Saturday, June 25, 2011

Eizabeth Bishop / A Formal, Melancholy Soul

Elizabeth Bishop
Photography by Joseph Breitenbach
A Formal, Melancholy Soul:
Elizabeth Bishop
Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox:
Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
By Elizabeth Bishop
Edited and annotated by Alice Quinn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
392 Pages
By Casey N. Cep
A clever almanac hides itself on the bookshelf of my room. A slim, salmon-colored volume, its pages are yellowed and tortured with folds, its spine is broken, and its cover has been scarred and loosened by wear. It pools sunlight and collects dust like the other books on my shelf, but this one is immune to the crowding of time.
Ever the useful collection, Elizabeth Bishop's Complete Poems has kept her readers company for 27 years. Less than 300 pages long, it contains the four books of poetry that she published in her lifetime, 17 poems from her youth, a few translations, and some of the prose work that she wrote throughout her career. My own copy has suffered for its usefulness and only recently found respite with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Alice Quinn, poetry editor at The New Yorker, has given readers of Elizabeth Bishop something new to celebrate and provided their Complete Poems with a much-needed rest.
Quinn's diligence has transformed the 3,500 pages of Bishop materials stored at Vassar College into a careful archive. While posthumous publications of a writer's unpublished work often disappoint us with their unpolished contents, Bishop's fragments and drafts are strikingly complete and delightfully revealing about the process through which she wrote and revised her work.
Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox, like Christopher Ricks's collection of T.S. Eliot's juvenilia in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, features an invaluable series of notes and well-matched excerpts from Bishop's diaries and letters to frame the new works. Quinn is attentive to her perilous role as editor of so punctilious a poet, one whose process was described fawningly by Robert Lowell in a sonnet: "Do / you still hang your words in the air, ten years / unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase— / unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?" Weary of revealing the errors and failures of the "unerring muse," Quinn emphasizes that her book contains "work that for one reason or another she [Bishop] chose not to publish but did not destroy."
The new poems are a valuable addition to the body of Bishop's work and to the factual biography of her life. We know that Elizabeth Bishop wrote the world into her poems. Forever the tourist, she was orphaned in her childhood by the death of her father and the confinement of her mother to an asylum and was sent to live with relatives in Nova Scotia and in Massachusetts; love led her to Brazil where for 16 years she lived as a foreigner in an exotic landscape. During the time before and after that period of constancy she moved between Key West and New York, finally returning to Boston shortly before her death. Her youth had a plangent homelessness to it, and she spent the remainder of her life in search of residency and relief from her alcoholism and asthma.
From such a painfully unstable life came some of the most stable poems of the twentieth century. Her poems "The Fish" and "Crusoe and England " are read with delight by several generations, "Sestina" and the villanelle "One Art" are consummate templates for fledgling poets, and "At the Fishhouses" and "The Riverman" continually impress and confound scholars. Although Bishop herself hated teaching, (she was coerced into lecturing at Harvard in 1971 only after her trust fund ran out) academics and educators have embraced her work.
She resisted the confessional poetry of her contemporaries and for it we have rewarded her with a canonical immortality arguably greater than that of Lowell or Plath. She would probably object to the recent popularization of her work through feminist and queer studies, as she abhorred divisive approaches to poetry, but her status has come largely from the complex variability of each of her poems. By not placing the poet at the center of her poetry, she opens a space for readers representing a diversity of backgrounds and critical interests.
She celebrated realism but repressed reality in order to reveal the imaginativeness necessary for poetic invention. By varying her forms and by sometimes abandoning all formalism for free verse, she left us a diverse population of personalities: the ever memorable dilettante and philistine of "The Monument;" the ubiquitous, internal doppelganger of "The Gentleman of Shallot;" and the ecstatic historian and cartographer of "The Map."
Her writing appeals to our seriousness, but also flatters our fancy. Whether it is because of the exoticness of her descriptions ("coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers"; "a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes") or their self-revising exactness ("About the size of an old-style dollar bill, / American or Canadian, / mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays"), we cannot resist seeing the world through Elizabeth Bishop's eyes.
With Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox we have a thousand new visions of the world filtered through Bishop's unique lens. The new poems convince us that the persistent dichotomy of her description—fantastic and hermetic—was a natural one; the disparate impressions of character, wildlife, and scenery appear not only in the perfected work but in slapdash drafts, hurried notes, and casual diary entries. Take a set of simple quatrains like "Money": 

"Money comes and money goes,. 
Like a bird it flies,
Its migratory habits stern
Both ignorant and wise.
In the season, I have watched 
 Its wonderful gyrations,
Swift and fierce, and boldly close
To human habitations.
Under the arches of the vaults  
Are built the hidden nests.
What instinctive fears and faults
Govern those silver breasts?"

Light but not lighthearted, the poem's spine is a bit of Dostoevsky (he writes in House of the Dead "money comes and goes like a bird"), yet the "silver breasts" are Bishop's own tormented invention.
Among the cruel circumstances of her biography was persistent financial hardship. She had hoped to live a life independent of institutions and unscathed by any profession except writing, but found herself dependent on money's governing "instinctive fears and faults." The world's "gyrations" are much more than monetary cycles and the "human habitations" mean more than universal residences—they are a pained biography asserting itself even in hasty lines.
New imagery and influences present themselves, but Quinn also uses her new collection as a hermeneutical tool for the already published work. We have long admired "One Art" and now there are 16 draft versions of it readily available to improve our understanding. Quinn reproduces the typed pages, each one wrought with handwritten notes, passionate corrective slashes, ambiguous underlining, and altered capitalizations. This is an instruction manual for the poet at work, the detailed itinerary for a journey toward perfection. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," but mastering the art of the villanelle is nearly impossible for most poets. Bishop submitted "One Art" to The New Yorker in 1976 with a note calling it "the one and only villanelle of [her] life," but Quinn shows how Bishop wrote notes for another poem under the title "Villanelle" in 1937.
In Quinn's volume we find the unfinished reflections on the tumultuousness of a life lived first in uncertainty and then in flux. Unspoken confessions are now revealed; anonymous persons are now named. One poem, "Hannah A.," describes birds "who tore their breasts / for lining for their nests / or otherwise expressed / that love was difficult." Love as sacrifice, love as impossible kindness—this is the love envisioned by the young Elizabeth Bishop. It was a love realized as a young woman, but one suffered for as an adult. The older poems testified to her friendships ("Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore" and "Visits to St. Elizabeths"), but these new poems reveal to us her loves.
A fresh poem speaks of "a serious paradise where lovers hold hands / and everything works," another addresses itself to "My love, my saving grace," while yet another betrays the sentimentality of its author with lines like "how many deaths by now, [and] love lost, lost forever. & suicides—/ friendship & love / lost, lost forever." For the first time we find our beloved poet's gaze directed inward to produce a self-portrait long hidden from the world.
Biography had asserted and now poetry demonstrates that life was a rapid series of visions and fury for Elizabeth Bishop. She lived and wrote with an unparalleled passion. Her own chosen epitaph "All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful" best attests to the sullen but steady pace of her life. Whether you have been waiting for the supplement to Bishop's Complete Poems or have never consulted that cheerful almanac, there is much to be learned from and appreciated in Alice Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.

           Casey N. Cep thinks often of grandmothers who speak in rainy sentences and plant more than tears.

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