to shoot them!
—Impossible to make friends,
though each will grab at once
for an orange or a piece of candy.
Twined in wisps of fog,
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
—All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Or coming down at night,
in silence, except for hoofs,
in dim moonlight, the horse
or Formoso stumbling after.
Between us float a few
big, soft, pale-blue,
sluggish fireflies,
the jellyfish of the air...
Patch upon patch upon patch,
your wife keeps all of you covered.
She has gone over and over
(forearmed is forewarned)
your pair of bright-blue pants
with white thread, and these days
your limbs are draped in blueprints.
You paint—heaven knows why—
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, "Manuelzinho,
one thing; be sure you always
paint your straw hat."
One was gold for a while,
but the gold wore off, like plate.
One was bright green. Unkindly,
I called you Klorophyll Kid.
My visitors thought it was funny.
I apologize here and now.
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or I do?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.

Again I promise to try.





One Art
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch.  And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.



Uma arte
A arte de perder não tarda aprender;
tantas coisas parecem feitas com o molde
da perda que o perdê-las não traz desastre.

Perca algo a cada dia. Aceita o susto
de perder chaves, e a hora passada embalde.
A arte de perder não tarda aprender.

Pratica perder mais rápido mil coisas mais:
lugares, nomes, onde pensaste de férias
ir. Nenhuma perda trará desastre.

Perdi o relógio de minha mãe. A última,
ou a penúltima, de minhas casas queridas
foi-se. Não tarda aprender, a arte de perder.

Perdi duas cidades, eram deliciosas. E,
pior, alguns reinos que tive, dois rios, um
continente. Sinto sua falta, nenhum desastre.

- Mesmo perder-te a ti (a voz que ria, um ente
amado), mentir não posso. É evidente:
a arte de perder muito não tarda aprender,
embora a perda - escreva tudo! - lembre desastre.


Tradução de Horácio Costa


At four o'clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
just below
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match 
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.
Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,
where in the blue blur 
their rusting wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.
Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,
the many wives 
who lead hens' lives
of being courted and despised;
deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town.  A rooster gloats
over our beds
from rusty irons sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,
over our churches 
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,
making sallies 
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally's:
glass-headed pins,
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,
each one an active 
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, "This is where I live!"
Each screaming
"Get up!  Stop dreaming!"
Roosters, what are you projecting?
You, whom the Greeks elected
to shoot at on a post, who struggled
when sacrificed, you whom they labeled
"Very combative..."
what right have you to give 
commands and tell us how to live,
cry "Here!" and "Here!"
and wake us here where are
unwanted love, conceit and war?
The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood
Yes, that excrescence
makes a most virile presence,
plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence
Now in mid-air
by two they fight each other.
Down comes a first flame-feather,
and one is flying,
with raging heroism defying
even the sensation of dying.
And one has fallen
but still above the town
his torn-out, bloodied feathers drift down;
and what he sung
no matter.  He is flung
on the gray ash-heap, lies in dung
with his dead wives
with open, bloody eyes,
while those metallic feathers oxidize.
St. Peter's sin
was worse than that of Magdalen
whose sin was of the flesh alone;
of spirit, Peter's,
falling, beneath the flares,
among the "servants and officers."
Old holy sculpture
could set it all together
in one small scene, past and future:
Christ stands amazed,
Peter, two fingers raised
to surprised lips, both as if dazed.
But in between
a little cock is seen
carved on a dim column in the travertine,
explained by gallus canit;
flet Petrus underneath it,
There is inescapable hope, the pivot;
yes, and there Peter's tears
run down our chanticleer's
sides and gem his spurs.
Tear-encrusted thick
as a medieval relic
he waits.  Poor Peter, heart-sick,
still cannot guess
those cock-a-doodles yet might bless,
his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness,
a new weathervane
on basilica and barn,
and that outside the Lateran
there would always be
a bronze cock on a porphyry
pillar so the people and the Pope might see
that event the Prince
of the Apostles long since
had been forgiven, and to convince
all the assembly
that "Deny deny deny"
is not all the roosters cry.
In the morning
a low light is floating
in the backyard, and gilding
from underneath
the broccoli, leaf by leaf;
how could the night have come to grief?
gilding the tiny
floating swallow's belly
and lines of pink cloud in the sky,
the day's preamble
like wandering lines in marble,
The cocks are now almost inaudible.
The sun climbs in,
following "to see the end,"
faithful as enemy, or friend.







Quatro horas. De repente,
no azul metálico da noite, a gente
ouve o primeiro galo dar um grito estridente

bem junto ao muro
do mesmo tom azul-escuro,
e logo vem um eco, seco e duro,

de algum lugar distante,
e outro, da cerca logo adiante,
e mais outro, horrendo e claudicante

qual fósforo molhado,
na horta, bem aqui ao lado,
acende, e incendeia toda a cidade.

Notas ferinas
vêm da porta da latrina
e do galinheiro coberto de titica,

e, sempre admirados
pelas esposas excitadas,
os galos testam os esporões afiados,

fixam o o olhar parvo,
escancaram o bico ávido
e soltam o velho grito irrefreável.

Estufam o peito
amedalhado de penas, feito
para dar ordens e espalhar o medo

entre as bobinhas
cortejadas cim louvaminhas
e depois desprezadas como galinhas;

das gargantas nuas
espalha-se uma ordem absurda
pela cidade inteira. Um galo nos perturba

em nossos quartos,
lá de um galpão enferrujado
ou de uma cerca feita de velhos estrados,

ou do telhado cinzento
de uma igraja, duplo vivente
do galo de metal do cata-vento,

galos oriundos
dos becos mais imundos
traçando verdadeiros mapas-múndi:

alfinetes vivos
de vidro colorido,
azuis, verdes, laranja, decididos

a proclamar
alto e bom som, e sem parar,
a quem os ouça: "Aqui é o meu lugar!".

Sempre gritando:
"Chega de sonhos! Todos levantando!".
Galos, o que vocês estão projetando?

Na Antigüidade
vocês já combatiam à saciedade
quando ofertados a alguma divindade,

e eram tidos
por "muito aguerridos..."
Com que direito agridem nossos ouvidos

com ordens feras
e nos despertam nesta terra
de amor malquisto, arrogância e guerra?

A coroa feia
na cabecinha altaneira
é vermelha de sangue de guerreiro.

Essa excrescência
soma-se à viril eloqüência
de beleza vulgar da iridescência.

Em pleno ar,
aos pares, começam a se atracar.
Eis a primeira pena a voar.

Um, moribundo,
ainda briga, furibundo,
disposto a enfrentar sozinho o mundo.

Outro jaz na calçada,
porém suas penas arrancadas
continuam caindo, ensangüentadas;

seu canto tremendo
já afundou no esquecimento.
Seu corpo se mistura ao excremento,

os olhos duros
abertos, as penas já escuras.
Suas esposas jazem no mesmo monturo.

Maria Madalena
pecou com a carne apenas,
o que, afinal, é falta bem pequena

se comparada
com a de Pedro, cujo pecado
foi do espírito, ali "entre os guardas".

Numa escultura antiga
a cena inteira é resumida:
Cristo olha, como quem não acredita,

para Pedro,
que leva aos lábios um dedo,
petrificado de espanto e de medo.

Mas no intervalo
entre os dois homens sem fala,
talhado numa coluna, vê-se um galo,

e, como lembrete,
a inscrição gallus canit; flet
Petrus. Porém o episódio promete

esperança: Pedro chora,
e suas lágrimas escorrem
galo abaixo, e perlam suas esporas.

Lavado em pranto, qual
uma relíquia medieval,
ele espera. Pedro, coitado, mal

sonha que esses tão
temidos cocorocós hão
de tornar-se um dos emblemas do perdão,

um cata-vento
no alto de cada templo,
e que diante do Latrão haverá sempre

sobre um pilar
um galo de bronze, a lembrar
ao papa e a quem por lá possa passar

que até a fraqueza
do primeiro príncipe da Igreja
foi perdoada, e para que finalmente veja

mesmo o mais cego
que "cocorocó" tem outro emprego
além do simples "eu nego, nego, e nego".

E quando
o dia vem raiando,
uma luz aos poucos vai dourando

na diagonal
os brócolis no quintal -
como que a noite terminou tão mal? -

e além das folhinhas,
doura o ventre das andorinhas
e as nuvens que traçam, retilíneas,

o dia em seu papel.
Já os galos calaram o escarcéu.
E, "para ver o fim", surge no céu

o sol renascido,
fiel como um inimigo
ou como (dá no mesmo) um amigo.

Elizabeth Bishop (do livro O Iceberg Imaginário e outros poemas)

Selecção, tradução e estudo crítico de Paulo Henriques Britto

Companhia das Letras, 2001

ISBN  85 359 0120 5



PUBLICO, Mil Folhas, 17 de Novembro de 2006


O meu cérebro produzia ilhas

Eduardo Prado Coelho


Saiu agora o livro “Geografia III”, numa excelente tradução de Maria de Lourdes Guimarães, na Relógio d’Água. O leitor pode começar por aqui e verificar como de facto a questão da geografia, das distâncias próximas e longínquas, e das viagens que o próprio poema inventa são o núcleo obsessivo desta poesia


Quando se descobre um autor, é um verdadeiro deslumbramento. A gente tem a sensação de que avança por um continente novo e que o mundo se tornou maior. Afinal, é possível. Aquele sen­timento de que “tudo está dito” e que já não é possível inventar-se nada de novo, (algo que tantas vezes nos assalta) perde sentido. E claro que o que irrompe tem todas as características do absolutamente inesperado. A novidade é o que se não pode prever. Mas ajuda-nos imenso a lutar contra essa ideia pessimista de que chegámos ao fim da histó­ria. Lembro-me de um dia conversar com o prof Delfim Santos, incontestável mestre exemplar, a quem devo algumas das melhores aulas que tive na Faculdade de Letras. Há muito que não es­crevia. E explicava-me numa conversa que um dia tivemos, com alguma melancolia, que tinha a sensação de que tudo estava escrito.

Mas não está nunca está. Um dia, já nem sei em que circunstâncias, veio ter comigo (literal­mente) um poema intitulado “Uma Arte” e que começava assim: “A arte de perder não é difícil de se dominar, / tantas coisas parecem cheias de intenção / de se perderem que a sua perda não é uma calamidade. // Perder qualquer coisa todos os dias. Aceitar a agitação / de chaves perdidas, a hora mal passada. / A arte de perder não é difícil de se dominar.” E o poema continuava, sempre cadenciado por esta ideia fundamental: perder pode-nos parecer uma calamidade, desde perder as chaves a uma pessoa que morre ou a um amor que acabou. Mas não é. A vida é feita de coisas que se perdem. Precisamos é de aprender a perder. E isso é uma aprendizagem interminável.

A autora é Elizabeth Bishop. Nasceu em Worcester, Massachusetts, em 1911. Aos oito meses de idade ficou sem pai. E, quando tinha cerca de cinco anos, assistiu ao processo de enlouquecimento da mãe. Teve de ser criada por pessoas da família, que a levaram primeiro para o Canadá e depois de novo para os Estados Unidos. Formou-se em 1934 e publicou o seu primeiro livro. “North & South” surge em 1946. Com a sua obra posterior recebeu o Pulitzer, o National Book Award e o Neustadt. Esteve no Brasil. E morreu em 1979 em Boston. É um dos grandes nomes da literatura americana. E é sempre uma poetisa surpreendente e desconcertante, duma modernidade assombrosa. Quando descobrimos um autor, queremos ler tudo, no pânico de que não haja mais. Foi isso o que me sucedeu a partir do poema “Uma Arte”.

Saiu agora o livro “Geografia III”, numa excelente tradução de Maria de Lourdes Guimarães, na Relógio d’Água. O leitor pode começar por aqui e verificar como de facto a questão da geografia, das distâncias próximas e longínquas, e das viagens que o próprio poema inventa são o núcleo obsessivo desta poesia.

Aliás, este livro começa com uma transcrição de um manual, as “Primeiras Lições de Geografia”, com perguntas e respostas. Assim “O que é a Geografia? Uma descrição da superfície da terra. O que é a Terra? O planeta ou o corpo em que vivemos (note-se esta oscilação: planeta ou corpo). Qual é a forma da Terra? Redonda, como uma bola. Do que é composta a superfície da Terra? Solo e água.” E numa outra lição: “O que é um mapa? Uma representação de toda ou de uma parte da superfície da Terra.” Depois, como tantas vezes ocorre nesta obra o poema parece derrapar desliza para uma espécie de delírio (sempre controlado, note-se). E surge um dos temas obsessivos de Elizabeth Bishop: a ilha, as ilhas. “O meu cérebro produziu ilhas.” E pergunta-se: “Em que direcção, partir do centro do mapa, está a ilha? A norte. “E vem a enumeração de alguns dos lugares comuns (no sentido quase literal) desta poesia: o vulcão, a baia, o lago (a circularidade parece ser fundamental), as montanhas, o istmo.

Quase todos os poemas de Elizabteh Bishop partem de situações corriqueiras e de repente parece que começam a levantar voo e a navegar em todas as direcções. Nesse aspecto, vale a pena ler “Na sala de espera”. Ainda pequena, Elizabeth vai com a tia Consuelo a uma consulta no dentista e fica na sala de espera enquanto a tia é atendida. À sua volta “gente crescida”, sentada naquele tédio de quem não sabe quanto tempo tem ainda para esperar. E revistas. essas revistas que têm sempre alguns meses de atraso e que as pessoas folheiam distraidamente. E Elizabeth pega no “National Geographic” e vê as fotografias, viaja nas fotografias que vê. Até que sucede algo. de absolutamente estranho e inexplicàvel. Ouve-se um grito que vem do gabinete do dentista. E Elizabeth  sente que o grito saiu da sua boca e que ela e a tia Consuelo são um único ser. E as duas como começaram a cair, não apenas uma dentro da outra, mas também num “espaço frio, azul-escuro” que é o outro lado do “mundo redondo e giratório” em que estavam. E isso vai permitir dizer que há sempre algo de enigmático que está por baixo daquilo que explicitamente se vê:

“A sala de espera estava iluminada / e demasiado quente . Deslizava / sob uma onda enorme e negra, uma após outra.” Mas há uma acalmia: uma data, um lugar. O poema termina dizendo que estávamos em Worcester, Massachusetts “e era ainda o dia cinco / de Fevereiro de 1918”.

Que se vê quando se olha de cima este pedaço de solo e água? É este o essencial das viagens de Elizabeth Bishop. Os seus grandes temas. As suas verdadeiras obsessões. O que se vê é triste, depressivo, nocturno e frio. Mas é a Terra em que nós vivemos e os mapas que dela fazemos.

Neste plano, um belíssimo poema que se passa a partir de um avião. Nele Elizabeth Bishop utiliza um procedimento que lhe é frequente e que eu designaria como “um efeito zoom”: das visões panorâmicas desce-se de repente vertiginosamente para um pormenor de vida quotidiana.

Existem fogueiras. São “ácidos flamejantes / e diversos sangues”. E “a cidade queima lágrimas. / Um lago enrugado / de um verde azulado / começa a fumegar” Fumos, lava de vulcões extintos, lama, odores fétidos, secreções dos corpos, tudo se conjuga para esta imagem. “linfa diáfana / túrgido sangue vivo / salpicam o exterior / com coágulos de ouro”. Mas ao mesmo tempo (zoom, claro) “um grande magnate / chorava sozinho.// Um outro exaltava um arranha-céus”. E no entanto algo acontece que suspende esta atmosfera sórdida e amarfanhante. “Porém, há criaturas, /cuidadosas, suspensas./ Pousam os pés, caminham / verde vermelho; verde, vermelho”. É a glória das cores nítidas e solares.



June, 9, 2002

'Rare and Commonplace Flowers': The Love of Her Life


Elizabeth Bishop -- in person and in her poetry -- was wry, discreet and a little peculiar. A Vassar girl and a disciple of Marianne Moore, Bishop rejected the confessional, politicized bent of her contemporaries. (She refused even to be included in anthologies of women's poetry.) Shunted about unhappily as a child, Bishop chose as her theme displacement, and as her aesthetic self-abnegation: a sometimes arid neutrality, the opposite of attention seeking.

How stunning, then, to learn that the love of Bishop's life was a swaggering Brazilian woman, the aristocratic self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares. A bold and funny self-promoter, Soares spearheaded the development of Parque do Flamengo, an elaborate public park in the center of Rio de Janeiro.

There was a fairy-tale intensity to the women's romance, which began when Soares nursed Bishop back to health during what was intended to be a brief visit to Brazil. Instead, Bishop stayed on, and the couple nested happily together for 12 years, spending much of their time in the ultramodern home Soares had designed in nearby Samambaia. But the love affair that began blissfully ended in sorrow: alcoholism, depression, adultery and, finally, suicide. ''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' is an account of this romance, and in its mix of novelistic techniques and biographical reportage, it might well have appalled the more introverted of its two subjects.

''Art just isn't worth that much,'' Bishop wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell after he used his wife's letters in his work. A reader, she said, couldn't tell ''what's true, what isn't . . . how much has been 'made up,' and so on.'' Carmen L. Oliveira (*) shrugs off such warnings (her background is as a novelist). As readers, we are made privy to private conversations, as well as to the comments of a gossipy Greek chorus of pseudonymous Brazilian friends. Oliveira is hardly alone in this sort of genre bending: the past several years have witnessed many fiction-inflected biographies, most notably Edmund Morris's ''Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.'' But while ''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' blurs lines, it is really not especially radical; mimicking a chorus of scandalized friends, after all, is not the same as making them or their opinions up. And Oliveira's sources are fairly straightforward: much of her description of the women's private lives, for example, derives from the recollections of their maids. In fact, the book is at its best describing some of the most subjective sequences: for instance, the private bliss of the Samambaia idyll, the ''house and rock / in a private cloud.''

In any case, Soares was a character made for a novelistic treatment. She was charismatic to a fault -- the type of person all Rio wanted at their parties -- but also bullying and monomaniacal. Where Bishop tended toward paralyzing self-criticism, Soares possessed a grandiose ambition that was both admirable and, when she was thwarted, painful. Even while enmeshed in the bureaucratic tangle that would eventually defeat her, she had the chutzpah to send the governor of the state of Guanabara (basically Rio de Janeiro), who was her biggest political ally, an outrageous letter proposing herself as his successor and wryly comparing herself with other candidates. Politics is the art of conquering, she pontificated: ''After five years in government I hope to have all the members of the House, if not on my side, then at least incapacitated and impotent.'' (She also promised to finish all the governor's projects ''except for those that don't please me,'' and to replace his statues of thin women with statues of fat ones, both because the thin women were an ''unpatriotic allusion to the state of our underdevelopment'' and because fat women better resembled Soares herself!)

''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' has become a Brazilian best seller, and one can see why. For although the book is superficially an exploration of a love affair, it is also deeply concerned with national identity, the nature of the Brazilian character and the effort to build Brazilian cities. Much of the latter half dramatizes Soares's doomed attempt to gain control over her park project. To an American reader, unfortunately, these hyperdetailed political wranglings quickly become confusing; they are, at heart, the notes of urban-planning meetings. And despite the novelistic sheen, and the intrinsically dramatic elements of the story being told -- Bishop's drinking binges and eventual infidelity, Soares's drastic descent into depression and suicide -- the book becomes surprisingly sketchy as it progresses. (In an introductory note, the translator, Neil K. Besner, describes his difficulties with the more florid rhythms of Portuguese, and perhaps these gave the original more dramatic tug.)

Still, despite these weaknesses, ''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' performs an invaluable service: unforgettably memorializing the remarkable Lota de Macedo Soares, and in the process filling in a crucial gap in Bishop's biography. Elizabeth Bishop may not have been a confessional poet, but like the narrator of Emily Dickinson's ''I'm Nobody!'' she wrestled throughout her life with a tension between discretion and self-assertion. This book helps put that struggle, and her writing, in useful context. It honors a deeply moving love between two brilliant women: each highly public, a celebrity in her own nation; each deeply private, and happy (for a time) in the fragile heaven of their home. Author's Query

For a book about Emily Post and the 1922 publication of her best-selling book ''Etiquette,'' I would welcome information -- memories, anecdotes, references -- concerning that event and Post herself. Laura Claridge 99 Park Avenue Suite 325 New York, N.Y. 10016 e-mail: Lclar210@aol.com

Emily Nussbaum writes frequently for Slate.com and other publications.

(*)  Oliveira, Carmen L. Flores raras e banalissimas: a historia de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1995. 

Looking-glass world

Elizabeth Bishop's poems reflected her concerns with social injustice in whatever form, wherever she settled - from the Eastern Seaboard to the Deep South and Brazil, writes Anne Stevenson

Saturday March 11, 2006
The Guardian

The second world war profoundly affected Elizabeth Bishop, who by then had found a home in Key West, Florida. Yet the war, which brought the US Navy to Key West, makes only a tangential appearance in her 1946 collection, North & South. So little attention did her poems give to it that when her first book was published, Bishop insisted on offering her readers an apology: "The fact that none of these poems [deals] directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly. But I think it would help some if a note to the effect that most of the poems had been written, or begun at least, before 1941, could be inserted at the beginning say, just after the acknowledgments."

The book came out at last on August 20, 1946, when Bishop was visiting friends and family in Nova Scotia. Five years later, a number of literary awards helped the poet to escape from the Eastern Seaboard of North America and start a new life in Brazil. Yet it was not until several years after that, when she was settled with Lota de Macedo Soares in Petrópolis, that Bishop, on the advice of her publishers, brought out a reprint of North & South with the addition of 20 new poems she had completed for a second collection, A Cold Spring. It was this second book that won her the Pulitzer prize in 1956 and, later that year, a Partisan Review fellowship of $2,700.

All this time, Bishop was worried about her poetry's lack of social consciousness, fearing she would be condemned as insufficiently serious. No doubt she felt the pressure of contemporary events and wished to write about them, yet her active imagination, while it responded angrily to perceived acts of cruelty or inhumanity, was too interrogatory and, above all, too reflective to feel comfortable with polemical arguments. At Vassar, she had concerned herself unwillingly with politics. As she grew older, a resigned realism bordering on fatalism led her to despair of the human condition. "My outlook is pessimistic," she wrote in January 1964. "I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives ... but I think we should be gay in spite of it, sometimes even giddy - to make life endurable and to keep ourselves 'new, tender, quick'." In her poetry, though not always in her life, Bishop did her best to be "gay in spite of it". Sometimes she played the child: "Drop the silly, harmless toy." Sometimes, as in the witty "Cirque d'Hiver", she allowed herself to become gently sceptical of progress: "Well, we have come this far." But most often she tried to show that in hopeless human situations something can be salvaged; something can be found, usually in the minutiae of a landscape or in the heartwarming, sympathetic details of a domestic scene, to make life, in George Herbert's words, "new, tender, quick".

In 1955, Poems: North & South - A Cold Spring came out in one slim volume and was reviewed as a single book. Yet it represents 20 years of Bishop's fastidious self-revision and consists, really, of three books, or three distinct parts.

In the first part - set in the north of North & South - 20 poems consider, from various angles, the nature of imagination. They relate to Bishop's outlook (and inlook) as a young writer in New York and as a traveller to 1930s Paris. Many of these take place in a twilight zone between sleeping and waking, and Bishop would have agreed that their mood and general ambience are surrealistic.

The poems of the second section are for the most part set in Florida - the title's south. Their unstated, unifying preoccupation, however, has subtly to do with vulnerability, with the apparent contingency of humankind to the natural world. In the third section, intended to be a separate book called A Cold Spring, Bishop broods over and explores ideas introduced in the first two, moving away from "The Map" and its map-makers' aesthetic into the more literal, personal geographies of "A Cold Spring", "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance".

Bishop's first visit to Florida in the winter of 1936-37 was a matter of a few weeks' fishing, but after a second trip to Europe the following summer, she and Louise Crane decided to buy a house in Key West. At the time, Key West was a semi-paradisiacal, quasi-colonial settlement inhabited by an assortment of artists, writers, retired people, hangers-on and alcoholics who mixed cheerfully with an easy-going Cuban population who immediately won Bishop's heart. Writing to Marianne Moore in January 1938, Bishop took pleasure in describing the tiny houses with scrolls like paper cutouts, whose huge flowering plants seemed to have "sapped the strength of everything else in town".

Bishop was furiously upset by what she saw of racial exploitation in America's Deep South, as she was later by the inhuman treatment of the poor by the privileged rich in Rio de Janeiro; yet she rarely permitted herself to give vent to her anger directly. "Jerónimo's House", "Faustina" and Part IV of "Songs for a Colored Singer" beautifully convey the poet's pity for and empathy with the poor black population of Florida. The popular ballad, "The Burglar of Babylon", with the more subtle lyric, "Squatter's Children", carry that sympathetic empathy to Brazil. But in all these poems, strong discipline in the writing stiffens the sentiments displayed, as though the poet were afraid of giving offence through condescension.

"Squatter's Children" is one of 10 Brazilian poems Bishop completed between July 1955, when Houghton Mifflin in Boston published Poems: North & South - A Cold Spring, and November 1965, when the New York firm of Farrar, Straus and Giroux brought out her third collection, Questions of Travel. Like the 1955 collection, the original edition of Questions of Travel divided naturally into three sections. The first consisted of 11 poems written and set in Brazil. The second, modelled on Robert Lowell's Life Studies, republished Bishop's autobiographical "In the Village", the story pivotal to all her work. A final section, "Elsewhere", consisted of three important poems relating to Bishop's childhood ("Manners", "Sestina" and "First Death in Nova Scotia") followed by five further poems connected by the thread of her travels and her process of self-recovery through memory.

For any other poet, 19 poems and a short story would have seemed a poor show for 15 years' labour; and indeed, as Lota de Macedo Soares too often reminded her, Bishop was unable to keep up the pace of more facile writers. The entire corpus of her work has to be understood as the record of one hypersensitive person's cautious, watchful, self-conscious inching towards the truth. It asks to be read as autobiography, but as an autobiography told from the "inside looking out". Instead of a year-by-year chronicle of a life, we are given a series of impressions or "looks" - a slide-show of places, people, creatures and small events, all of which have been seen, enacted and carefully noted down to be carried ever afterwards in the clear mirror of the writer's memory: "As if a river should carry all / the scenes that it had once reflected / shut in its waters, and not floating / on momentary surfaces." ("The Weed")

A factor at least as inhibiting to Bishop as her relentless truth-seeking was her apparent inability to write very much without pursuing the line of ontological-cum-epistemological questioning she had laid bare "in the waiting room" of childhood. This line we can see multiplying and extending itself in "Squatter's Children", running back through "Questions of Travel", and "Arrival at Santos" to "The Bight", "At the Fishhouses" and "Cape Breton", among other major poems. It must be confessed that any bestowing of abstract terminology on Elizabeth Bishop is, to say the least, risky. She claimed to have been weak in philosophy, and rarely, in any case, favoured "grand, all-out efforts". In many ways, such a disclaimer was a form of self-protection masquerading as snobbery. Bishop didn't, in general, approve of academics who tried to explain or take over poetry, and she positively loathed aesthetic arguments, agreeing with Wordsworth that if you can't say something in everyday words, it is probably not worth saying. Conversely, categorically unanswerable questions such as what is a human being?, what is knowledge?, what choices are we given in this life?, what is there in the world that makes it it, and people people? must at some time, she thought, occur to everybody. Why muddy deep waters with useless discussion? Why not just look?

It is, of course, one thing to ask "big" questions in language plain, another to answer them. No more than any other inquiring stoic could Bishop articulate her idea of being in the abstract. She could only speak truthfully about being somewhere, at a certain time. At their most convincing, Bishop's geographical poems begin in a lowkeyed mood, pointing at this and that. They go on so long, pointing and looking so intently that, by the end, some more abstract impression has to be felt. Only rarely, however, is this abstract idea identified, and even then it is often formulated as a question or a set of questions.

It is, in fact, precisely the juxtaposition of personal, geological and historical perspectives in these Brazilian poems that, in setting up a drama of opposites, gives them life. Written as monologues, they point to situations that are in themselves dialectical. Furthermore, all these poems are addressed to somebody. Like George Herbert, Bishop casts herself in the role of interlocutor, and her wonder at nature was not unlike Herbert's apprehension of God.

It was while she was visiting Nova Scotia in 1946 that Bishop first struck upon the phrase "the geographical mirror". She was making notes at the time for "At the Fishhouses", describing "the dark icy, clear water - clear dark glass" as "my idea of knowledge, this cold stream, half drawn, half flowing from a great rocky breast". In her biography of Bishop, Brett Millier inferred from these jottings that the poet had begun looking for herself in the mirror of the landscape. And it is probably true to say that Bishop's geographical poems are essentially exercises in selfplacement.

Mirrors, however, throughout her work pretty consistently stand for the imagination. Her New York poems of the 1930s and 40s conceive of a looking-glass world that corrects or reverses the real one. In "The Gentleman of Shalott", "From the Country to the City" and "Insomnia", mirrors represent aspects of a divided consciousness; in "Love Lies Sleeping" and "The ManMoth'", they feature as alien eyes or tears; in "The Weed", they retain memories in drops of river-water. But with "At the Fishhouses" - and even earlier, in "Florida" - a shift of emphasis grants geography the central position formerly occupied by glass. Immediately, the question arises: which is the mirror in these geographical imaginings, the poet or the geography? Did the poet looking for herself in the landscape of "At the Fishhouses" expect to find an image of herself "out there"? Or did she realise that the act of looking is always reflective? No matter how intently she searched nature for an identity, she could see only what her eye and mind perceived. Geography could provide her with no more than a reflection in the transparent glass of her own polished window.

This is an edited extract from Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop by Anne Stevenson (Bloodaxe).


April 2, 2006


Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.

By Elizabeth Bishop.
Edited by Alice Quinn. 367 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Rough Gems

Review by DAVID ORR

You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country's least popular fields, poetry, doesn't matter. That she was a woman doesn't matter. That she was gay doesn't matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan — none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever." The publication of "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," which gathers for the first time Bishop's unpublished material, isn't just a significant event in our poetry; it's part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life.

Just don't expect that change to be announced with a fanfare. In a tribute to Bishop, James Merrill famously noted her "lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman," and the observation applies to her writing as much as to comportment. From the beginning, Bishop's work was descriptive rather than assertive, conversational rather than rhetorical and discreet rather than confessional. (It was also hard to come by: in her lifetime, she published only around 90 poems.) This was surprising for two reasons. First, her approach was completely unlike the modes favored by her more flamboyant peers — Robert Lowell, John Berryman — as well as the guts-spilling styles they helped inspire. Second, if you believe art mirrors life, reticence is the opposite of what you'd anticipate from Bishop, whose biography contains enough torment to satisfy St. Sebastian. An abbreviated list: her father died when she was a baby; her mother vanished into an insane asylum when Bishop was 5; her college boyfriend committed suicide when she refused to marry him and sent her a parting postcard that said, "Go to hell, Elizabeth"; and the great love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she spent many years in Brazil, fatally overdosed in Bishop's apartment. From a writer with a history like that, we might expect announcements like Lowell's "I hear/ my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell." We don't expect to be told "I caught a tremendous fish."

This curious restraint has been admired by many critics (Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award), but it also explains why she so often has been identified with words like "quiet," "charming," "scrupulous" and, above all, "modest" — all of them perfectly useful adjectives, but none that would tip the reader off to the harrowing nature of her life or (more important) the colossal ambition of her poems. Even her admirers sometimes struggle to forgive her for seeming so remarkably . . . unremarkable. Dana Gioia, a longtime Bishop advocate and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, gets only a few paragraphs into an essay on her reputation's dramatic rise in the poetry world after her death before asking, almost apologetically, "Is Elizabeth Bishop overrated?" "Perhaps a bit," he answers, which presumably is what you say when you've gotten in the habit of thinking about poetry so much that you forget Bishop's poems are less well known to many people than the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

So why do we feel compelled to elevate Bishop while simultaneously worrying that we're raising her too high? In large part, the answer has to do with the difference between difficulty and subtlety. Difficulty is a beloved concept in the poetry world, because it's the crux of an old but cherished argument: Are poems too obscure? Or not obscure enough? The debate is a canned one, of course, but it lets all parties make their favorite points, and everyone is therefore happy to argue over "difficulty" at the drop of a hat. The reality, though, is that most readers and writers aren't actually made nervous by "difficulty," at least as the term is usually meant. For one thing, difficulty is straightforward — you either figure out what's difficult, or you don't. You might fail, but you aren't going to be misled. (In this sense, and in its implicit endorsement of hard work, difficulty is a concept that has long been central to our shared identity as Americans). Subtlety is different, though. Subtlety wants to be missed by all but the chosen few; it is aloof, withholding and aristocratic — sometimes manipulative and always disguised. It has less to do with theory and technique, which can be learned mechanically, than with style and sensibility, which require intuition. It wants to be looked at but not seen. It's unnerving.

It's also exactly what distinguishes Bishop's greatest poetry, which is why it's so hard to be entirely comfortable with this writer, or to know where she belongs. To begin, there is the peculiar Bishop voice, which is often called faux naïf, but is probably closer to faux normal (the imitation isn't of innocence, but stability). On one hand, she can seem perfectly straightforward — no poet, for instance, starts a poem more matter-of-factly: "In Worcester, Massachusetts, / I went with Aunt Consuelo / to keep her dentist's appointment." And of course, no poet is as enamored of local color: "The ghosts of glaciers drift / among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack — / dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors, / each riser distinguished from the next / by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge." Yet no one else moves as easily or abruptly into the uncanniest registers of our literature: "The iceberg cuts its facets from within"; "Everything only connected by 'and' and 'and' "; "More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors." None of this is difficult, but it's astonishingly subtle and strange. The more one reads a Bishop poem, the greater the sense of huge forces being held barely but precisely in check — like currents pressing heavily on the glass walls of some delicate undersea installation. It doesn't seem as if the glass will break, but if it were to do so, we'd find ourselves engulfed by what Frost (her truest predecessor) called "black and utter chaos."

"Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box" allows us to see the cracks that could form on those crystalline surfaces. It's no criticism of this collection to say the virtues of Bishop's finished poetry — style and poise chief among them — are often missing from the writing gathered here. These are, after all, pieces that Bishop herself chose not to publish, but found valuable for some reason; as this volume's editor, Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, noted in a recent interview, "A big part of the pleasure and understanding to be gained is in knowing what was on her mind during those years and in discovering new phrasing of hers, new avenues of vision." In addition to drafts of poems — some accompanied by photos of the manuscript pages in question, all following Bishop's often handwritten versions as closely as possible — Quinn has gathered several prose pieces, including an intriguing series of notes that begins, "Writing poetry is an unnatural act." Essentially, this is a book for two groups of people: Bishop fans (most of the poetry world, that is), and the increasingly tiny group who still think this poet was an unambitious and slightly chilly minor writer. The former will be grateful for the insight into her meticulous process; the latter will have to acknowledge the enormous patience and skill that allowed her to hold the volcanic feeling on exhibit here in the poised vessels of her finished poetry. Lest you think that's overstating the emotional content of these drafts, consider the presence of such decidedly un-Bishopian lines as: "I have suffered from abnormal thirst — / I swear it's true — and by the age / of twenty or twenty-one I had begun / to drink, & drink — I can't get enough."

That shouldn't, however, be taken to mean that the poems here are all unformed, lesser efforts. If some of this work is mostly of interest because of what it tells us about Bishop's published writing, other pieces can stand alongside anything The New Yorker got its hands on back in the 1950's or 60's. "Vague Poem" plays on a confusion between rock roses and rose rocks; it concludes:

Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex —

This openly erotic approach is actually more successful than much of her published love poetry, which is considerably less forthcoming. Equally strong are several of the poems intended for a sequence called "Bone Key," and parts of the later poem "Keaton," which has one of Bishop's finest, saddest openings — "I will be good; I will be good." Quinn's notes throughout are superb. In glossing "Vague Poem," for example, she meticulously connects a particular phrase to a speech given by Bishop in 1976, discusses the poet's interest in crystallography and includes another, earlier erotic fragment that recalls the more finished poem she is annotating. This is the devoted editing this material needed and deserved.

A few days after her death in 1979, Elizabeth Bishop's obituary in The New York Times noted that she "enjoyed extraordinary esteem among critics and fellow poets" but was "less widely known than contemporaries such as Robert Lowell." One can only imagine how Lowell and Bishop, lifelong friends, would have thought about the comparison. In any case, though, things have changed. The world of contemporary poetry can be a fractious place, but one thing almost everyone agrees on is the significance of Elizabeth Bishop — and that's as it should be. Our greatest poets aren't monuments to be looked at but grammars to be absorbed; however long it takes, we speak through them and they through us. "When you write my epitaph," Bishop once wrote to Lowell, "you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." Lonely? Maybe once, but not anymore — and never again.

David Orr writes the "On Poetry" column for the Book Review. He is a lawyer with Trachtenberg Rodes & Friedberg in New York.


April 1, 2006

New Elizabeth Bishop Book Sparks a Publish-After-Perished Controversy


They may not be household names, but in the insular world of poetry, they could not be more powerful. And now, in a literary clash of titans, one has squared off against the other.

In a scathing review that appeared in the April 3 issue of The New Republic, Helen Vendler, arguably the country's most prominent poetry critic, takes on Alice Quinn of The New Yorker, arguably the country's most prominent poetry editor, for editing "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments," by Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most respected of American poets.

The book, published last month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, features nearly 120 pieces of Bishop's unpublished work. She published just 90-odd poems in her lifetime.

For many readers, these manuscripts and fragments provide an important window into Bishop's creative process while also feeding a hunger for more of this spare poet's work. In a review to be published in The New York Times Book Review this weekend, David Orr, who regularly writes about poetry, calls the new volume "part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life," and praises Ms. Quinn's work as "the devoted editing this material needed and deserved."

But some people believe that Bishop, who had a reputation for perfecting poems over many years and refusing to publish those that did not meet her exacting standards, never intended for this work to be published. Bringing it out now, more than 25 years after her death, is unfair to her legacy, they say.

That is exactly what Ms. Vendler argues in her review. "Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified 'No,' " she writes.

In a parenthetical remark, Ms. Vendler, who has written reviews for The New Yorker, says, "I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts."

In some ways Ms. Vendler's argument reflects a long-running debate about what to do with the unpublished work — ranging from manuscripts and drafts to letters and diaries — of dead writers, from Keats to Kafka and beyond.

In the review, Ms. Vendler, who was traveling and could not be reached for comment, disputes the value of publishing work that she describes as the "maimed and stunted siblings" of Bishop's published poems. Her complaint extends beyond the book to include some of the poems recently published in The New Yorker and other journals under Bishop's name.

Ms. Vendler writes of one such poem, "Washington as a Surveyor," that it is "a rhythmically awkward and semantically inert Petrarchan sonnet." Making its publication "reprehensible," Ms. Vendler says, is the fact that Bishop had crossed out the entire poem in her notebooks. "Maybe it should have been printed in The New Yorker entirely crossed out," she writes.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said in other cases in which the magazine printed Ms. Bishop's unpublished work, it ran an author's note explaining that she died in 1979 and that the book of uncollected works was forthcoming. But in the case of "Washington as a Surveyor," there was no such note. "We should have been clearer," he said.

Ms. Quinn, in an e-mail message, said she wasn't entirely surprised by the reaction to the book: "I knew that this perspective on it would be registered and probably more than once, and I even felt that Helen would very likely be the one to express it first. I was surprised by the vehemence, but she clearly feels passionately, and that's her prerogative."

Robert Giroux, who was Bishop's longtime editor and asked Ms. Quinn to edit the book, said he had originally opposed suggestions that the unpublished works be brought to light. But then he started reading the material, which was in the archives of the Vassar College Libraries, and was riveted. "I told Alice Quinn to be prepared for attacks," he said. "Some people think that fragments and incomplete work should never be published, but that's ridiculous."

"No one's claiming it's finished work," he added.

Ms. Vendler's review, not surprisingly, has people in poetry circles buzzing. "Elizabeth Bishop is so beloved out there, so people are really excited about this volume," said Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. "Who wouldn't want more poems from one of your favorite poets who is no longer alive? But a lot of people have thought that Elizabeth would be turning over in her grave because her poems are so crafted, so polished, so worked and reworked and reworked, and she was also an enormously private person."

Few poets are willing to go public with their complaints. The New Yorker is one of the few general-interest magazines that still publishes poetry, and appearing in it is a major coup. "Alice is a very important person in the literary world," said Ms. Swenson, who had a difficult time finding a poet willing to talk to a reporter about the contretemps. "I'm not surprised that some poets would not want to be critical of a book that she edited."

In the book's introduction, Ms. Quinn acknowledges Bishop's perfectionism. But she also points out that the material is all "work that for one reason or another she chose not to publish but did not destroy."

Frank Bidart, a poet and friend of Bishop's who is thanked in Ms. Quinn's acknowledgments, said: "Believe me, Elizabeth was perfectly capable of destroying things. If she had never wanted these to see the light of day, she would have destroyed them."

In an interview with The Atlantic Online (www.theatlantic.com) in January, Ms. Quinn said the book helped readers understand Bishop and her creative process. "Everything in the book is of interest either biographically — as it reveals terrain largely unexplored in her published work — or because it shows the kind of scene, image, or insight that provoked her to start a poem. And all of this material gives us more of what was filtered through her brain and heart, which is hugely valuable."

Even those who may oppose, in theory, the publication of such material may nevertheless find it irresistible. "Even people who may have disapproved will read with fascination what they might intellectually have second thoughts about," said J. D. McClatchy, a poet who has published five volumes of poetry.

Some working poets admit to being squeamish about the book's publication because they would not want their own first drafts and rejected manuscripts to appear in print.

Billy Collins, the former United States poet laureate, often destroys his drafts with the click of the delete button on his computer. "I don't save my drafts," he said. "I just press delete, so the early work just vanishes into cyber void. A motto I've adopted is, if at first you don't succeed, hide all evidence you ever tried."

While he admitted to being fascinated by the drafts of "One Art" — a poem that Bishop published, which Ms. Quinn included in an appendix to the book along with all of the remaining drafts — he questioned the validity of letting the public see the work behind the curtain. "I think, in a way, we have her collected poems, and that was Bishop at her very best. Maybe that should be enough."



Questions of Travel


Published: July 1, 2010



By Michael Sledge

328 pp. Counterpoint. Paper, $15.95


Wearing tan slacks and a plain shirt, the poet Elizabeth Bishop entered the crowded Brazilian port of Santos on a damp, drizzly morning in November 1951, glimpsing warehouses painted in fading colors of pink, yellow and blue. Marianne Moore had seen her off in New York with the gift of a pot of white chrysanthemums. It wouldn’t be a long visit, or so the two friends assumed, never suspecting that Bishop would make a home in Brazil for the next 17 years, mostly with the charismatic architect Lota de Macedo Soares, whom she had met in 1942 in New York.

Those affairs — Bishop with Soares, Bishop with Brazil — are at the center of Michael Sledge’s first novel, “The More I Owe You.” Racked by too little writing, too much drinking and unhealthy doses of self-recrimination, Bishop needed a change of air. Her recent stay at Yaddo, the artists’ community in upstate New York, had been a disaster of alcohol and procrastination, and in Manhattan she had struck one of Soares’s friends as a “bird that had flown into the house and was dashing itself against the windows.”

Once in Rio de Janeiro, Bishop is soon whisked off to Soares’s home near Petrópolis, about 40 miles distant. She eats the yellow-orange fruit of the cashew, falls ill from a severe allergic reaction and is nursed back to health and poetic productivity by Soares, now her lover, who invites her to share the enormous glass house she has been building on the side of a cliff.

Although the casual reader picking up “The More I Owe You” may not know the facts of Bishop’s life, anyone familiar with her poetry very likely will. Bishop’s father died of Bright’s disease when she was an infant, and when she was 5 her mentally unbalanced mother was permanently committed to a sanitarium. After shuttling between Nova Scotia, where she lived with her grandparents, and the suburbs of Boston, where she stayed with a maternal aunt, Bishop entered Vassar in 1930. There the college librarian arranged for her to meet Marianne Moore. Bishop’s first book of poems, “North & South,” appeared in 1946, when she was 35, after it had been rejected by a number of publishing houses.

We are aware of Bishop’s personal history not because Sledge dutifully trots it out or because Bishop served it up in her work. Actually, her meticulous poems shun the confessional proclivities of many of her contemporaries, instead accumulating pictorial detail in loving, almost empirical precision. Yet since her death in 1979, quite a number of books about Bishop have appeared: the riveting edition of letters, “One Art,” published in 1994; the marvelous correspondence between Bishop and Robert Lowell that appeared in 2008; David Kalstone’s insightful 1989 study, “Becoming a Poet”; the compilation of uncollected poems, drafts and fragments, “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” edited by Alice Quinn and published in 2006. Sledge depends on such sources, but mostly he draws on the poems to create an Elizabeth Bishop who actually sounds like Elizabeth Bishop.

Novels about poets — imaginary gardens with real toads in them — inevitably trigger comparisons between the invented poet’s language and that of the real poet, usually to the novel’s disadvantage. Exceptions are rare: Pat Barker’s Siegfried Sassoon, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novalis, David Malouf’s Ovid are characters who speak authoritatively in voices we accept — and so, to a large extent, does Sledge’s Bishop.

In her Brazil poems, Bishop captured the rich, sensual detail of fern and rock and the green hills of Rio, of women carrying market baskets, of the sound of hail on a tin roof. All this Sledge uses to evocative effect, portraying her surroundings and their impact on her with elegant simplicity. Consider the alliteration, the internal rhyme, the lyrical repetitions of Sledge’s Brazilian landscape, with “fireflies an inch long, with lights like beacons. Butterflies as big as hummingbirds, hummingbirds as big as hawks. Caterpillars the size of snakes. A fluorescent green lizard with a red-hot tail.” Or Sledge’s expressive use of color, reminiscent of Bishop’s own: “The sky was a vertiginous blue, the forest a thousand brilliant greens, the vertical mountain black, like a great ship’s hull cleaving the earth.” “I am very visually minded,” Bishop once said of herself, “and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.” What Sledge has given us is a visually minded novel, rich in surfaces.

Respectful of its characters, even tender toward them, his book nonetheless errs on the side of Bishop’s reticence. Though wonderfully evocative, the surfeit of description in “The More I Owe You” overwhelms its characters. The novel’s delicately wrought detail — the stones in the jungle, the cruelties of drunkenness, the beauty of love-making — leaves the reader wanting more than linguistic grace. Surrounded by images of childhood and children, both Bishop and Soares are perhaps too predictably borne back into the past and, hence, a mutual dependency. But through poetry, or because of it, Bishop acquires a tensile strength: “You endured, and you found fellowship in the endurance.” Thus her sojourn in Brazil allows her to convert memories of Nova Scotia into prose and verse: “One’s art should act as the prism through which all of life might be thoughtfully observed.”

Sledge’s Bishop is, on the whole, a convincing creature of his (and her) making, but the novelist is far less adroit when he turns from Bishop to other characters, whether it’s Lowell, making the occasional stiff cameo appearance or, more significantly, Soares herself. Though Sledge tries to give her equal time, switching between her point of view and Bishop’s, he doesn’t quite convey the Soares Elizabeth loves and leaves, the Soares whose father disparaged her, the Soares who constructs a grand municipal park in Rio de Janeiro and gains only Pyrrhic victories over the political situation in Brazil. Nor does Sledge help us understand the Soares who commits suicide by vindictively swallowing too many sleeping pills the night after her arrival at Bishop’s borrowed apartment in New York. When Sledge introduces the future tense less than halfway through the novel, telling us how Bishop will survive Soares’s death, he makes her self-immolation and the failure of her relationship with Bishop, whether caused by liquor or politics or just time, seem predestined — or banal. “Everything necessarily changes,” Sledge observes. “Enchantment most of all.”

Yet the novel does enchant. On New Year’s Day in 1968, Sledge’s Elizabeth Bishop, now living in San Francisco, buys as many white flowers as her arms can hold and wades into the Pacific Ocean, dropping the blossoms, one at a time, into the water. They disappear, caught up by the current that pulls at her feet. But, as the novel closes, Bishop remains standing, an image of sureness, control and ­resilience.


Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.” Her anthology, “Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing,” will appear this fall.


PÚBLICO, de 5 de Fevereiro de 2011

Por que é que tens de ser um deles?

Pedro Mexia

“Você vai gostar da Bishop”, disse-me uma vez um professor de Literatura Americana. Na altura, eu só conhecia Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) das antologias. E o tema recorrente desses poemas - a viagem - não me interessava especialmente. Depois, comprei os poemas completos, que reúnem as quatro breves colectâneas North & South (1946), A Cold Spring (1956), Questions of Travel (1965) e Geography III (1976). E descobri que o professor Torres tinha razão: gostei bastante da Bishop.  Etariamente, Elizabeth Bishop pertence à geração da “poesia confessional”. Mas, embora fosse amiga de alguns desses escritores despudoradamente autobiográficos, .Elizabeth sempre recusou o confessionalismo. Na sua poesia encontramos um evidente controlo das emoções, Bishop nunca revela muito, é sempre discreta, reticente, irónica. A linguagem é clara, a composição meticulosa, o poema evita tudo que seja abstracto ou confuso, e mesmo as alegorias não são excessivamente densas. O crítico Adam Kirsch escreveu: “A sua melhor poesia demonstra que a experiência, canalizada através de símbolos, sublimada na paisagem, incorporada nos ritmos e nas imagens, pode ser mais eficaz e mais honesta do que a simples confissão. É uma boa maneira de provar que a honestidade, sendo uma virtude, pode ser atingida por outras vias que não a confissão.   

Bishop ficava aterrada com experiências como as do seu grande amigo Robert Lowell, que chegou a incluir nos poemas excertos de correspondência conjugal. Ela fugia desse desnudamento público e eticamente questionável. Ao lermos os poemas de Bishop, podemos pensar que teve urna vida menos acidentada do que os seus contemporâneos, mas as biografias desmentem tal ideia. Elizabeth cresceu órfã (o pai morreu tinha ela quatro anos, a mãe deu entrada num hospício pouco depois), teve uma vida amorosa por vezes tempestuosa, caiu com frequência no alcoolismo e na depressão. Mas isso, que interessa, não interessa aos poemas. O mais que ela se permitia era interrogar as suas experiências através de “questões sobre a viagem” e de episódios de infância.

Comecemos pela viagem. Os títulos dos livros de Bishop explicitam as suas preocupações geográficas, e basta lermos umas passagens para encontrarmos sobretudo poemas “paisagísticos”. Mas Bishop - que viveu em várias cidades americanas e europeias – tem, sobre a paisagem, e sobre a viagem, uma visão cautelosa, feita de deslumbramento e medo. A viagem é uma forma de conhecimento, e de enraizamento, mas também é propícia a    decepções. Um dos seus poemas mais significativos é sobre um Robinson Crusoe decepcionado, mesmo depois de ser resgatado da ilha. Longe de serem idílios pastorais, os poemas de Bishop vêem na natureza (mais do que nas pessoas) uma hipótese de resposta. Embora Elizabeth fosse agnóstica, tinha, como alguém escreveu, “um temperamento religioso”, pois fazia certas perguntas acerca do sentido da vida próprias de uma pessoa religiosa. Dois dos seus poetas favoritos, Herbert e Hopkins, de resto, eram sacerdotes.

Tendo vivido com frequência fora dos Estados Unidos (com um desafogo material que lhe adveio de uma herança), Elizabeth Bishop era acompanhada pelo sentimento de ser “estrangeira”. E, mesmo na vida social, mantinha a distância, o cepticismo, uma espécie de neutralidade. Via as coisas de fora. E assim como evitava o biografismo, também não se interessava pela política ou por outros assuntos temporais. A sua poesia é meditativa e de algum modo intemporal, embora esteja muito embrenhada na espessura do tempo.   

A viagem alimenta “desejos imodestos de um mundo diferente”, mas este verso contém em si uma aspiração boicotada à partida pela descrença. Ao contrário de muitos poetas “paisagistas”, Bishop vê uma grande ambiguidade na natureza. E, ao contrário dos escritores de viagens, duvida que se aprenda alguma coisa decisiva com a experiência. A vida é cumulativa, não avança em saltos qualitativos.   

Não que Elizabeth fosse irremediavelmente triste. Sabemos que encontrou alguma felicidade no Brasil. Viveu quinze anos entre Samambaia, Rio de Janeiro e Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, em companhia da impulsiva arquitecta Lota de Macedo Soares, por quem se tinha apaixonado. Mas até esses anos brasileiros acabaram mal, com o suicídio de Lota. Não por acaso, um dos mais célebres poemas de Bishop é sobre “the art of losing”, “a arte da perda”, a qual, confessa com mágoa, “não é difícil de dominar.   

Se as “questões de viagem” revelam questões de Elizabeth Bishop consigo própria, os poemas de infância são alguns dos mais tocantes que escreveu. A poesia de Bishop centra-se em geral na realidade concreta ou na sua representação; mas nas recordações de infância a realidade é filtrada pela memória, e a representação é naturalmente viciada pelo desvio retrospectivo, pois mesmo uma criança sábia dificilmente seria assim tão adulta.   

O meu poema preferido desta fase é In the Waiting Roam, espantoso relato de uma consciência que desperta. É dia 5 de Fevereiro de 1918, Elizabeth está a três dias de completar sete anos. Nesse dia acompanhou a tia ao dentista, em Worcester, Massachussetts. É um inverno escuro e gelado. Na sala de espera do dentista, quente, iluminada, bisonha, a rapariguinha folheia a National Geographic (já então a geografia), e não consegue deixar de estudar aquelas fotografias fascinantes e violentas de povos distantes, de costumes bizarros, ali naquela sala de espera cheia de adultos silenciosos e encasacados. Então ouve a voz da tia, vinda do consultório do dentista, um grito de dor certamente, mas de súbito Elizabeth não sabe se é a voz da tia, se é a sua, ou ambas, ela, como a tia, não passa de uma “foolish, timid woman”, e então, na sala de espera do dentista, cai em si, descobre que existe: “Então senti: tu és um ‘eu’, / és uma ‘Elizabeth’, / és um deles. / Por que é que tens de ser um deles?” Fora da sua consciência, na sala de espera, não se passou nada, mas ela deu uma queda da qual ninguém se levanta. O que é que tem de comum com aquelas pessoas, pensa, os pacientes, a tia, os indígenas da revista? Como é que ela está ali, porquê, e porque é que tem de ser um deles? E de repente regressa à normalidade. “Então voltei à sala. / Havia a Guerra. E lá fora, / em Worcester, Massachussetts,/ havia noite e frio e granizo, / e ainda era o dia cinco/ de Fevereiro de 1918.”




Publicação digital em http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/my-breakfast-with-elizabeth-bishop/:


My Breakfast with Elizabeth Bishop


By: A.M. Juster 
March 6, 2017


Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

 by Megan Marshall

Most poets who enter the canon arrive amid clatter and controversy. Elizabeth Bishop took a different route. In an era when it was still possible for a poet to become a national celebrity, Bishop avoided publicity and published only about a hundred poems. Nonetheless, her reputation rose slowly and quietly, and continued to climb after her death in 1979.

Bishop became a consensus favorite in the literary community. Formally oriented poets admired her innovative off-rhymes, skilled variations in line lengths, and the rhythms folded into her meter. Political poets of the left, such as Adrienne Rich, clashed with Bishop about being reluctant to promote the women’s and gay liberation movements through sacrificing her privacy, but most such critics stood down when Bishop’s lesbianism became more public. Today, she often seems beyond criticism.

Megan Marshall, a professor at Emerson College and former Bishop student at Harvard, accepts her subject’s greatness with no apparent hesitation, but readers should not be afraid to test that assessment. It is true that Bishop’s technical strengths make her a poet’s poet. When it comes to craft, Bishop’s poetry rivals that of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and A.E. Stallings. When it comes to precise and striking extended descriptions, she is in a class by herself.

A “great” poet, however, offers a vision and body of work that provokes strong emotions and worthwhile reflection. Bishop is too self-absorbed to meet that standard. Moreover, with just a few memorable exceptions, her subject matter has such limited range that one can create a template for much of her poetry.

Bishop’s poems, particularly the early ones, tend to be painterly. Their brief titles efficiently set a scene, usually with a place name or an article followed by one noun: “The Map,” “The Imaginary Iceberg,” “Wading at Wellfleet,” “Large Bad Picture,” “The Man-Moth,” “The Weed,” “The Unbeliever, “The Monument.” Her poems often open with a simple declarative sentence:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green. (“The Map”)

Alone on the railroad track,
I walked with pounding heart. (“Chemin de Fer”)

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed. (“The Unbeliever”)

Typically, the poem then shifts to an extended description of something that Bishop just witnessed, or a scene remembered from her childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. These descriptions, even in the earliest poems, are almost always precise, detailed, and apt.

Early poems such as “The Fish” (usually an English major’s first exposure to Bishop) established her reputation for crisp descriptions that are hauntingly beautiful even when they are raw:

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.  (“The Fish”)

A striking aspect of Bishop’s early poems is that they rarely seem to go anywhere. Like Frank O’Hara, she seems content to capture what she sees and recoils from seeking any larger meaning. Her closing lines are often summaries that feel tacked-on and avoid placing the scene in a larger context:

         …until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. (“The Fish”)

Other poems, less well-known, close even more awkwardly or sentimentally:

And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer
these particular glowing tributes
every evening now throughout the summer. (“A Cold Spring”)

At last the visitor rises,
awkwardly proffers her bunch
of rust-perforated roses
and wonders, oh, whence come
    all the petals.   (“Faustina, or Rock Roses”)

Her farewell poem to her close friend Robert Lowell ends in this sing-song and cloying fashion:

        You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
(“North Haven”)

Her poem describing the Air Force band while she was the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress closes childishly:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go

Sometimes Bishop even ends her poems in ways that suggest she is bothered by her own failure to find larger meanings:

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic. And a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky! (“The Armadillo”)

In short, many of her poems lack the spiritual or philosophical underpinnings of the great poems of Rilke, Wilbur, and Akhmatova.

Bishop’s method of composition encouraged a certain kind of barrenness. Except for a five-day stint working with binoculars for the Navy in World War II, less than a year as the Consultant in Poetry, and some light duty in academia late in life, Bishop lived off a small trust fund while visiting wealthier friends and lovers. A houseguest who shunned housework, she spent most of her days (when not impaired by alcohol and drugs, often dangerously so) writing copiously in her journal and then trying to fashion a small percentage of her journal observations into poetry. Often enveloped by tumult, Bishop largely ignored politics, charitable work, and the communities around her, living as a non-participating observer while developing a strong esthetic sensibility.

As Bishop aged, she occasionally broke out of this box. The incandescent villanelle, “One Art,” offers the fire lacking in most of her verse. There are glimmers of a social conscience in two poems, “Squatter’s Children” and “Manuelzinho.” That social conscience falters, however, in her artfully ambiguous poem about Ezra Pound that contains this off-key recurring line: “This is a Jew in a newspaper hat.” Mostly, though, in poems such as “First Death in Nova Scotia” and the overly acclaimed “Sestina,” Bishop continues to document and project, from a safe distance, both isolation and loneliness.

Marshall documents, ably and nonjudgmentally, Bishop’s solitary day-to-day existence. The barriers were there for a reason: her life had been continually miserable. Bishop’s father died when she was an infant, and her mother spent most of her adult life institutionalized. Bishop left Nova Scotia as a child and bounced around Massachusetts between inattentive wealthy relatives and predatory poorer ones. Marshall probably underestimates the severity of the molestation that Bishop experienced at the hands of relatives in Revere.

Bishop’s post-college male suitor, Bob Seaver, committed suicide after she rejected his marriage proposal, but not before he sent her a brutal note. (“Elizabeth. Go to hell.”) Soon a college friend lost a limb in an auto accident while traveling with Bishop. Though not seriously hurt, Bishop carried guilt about the amputation for the rest of her life. Her lover, Brazilian socialite Lota de Macedo Soares, killed herself with Bishop nearby. Bishop, who had bragged to Robert Lowell that she had “never met a woman I couldn’t make,” was involved with at least two other women at the time, one of whom suffered a mental breakdown shortly thereafter.

In telling Bishop’s story Marshall chose poorly by writing what Lloyd Schwartz calls a “part-memoir, part-biography.” Blurred boundaries between genres are all the rage, but Marshall’s insertion of herself into Bishop’s story should warn away similarly inclined biographers. I would be open-minded about such a fusion if Marshall had garnered some insight from her one-semester experience in Bishop’s Harvard workshop, but she offers only a few bits of mundane conversation. Marshall’s life simply does not merit being intertwined with Bishop’s in this book.

The short memoir sections, which alternate with chapters on Bishop, take up almost 15% of the book, and are a self-immolation. More than four decades after graduating from Harvard, Marshall is still whining that Robert Lowell did not give her a straight A in her first workshop. Marshall willfully violated Bishop’s rule that a student could not submit work from a previous class, and yet is still complaining that Bishop noticed her cheating and just slightly marked down her grade. Marshall also whines about being fired for poor performance as a young assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic—even though her own words (despite the Harvard education she flaunts) reveal her to have been surprisingly unfamiliar with contemporary poetry. Her explanations for these failures are transparently vindictive and petty.

What’s worse is that the memoir chapters take up space in a biography already marred by superficiality. The only significant new information comes from previously unpublished correspondence with one of Bishop’s physicians and three of her lovers. What’s discovered is marginally helpful in understanding Bishop, but not revelatory, and comes at the cost of excessive focus on Bishop’s medical and sexual history.

One example of Marshall’s limited focus is her section on Bishop’s time as the Library of Congress’s Consultant in Poetry, now called the Poet Laureate. Camille Roman’s 2001 biography capably covered this period in 26 pages. Marshall provides a generic, four-page discussion—mostly about the risks of homosexuality for a Washington public official, and the awkwardness for Bishop of Ezra Pound’s 13 years in a nearby mental institution.

Marshall does not attempt to answer other questions from this period. How, for instance, did Bishop become Poet Laureate after having published just one moderately well-reviewed book? No other poet has ever served in that post with so thin a track record. Did she benefit from the lobbying of Robert Lowell or did the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, simply admire Bishop’s work in The New Yorker?

Marshall’s writing is breezy and easy to read, but she frequently uses sentence fragments, dangling participles, and unclear referents. I kept longing for more of Bishop’s precision with language because Marshall’s imprecision interferes with the narrative. For instance, Marshall briefly describes Bishop’s “dalliance” with a man named Tom Wanning after almost 20 years of exclusively lesbian relationships. This abruptly Victorian term leaves the reader wondering exactly what happened and why, although 186 pages later Marshall’s mention of “dalliances with ‘other women’” makes it clear that she uses the word to mean a consummated sexual relationship. For all the detail she includes about approximately a dozen other sexual relationships, it is strange that Marshall teases readers about this surprising claim—particularly when there’s ample information about Wanning in the public domain, including his repeated denials of an affair with Bishop.

Despite my reservations about Bishop’s poetry, it is undeniable that she is an influential poet. Her biographies deserve the detail, precision, and scope that Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast does not offer.



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A Poet’s Inner Eye

Humanities, March/April 2009
Volume 30, Number 2






FEBRUARY 5, 2011


Wherever Home May Be


Elizabeth Bishop was a restless, searching writer whose poems are rich in the wonder of being human



Read this article here