Bishop spent a cold childhood raised by cheerless Calvinist grandparents (her official guardian, Uncle Jack, was reputedly something of a bully), and quickly learned that intense emotional attachments led to distress. She never again saw her mother — who died, still under confinement, when Bishop was in her 20s.
“When you write my epitaph,” she once told a 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.”
“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 and befriended many younger poets, 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 was 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