The Numinous Moose

Helen Vendler

  • Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett Millier
    California, 602 pp, £18.50, April 1993, ISBN 0 520 07978 7

Brett Millier’s new biography of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is a substantial one, adding extensively to the biographical material provided by David Kalstone in Becoming a Poet (covering Bishop’s friendships with Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore) and by Lorrie Goldensohn in Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (relating, notably, Bishop’s 15 years in Brazil). Millier (who teaches at Middlebury College) surveys Bishop’s life from cradle to grave, ordering its events in a readable narrative interspersed with paraphrases of poems which illuminate the life. This is not the most interesting use of poems, but it is a legitimate one. Millier has worked in the several archives of Bishop material, and has mined Bishop’s notebooks, rough drafts and letters (including previously restricted ones) to good effect. The few errors that I (from my limited knowledge) could spot were not serious ones; Millier, for instance, seems to think that classes at Harvard were not co-educational when Bishop arrived to teach there in 1970: ‘Harvard and Radcliffe had not yet merged. Her undergraduate students would all be male.’ In fact, courses had been co-educational since World War Two, when the classrooms were emptied of men. People with an intimate knowledge of Bishop’s life, or, say, of Brazilian politics, may find similar inaccuracies here or there. But the general external contours of the life seem adequately represented here, and the paraphrases of the poems are, for biographical purposes, reliable. Millier has conversed with many of Bishop’s friends and acquaintances, and her attitude to a life made persistently disastrous by alcoholism is a sympathetic and generous one.

What is missing, from this biography as from many others concerning poets, is a justification of its effort. Who is Bishop that we should care about her? What is poetry that we should care about it? What has Bishop’s poetry contributed to the history of poetry that was not there before? In what way is the life of a poet relevant to the work (except in the most obvious sense)? How is the development of a poet best described? What would be the inner dynamic of the life of a poet? Would all poets have a comparable dynamic, or are there real varieties of the writer’s life? If so, to what variety does this life belong?

The writing of literature over a lifetime requires from its author a form of heroism. The narrative of that heroism – its successive battles, its defeats, its re-groupings, its perplexities, its leaps toward certainty – makes a thrilling story, rightly told. Often, too, the story has mysterious episodes, some of which have become clichés of literary history. Why did the poetry of Wordsworth show a falling-off, in spite of his industry and sobriety? Why couldn’t Joyce or Faulkner, those masters of language, write poetry? Why are there years of silence in Stevens’s career? The biography of an author ought to take as its centre the imaginative dynamic by which one can make sense of the oeuvre. Otherwise there is no suspense, no anxiety, no crowning triumph, no desolate worry.

The problems Bishop faced as a young writer in America were several. One was finding her genres; they turned out to be poetry and autobiographical narrative (a pair sometimes disappointing, since Bishop occasionally wanted to write for money, and neither had commercial value). Another was uncovering her subject-matter; it turned out to be metaphysical scepticism in the face of observational conviction, not an easy combination since she believed as passionately in the testimony of the word as in the testimony of the eye. Another was settling on her tone; this entailed getting rid of the religious nostalgia so evident in Eliot, Stevens, Frost and other American Modernists, along with the aesthetic nostalgia looming large in Pound. Allied to these was consolidating her prosody: available models included the syllabics of her mentor Moore, the stanzas of her beloved Herbert, or the free verse of the admirable Eliot. Yet another problem was remaining an American artist; though her roots were Canadian and her residence of many years was Brazil, she did not adopt the Anglophile or Francophile bent of many of her Modernist expatriate predecessors, nor did she choose the nativist stance of Frost. The hardest problem of all for her was how to fold a gentle comedy and irony into her lyrics, without deflecting their serious and even spiritual intent. Incidental problems (to what extent to reveal personal identity as a woman and as a lesbian, and to what extent to write about larger social concerns) were not lacking.

Millier makes more of the incidental difficulties than of the central ones. But solving each of the artistic problems required an arduous and earnest inner journey. Solving the more ordinary problems of life (where to live, whom to live with, how to earn a living) was, though not easy for Bishop, less important to her eventual place in literature. Millier’s biography tends to pass up the inner journey for the outer one – perhaps because to convey, to an unliterary reader, the issues involved in inventing a prosody, or delimiting a metaphysical position in verse, is vexingly difficult Such issues are loci of potential moral turpitude in a writer. The slide into the quasiplagiarised effect, the adoption of the well-worn rhythm, the ready invocation of facile emotion or of an idée reçue – actions demoting, say, Edna St Vincent Millay to the status of a minor poet – take place so easily that to resist them demands invention of a strenuous and unremitting sort, and self-criticism of a peculiarly harsh and sustained kind. Perhaps the biography of the poetic career belongs properly to a work of criticism like Goldensohn’s; yet one would like to see it skeletally, at least, as the animating force of the biography proper.

Bishop’s life was not one filled with event. It was a long enduring of the trauma of its beginnings: her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother immediately declined into mental illness; when Bishop was five, her mother was permanently confined in an asylum in Nova Scotia. Though Gertrude Bishop lived until 1934, Bishop never saw her again. Bishop was raised by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and (after an unfortunate sojourn in Massachusetts with her father’s parents, which brought on a catastrophic combination of allergies and asthma, from which she was to suffer for the rest of her life) by aunts and boarding-schools (the Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, followed by Vassar College). She was already writing poems at the Walnut Hill School, and was confirmed in her sense of herself as a poet when, still at Vassar, she was introduced to Marianne Moore, who became a lifelong friend. Through the powerful sponsorship of Moore she was introduced to the New York literary scene, and began her equivocal and ambivalent relationship with the world of publishing. Modesty and hesitation made her the worst advocate of her own work, and her friends had almost to lead her by the hand to publishers and sources of fellowships. (The sponsorship of Moore was replaced, in later years, by the sponsorship of Robert Lowell; and almost against her own will, often without even applying for grants but receiving them through nomination by others, Bishop eventually saw her work acknowledged by prizes and honours.)

After leaving college (where her notebooks already show concern about her drinking), Bishop lived uneasily in the United States for several years. She had a small private income from her father’s estate, which supported her at first but eventually proved not enough to live on. She lived in New York, which she disliked, and in Key West – where she was supported by a lover, Marjorie Carr Stevens, of whom the biography tells us little, since at Bishop’s request Stevens destroyed Bishop’s letters to her. The relation with Stevens finally dissolved. Bishop did not take a paying job, and her life, except when friends visited her or she visited them, was a solitary one of reading and writing. The alcoholism grew worse, and gradually took on the pattern it was to follow for the rest of her life: terrible bouts of prolonged drinking (often occasioning an equally terrible attack of asthma); shaming behaviour (extending at the worst times to hallucinations and even to delirium tremens); departure under a cloud from whatever town or art colony she was living in; a spell in a hospital or a detoxification sanatorium; wretched sessions of remorse accompanied by promises (to friends, lovers, psychiatrists, doctors, and herself) to stop drinking. Millier is both unusually frank in documenting the alcoholism, and unusually clear-headed about seeing its effects on Bishop’s life and work. Bishop’s prolonged periods of poetic silence often coincided with the worst drinking; and her most productive periods occurred when she had someone nearby who loved her, took care of her and watched over her.

Marianne Moore was the first anchor of hope for Bishop’s troubled spirit. Moore and her mother served as touchstones of personal stability for her, and their benevolent interest and approval encouraged her beginnings as nothing else could have done. The later anchors were all lovers – first, Marjorie Stevens in Key West, next Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil, and lastly Alice Methfessel in Cambridge. (There were other lovers, among them Suzanne Bowen, a young student whom Bishop taught in Seattle and with whom she lived in San Francisco after Lota’s death; but they were not comparable sources of tranquility and creativity.) In spite of her extraordinary luck in finding people to care for her, support her, and provide her with houses to live in, Bishop could not find a way to stop drinking. It is revealing that her tone, after John Berryman’s suicide, about Berryman’s recourse to Alcoholics Anonymous betrays a rather wondering contempt: Robert Fitzgerald, she comments, ‘said that John had been on the wagon (AA of all things) for 11 months.’ It could be, Millier remarks (without crediting the speculation) that the drinking helped Bishop shed her fastidious reticence and have access to her deeper feelings; but Bishop herself never made such an argument, and her conscious responses to her excesses in drinking were certainly all ones of anguished revulsion. The reader of this biography will wonder what sort of life Bishop might have had without the alcoholic destruction of time and energy. The biography, from this point of view, becomes increasingly painful as it goes along.

From the point of view of art, however, the life remains impressive, with Bishop’s last book, Geography III (1976), one of her best. The life, in spite of its orphaned opening, was in many ways a fortunate one. Bishop’s upbringing in rural Nova Scotia – an unusual location for someone of her class – gave her a strict set of measurements for the future: honesty, veracity of speech, simplicity of manners, a restricted but intimate acquaintance, an immersion in the natural world, quiet, access to books, and an unforced Protestant acknowledgment of human tragedy countered by strong spiritual aspiration. It was not the usual background for a Vassar girl. When the money from her father’s family provided her with private school and college among the fairly (and often very) rich, her moral values remained uncorrupted. She made very good intellectual use of both school and college, learning Latin and Greek, reading widely in Classical and English literature, and studying music (she lugged her clavichord from place to place in later life). One of the things missing from the Millier biography, it seems to me, is an idea of Bishop as an intellectual – not in the sense of someone concerned with ideas in the abstract, but in the sense of someone very well read, at ease in several languages and at home in many centuries. Millier rarely describes at any length the effect of Bishop’s reading on her work; some of the more extended paraphrases of poems might have been shortened in favour of some vivid contextualising of the writing. After all, Bishop was intimately attached to writers from Traherne to Sydney Smith, from Horace to Defoe; and her poems belong to English as well as to American literature.

Bishop began as a religious poet; as her early poems demonstrate, from high school onward she had been reading Traherne and Herbert and Hopkins with a vengeance. Her childhood Christianity eventually dropped away; and yet the perpendicular measure of value it left behind (satirised in the clerical lighthouse in ‘Seascape’ but very real nonetheless in her personality) remained in force to the end of her life. The poems in North – South (1946) show her looking far some equivalent for its moral structure: her first (and perhaps only) candidate was the equally firm structural abstraction of art. For a time, she believed that art could be almost as value-free as map-making; to abstract life into art seemed to her like abstracting a landscape into a map. And yet even this apparently neutral gesture betrays an unsettling trace of emotion:

The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighbouring mountains
– the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
                                     ‘The Map’

In spite of her unremitting attempts to observe, and to observe accurately, and to map what she saw in a symbolic system, Bishop found that the moral world changes as the geographical one does not. As a recently discovered Key West poem says,

           Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.
      ‘It is marvellous to wake up together’

In 1946, Bishop returned to Nova Scotia for the first time as an adult. From that trip came the great poem ‘At the Fishhouses’ (published in A Cold Spring, 1955) in which she attempted to come to terms with a paradox central to her work: that an aesthetic compulsion to accuracy is constantly mocked by the metaphysical knowledge that all accuracies fall victim to the sinister voidings of time. As the fishing culture of Nova Scotia dies out, the ineffable beauty of the silver landscape with its fishhouses of weathered wood framing its ancient fisherman (‘a friend of my grandfather’) is about to become obsolete and revert to nature. From the shore, Bishop, after describing the scene minutely and with an almost desperate indulgence, is unwillingly but magnetically drawn to the sea and its icy water. Twice she pulls back, inventing distractions (a seal, the fir trees ‘waiting for Christmas’); finally she accepts the destined ‘total immersion’ in the ‘cold dark deep and absolutely clear’ element, ‘bearable to no mortal’. Her closing equation of the annihilating water and ‘what we imagine knowledge to be’ is at first a bitter one; this knowledge is first said to be ‘drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world’. We can imagine what the cold hard mouth of the world said to the infant Elizabeth – that her mother was insane, that she was an orphan – and what it said to the youthful Elizabeth: that she was an old maid, that she was a lesbian (if the world suspected that fact), that she had no job, that nobody loved her. Truths bitter enough; and the remark about such knowledge – that it comes to one from a worldly cold hard mouth – covers many cases. But in a remarkable advance over both ‘The Map’ and ‘It is marvellous’, Bishop revised her conception of both art and truth. Knowledge is, yes, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world – but also

     derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The cold hard mouth of the world may spew hateful knowledge, but, Bishop adds, we also deeply desire knowledge, and seek it, drawing it as indispensable nourishment from the breast of our mother the earth. Even the worst knowledge is ultimately desired, because the alternative is illusion. ‘Flowing’ from the rocky breasts, ‘drawn’ by the suckling mind, the painful knowledge so derived becomes, in a further form of suffering, constantly anachronistic, and must be replaced by new knowledge appropriate to the next stage of life, in another draught from the forbidding rocky source. The Castalian spring lurks behind this image, but the spring has turned into the Allantic Ocean – a sea of knowledge too large to be conceived. The images at the close of ‘At the Fishhouses’ endorse both accuracy and scepticism, both the moral endeavour of drawing knowledge (always bitter and burning) and the equal moral endeavour of acknowledging its necessary provisionality, and seeking the same anguish once more.

In November 1951, Bishop, always eager to see more landscapes, and on the advice of her doctors removing herself from immediate temptations to drink, took ship alone for a trip around the world, with the first stop at Rio de Janeiro. As it turned out, she stayed in Rio and its environs for the next 15 years, sharing an apartment in Rio and a house in Petropolis with Lota de Macedo Soares, whom Bishop had met in New York some time before. The years in Brazil (which produced Questions of Travel, 1965) are fully documented, for the first time, in Millier’s book. They nonetheless remain full of human unintelligibility. Lota was already living with a woman named Mary Morse when Elizabeth arrived, fell ill, stayed and eventually moved in; a second house was constructed nearby for Mary Morse, and the three remained friends until Lota’s death. Bishop was happy, apparently, for several years, until, from 1961 on, Lota, as overseer of the construction of a large park in Rio, became increasingly preoccupied and anxious. Eventually, the ménage began to disintegrate. In 1966, Bishop left temporarily to teach creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle (her first such position) and fell in love with her student Suzanne Bowen. She returned to Brazil, but Lola, who had come across evidence of the affair, headed into a nervous breakdown, and the two of them could no longer cohabit. Bishop eventually left Rio (on the advice of Lota’s doctors, she said) for New York in July 1967, planning to return to Brazil in September with Lota, who was to visit her in New York. Lota arrived in New York on 19 September and that night, in Bishop’s apartment, took an overdose of Valium and died. Bishop’s life in Brazil was effectively over, though she returned there several times for brief stays.

Early in 1968, Bishop and the 27-year-old Suzanne Bowen moved into an apartment in San Francisco, and lived there till May 1969, when they went back to Brazil to see to the house Bishop was constructing in Ouro Preto. There, the relationship ended violently; through Bishop’s agency, Suzanne Bowen was involuntarily hospitalised for mental illness. Bowen fled the country with the assistance of the American consul, and Bishop accepted an offer from Harvard to replace Robert Lowell for a semester. She began a new life in Cambridge in September 1970.

The years in Brazil brought Bishop’s poetry to a new schematic. The ‘flowing, and flown’ nature of knowledge, validating both accuracy of observation and scepticism about the truths thereby derived, leaves room for truth, even if for a merely temporary truth. A 1978 poem called ‘Santarém’, begun after Bishop’s 1960 trip on the Amazon, offered a dissolution of truth-functions in a ‘watery, dazzling dialectic’. Santarém is situated at the conjunction of two rivers, the Tapajós and the Amazon:

Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung
from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four
and they’d diverged. Here only two
and coming together. Even if one were tempted
to literary interpretations
such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female
– such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off
in that watery, dazzling dialectic.

The literary reader will catch an echo here (‘right/wrong’) of one of Hopkins’s most tortured poems, ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, in which the terrible dichotomies of salvation are rehearsed:

            Let life, waned, ah let life wind
Off her one skeined stained veined variety | upon
               all on two spools; part, pen, pack
Now her all in two flocks, two folds – black,
white | right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But these two, ware of a world where but these |
           two tell, each off the other; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe-and
 shelterless | thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

For too long, Bishop had lived these moral choices of life/death, right/wrong, male/female: but at last, the early happy years with Lota had made them seem irrelevant, and Bishop, longing for Paradise since her blighted childhood, felt she had found it at Santarém:

That golden evening I really wanted to go no farther;
more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile
in that conflux of two great rivers ...
The street was deep in dark-gold river sand ...
The zebus’ hooves, the people’s feet
waded in golden sand,
dampered by golden sand.

Nothing here is bitter, briny or flown; it is a golden flowing. And though it comes to an end, it yields a souvenir:

In the blue pharmacy the pharmacist
had hung an empty wasps’ nest from a shelf:
small, exquisite, clean matte white,
and hard as stucco. I admired it
so much he gave it to me.

The wasps’ nest, rather than the map or the Atlantic Ocean, is now Bishop’s symbolic equivalent for art: an organic form (unlike her former inorganic monument in the poem of that name) – multi-chambered, regular, eviscerated of its constructor, small, hard and exquisite. Mimesis has been abandoned; the symbolic shell looks nothing like the grand confluence it will commemorate. The poet is resigned to the almost comic indifference of the public to her art. As she takes the wasps’ nest on board ship, an ironic vignette ends the poem:

Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr Swan,
Dutch, the retiring head of Philips Electric,
really a very nice old man,
who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,
asked, ‘What’s that ugly thing?’

This closing vignette is the genuine Bishop of the Brazilian phase. There is in evidence no injured vanity, no condemnation of the admirably humanised Mr Swan – he is in fact exactly like the poet, who herself wanted to see the Amazon before she died. The perfect uselessness of art, and its mesmerising effect on those who are drawn to it, are registered as neatly as the revulsion it occasions in those who are not susceptible to its hard but exquisite empty shapes. The wasps’ nest is home as tomb; and not everyone has an appetite for such things.

And then, after the idyll symbolised by Santarém had been effaced by Lota’s suicide, Bishop finished her life in Massachusetts, as her temporary appointment at Harvard was prolonged into a lectureship (not a rank with tenure, but one that was tenable till the age of 65). Millier’s naivety – visible in her occasional ‘politically correct’ criticisms of Bishop’s dislike of all ideologies (including feminism) and of Bishop’s occasional exasperations at black servants – appears as well in her view of Bishop at Harvard. ‘In the second fall at Harvard, Elizabeth began to see and take her place on the enormous, conservative, sexist campus.’ This is merely funny, since Harvard has no ‘campus’ to speak of, and since one could more truly say: ‘began to take her place in the congenial literary, liberal university’. Bishop had many devoted friends at Harvard (as Millier notes), ranging from Octavio Paz to William Alfred and Robert Fitzgerald, and in her writing courses found students whom she admired and liked, both male and female. She also found a new person to love, Alice Methfessel, the administrative assistant at Kirkland House (the student residence where Bishop was first billeted). Although the years from 1970 to 1979 were marked by increasing ill-health (a hiatal hernia, internal bleeding from the aspirin taken for arthritis, continued severe asthma) and the usual lapses into alcoholism, Bishop courageously created another beautiful place in which to live (a condominium in a restored Boston waterfront warehouse). She decorated it with santos, a ship’s figurehead, a Venetian minor and Brazilian birdcages, invited friends to Brazilian dinners, and, buoyed up by Alice Methfessel’s care and companionship, wrote more poetry.

Each of the late poems holds to the light another facet of writing. If it is true from one point of view that a poem is a wasps’ nest (suggesting the human capacity to admire a perfectly beautiful, perfectly useless, petrified and eviscerated structure), it is equally true, from another point of view, that a poem is a voice participating in a very long and very old conversation about life. ‘The Moose’, a poem extended enough to incorporate moments of comedy, solemnity, beauty and mystery in a full and leisurely way, subsides into ‘a gentle, auditory, / slow hallucination’:

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
– not concerning us,
but recognisable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

uninterruptedly
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses ...

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

This is a God’s-eye view of the history of literature: Chaucer conversing with Dante, Shakespeare with Marlowe, Herbert with Donne, Austen with Thackeray, the Brownings with each other – and now, somewhere, we might add, Bishop with Moore and Lowell. It eliminates nothing that literature confronts – ‘deaths, deaths and sicknesses’, all the flowing and flown knowledge – but it represents it as an assuaging continuum of ‘things cleared up finally’, expressed in ‘A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance’. Into this continuum every so often comes a new event worthy of commemoration for the purposes of the conversation; here, it is the ‘grand, otherworldly’ appearance, out of the woods, of a female moose on the moonlit macadam. Here we could say Bishop found the courage to say what she felt deserved commemoration in culture, joining herself implicitly to the line of Thoreau, Audubon and Moore. But where most other observers of nature have rejoiced in their almost scientific accuracy, or in their capacity for making moral emblems of natural objects, Bishop is deliberately vague. It is the numinousness of the moose, and its meaninglessness, that strike her, at once and together. She is a poet of the ‘sweet sensation of joy’, of phenomenological apprehension unjustified by anything but itself; she separated herself distinctly from the influence of Moore. The brave defence of the eye’s joy in the ‘curious creature’, because it is in the same poem with the long all-embracing hymn to the conversation of ancestors, suggests the necessary co-existence of the two, and bypasses the conceptual altogether (a way of contradicting the usual literary-historical emphasis on the ‘ideas’ of literature).

Other late poems embody other views of art – the homemade flute and the homebrew of ‘Crusoe in England’, for instance. But the continual onward motion (interrupted by event but not for long) of the comforting bus in ‘The Moose’ is, I think, Bishop’s final formal representation of literature as sheer ongoingness. The bus may be flowing, but it is never flown. And the sharp demarcation of the word ‘historical’, so final in ‘At the Fishhouses’, has given way to a concept altogether less angular – the grandparents, out of time at last, talking in that Eternity which is cultural memory. Bishop’s calming trimeters (out of Waller and Drummond de Andrade, as Millier points out) here reach their greatest delicacy and their most steady reassurance.

When Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979 she had received wide literary recognition, but not wide popular acclaim. Now there are many recent critical books about her poetry (of which the best, to my mind – because it sees the deeper intellectual implications of Bishop’s disarmingly casual writing – is Bonnie Costello’s Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery). It is good to have both the Goldensohn ‘biography of the poetry’ and the Millier biography of the life, both of them likely to draw new attention to the poetry and prose. A Letters is in preparation, and will reveal to readers Bishop the wonderful letter-writer – funny, quick, sympathetic and spirited.

Bishop’s literary executor, Alice Methfessel, has generously (and correctly) permitted scholars wide access to biographical material, even where it is embarrassing. Yet while approving the writing of a biography, one feels, reading all the quotations from the archives in these many books, how Bishop, with her innate reticence, would have suffered at seeing her heart laid bare. When a scholarly bibliography of her work was prepared by Candace McMahon, Bishop wrote, in a foreword; ‘Upon being “bibliographed”, as Edmund Wilson put it, I find I am suffering from “mixty motions”, as a student’s paper put that.’ No one can doubt how many ‘mixty motions’ Millier’s biography, well-documented and admiring though it is, would have aroused in its fastidious and shy subject.

The difficulty remains that Bishop’s life is not, in its externals, a heroic life; as Hopkins said, in the annals of history it is action that counts: ‘Honour is flashed off exploit,’ he wrote:

But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

It seems to me that Bishop’s fiercest frays, the moral overcomings recorded both in her advance in her medium and in her penetration to an idiosyncratic set of attitudes, go largely unrecorded here, though she could (to continue quoting Hopkins) ‘crowd with conquest’ her ‘years and years ... of world without event’, when she swam in Florida or cooked in Petropolis or taught at Harvard. The corpus of her work is of course relatively small (though she said in the Bibliography, ‘I am rather pleased to see I’ve written so much when I’ve always thought I’d written so little’ – and she wasn’t counting the hundreds of vivid letters). It is, on the other hand, entirely distinctive; and since an original and accomplished poetic style comes along, in any given language, only a few times each century, she is, no doubt, assured of her place in the ongoing rhythmic conversation in the celestial omnibus.