Minutely Observant Like Vermeer
Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Crane in New York, c.1940
by Marian Janssen
Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop,
by Thomas Travisano,
Viking, 432 pp.
There was no money for books in our house, nor in the house of my best friend, also named Marian, just like me. Our parents had just enough to pay for library cards, so we biked together to our local library. Being allowed only eight items per person per week, we made sure that we selected books that both of us liked, so that we effectively had sixteen each. In classic Dutch fashion, biking home, we would read and ride with our first choices perched on our handlebars. Later, after high school, I was sure I was not cut out for college and spent a year as an au-pair in London, where I swore off children and became addicted to British novels. So when I returned to the Netherlands, I decided to enroll in college after all, and study commonwealth literature. However, when I found that the youngest of my four brothers, a budding mathematician, had read more American authors than I, I switched to American literature in order to put him in his place.
Perhaps as a consequence of having had to compete with my brothers—one of whom had even stolen my childhood friend from me by marrying her—I had only one serious complaint: not enough attention was paid to women authors. So, I read them on the side, though no longer on the handlebars. When my thesis advisor, Ger Janssens, asked me what my plans were after graduating, I replied: I wanted to wander. He proposed I visit the United States in search of archival materials for a dissertation on The Kenyon Review under the editorship of John Crowe Ransom.
Marian Janssen and her four brothers. The blazer-and-bow tie boy became a mathematician and a Thomas Mann translator;
the boy in the middle is the one who married her friend—he became a successful businessman.
I traveled to America, starting out at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, with its seven hundred or so souls somewhat of a culture shock for a Dutch woman whose image of the United States had been warped by television. The Kenyon Review (1939-1970): A Critical History was published by Louisiana State University Press. Doing original research while travelling seemed a better way to earn a living than most, so I enthusiastically accepted a post-doc position to write a biography. I selected as my subject red-haired Isabella Gardner, a cousin of Robert Lowell’s, who had been published in the Kenyon. While checking out Ransom’s correspondence at Washington University in St. Louis, I had been the first to study the Gardner papers and had become enchanted by this neglected poet, who had been married to southern writer and womanizer, Allen Tate—and three others. Just before I went to America in search of Isabella Gardner, including her love life with Tate, I complicated my own love life by falling for my ex-supervisor. Reading the love letters between elderly Tate in Europe and Gardner in America, while keeping up an exchange from America with my own beloved in Europe gave my research a whole new dimension. A caveat: always burn your love letters.
Marian Janssen at Walden Pond
During my research for The Kenyon Review, I found that John Crowe Ransom, in general an excellent, open-minded editor, had one crucial blind spot. He published very few women writers, having argued in his often-quoted (in)famous essay about Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Poet as Woman,” (1936) that a woman is “[l]ess pliant, safer as a biological organism” than a man and as such “indifferent to intellectuality.” St. Vincent Millay’s limitation then, was her “lack of intellectual interest,” which he called a “deficiency in masculinity.” Marianne Moore, Ransom asserted, was the only woman poet not deficient in intellect. In the Netherlands, I tried to right the balance somewhat by not only teaching Moore, but also women writers such as Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich. If perhaps the first to teach Bishop in the country, I had only skimmed the surface. I came to know her work much better during my year as a visiting scholar at Harvard for my Gardner biography. Over the summer, I stayed in Lowell House, where I happened to share the living room with a Brazilian, Regina Przybycien, who was writing about Gardner’s friend, Elizabeth Bishop. Neither poet was of great academic interest in America at the time. They were mere women, and, unlike Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton—the “School of Anguish” according to Bishop—they did not seem intriguing: after all, they had not committed suicide. Curiously, then, Bishop and Gardner were studied zealously by us as foreign academics.
Isabella Gardner and Allen Tate. Photograph courtesy of Evalyn Shapiro
However, attention for Bishop, for one, was becoming fashionable and when Regina invited me to join her for a lunch meeting of women writing about women, I found myself face to face with President George H. Bush’s sister, Nancy. A former Democrat who had joined the Republican Party when her brother ran for president, Nancy turned out to be quite boring. But during that lunch, both she and I became fascinated by Bishop’s worlds and works, partially because Brett Millier lifted a corner of the veil of her soon to be published biography Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993). This first biography was the prelude to Bishop’s revaluation, or, better, elevation to her rightful place as a world class poet. While she had long been discussed as a friend of Robert Lowell’s, the bipolar confessional poet who was well known even in the Netherlands—and, yes, a scion from the aristocratic Lowell family after which our House was named—Bishop’s reputation in America by now has perhaps surpassed his.
In the Netherlands, Bishop is, however, still relatively unknown, despite classical translations of her precise, layered, permanently intriguing poetry by her poetic godchild, J. Bernlef. Recently, in addition to hundreds of articles, two Bishop biographies have come out: Megan Marshall’s A Miracle for Breakfast (2017) and the subject of this review, Love Unknown (2019) by Thomas Travisano, founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, who has dedicated his academic career to her life and work.
Bishop published only about a hundred poems during her lifetime, but won the most prestigious prizes for American literature: the Pulitzer in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970. Brilliant, quirky critic Randall Jarrell described her poems as “honest, modest, minutely observant, masterly. . . . The poems are like Vuillard or even, sometimes, Vermeer.” Bishop was overwhelmed: “It has always been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first”—adding cheerfully, “So now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind any old time.” Her life was tumultuous and tragic, but also filled with love and lust. Bishop’s father died when she was only a few months old, a loss her mother, mentally unstable Gertrude Bulmer, never overcame. Her loving, but simple, maternal grandparents raised Bishop in Great Village, a hamlet in Nova Scotia, Canada, during her infancy, while Bulmer was locked up in an insane asylum for long periods. When Bishop was five years old, Bulmer was put away forever, mostly in solitary confinement. She would never see her mother again. Soon after, suddenly, her father’s parents took her to Worcester, Massachusetts, and Bishop ended up in a world that was less austere, but much colder and more distant. Lonely and alone, she was plagued by terrible asthma and eczema; Travisano convincingly argues that these had psychosomatic origins. Her condition worsened when she was placed, just as unexpectedly, with an aunt and uncle. Based on recently discovered letters to her analyst, Travisano shows that this man verbally, emotionally, and sexually abused her. He argues that these assaults caused Bishop’s fear of the opposite sex: only after her analysis in 1947 did she start trusting men and was open to Lowell, with whom she remained friends all her life.
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell on the balcony of Lota de Macedo Soares’ penthouse overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1962
Bishop had barely been in contact with men during her early years. After her miserable, isolated childhood years, she went to an elite girls’ boarding school at sixteen, where she flourished and fell in love. There, she was admired for her wit, for her fascination with poetry, and for her own writing. Her literary career took off in earnest when she went to study at Vassar, where she became friends with Mary McCarthy, who portrayed Bishop in her sensational, sometimes sadistic key novel The Group (1963) as the charismatic, mysterious leader Lakey — who turns out to be a lesbian. More important was her friendship with the modest, yet headstrong and moralistic Marianne Moore, about the only woman who had penetrated the male stronghold of poets at the time. Moore became her mentor, criticizing every comma and colon Bishop wrote. As late as six years after their first meeting, Moore completely rewrote Bishops’ poem “Roosters:” her protégé had used offensive words such as “water-closet.” (Naively, Moore titled her version “The Cock.”) “Roosters” became their watershed, ending their master-apprentice relationship and appearing in Bishop’s published version, water-closet and all. While Bishop has long been regarded as a dedicated follower of Moore, Travisano makes short shrift of that: “Moore would prove a masterful handler of the interplay of diverse poetic figures including toads, frigate pelicans, pangolins, and the jerboa, but she tended to avoid the messy actuality of mud. On the other hand, Bishop felt a strong impetus toward the literary exploration of the tattered, the battered, the neglected, and the soiled—elements that she characteristically handled with delicacy.”
Isabella Gardner and Marianne Moore
Travisano paints a structured, sensitive portrait of Bishop. He is at his best when explaining her work, which he immaculately interweaves with her life. Poems I found opaque, such as the Kafkaesque “The Man-Moth,” about an imagined creation, half man, half moth (based on a misprint for “mammoth”), become translucent, luminous in Travisano’s biography. But she turned Robert Seaver, the real man in her life, down: he committed suicide after having written her a postcard saying “Go to hell, Elizabeth.” The card arrived a few days after his death. Trauma haunted her. After graduation, Bishop wandered with her wealthy mistress, Louise Crane; in France, they were joined by painter Margaret Miller, over whom Bishop had pined for years. Their car slipped and Miller’s right arm was ripped off.
Bishop and Crane moved in together in Key West, Florida, where booze and binge-drinking were meshed with everyday social life and, like locals Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, Bishop drank like a fish. Marjorie Stevens, who became her lover after Bishop found the polygamous Crane in bed with blues singer Billie Holiday, fell for Bishop when she picked her up from the gutter: the plastered poet “the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.” Throughout Bishop’s life, women fell in love with her at first sight, but she didn’t want to be known openly as a lesbian because homosexuality was a crime in most American states. Her love poems, such as “The Shampoo,” were therefore gender neutral. It ends:
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
“The Shampoo” was a veiled, erotic tribute to the longest love of Bishop’s life, the Brazilian Lota de Macedo Soares. In 1951, during what was meant to be a brief visit to Brazil, Bishop had an allergic reaction to cashew fruit and, inflated like a balloon, was taken in by Soares. Travisano quotes Bishop’s protégé, the poet Frank Bidart: “One morning Elizabeth was in bed and Lota came into her room and asked her to stay with her in Brazil. Elizabeth said yes. She was surprised she had said yes. She liked Lota but she was not in love with her. Over the next few years, she really fell in love with Lota.” (Marshall, incidentally, treats the intimate details of Bishop’s love life with more ease. She writes: “When did they first touch? Perhaps Lota stroked the suffering Elizabeth’s stiff wild hair with its ripples of gray. On the back of a draft of her unfinished story ‘Homesickness,’ Elizabeth scribbled ‘A love letter,’ written at five a.m.; ‘Lota— (if I may call you so . . ) Come scratch me again! I am madly in love with you.’”)
Lota de Macedo Soares at Samambaia, 1950s
Bishop and Soares lived together in Brazil for some sixteen years. As often happens, their first years were paradisiacal: Soares was rich, their servants abundant, the flora and fauna exuberant, exotic, inspirational. American friends loved to visit and Bishop kept in touch with them through informal, witty letters — often leading up to her perfectly balanced, exquisitely crafted poems. “Dear Isabella,” Bishop wrote to Gardner in 1956, “I found your letter about the PP [Pulitzer] in my mail box yesterday and I was awfully pleased that you wrote. I feel rather embarrassed by this business; surely it’s never been given to anyone for such a miserable quantity of work before. It was rather nice to receive it here, though, I must confess, because it is so well-known and now I don’t have to convince my Brazilian friends personally any more that I really do write poetry sometimes! – They make much more of ‘literary honors’ than we do, and we’ve had a lot of fun here.” Bishop’s fame even reached Worcester, where her aunt Florence said in an interview for the local newspaper that “lots and lots of people don’t like her poetry, of course.”
When multi-talented Soares was swallowed up by an important, but politically sensitive position as architect of a large city park in Rio de Janeiro, a job where she had to prove herself as a woman in a machismo world, their relationship deteriorated. Bishop felt neglected, started boozing it up again, and became a wastrel in the view of her hardworking partner. Bishop fled her eagle eye by taking on a temporary job in America, where she had an affair with a much younger, pregnant woman, Roxanne Cumming. (In the Millier biography still under the pseudonym of Suzanne Bowen.) After Bishop’s return, Soares, unstable due to the stress of her job, found Cumming’s letters and erupted in a jealous furor. Soares’s health declined so rapidly that her analyst recommended a temporary separation and Bishop returned to her native country. Soares followed her and overdosed in Bishop’s apartment. Did Soares overdose on purpose? Travisano does not know the answer, but Soares’s family and friends in Brazil did: the American estrangeiro was responsible for her partner’s death. Bishop left Brazil, at one time the land of her dreams, of her “immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life.” (“Arrival in Santos”)
Frank Bidart and Elizabeth Bishop boarding the ferry to North Haven, Maine 1970s
In 1970, she returned to America to become a teacher at Harvard, the first woman poet ever to be mentioned by name in its study guide. Not that Bishop wanted to be known as a “woman poet,” because in her opinion this kind of identity politics would delay acceptance of work by women. She therefore declined to appear in an anthology entitled Women Poets in English. “Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is,” she wrote its compiler May Swenson. “I don’t like things compartmentalized like that. . . . I like black & white, yellow & red, young & old, rich and poor, and male & female, all mixed up.” Radical feminism and explicitly described lesbian love, as preached in the polemic poems of Adrienne Rich, were out of the question for this delicate, discrete poet. But after meeting her last love, Alice Methfessel, thirty years her junior, in Kirkland House (some five hundred yards from Lowell House), her poems became more open. Form set her free and the strict limitations of the villanelle led to her landmark poem “One Art.” Desperate after a break up with Methfessel, who, partly because of Bishop’s alcoholism, had become engaged to a man, she wrote:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
“One Art” helped bring the lovers back together and Methfessel remained Bishop’s partner until her death.
Since the lunch with Nancy Bush, I have followed Bishop closely and many of the facts of her life were known to me from the earlier biographies. But Travisano (whom I, full disclosure, met a few times at conferences) managed to move and enlighten me. He breathes new life into Bishop’s worlds and poetry in a way reminiscent of Bishop’s own poems: modest, restrained, meticulously observant and descriptive.
Writing the Gardner biography took much longer than planned, because I—like Bishop, a life-long traveler—accepted the post of director of the International Office at my Dutch university, which landed Gardner on a backburner. For almost a decade, she simmered there, until I gave a talk about her at her godmother’s museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Its Music Room was filled with Gardners: even her grandson had flown over from California to hear me speak. Not all Gardners were pleased with what I had to say about the family’s black sheep, however: her youngest brother rose and left ostentatiously—the museum’s director has never invited me back. Over dinner, Gardner’s brilliant ethnographic filmmaking brother Robert (“Dead Birds,” “Forest of Bliss”) took me aside and asked when I was finally going to finish his sister’s biography. I told him he would have to wait until my retirement, as I had to earn a living. The next day, I received a mail saying that if I could wrangle leave without pay, he would find a foundation to fund me. So, with Ger and our red-haired son (clearly, I am not consistent with respect to my major life decisions) in tow, I spent a semester at Berkeley, finished Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner, and returned to my work at the International Office. My brothers still try to upstage me: the mathematician has taken to translating Thomas Mann from German into Dutch; the brother, who married my friend Marian, has five children compared to my one. But that is not the end of the story. A few years ago, I received this mail:
Dear Marian Janssen,
I have been reading your marvelous biography of poor darling Isabella. I actually knew most of the people in your book, many of them quite well (my mother was Carolyn Kizer). You have really captured it. Further, I am unable to express the depths of my gratitude and satisfaction, and well, sheer delight, at your evisceration of the loathsome Allen Tate . . . . Ditto the vile creepy shithead Oscar Williams and wannabe shithead Henry Rago.
Thank you for resurrecting Isabella, You’re my culture hero,
Ashley Ann Bullitt
Interviewing Carolyn Kizer for the Gardner biography, I had felt the question lurking beneath her snippy answers: why write about Gardner but not about me? Ashley Bullitt’s mail—and accompanying check—were additional signs: I was meant to be a biographer. So, I gave up my job and am now writing Carolyn Kizer’s life. Bishop wrote that the “best way to understand Shelley is to read a part of his biography and then read his poems that were written during the same period of his life.” Travisano found the best way to understand Bishop; I hope I will find the best way to understand Kizer and that my portrait of her will minutely observant like Vermeer.
Carolyn Kizer, 1960s
All images courtesy of Thomas Travisano and Marian Janssen
About the Author:
Marian Janssen received her PhD cum laude from Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her first book was The Kenyon Review (1939-1970): A Critical History. She received a post-doctoral fellowship for a biography of the poet Isabella Gardner. When Marian became full-time head of Radboud University’s International Office, her research was relegated to a backburner. After giving a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Marian was asked when she was going to finish her planned biography. When Marian said that writing a biography and her current position did not mix, she was offered, on the spot, a grant for a year’s sabbatical. This led to her Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner (2010).
Marian was asked to write the—unauthorized–biography of feminist poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Kizer (1923-2014). Kizer founded Poetry Northwest, became the first Literature Director at the NEA, and a member of the American Academy of poets–from which she soon resigned in protest because it remained a white old boys club. Her life resembled a soap opera: she had an affair with Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice and fixer for President Johnson, as well as with Hubert Humphrey. And when she went to Pakistan in 1964, she returned not only with translations from Urdu, but also with a lover. Most of her affairs were with writers, though, from Hayden Carruth to Robert Conquest and from David Wagoner to John Wain. Obviously, Marian could not pass up the opportunity to write about this fascinating woman, so she resigned as head of her office and is now a full-time biographer.