The lighthouse stares back

Matthew Bevis

  • On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín
    Princeton, 209 pp, £13.95, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15411 4

‘Nobody knowsnobody knows.’ Elizabeth Bishop said her grandmother’s remark was the chorus of her childhood. ‘I often wondered what my grandmother knew that none of the rest of us knew and if she alone knew it, or if it was a total mystery that really nobody knew except perhaps God.’ She ventured to ask: ‘What do you know, Gammie, that we don’t know? Why don’t you tell us? Tell me!’ Gammie wouldn’t say whether she was keeping a secret or confessing bewilderment; she just laughed and replied: ‘Go on with you! Scat!’ This image of a person obscurely in the know, at once self-collected and reticent, is also an image of the person Bishop became – or the one many took her to be. But Bishop knew that you could compel attention by declining to demand it, and that restraint could be a kind of plea. She once wrote of a friend: ‘She had one rare trait that kept me interested: she never spoke of herself at all.’ Mary McCarthy’s assessment of Bishop – ‘I envy the mind hiding in her words, like an “I” counting up to a hundred waiting to be found’ – captures this blend of stealth and appeal, of patience and need. Bishop plays strange games; during hide and seek it is generally the seeker, not the hider, who is doing the counting.

‘Doesn’t it annoy you a little,’ Bishop asked Robert Lowell, ‘when people hand you back, like an obligation, flat statements of what you “meant”?’ Colm Tóibín avoids this temptation. On Elizabeth Bishop is an engaging introduction to her life and work, and also an essay on the importance of her work in his life. May Swenson told Bishop that, when reading some of her poems, ‘I have to furnish them with “meanings” from my own experience because you’ve left yours out.’ Tóibín is drawn to similar furnishings: ‘I have a close relationship with silence, with things withheld, things known and not said,’ he writes, and this relationship, he feels, brings him close to Bishop. As well as being a kindred spirit, Bishop is like other writers and artists who mean a lot to him: Vermeer, Cézanne, Hammershøi, Joyce, Thom Gunn. ‘It is annoying to have to keep saying that things are like other things,’ Bishop observed, ‘even though there seems to be no help for it.’ The centrifugal energy of Tóibín’s study is in part resisted, though, by a very specific sense of what Bishop is ‘like’: austere, guarded, systematic.

‘Do you have too many defences?’ an interviewer once asked her. ‘Too many? Can one ever have enough defences?’ Tóibín quotes Bishop’s answer alongside her much cited belief in ‘closets, closets, and more closets’, but these comments themselves highlight a strange blend of drollery and vulnerability, a feeling that things haven’t been entirely covered up or controlled. One of the reasons Bishop is so quotable, so witty, is because she understands the comedy of discretion – and she also understands that a joke, as Theodor Lipps put it, always ‘says what it has to say … in too few words’. She knows that her poem ‘Strayed Crab’ could easily be taken for a portrait of the artist when it explains that ‘I believe in the oblique, the indirect approach, and I keep my feelings to myself,’ yet the fact that the crab should feel the need to spell this out is telling (as Bishop puts it elsewhere, ‘we always tell the truth about ourselves despite ourselves’). Tóibín ends his opening chapter by quoting from ‘The Map’ (the first poem in her first book): ‘Bishop seemed to disapprove of the moment when the map’s printer experienced “the same excitement/as when emotion too far exceeds its cause”. She was careful, or as careful as she could be, not to allow that to happen in her life or, more accurately, in her poems.’ He’s miming the aspects of Bishop’s style that he cherishes (her habits of self-correction or qualification, her patient yet provisional search for accuracy), but the lines themselves seem to me quietly excited rather than disapproving. ‘Too far exceeds’ risks tautology in order to make a fine distinction: on some occasions, emotion could be excessive without going too far.

Bishop’s father died when she was eight months old, and after suffering several breakdowns her mother was institutionalised when Bishop was five. She never saw her again. For the rest of her childhood she stayed with relatives, always feeling like ‘a sort of guest’; when leaving for school, she would ask her grandmother to promise not to die before she got back. Chronic asthma helped to alleviate this particular worry, because it meant that Bishop was off school much of the time. Later she told Anne Stevenson that ‘although I think I have a prize “unhappy childhood”, almost good enough for the textbooks, please don’t think I dote on it.’ Bishop will tell you that ‘I lost my mother’s watch,’ not that she lost her mother. Still, the pun on ‘watch’ has its glint, and this confession isn’t the end of it:

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