Alcoholic admissions punctuate Elizabeth Bishop’s narrative…
Elizabeth Bishop, pictured in 1934 in the Vassar College yearbook.
From Boston Review:
Bishop’s letters to her psychiatrist are newsy and notational. One begins with a friend surprising her “with a birthday cak[e] and some mimosa” and concludes with a hairstyling appointment before dinner with Randall Jarrell. But she also uses the letters as an extension of psychoanalysis, detailing a schoolgirl crush, for example, as well as a daring escape from a mixer party with “strange boys” that entailed hitchhiking and sleeping overnight in the Natick woods. The greater biographical significance of the letters lies in their revelation that Bishop suffered from incest and physical abuse as well as alcoholism and familial estrangement, subjects that many of her confessional peers explored publicly—often hyperbolically—in their poems. Although Bishop’s struggles with drink and parental loss have been well documented, these letters provide an aperture into her suffering, new information about her childhood traumas, and a compelling portrait of the solace she found in her psychiatrist’s understanding—a key to the poetics of recognition that marks her mature work.
Bishop’s epistolary persona is chatty and self-deprecating, even as she relates painful memories and concerns, including a growing dependency on drink. Alcoholic admissions punctuate her narrative: “while I was in my cups—kegs I should say”; “it’s taken three quarts of whiskey”; “I was so drunk I kept falling off my bicycle”; and “if only I didn’t feel I were that dreadful thing an ‘alcoholic.’” She traces her addiction back to the collegiate year in which her mother died and her unrequited love, the painter Margaret Miller, refused her. Bishop describes, too, her bouts of social anxiety (“I wanted to go but couldn’t damn fool that I am”) and her memory of a harrowing car accident in France that resulted in Miller’s arm being amputated. Poignantly, she recounts seeing in a lover’s expression at the moment of sexual climax, in “that mask of anguish we call joy,” the look of her late mother and “some connection with the word madness.” Bishop appears to have been haunted by her mother in some of the most private moments of her adult life.
In fits and starts, Bishop gradually relates the “long sad tale of Uncle George,” husband of her maternal aunt Maud Shepherdson. George began abusing Bishop when she was eight and continued well into her adolescence. He was an accountant for General Electric and a sadistic “storm trooper type” in his off hours; Bishop recalls instances in which he “lowered me by the hair over the second story verandah railing,” handled her sexually in a bathtub, and threatened to beat her without provocation. Altogether, the letters display an enabling trust between patient and doctor while providing new information about the poet’s hidden difficulties. In the gathering, concentric energy of these letters, Bishop shares confidences more intimate than what might be conveyed to a priest or a mother.