09 June 2005

Becoming Elizabeth Bishop

For almost two weeks I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop: her poems and prose as well as three biographies by Brett C. Millier, Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, and David Kalstone.

The Millier volume takes the traditional approach: chronological rendering of birth, early death of father, institutionalization of her apparently insane mother, shuttling the orphaned child from one relative to another, schooling, lovers, jobs, travel, fame, death. A good job of biography, except for Millier's occasional tendency to say something important, e.g., "The sense that something was ending between herself and Margaret hovered at the edge of Elizabeth's conscious mind while making these travel decisions, though she was not yet aware of how imminent and how final the break would be," and then fail to clarify. Margaret is Margaret Miller, who up until this point in the biography has been EB's friend, but suddenly, after a gory accident, she is no longer's EB's friend? The reader waits for more, but there is no more.

The problem, I think, is the handling of the lesbianism. Millier is hesitant to specify friend vs. lover. People didn't talk about it back then, and rarely wrote things down. I am guessing EB's journals and letters are not explicit. Thus, the data must be gleaned from the recorded behavior and interviews with those still living, who may demand various forms of secrecy. But Millier would have done better to make things clearer sooner for the reader.

That leads me to the other intense weirdness: the naming of all parties except the lover EB brought to Brazil after the death of EB's long-time Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. Millier calls the mystery woman Suzanne, Fountain/Brazeau reveal that Suzanne is a pseudonym, Kalstone reveals that her real name was Roxanne. Fine, if someone wants to remain unknown, but why not come right out and say, "We're protecting the innocent here." Innocent, now there's a word.

This is the problem with personality-based biographies. The facts of EB's life surely twined with the art she produced, but only elliptically, and the truly interesting stuff is what EB wrote. Millier does a good job of locating the creation of poems in time, and relating aspects of the poems to events and places in EB's life. She also documents EB's illnesses: asthma, allergies, alcoholism. One wants to know, I suppose, as much as is offered about the alcoholism. It was nearly disastrous for EB, but she lived through it, never conquered it, undoubtedly used it not only to survive but to allow the art. In my view, EB's alcoholism played a role similar to Lowell's psychosis. With such pressure, something needed to give. How lucky I feel that both artists survived as long as they did, produced such wealth.

The Fountain/Brazeau volume follows a pattern Peter Brazeau adopted with an oral biography of Wallace Stevens. Fountain joined up because Brazeau died before he could finish. The text offers brief stage directions that identify time, place, and players, then switches to transcribed interviews of people who knew EB. Most of the greats (Moore, Lowell, Lota) do not appear because they are dead. Still, we hear the words of teachers, schoolmates, friends, maids, doctors, publishers, admiring poets who knew EB at least through correspondence. She comes to life. I wish more biographers took the oral bio route.

But Kalstone's is the great book, and the sadness is that he died while writing it and was not able to conclude with a full discussion of EB's final poems, the great poems of Geography III. Nonetheless, this volume is breathtaking, not only as a wise, thoughtful, and loving unpacking of the poetry of Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell, but as an exploration of the relationships between great artists. Bishop found and introduced herself to Moore and became her student. Moore in some ways became the mother EB never had, and I say that in the kindest and most grownup way. EB was a Vassar graduate by the time she and Moore connected. EB sought a mentor, but disagreed from the very beginning. She BEGAN with her poetic genius, and needed to learn only how other "moderns" aimed and placed their energies. Moore endorsed and sharpened EB's descriptive power, and introduced her to her first publishers. All the while, EB resisted Moore's attempts to refine her. No, she would not eliminate water-closets and dung from her poems. Yes, the location of a poem in an apartment was precisely what mattered.

Kalstone shifts halfway through his book from Bishop-Moore to Bishop-Lowell. I can only begin to sense the passion between those two because I've not yet read all the collected letters. I can hardly wait. Kalstone spins the thread of their relationship by holding an EB poem next to an RL poem and talking through the texts as well as the information added to the texts by the letters. What a tragedy that Kalstone also has died, of Aids, in the '80s, and I know very little about him except that he was friend of Edmund Wilson, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Richard Howard.

I don't much want to talk about Becoming a Poet because I want you to buy it and read it. Read it slowly, as I did. Yes, it's about EB, MM, and RL, but more than that, it's about how a poet, a writer, learns to enter her own material and build her work. It's about three very different poets and how they created their worlds. Kalstone mostly ignores EB's illness and psychic trauma in order to pursue her work and the artistic process that allowed her to create her work. I have learned about myself through reading Kalstone. Now, can I use this learning to enter my own work?

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