“When you write my epitaph,” she once told her lifelong friend, Robert Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Well, maybe. But after reading Thomas Travisano’s excellent biography, “Love Unknown,” it is clear she also enjoyed many periods of great love and happy production, as her poems (including some of the best and least sentimental love poems in the language) testify. As she wrote in one of her finest, “The Shampoo” (1955):
And since the heavens will attend
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
So a lonely time — okay, occasionally, sure. But also one filled with successes and pleasures that were always, at the very least, “amenable.”
Despite a difficult childhood, Bishop eventually discovered her fair share of good companionship at an all-girls summer camp and, later, at an all-girls boarding school, where she proved both popular and studious. And despite recurring bouts of asthma and serious drinking (that continued throughout her lifetime) most people who remembered Bishop seemed to have liked her. (James Merrill once claimed she “had more talent for life — and for poetry — than anyone else I’ve ever known.”) She developed a mature passion for the poets George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom she continued enjoying for the rest of her life; she struck up a friendship with one of her favorite living American poets, the equally enigmatic Marianne Moore; and last but not least, she received a substantial inheritance that allowed her to do the things that made her happy: travel widely (Europe, South America and even the Galápagos Islands), and establish homes and long partnerships with women she loved — most notably the intellectual Lota de Macedo Soares in the jungly perimeters of Rio during the 1950s, where her poetic perceptions were fueled by daily exposure to “a sort of dream combination of plant & animal life”; and later in Boston with the much younger Alice Methfessel, to whom she once wrote:
“I always feel safe when I’m with you. Except possibly on a Honda.”
Most of all, Bishop never lacked the luxury of time, working for years and even decades on individual poems until she got them just right. There was a dogged pertinacity to the way she composed poems, relentlessly hunting down every perfect word and nuance, often assembling her lines on a large bulletin board over her desk, like one of those serial killer-hunting detectives in a television series.
Her life was good, at least viewed from this side of her biography. She received a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. She inspired many younger poets and befriended them, such as Merrill, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart and Adrienne Rich. Throughout her life she never faltered in her production of beautiful poems, completing some of her best work right up until her sudden and unexpected death of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979, including the much-anthologized villanelle “One Art” (with its lovely recurring line: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), “Crusoe in England” (about a person who, like Bishop, carries his isolation home with him after a long voyage) and finally, both grand and unforgettable, “The Moose,” about a rural bus trip interrupted by a creature that emerges from “the impenetrable wood/ and stands there, looms, rather,/ in the middle of the road.” One passenger, awestruck, exclaims: “ ‘Look! It’s a she!’ ”
Bishop was not open about private matters and shy of giving public readings; yet throughout her life she proved quietly adventurous, even while resisting the call of her friend Rich to be more forthcoming about her “sexual identity.” But being forthcoming about anything was not Bishop’s approach to life, which may partly explain why each of her poems reaches out and embraces its reader in ways they never expect. “You know what I want?” she once asked her friend, Richard Howard. “I want closets, closets, and more closets.” There was something secret about every poem she composed, like a private space that you only slowly found your way into. And one that never made you eager to leave.
Bishop has never lacked good biographers, but Travisano has written a readable, appreciative book that does not analyze Bishop’s poems so much as read them out loud, admiring each line and beat. In fact, reading it is almost as enjoyable as reading one of Bishop’s strange and marvelous poems — or encountering her moose on a dark road late at night.
Scott Bradfield is the author of, most recently, “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop