Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop
by Thomas Travisano
During my first semester at New York University, I was excited to take a survey course in American Poetry. When the old, male professor passed out the syllabus I wasn’t at all shocked to see that it contained just two women: Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. This was the early 1990s. A time when no one batted an eye to see a canon that was still almost 100 % white and male. The fact that these two women had crossed the line, had somehow been accepted was extraordinary to me. I tried to love Marianne Moore, but got tangled in her long lines. It was Bishop who spoke to me. I had had the luck of studying during undergrad with the poet Jane Shore who’d been at Harvard at the same time as Elizabeth Bishop and known her. I met Bishop through Shore’s enthusiastic teaching and her encouragement to study her poems deep enough to understand the careful and precise craft they revealed. At the end of the term at NYU I of course wrote my research paper on Bishop, more specifically on her long poem, “Crusoe in England.” In it, my professor insisted she expertly brought back to life Defoe’s protagonist. Which, of course, she does; however, the more I sat with the poem. The more time I let itself reveal its craft to me, I begin to see how it seemed to be saying so much more. My professor dismissed my “theories” as amateur and recommended I read the biographies then available on the poet. But, no matter how much I read, none of the books ever seemed to get her right. She never seemed like the poet Jane had introduced me to. She never seemed to be the same woman who had written the poems I couldn’t get out of my mind.
Many of these biographies glamorized, even fetishized Bishop as the other; as the woman who is abandoned (both by her parents and her lovers) and who thereby becomes an alcoholic. In these works, Bishop’s grief and isolation was cherry-picked and displayed on a pedestal as if she were being picked apart: broken piece by broken piece. She became a muse of sorrow, blazoned. Such was an ironic position for someone who deftly melded form to convey modern feeling. Perhaps, most strikingly in her last published poem, “Sonnet” which denies the form’s traditional deconstruction of its muse by inserting herself in the poem as her own muse found at the “spirit-level,” between the bevel of glass that divides the past and the future. Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, (Viking, 2019) Thomas Travisano’s new biography about Bishop, however, is something refreshing and entirely different. In it, Elizabeth Bishop is given the voice of authority. She isn’t picked apart into tiny fragments. Instead, what emerges through this careful study is the complex life experienced by one of America’s greatest poets.
From the outset its clear Travisano intends to approach Bishop’s life differently as he writes in the prologue, “It has become an axiom among critics that Bishop’s lifelong dedication to travel was determined in large measure by a search for ‘home.’ Yet, travel was not simply a search for security or shelter. It was also a search for adventure, risk and discover, a search for friendship and lasting love, a search for artistic material.” (3). Instead he presents her life as “speech against silence.” As James Merrill saw it, “Elizabeth had more talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known.” Or as Frank Bidart observed fifteen years after her death, Bishop’s life was “exemplary. Her masked but intense refusal to be anything but herself reveals like an X ray the contradictions and pleasures of twentieth -century culture.” (3)
The biography begins at the beginning of Bishop’s life, telling the story of both her father and mother’s side of the family and relying heavily on Bishop’s own words to tell the story of her childhood. Travisano explains that memory for Bishop was somatic, meaning she felt it in her body, and expressed this in her poems. He posits that the trauma of losing her father to Bright’s disease at a young age, her mother’s subsequent institutionalization and the likelihood that Bishop was sexually assaulted by her Uncle may have caused Bishop’s childhood illnesses. However, unlike many previous biographies about this great poet, Love Unknown, does not make this trauma the focus of these early chapters, instead it is the birth of Bishop’s sexuality and poetic craft that offers us a beginning to the poet’s life through her early letters.
Travisano identifies in early letters Bishop wrote to her friend Louise Mallard how Bishop longed to travel: “Louise—is it right for a young woman to trail off to the ends of the earth—Norway—India—alone? And live in strange places and do strange things.” From a young age, Bishop knew she didn’t fit into regular gender norms. Reading writers like Robert Louis Stevenson planted in Bishop the idea of escaping to live on an island in the South Seas. A place where the rules that society had placed on her would no longer be inflicted. Bishop’s longing to find an island where she could live as herself was not unusual for a woman to want during her time period. Just a few decades before Bishop wrote these words in her letter, the Scottish travel writer, Elizabeth Byrd journeyed all the way from the from Scotland to the South Seas essentially so that she could wear pants and live as a writer without hassle. In 1906, Charmian Kittredge London traveled on a small yacht called the Snark to visit the South Seas in order to escape the gender norms that were inflicted upon her as Jack London’s wife. (In “The Waiting Room” Bishop would later refer directly to Martin Johnson in his later life with his wife Osa who was also aboard the Snark with Charmian and Jack as they traveled the South Seas). Bishop found in islands a symbol of a new and equalized world: a place where she could be accepted in her isolation and it was a theme that would reoccur in her poetry all the way to her last poems. In “Crusoe in England,” published in The New Yorker in 1971 and written in what Travisano calls Bishop’s late “self-exploratory style,” one sees a clear maturity of her early yearnings. Robert Lowell, Bishop’s longtime friend and avid correspondent, claimed it to be her “very best poem. An analogue to [her] life.” For once, in this biography this adventurous escape, this outreach to find others who are like-minded this success and agency is celebrated and connected as one of the major themes in Bishop’s life.
Travisano uses a method of showing Bishop’s development throughout her life through concentric circles of experience. He tracks her development as a writer showing how her early poems, and the verse she wrote at Vassar foreshadows the future voice and tone of her more mature poetry. He shows Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Herbert’s early influence on her work. The inclusion of details like the fact that Bishop always traveled with a copy of The Temple close at hand make this biography a gem: a place where one sees Bishop come back to life through the minute details of her life. He not only shows Bishop’s well documented early friendship with the poet Marianne Moore which led to the publication of her first major poem, “The Map” in Trial Balances in 1935, but Travisano also displays Bishop’s maturation as writer in her rejection of Moore’s edits to her poem, “The Rooster” (thankfully, as Moore wanted Bishop to rename the poem, “The Cock”). Other striking details like Bishop’s witty reaction to Randall Jarrell’s review of her acclaimed second collection Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring where he compared her poetry to the paintings of Vermeer, “It has always been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without me saying it first.” (256)
Bishop’s romantic feelings are also given authority and this authority tied back directly to her poetry. On the islands of Key West and Bishop lived openly with her lover Louise Crane, and in Brazil she lived openly with Lota, but she wasn’t able to write openly about her sexuality in the literary world. In fact, even in my NYU graduate level class taught in the 1990s, Bishop’s sexuality was not discussed. She passed, as many lesbian writers before her, by keeping her personal life hidden from the page. Travisano highlights exquisite love poems like “It is marvelous to wake up together” (discovered by Lorrie Goldensohn in 1986 and published in the American Poetry Review in 1988) that while never published by Bishop during her lifetime reveal the deep, sensual relationships she shared with her long-time partners.
The biography ends with a touching story. Travisano, who was the founder of the Elizabeth Bishop society reveals how he and a group of scholars were able to convince Bishop’s last lover Alice Methfessel to finally inscribe her gravestone as she wished with lines from her poem, “The Bight”. Bishop had asked Alice to inscribe her gravestone with the epitaph, “awful, but cheerful” but Methfessel didn’t think these words suited Bishop’s life, so she’d left her grave in Worchester Massachusetts unmarked. However, the scholars were able to suggest adding the line before making the quotation:
“All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.”
I am so grateful that the tide has turned. Gone are the days when Bishop and Moore are the only women on a syllabus that aims to offer an overview of American Poetry (although there is still so much more work to do to make all syllabi representative of America’s incredibly diverse writers). I am also grateful, that now, through Travisano’s carefully researched and well-crafted biography, a new generation has the opportunity to get to know Bishop, not as the other, not as the token female, or as the troubled alcoholic, or as the lonely orphan. No, a new generation gets to know Elizabeth Bishop as she was meant to be known: as the brilliant mind that crafted some of the finest poems of the last century.