Maybe it’s fitting that a new biography of the brilliant and troubled poet Elizabeth Bishop is something of a beautiful mess.
From a childhood marked by her father’s death and her mentally ill mother being trucked off to a sanitarium when Elizabeth was just 5 years old, Bishop became one of the 20th century’s most influential and admired poets.
During an adulthood marked by chronic, untreated alcoholism and the eventual suicide of her mother and her longtime partner, Bishop found love and willed into life a scant 100 published poems that won her a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Megan Marshall, herself a Pulitzer winner (for her biography of Margaret Fuller), makes use of a trove of Bishop letters discovered in a Vassar College archive in 2009 to flesh out Bishop’s psychotherapy and her lesser-known love affairs with much younger women.
Marshall employs a keen eye for nuance, drama and psychology to write about a life both depressing and in Technicolor. There are vivid scenes of a childhood in Nova Scotia, a place Bishop remembered years later in such oft-anthologized poems as “The Moose” and “At the Fishhouses.”
In Florida, poems arising from post-Vassar years spent in Key West with, among other girlfriends, the stationery heir Louise Crane, Bishop releases her inner Hemingway, most memorably in “The Fish.”
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.
For more than 15 years starting in the early 1950s, Bishop lived in Brazil with her lover, the wealthy and politically connected Lota de Macedo Soares. Lota built Bishop a writing studio alongside the fabulous modern house she designed in the mountainous countryside near Rio de Janeiro.
Bishop was inspired by both love and Brazil, and she traveled extensively along remote stretches of the Amazon. “Exile seems to work for me,” she wrote in one of hundreds of letters from Brazil. Despite her heavy drinking, her career as a poet flowered. In 1956, Bishop won a Pulitzer for her second volume of poems.
Fueled in part by her affairs, Bishop’s relationship with Lota deteriorated. Lota was hospitalized for mental illness. On a visit to see Bishop in New York, Lota took her own life with an overdose.
Marshall vividly traces Bishop’s struggles: with grief, shyness, booze, broken romances and long periods when she produced no poetry at all. But her skill as biographer tends to break down when it comes to exegeses of individual poems; deeper literary insight can be found in Colm Toibin’s excellent 2015 book, “On Elizabeth Bishop.”
Bishop’s 30-year friendship with poet Robert Lowell, conducted mostly via letters, was mutually beneficial, as they praised and critiqued each other’s work. Lowell brought Bishop to Harvard to teach during the 1970s.
Marshall ends the book abruptly, with very little material after Bishop’s death in 1979, a regrettable omission, since Bishop’s reputation has grown since then, with publication of her letters, biographies and works of criticism. A tempest in a literary teapot, the controversial posthumous publication of a book of fragments and unpublished poems goes unmentioned, as does a 2013 feature film about her years with Lota, “Reaching for the Moon.”
The author’s decision to include a half-dozen short, first-person chapters recounting a creative writing course she took from Bishop at Harvard in 1976 fizzles. Besides stopping the flow, these self-absorbed autobiographical digressions are antithetical to Bishop’s own healthy disregard for the confessional poetry of such peers as Lowell, Plath, Sexton and Berryman. A reader who skips these chapters is better able to savor a fascinating and courageous life, uninterrupted.
Claude Peck is a senior metro editor for the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @ClaudePeck
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
By: Megan Marshall.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 365 pages, $30.