Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

Author(s): 
Release Date: 
February 6, 2017
Publisher/Imprint: 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 
384
Reviewed by: 

“a delight as well as a revelation.”

Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Consultant for Poetry for the Library of Congress (what became Poet Laureate) and other poetry honors, is presented here by one of her former students, author Megan Marshall, in this fresh and most full portrait of her as poet and woman. Thanks to the release of new letters and documents, Marshall is able to capture Bishop’s troubled life and thereby provide deep context for her poems.

Meghan Marshall, herself a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of the transcendentalists women in her two books Margaret Fuller and The Peabody Sisters, weaves an engrossing story in a vivid and fresh style that makes this book a delight as well as a revelation.

What makes this new biography especially worthy is the personal revelations found in a recently disclosed file box of correspondence held in the Vassar archives and only opened on the death of Bishop’s last partner Alice Methfessel. In particular, it includes the late 1940s written correspondence between Bishop and her psychoanalyst Ruth Foster, a woman whom she came to love. Also detailed from previous publications is the hospital report on her mother’s 30 years in a mental institution.

Though one might question the exposure of such personal material, Marshall explains it this way: “I don’t view any of this as prying—would anyone say it was prying or invasive to read and write about the love letters of Yeats or Joyce or any other major poet or writer? Elizabeth is in that league, and her writing, often autobiographical, though rarely explicitly so, begs to be understood through the life.” She does a fine job of connecting the poems with the many loves of Bishop’s life, including: places, nature, many women, and a love-hate relationship with alcohol.

Though her poems are all finely tuned, one could say perfect, Bishop lamented her life output of 100 poems, knowing that the cloud of alcohol was her enemy here, as was her perfectionism. One analyst goes so far as to suggest that alcohol was the dark liquid of mother’s milk she longed for. Bishop had gone to analysis in part to cure her of alcoholism, and admits its failure.

Another uniqueness of this biography is that our author and Bishop crossed paths in the special Robert Lowell poetry workshop at Harvard in 1975, in which Bishop took over for an ailing Lowell. This allows for a few brief accounts of Marshall’s own life, “On an April afternoon I entered the classroom to find a small older woman with short, stiff white hair, clad in an elegant light-wool suit and carrying a thin black binder, taking a sear across the conference table from mine. Professor Lowell introduced his friend Elizabeth Bishop—‘Miss Bishop’ he purred in this southern-tinged Brahmin drawl. Now it was our guest’s turn to read.” As others have commented on Marshall’s writing, she creates drama and moves her books with a novelistic intensity.

These personal interludes are rightly kept brief as Marshall’s real task is revealing the character of a most shy person and artist. To help visualize Elizabeth Bishop, one might watch the 2014 film of her life, Reaching for the Moon, directed by Bruto Barreto, and yet the focus on the 1950s decade of her passionate and tragic love affair with Brazillian architect Lota de Macedo Soares yield little in terms of true understanding of the poet. Better to view the excellent documentary from the Modern American Poetry: Their Voices and Visions series.

Marshall goes to the very beginnings of Bishop’s life born in Worcester, Massachusetts, into the death of her father three months later and at five, the life-long commitment of her mother to a mental institution. Bishop was cared for by her grandparents in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, and ultimately bounced around from aunts and uncles, none of whom seemed able to care for her well. He childhood in rustic Nova Scotia remained strongest for her and appears in such poems as in the beautiful “In the Waiting Room” where she first awakens to herself as a being:

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.

Marshall proves an excellent guide to sensing the fuller context of this poem and others in Bishop’s life and so opening them to fuller revelation of the interrelationship of poem and person. She does this well for many Bishop’s seminal poems such as “Miracle for Breakfast,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Fish,” “One Art,” and others. Her touch, like Bishop’s, is open yet close. On “Miracle for Breakfast” we learn of an incident where Elizabeth near poverty in Greenwich Village was magically given a sample of three slices of bread, Marshall tells us, “The poem nearly ends with this deliverance:

. . . Everyday, in the sun

at breakfast time I sit on my balcony

with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

“But it was not to be. In the sestina’s concluding three-line envoy, the world returns to its proper dimensions, ‘I’ shrinks back into anonymity, and the poem finishes on a note of longing:

            We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.

            A window across the river caught the sun

            as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.”

Marshall expertly fills in the background by reminding us of the larger context of Bishop’s love and longing, here for her rich friend Louise Crane.

As we follow Bishop’s life and her many moves including places at Vassar, in Greenwich Village, Key West, Brazil, we watch her suffer from her shyness, her lost sense of parents, her alcoholism, her repressed and later suppressed homosexual longing for women. While working for the Library of Congress in 1946–1950 the U.S. experienced a period of gay life exposure and persecution. Had she made it known, she like thousands of others would have lost their jobs.

The author’s developed fondness is contagious and revealed in her own poetic conclusion imagining herself on Bishop’s balcony, “. . . brushing crumbs from a tablecloth on which coffee cups sat half full next to a plate of croissants or homemade corn bread, taking in the view of brick and stone dormitories . . . or gazing further north in the bright morning sun toward the conflux of two great rivers, the Mystic and the Charles, and witnessing the daily miracle. ‘If you squint a little,’ Elizabeth would turn and say, ‘it looks like the Grand Canal in Venice—really.’”

Meghan Marshall has found her subject, and her subject has found her in this fine biography.