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BOOKS Biography spotlights poet Elizabeth Bishop's queer past
by Liz Baudler
2017-07-26

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Elizabeth Bishop's name and work dots English textbooks, and "the art of losing" is one of the most familiar lines of poetry in the language. But collections of Bishop's work are oddly hard to come by; her life remains even less discussed.

It might surprise casual readers to learn Bishop had significant long-term relationships with women. Most of Bishop's published work is ambiguous, carefully personal, with an eye towards concealing its less obvious subjects. Illuminating the life behind the poems is crucial, and A Miracle for Breakfast, Megan Marshall's new biography of the poet, does a stunning job of chronicling Bishop's past.

"Her reputation has just gotten higher and higher since her death and even in recent years," said Marshall, a narrative nonfiction professor at Emerson College. "[My students] just revere her. They may not know her very well, maybe one or two of her poems. So many people love One Art and In the Waiting Room. Part of the mission of my book is to bring more readers to Elizabeth Bishop, bring more readers to poetry."

Bishop's father died before she was born, and her mother was committed to a mental hospital when she was a toddler, leaving Bishop to shuffle between relatives before striking out independently. "I find that there's a great deal of heroism in a life like Elizabeth Bishop's," Marshall explained. "Very difficult childhood, and yet clinging to her artistic vision and her way of life and finding ways to make that happen."

Alcoholism and parental instability permeate both poet and biographer's backgrounds, and in A Miracle for Breakfast, Marshall alternates her narrative with Bishop's as a way to help the reader enter both of their worlds. Taking classes with both Bishop and Robert Lowell in the 1970s made Marshall feel like "a witness" to great people and the complexity of their lives. She realized she might never be a poet, but felt destined to be a biographer instead.

Chronicling Bishop's life became easier in 2011, when a trove of the poet's letters were released after the death of Alice Methfessel, her late-in-life partner. "I had set out to write more of an appreciation of Elizabeth Bishop, but once I got to the archive and learned about these letters it became clear to me that every phase of her life could be seen differently and more acutely," Marshall explained. "The last biography was in the early '90s. You would think it would be an enlightened time, but the biographer was writing through the years leading up to that, and didn't have the material that I ended up with."

Reading Bishop's correspondence, Marshall found it remarkable that while the poet—a shy alcoholic who composed her verse slowly—carried shame about many aspects of herself, she never seemed ashamed of her lesbianism.

"You got the sense of how anchoring these loves were," said Marshall, reflecting on Bishop's love letters. "She really had to tell herself to these people, write herself into being. You know how that is when you fall in love, you find yourself suddenly known by somebody, you're exposing yourself and being appreciated and it's so affirming. Because she'd been quiet about that in her poems...I can't say that I was surprised but I was very happy to know that she'd had so much pleasure in these relationships."

Any shame Bishop had about being attracted to women Marshall attributed to societal pressure.

"She did tell her psychoanalyst in the 30s that whenever she'd fallen in love, she'd been drunk," said Marshall. "She needed to have her guard down in some way in order to express herself." Marshall found "The Problem of Homosexuality," in one of Bishop's reading lists, which, despite its title, partially espoused the belief that homosexuality was nothing to make "a fuss" over.

The world in which Bishop traveled was a "world of women," Marshall said. She went to a girl's high school and women's college, and Marshall sees her as more comfortable in women-heavy spaces. Yet Bishop did not want to be identified as solely a "woman poet." She wanted her work to be judged on par with her male contemporaries.

"You find that in many women artists and professionals at mid-century. Just to be accepted meant not calling attention to difference," Marshall explained.

Yet Bishop did not follow the path of other poets such as Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath and grow confessional. "I think that's made her more widely beloved but not any particular person's heroine," said Marshall. "[She wished] to erase the personal in her poetry to some extent, although her poetry is so personal, that's what's paradoxical about it."

May Swenson, a lesbian poet contemporary with Bishop, once said of the latter, "she is not known to the public for anything but her work."

"I do think the story of her life has brought her poetry to life again, seeing what circumstances she was writing out of. But it was also kind of a point of honor to her that she be judged for her work and nothing else. These days, who would aspire to that?" Marshall commented.

Bishop's explicit love poems remain mostly unknown, even uncompleted, and unpublished during her lifetime, but lines such as "it is marvelous to wake up together," "i kiss your funny face/your coffee-flavored mouth" and "when I saw you naked again/I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock rose…" make their context clear.

"You kind of go through an internal narrative of exploration and discovery and insight and often, epiphany as you read through one of her poems," said Marshall, and the knowledge of the poet's relationships often imbues the work with extra meaning.

"Bishop did not choose to be involved with another writer," Marshall pointed out. "Maybe that was a bit self-protective, but it also meant that she kind of valued a domesticity, that it didn't have to be a professional partnership the way sometimes even today people are seeking out, the way you have to find someone who's in your same profession so you can be each other's best friend and mentor. She wasn't snobby that way. As long as someone was bright and funny and beautiful to her, that was pretty good. She wasn't looking for social elevation through a relationship. She was looking for something anchoring."

Marshall sees this dynamic in Bishop's relationship with Alice Methfessel, a secretary over 30 years Bishop's junior. "I think that Alice and Elizabeth were both looking for someone and they found that someone in each other. And they found a kind of equality in energy and commitment and devotion, despite the age difference, and the difference in capabilities professionally," she explained.

Bishop's relationships' tended to implode dramatically. One partner, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide in Bishop's apartment. Methfessel broke off their connection for a few months and became engaged to a man before eventually returning to the poet.

"She really could not get rid of her drinking habit, and I think each of her partners hoped they might help her do that and failed to do so, and that must have been personally depressing on some level," Marshall said. "I think that's why Alice tried to leave for a while. She wasn't really interested in marrying somebody. And having Elizabeth's love clearly mattered more in the end."

Still, Marshall sees Bishop's professional and relative relationship success later life as an inspiration. "[Her] letters to the psychoanalyst reveal that she was kind of struggling to find any kind of happiness. She'd had serious relationships with women but they just had not worked out. And there she was almost 40. It could have gotten worse rather than better," Marshall said. "But instead, it got better. I think when you're writing biography or reading biography, you look for hope, and you look for identification. It's certainly encouraging to find people continuing to renew themselves through life, and I think that's maybe a lesson from her life. Though there was so much tragedy befalling her, she was always capable of renewal."

Even if Bishop's life has only lately begun to be excavated, Marshall is confident the poet will always have an audience.

"I don't think of her poetry as quiet by any means. I think of it as enduring. Shock value only lasts so long," said Marshall. "And I think that's why her poems really speak to a wider group of people. They aren't grabbing you by lapels and confessing. They're beautiful, but also true. She could find beauty in a grease slick that was trailing after a fishing boat. I think she was looking for a kind of release and redemption through her poetry, and I love that she said, 'poetry is a way of thinking with one's feelings'. I don't think she's someone who you have to be a whiz at analyzing poetry to get. She wanted to represent 'the mind in action'."


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