- One Art: The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop edited by Robert Giroux
Chatto, 668 pp, £25.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6195 7
Even in the morning in that year the two-hour hotels were in bloom. The city was full of desire. It was hot. I stayed for a while in a narrow street near the Flamingo Park and went out some days to swim at Copacabana. It was that time between the death of Elizabeth Bishop and the appearance of the first biography and this volume of letters, when the ordinary reader on this side of the Atlantic knew very little about her. I did not know that for 15 years she stayed in an apartment overlooking the beach. ‘It is such a wonderful apartment,’ she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1958,
that we’ll never rent it again, no matter what heights rents soar to, I think. Top floor, 11th, a terrace around two sides, overlooking all that famous bay and beach. Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery, people walk their dogs – same dogs same time, same old man in blue trunks every morning with two Pekinese at 7a.m. – and at night the lovers on the mosaic sidewalks cast enormous long shadows over the soiled sand.
I remember the shock of the first Saturday I was there, how there were dozens of football matches being played with extraordinary speed and ferocity on the beach, most of the players black and beautiful, the supporters letting off bangers every time a goal was scored, and the bangers echoing against the apartment blocks and hotels. They played until it grew dark, and then another drama began. In her book Brazil, written with the editors of Life, Elizabeth Bishop wrote: ‘Frequently at night, on country roads, along beaches or in city doorways, candles can be seen glimmering. A black candle, cigars and a black bottle of cachaca, or a white candle, white flowers, a chicken and a clear bottle of cachaca – these are macumba hexes or offerings, witnesses to the superstitious devotion of millions of Brazilians to this cult.’ She must have stood on her balcony as the sky darkened, watching the first candles appearing.
On one of those Saturdays I saw a woman in her forties kneeling at the edge of the sea and a girl who must have been her daughter. They had left red roses on the sand and lit several candles around the roses. They had left a glass of alcohol on the sand. The fireworks and the shouting from the football matches were over now, a faint memory. The two women were facing out to sea, watching the grey waves come in, wringing their hands in desperate concentration.
This is the space in which the best of Bishop’s poems survived. She conjured up what Robert Lowell in 1947, in his review of her North – South, called ‘something in motion, weary but persisting’, and then moved to something exact and specific, something human and fragile, what Lowell identified as ‘rest, sleep, fulfilment or death’. She delighted in the exotic, in the passing, noisy, frivolous moment, but in the end her eye was caught by the flame and the woman kneeling by the sea, and in her work she played one off against the other.
In 1985 when I stayed in Rio I did not know much more about her than what she told us in her poems, the short biography in her books and the shadowy figure described in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, which appeared in 1983. In that same year Denis Donoghue, in a new edition of his Connoisseurs of Chaos, wrote:
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, February 8, 1911. Her father died when she was eight months old. Her mother, mentally ill, spent long periods in hospital: she was taken, when Elizabeth was five, to a mental hospital in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elizabeth never saw her again. The child was brought up partly by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, partly by her mother’s older sister in Boston. When she was 16, she went to a boarding-school near Boston, and from there to Vassar College. When she graduated, she moved to New York, and travelled in France and Italy. From 1938 she spent ten years in Key West, Florida. In 1942 she met, in New York, a Brazilian, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares, and beginning in 1951, they shared a house near Petropolis in Brazil, and an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Bishop wrote a book about Brazil, and stayed there for 15 years, writing her poems and translating some poetry by modern Brazilian poets. In 1966 she returned to the United States, teaching poetry at various universities and especially at Harvard; in 1974 she took an apartment in Boston. She died in the winter of 1979. So far as appearances go, her life was not dramatic. But one never knows about drama.
There was, however, one piece of evidence which suggested drama. In 1970 Robert Lowell published ‘Four Poems for Elizabeth Bishop’ in Notebook. The first was a reworking of his poem ‘Water’; the second poem was more obscure, containing several personal references; the third was called ‘Letter with Poems for a Letter with Poems’ and was in inverted commas. It began:
‘You’re right to worry about me, only please DON’T,
though I’m pretty worried myself. I’ve somehow got
into the worst situation I’ve ever
had to cope with.’
It included the lines:
‘That’s what I’m waiting for now:
a faintest glimmer I am going to get out
somehow alive from this.’
The fourth poem ended with lines of homage to Bishop as an artist. In Notebook they read:
you still hang words in air, ten years imperfect,
joke-letters, glued to cardboard posters, with gaps
and empties for the unimagined phrase,
unerring Muse who scorns a less casual friendship?
In ‘History’, published three years later, Lowell improved the lines:
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase –
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?
These words seemed reasonable: Bishop’s poems were full of unimaginable phrases, there was a calm austerity in her tone which could lead her readers to believe that she worked for years on each poem. She sought a quiet perfection, which was remarkable at a time when her contemporaries like Lowell and Berryman were writing unending and imperfect sequences. But the tone of the third poem, in which Lowell had quoted from a letter, was strange, a dramatic, personal and highly-charged tone which had never entered into Bishop’s poetry; it suggested that Bishop had an epistolary manner which was closer to Lowell’s own work.
In his review of Bishop’s North & South Lowell identified a banal note in some of her poems, ‘as though they had been simplified for a child’. ‘Florida’, for example, opens: ‘The state with the prettiest name’; and ‘The Fish’ (which used to be her most popular poem) opens: ‘I caught a tremendous fish’; and ‘Filling Station’ opens: ‘Oh, but it is dirty!’ There were no poems to her dead father, or her insane mother, and her story ‘In the Village’, which deals with her mother’s madness, had to be made into a poem (‘The Scream’) by Lowell, as though she herself was unable to handle such material in poetry. It was easy to misread her as someone who avoided the personal entirely and stuck to blank description of certain landscapes in North America and Brazil, and whimsy. It seemed that whatever was happening to her in Lowell’s third sonnet did not enter the body of her work.
And yet there is a sense of pain and loss buried deep in her poetic diction; there is a peculiar and steadfast concentration in her tone which is at its most powerful in ‘At the Fishhouses’:
If you should dip your hand in
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
She shared with Hemingway a fierce simplicity, a use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words. The search for pure accuracy in her poems forced her to watch the world helplessly, as though there were nothing she could do. The statements she made in her poems seem always distilled, put down on the page – despite the simplicity and the tone of casual directness – only with great difficulty. ‘The Prodigal’, for example, came in the shape of two sonnets. The first one ended:
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile another year or more.
The second ended:
But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.
The first ending hinted at infinite regret and resignation in the way ‘almost endure’ rhymed with ‘another year or more’. As a poet she stole a great deal from the dead sound of prose. She made the last line of the poem casual and uncertain, as though nothing was happening, nothing poetic, leaving ‘finally’ at the beginning of the line like an awkward prose word against the sure-footed iambics of ‘to make his mind up to go home’. But the extraordinary amount of emotion in so many of her lines seemed to derive not so much from her skill as a poet (although from that too), but from a repressed desperation and anxiety which filled the air in her poems, a sense of a hurt and wounded personality which sought to remain clear-eyed and calm – ‘awful but cheerful’ in her own phrase. In 1964 she wrote to Robert Lowell (the letter is quoted in Brett Millier’s Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, but is not included in Robert Giroux’s selection): ‘Larkin’s poetry is a bit too easily resigned to grimness, don’t you think? – Oh I am all for grimness and horrors of every sort – but you can’t have them, either, by shortcuts, by just saying it.’
‘Grimness and horrors of every sort’ remain unsaid and unspoken in most of her work. Until the publication of Brett Millier’s biography last year, what was in between the lines of her poems was allowed to speak for itself. Now, with the publication of these letters, the drama of her life – her sexuality, her isolation, her love affairs and her exile – may take over from the poems. Her life is likely to rival that of Sylvia Plath as a subject for infinite fascination. It is vital to remember the power these poems had before the details of the poet’s life became public.
Some letters are missing. Most of Bishop’s letters to Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares were destroyed, as were her letters to Marjorie Carr Stevens, with whom she lived in Key West in the Forties. She wrote thousands of letters; Robert Giroux has selected more than five hundred. Obviously, he must have omitted much that is interesting and revealing, but the omission of Bishop’s letters to Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first book about her work, seems odd. These letters, packed with insight and wonderful phrases, are quoted in Brett Millier’s biography, in David Kalstone’s Becoming a Poet and in Lorrie Goldensohn’s Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. ‘What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,’ she wrote; or ‘I have a vague theory that one learns most – I have learned most – from having someone suddenly make fun of something one has taken seriously up until then. I mean about life, the world, and so on’; or (in assisting Stevenson to prepare a short biographical note) ‘1916. Mother became permanently insane after several breakdowns. She lived until 1934. I’ve never concealed this, although I don’t like to make too much of it. But of course it is an important fact, to me. I didn’t see her again’; or ‘One always thinks that things might be better now, she might have been cured’; or ‘My mother went off to teach school at 16 (the way most of the enterprising young people did) and her first school was in lower Cape Breton somewhere – and the pupils spoke nothing much but Gaelic so she had a hard time of it at that school, or maybe one nearer home – she was so homesick she was taken the family dog to cheer her up’; or ‘Because of my era, sex, situation, education etc I have written so far [in 1964], what I feel is a rather “precious” kind of poetry, although I am very much opposed to the precious. One wishes things were different, that one could begin all over again.’
One wishes that these letters had been included in this book, and their omission suggests that there will be a need for a second volume. The editing is non-interventionist and somewhat rudimentary. The layout is simple, and it is easy here to get a complete picture of Bishop’s life, and her peculiar tone, just as in Sally FitzGerald’s editing of Flannery O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being, a book which Bishop admired.
Some of the letters throw soft light on the poems. In ‘Poem’ she described a painting done by her great-uncle George, and suddenly realised that she knew the place he painted, she too had been there. ‘Heavens, I recognise the place, I know it!’ the poem reads. It is risky to use a word like ‘heavens’, especially if the poet is worried about being precious. The rest of the poem is more hard and exact, but the reader is still entitled to puzzle why ‘heavens’ was used. The letters make clear that ‘heavens’ was part of her natural style. It comes up at least ten times in these pages. (‘Heavens, it will be nice to carry on an all-English conversation again’; ‘Heavens, how I hate politics after the last four years’; ‘Heavens, what a vale of tears it is’; ‘Oh heavens, now John Ashbery and I have to go and have an “intimate” lunch with Ivar Ivask.’)
In 1973 she wrote to James Merrill: ‘I could weep myself to think of Mr [Chester] Kallman’s weeping over “The Moose”.’ There is no explanation as to how she learned that Kallman had wept over her poem, which is about seeing a moose during a bus journey. The first reference to ‘The Moose’ occurs in a letter to Marianne Moore in 1946.
I came back by bus – a dreadful trip, but it seemed most convenient at the time – we hailed it with a flashlight and a lantern as it went by the farm late at night. Early the next morning, just as it was getting light, the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. She walked away very slowly into the woods, looking at us over her shoulder. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine.
But ten years after the journey the poem was still not written. In 1956 she wrote to her Aunt Grace: ‘I’ve written a long poem about Nova Scotia. It’s dedicated to you. When it’s published. I’ll send you a copy.’ Sixteen years later, the poem was finished. She wrote to Aunt Grace: ‘It is called “The Moose”. (You are not the moose.)’ She read it at the joint Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa ceremony and was delighted when she heard one student’s verdict: ‘as poems go – it wasn’t bad.’ ‘I consider that a great compliment,’ she wrote to a friend.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.
Other letters throw light on individual poems, or lines in poems. In 1957, long before ‘In the Waiting Room’ was published, she wrote to Aunt Grace: ‘I spent the morning at the dentist and read the September National Geographic – a very silly piece about the Bay of Fundy, but I think I’ll buy it just for the photographs. Some of them made me feel homesick.’ In the letter she mentioned an aunt on the other side of the family, just as an aunt appears in the poem:
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs.
Similarly, readers of her poem ‘The End of March’ will find echoes in several of the letters. ‘And then I’ve always had a daydream,’ she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1960, ‘of being a lighthouse keeper, absolutely alone, with no one to interrupt my reading or just sitting.’ Three years later, in another letter to Lowell she wrote: ‘Then I joined [Lota] up there and we spent two whole weeks doing nothing much ...’ In the poem:
I’d like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books ...
In other letters she wrote about how poems came to her, which makes this an essential volume for anyone interested in her work. But the book is important for two main reasons, the first of which is the fact that some of the letters, in themselves, are written with wonderful wit and skill; secondly, they tell a great and tragic lesbian love story, documenting, along the way, in tentative tones, a quintessential gay sensibility.
There are no letters from Bishop about being gay, nor does she mention her personal finances in much detail. She was reticent. But the tone of her letters changes in December 1951 when she sailed to Brazil and stayed with Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares, whom she had met in New York. Even in her description of her toucan there is something new in her voice: ‘He has brilliant, electric-blue eyes, grey-blue legs and feet. Most of him is black, except the base of the enormous bill is green and yellow and he has a bright gold bib and bunches of red feathers on his stomach and under his tail.’
Lota owned the apartment in Rio and, as Bishop wrote to a friend from Petropolis, forty or fifty miles from Rio, ‘lots of land here and is in the middle of building herself a large and elegant modern house on the side of a black granite cliff beside a waterfall – the scenery is unbelievably impractical.’ Lota came from an aristocratic Brazilian family, and was a close friend of Carlos Lacerda, an up-and-coming politician. Robert Giroux quotes Elizabeth Hardwick describing Lota as ‘very intense indeed, emotional, also a bit insecure as we say, and loyal, devoted and smart and lesbian and Brazilian and shy, masterful in some ways, but helpless also. She adored Elizabeth in the most attractive way, in this case somewhat fearfully, possessively, and yet modestly and without any tendency to oppress.’
Bishop was asthmatic and alcoholic; as a poet, she produced very little, and felt guilty about her work; she was an orphan; her means were limited. In 1948 she had said to Robert Lowell: ‘When you write my epitaph you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’ Now in September 1952 she wrote to her doctor in New York: ‘I still feel I must have died and gone to heaven.’ And in April 1953 she wrote to a friend: ‘This place is wonderful ... I only hope you don’t have to get to be 42 before you feel so at home.’
She began to send letters about her daily life in Brazil to friends: ‘I looked out of the window at seven this morning and saw my hostess in a bathrobe directing the blowing up of a huge boulder with dynamite.’ She learned to drive and she and Lota owned a good number of fancy sports cars. She described Lota mending a puncture: ‘She had on a wrap-around skirt which had fallen open as she bent over – and there was a little white behind, dressed in really old-fashioned long white drawers, exposed to the oncoming truck drivers.’
Domestic life became a subject for great amusement, as though it was a play she was acting in, a comedy she had invented, something not quite serious, a parody of ‘normal’ life. They kept servants and lots of domestic pets and a cook who was, according to one letter, ‘half-savage and very dirty’. Then ‘while we were away, the cook took up painting – proving that art only flourishes in leisure time, I guess ... Hers are getting better and better, and the rivalry between us is intense – if I paint a picture she paints a bigger and better one; if I cook something she immediately cooks the same thing only using all the eggs. I don’t think she knows about poetry yet, but probably that will come.’ They hired a maid called Judith and Bishop wrote to friends in England to say that she kept ‘wanting to ask her to bring in the head please’. The cook then became pregnant. ‘Hope it holds off till after Christmas at least. I know it’s bound to be adorable and I like black ones better than white, even if we are letting the cook do the living for us.’ The baby was ‘marvellous’, Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore.
Her mother dresses her, now that it’s cold, in bright rose or yellow flannel garments, with bright green or yellow socks – the father helps crochet them. They are so proud of her that we have to fight every Sunday to keep them from taking her on gruelling long bus trips to show her to all their relatives. It’s due to the fact that we supervise the feeding, bathing etc. There’s never been such a fat, good baby in the neighbourhood, and the men working on the house keep coming to look at her and ask about her diet. One of them said he thought she laughed too much.
In a letter to Aunt Grace more than a year later Bishop remarks: ‘Of course we’re awfully tempted to keep her but I’m afraid it isn’t a good idea really.’
In 1956 Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize. By now her three thousand books were in the studio which Lota had built specially for her. She was still in love with ‘the lofty vagueness’ of Brazil. She regularly wrote to Marianne Moore about her pets. One ‘wild and stormy night’, for example, she lost her toucan.
There were a few awful moments while Maria the cook, Paulo, her husband, and I, all being soaked to the skin and afflicted with contagious giggles, looked for him – but he was sitting on a little tree above the garbage can, too drenched to fly, poor bird, and quite willing to be picked up and given a piece of meat and dried off with a cup towel. He really must be tough. The cat teases him all the time – takes naps on top of his cage and dangles a paw over him ...
All through the Fifties the letters were full of joy and wonder. She was a northern woman in the south. Her description of the 1958 Carnival in Rio to Marianne Moore was full of exotic detail. It was clear in all the letters that Lota was now central to her happiness. She wrote letters in praise of babies, kites, cats (‘my enormous black and white cat is trying to get into the typewriter right now’), thunderstorms, red hair, birds (‘one a blood-red, very quick, who perches on the very tops of trees and screams to his two mates – wife and mistress, I presume, again in the Brazilian manner’).
But she followed that last description (in a letter to Robert Lowell) with ‘But oh dear – my aunt writes me long descriptions of the “fall colours” in Nova Scotia and I wonder if that’s where I shouldn’t be after all.’ In almost all of the letters there was a sense that her very fragility and instability had made her respond to Brazil with such openness and gusto. In almost all of them there was an almost desperate urge to remain cheerful. Even when she complains she manages to sound funny, as in her tirade about English washing-habits. (‘Oxford graduates smell.’) And most of the time she avoided mentioning poetry or writing, as though she wanted to make abundantly clear that she was too interested in the world to write about literature.
In 1961 Lota’s friend Carlos Lacerda came to power in Rio and gave Lota a job designing the new Flamingo Park in the city. ‘The job is enormous,’ Bishop wrote to a friend, ‘I went “on location” with her and about a dozen engineers last week – and so far I think she’s doing marvellously – just the right tone – but I don’t trust these gentlemen, I’m afraid – they are all so jealous of each other and of a woman, naturally.’ For the next five years Lota worked on her park, and became involved, through Carlos Lacerda, in Brazilian politics. She was in the governor’s palace in Rio when it was surrounded by troops in 1964. Slowly the relationship between Lota and Bishop became difficult and strained. It is clear from Brett Millier’s biography, but not from these letters, that by 1965 Bishop was having an affair with another woman, Lilli Correia de Araujo. Millier writes that Bishop’s ‘letters to Lilli after she left Ouro Preto (where Lilli lived) in November 1965 were frank and happy expressions of her love and apologies for the sad state her alcoholism had brought her to in Lilli’s presence’. None of these letters is reproduced here.
Millier in her biography also names the woman whom Bishop met, and had an affair with, in Seattle, where Bishop taught in 1966. In this book the woman is referred to as XY. On her return to Brazil, Bishop continued to correspond with XY – although, once more, none of her letters to XY is included here – as Lota suffered a complete breakdown. In January 1967 she wrote to her doctor in New York that Lota
has had violent fights with all our friends except two – and it seems they all thought she was ‘mad’ several years before I did. But of course I got it all the time and almost all of the nights, poor dear. I do know my own faults, you know – but this is really not because of me, although now all her obsessions have fixed on me – first love; then hate, etc. I finally refused to stay alone with her nights any longer – she threatened to throw herself off the terrace, and so on.
Eventually, Bishop left for New York, where Lota followed her on 17 September 1967. During that night Lota took an overdose of pills and died a week later. Bishop wrote to friends: ‘She was a wonderful, remarkable woman and I’m sorry you didn’t know her better. I had the twelve or thirteen happiest years of my life with her, before she got sick – and I suppose that is a great deal in this unmerciful world.’ In Brazil she was blamed for Lota’s death by Lota’s family and close friends. She went to live with XY in San Francisco and then in Ouro Preto, but three years after Lota’s death she could still write: ‘In fact, I see no end to it all. I try to keep remembering that I had about fifteen really happy years until Lota got so sick – and I should be grateful – most people don’t have that much I know. But since she died ... I just don’t seem to care whether I live or die. I seem to miss her more every day of my life.’
In 1970 XY had a breakdown too, and was in a clinic in Brazil. Later, Bishop and XY parted and XY returned to the United States. ‘I think in some strange way,’ Bishop wrote to her New York doctor, ‘XY wanted to be me – and so really was trying to kill me off.’ In September 1970 Bishop arrived in Harvard to teach. She disliked teaching, but she found a new friend, Alice Methfessel, an apartment overlooking the harbour in Boston, and renewed her old friendship with Robert Lowell. She had come full circle – north, south, north.
Like all orphans, Bishop was clever at making friends and inventing a family for herself. Both Lowell and Marianne Moore looked after her career, finding her publishers and grants, helping her to become famous. She admired the work of both, and sought in her correspondence with them to suggest that she cared very little about literary fame and success. But the way in which she worked and published her poems suggests otherwise: she waited for years to get things right, but the manner of publication mattered to her very deeply; she worked on a tone which was to be tentative, casual, quiet and modest but which would contain, by implication, everything she knew, and everything that had happened to her. She was pleased to hear that one reader of ‘In the Waiting Room’ had got goose-flesh on her arms when she read the poem.
In the final poem in For Lizzie and Harriet, ‘Obit’, Lowell wrote:
Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
They were both back in New England now. He had written to say that he had once come close – in 1948 – to proposing marriage to her. In her reply she avoided the issue. It is fascinating to read the letter to him written on 27 February 1970, on which he based his third sonnet to her: ‘Well, you are right to worry about me, only please DON’T – I am pretty worried about myself. I have somehow got into the worst situation I have ever had to cope with and I can’t see the way out ... That’s what I feel as though I was waiting for now – just the faintest glimmer that I’m going to get out of this somehow, alive.’
Lowell made her letter into a sonnet, just as he transformed the letters he received from Elizabeth Hardwick after the break-up of their marriage into sonnets in his book The Dolphin. Bishop was greatly disturbed by his use of this material, and her tone in the letter she wrote him about it proved that beneath all her whimsy there was an uncompromising and steely intelligence.
There is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction’ and you have changed her letters. That is ‘infinite mischief’, I think. The first one, page ten, is so shocking – well, I don’t know what to say. And page 47 ... and a few after that. One can use one’s life as material – one does, anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – If you hadn’t changed them ... etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
They died within two years of each other, Lowell in 1977, Bishop in 1979. Two years before her death Bishop published Geography III, a book of ten poems that might have seemed slight. Before her final coming to rest, after the years of delight in Brazil and then the nightmare years, her tone became more personal, resigned to things, wise almost, so that at least six of those ten poems remain among the best American poems written in this century. These letters make it clear what it cost to produce these masterpieces.
After Lowell’s death she worked on an elegy for him called ‘North Haven’. ‘It took me all summer,’ she wrote to a friend. She echoed Lowell and used a line from Shakespeare and a phrase from Lewis Carroll, but there are moments in the poem that only Bishop could have arranged:
The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
She loved, even in her letters, correcting herself, trying to be as accurate as possible. Here, the ‘others like them’ and the ‘almost does’ suggest an extraordinary blunt melancholy, the casual nature of death. Lowell had tried to translate Becquer’s ‘Volveran las oscuras golondrinas’ in both Notebook and History, telling how the ‘dark swallows ... will not come back’. In the version of ‘Obit’ at the end of For Lizzie and Harriet he began: ‘Our love will not come back on fortune’s wheel.’ Bishop wrote in her elegy for him:
And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
‘Will you please destroy this letter right away?’ she wrote to one of her correspondents, who, obviously, did not comply. ‘Pray for me,’ she later wrote – ‘and tear this up, too,’ clearly to no avail. Bishop enjoyed reading letters, remarking to various friends on the pleasures of Mrs Carlyle’s, Keats’s and Coleridge’s and Henry James’s letters, and the depressing nature of Hart Crane’s and Edna St Vincent Millay’s correspondence. ‘A friend of Lota’s,’ Bishop wrote in 1970, ‘burned all my letters to Lota, which Lota had carefully saved so that I could use them – the Amazon trip, London, all sorts of little trips when I was away from her. This is the second time this has happened to me.’ In 1972 she sold Marianne Moore’s letters to her: ‘I’ve put it off because I hate to sound so mercenary – nevertheless I do have to think of old age and a slightly higher class Old Ladies Home,’ she wrote. In 1971 she directed a seminar at Harvard on ‘Letters’: ‘Just letters – as an art form or something. I’m hoping to select a nicely incongrous assortment of people – Mrs Carlyle, Chekhov, my Aunt Grace, Keats, a letter found in the street, etc etc.’ The letter was, she said, ‘the dying form of communication’. Most of these letters read like performances, bursts of energy, full of delight at the quirky and the exotic; full of ‘fun’ (she tended to put ‘fun’ in inverted commas – ‘ “fun”,’ she wrote in her elegy to Lowell, ‘it always seemed to leave you at a loss.’) But others break down into pure confession, and are heartbreaking in their honesty. Robert Giroux was probably right in his decision to print them with as little fuss and as few annotations as possible, to let the compelling story tell itself. ‘I am sorry for people who can’t write letters,’ Bishop wrote. ‘But I suspect that you and I love to write them because it’s kind of like working without really doing it.’