Last Week’s Reading: February 12-18

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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, by Megan Marshall: Full marks to this illuminating biography of one of the twentieth century’s best poets. You can read my in-depth review here.

Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop: Thanks to Ms. Marshall’s biography, I succumbed to the temptation to update my version of Bishop’s complete poems. This volume contains all her published poetry, several uncollected pieces, translations, and some works in progress—a feast, by any measure.

The Essex Serpent photo copyright Carolyn OliverThe Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry: From the moment I saw the cover of this novel, I coveted it. Last month I ordered in from the UK, not willing to wait until its summer release here—and goodness, I’m glad I did. The plot: In 1893, Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed amateur natural historian, sets out from London with her son and her friend/nanny/maid to visit Essex, where she hopes to make exciting discoveries and escape the oppressive memories of her marriage. Further up the coast, fear ripples through a small village after a series of unsettling events lead many to believe that the legendary Essex serpent has returned. Cora hopes that the beast turns out to be a living fossil, while William Ransome, the local curate, believes lack of faith is responsible for his parishioners’ panic. When Will and Cora meet, their intelligence and opposing beliefs draw them together like magnets, and the nature of friendship is tested. The supporting characters are finely drawn and the setting is sumptuous—this is a novel you’ll want to devour. Mark your calendars for June 6, U. S. readers.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: Had I known more about Sojourner Truth’s life, I probably would have chosen to read Nell Irvin Painter’s biography of the legendary abolitionist and suffragist instead of this primary source (Nell Irvin Painter also wrote the very helpful introduction to this book). Because Sojourner Truth could neither read nor write, her story was necessarily mediated through amanuenses. The Narrative is composed of three parts written or compiled at different times by different figures, and while some of Truth’s speech is set down, it’s hard to tell if it’s an exact transcription (almost all of the work is in the third person, and the first co-writer offers her own opinions freely). Still, I’m glad I read it, since I learned more about Truth’s ordeals as a slave in New York, her years as an itinerant preacher, and her unstinting efforts on behalf of freed persons after the Civil War.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona: I loved the concept of this comic, but I think it’s geared for readers younger than I am. Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl living in Jersey City with her Pakistani American family, discovers she has shapeshifting abilities. Becoming Ms. Marvel is no easy task, as she needs to learn how to channel her new powers while simultaneously navigating tricky relationships with her friends, family, and classmates. Essentially, this is a more complex and interesting version of the Spider-Man story, and I’d definitely recommend it for teen readers.

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

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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.