Recommended Reading: Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

elizabeth-bishop-miracle-for-breakfast-photo-copyright-carolyn-oliver

Since reading a few of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems as a teenager, I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with her work, but felt the poet was inscrutable, always at arm’s length, despite the fact that I live in the city where she was born and where she’s buried. I don’t feel that way any longer, thanks to Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: Miracle for Breakfast,* a smooth-reading, revelatory new biography of one of the twentieth century’s best and most private poets.

Elizabeth Bishop biography photo copyright Carolyn OliverMs. Marshall, who won the Pulitzer for her biography of Margaret Fuller, structures the book around the six end words of Bishop’s first sestina (an intricate and demanding verse form), “Miracle for Breakfast”: coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun, river. Each of these six chapters explores a major phase of Bishop’s life, from her childhood spent bouncing among various relatives to her unexpected late-in-life romance. Interspersed are Ms. Marshall’s brief reflections regarding how she came to be one of Bishop’s last students, in a verse-writing seminar at Harvard in the late 1970s—an unusual touch, and enlightening. Here’s a bit from one seminar meeting: “‘I don’t believe poetry can be taught,” she started in, looking straight out at us, yet somehow managing not to meet anyone’s gaze. Her level weapon needs no sight. ‘But we’ll do what we can with the time we’ve got.’ A tentative smile. Should we have laughed?”

This is a book about love and work, and the balance between the two. Bishop’s slim oeuvre is about one hundred poems, nearly all of them exquisite. Ms. Marshall shows us just how difficult it was for Bishop to write, how she labored and labored over many drafts, how she abandoned many promising poems that didn’t reach perfection. Her output fluctuated with her often turbulent emotional life; she also suffered from alcoholism, which led to injury and heartache and lost writing time.

Understandably, much has been made of Elizabeth Bishop’s long friendship with her fellow poet Robert Lowell, but while giving Cal, as Bishop called him, his due, Ms. Marshall focuses more on the poet’s romantic relationships (crushes, affairs, long-term arrangements) with women—especially Lota de Macedo Soares (functionally, they were married) and, much later, with Alice Methfessel—relationships it’s much easier for Ms. Marshall to explore in 2017 than it was for biographers working before the cultural shift in favor of gay rights.

After Alice Methfessel’s death in 2009, letters came to light that revealed not only the extent of her relationship with Elizabeth Bishop, but also harrowing details about Bishop’s early life. Her father died when she was still an infant, and when she was still a small child her mother was confined to an asylum for the mentally ill. After time happily spent with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia (recalled in short stories decades later), Elizabeth was sent to live with her grander relations in Worcester, Massachusetts. Unhappy and out of place there, she at first didn’t mind being sent, yet again, to other relatives, this time  to her uncle and aunt living in gritty towns north of Boston, but her uncle’s predatory advances ensured that she stayed at camps, boarding school, and with friends as often as possible.

After college at Vassar, she traveled and lived in various locations before settling down with Lota for a long stint in Brazil, punctuated by visits to and from friends, before returning to the United States, where she began to teach.

Bishop mined her travels and her  memories for material, and Ms. Marshall delicately balances the particulars of Bishop’s life with thoughtful readings of her poems, including “The Shampoo,” “The Fish,” “Filling Station,” “The Armadillo,” “In the Waiting Room,”  and, of course, “One Art.”  While some biographies seek to use biographical information to ferret out meaning from writing, Ms. Marshall’s approach is much more nuanced; here, life and art inform each other, in conversation. In a lovely reading of “One Art,” she shows how the poem changed over the course of its seventeen drafts, and how Bishop “merged the two great disasters of her adult life” in the details. “Elizabeth had been practicing the art of losing since infancy,” she writes. “[A]rt had become her one means of mastery. “One Art” was the elegy she had wanted for so long to write.”

Elizabeth Bishop was gifted and troubled, touched by inspiration and despondency both. This biography is a fitting tribute to all her complexity as an artist and a human being.

* I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

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Recommended Reading: The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow

What drew me to this book was its subtitle: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I thought to myself, “why haven’t I heard of this person?”

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was part of a large and prosperous family who lived in Wreay, in Cumbria (northern England). As I learned from Ms. Uglow’s history, Sarah never married, but enjoyed a full and exciting life of the mind, traveling and working with her sister Katharine (her closest friend, like Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra). She consistently stood up for and helped the poor and the vulnerable in her community, and after her death the townspeople planted a tree in her honor, the tribute they thought would be most fitting.

Sadly, Sarah ordered her own papers and letters to be destroyed, so Ms. Uglow reconstructs her history by painting a picture of her extended family and the cultural milieu of Cumbria in particular and late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England and Europe in general.

Sarah’s crowning achievement is the unique (to say the least) village church at Wreay, which she redesigned herself, choosing everything from the stone to the timber to the glass. She even helped to carve the baptistry and the candlesticks. The church features lecterns in the shapes of an eagle and a stork; images of ammonites and other fossils, pinecones, lotuses, and even bats! I did wish the book’s pictures were in color so that I could get a better sense of the church’s tone — I rather doubt I’ll be in Cumbria any time soon.

A few odds and ends that I loved (and which made me realize that, for books like The Pinecone, I should really invest in these):

  • The Bishop of Carlisle, Dean Milner, wore wigs, which, according to his granddaughter, “were known in the family as ‘Highty, Tighty, and Scrub; the first for London and State occasions; the second for official appearances in Carlisle; and Scrub for home wear'” (72).
  • Sarah’s father John belonged to a club, and the men, over a very long sitting, would each drink three bottles of port, except “‘On rare occasions, wrote Lonsdale, ‘such as a victory by Nelson or the dashing Cochrane, the fourth bottle to each man was held to be the right mode of rendering the fact historical'” (74).
  • One thing that struck me was how forcefully and effectually Sarah’s uncle, James Losh, advocated for the education and intellectual advancement of his nieces, and his admiring praise for Sarah’s many accomplishments. (For instance, she studied Italian and French, could sight-read Latin, and she studied ancient Greek three hours every day until she could translate it almost at sight; Ms. Uglow compares her to Eliot’s Dorothea [78]).
  • A book that was popular in the nineteenth century and so good that Byron “allegedly wept with jealousy when he read it” (209): Thomas Hope’s Anastasius. I just looked for it on Goodreads, and there isn’t a single rating or review.
  • Instead of gargoyles, Sarah’s church features a crocodile, a cross between a snake and a plesiosaur, a winged turtle, and a dragon. The dragon’s mouth spouts smoke from the boiler in the church below. Seriously. Her church has a fire-breathing dragon.
  • I love the profusion of treatises with unassuming titles in the nineteenth century. Ms. Uglow does an excellent job of showcasing some of those titles, as well as the nineteenth century’s numerous amateur societies that discussed and spurred advancements in the arts and sciences. I wonder, do blogs today take up some of these societies’ functions? Are we a dispersed Society for the Advancement of Reading?

Full of interesting anecdotes and offering a sweeping overview of this fascinating period in English history, The Pinecone is an excellent foray into reviving the memory of an extraordinary woman.

Have you read any great nonfiction books lately? Do you know of any forgotten female figures in need of a revival?