Review: Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

By William H. Pritchard

Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 384 pp.

In the nearly forty years since Elizabeth Bishop’s death in 1979, her reputation has grown to exceed that of any of her contemporaries or successors. Her friend Robert Lowell stands nowhere close to the pinnacle he stood on at the time of his own death in 1977, while John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Anne Sexton, or Theodore Roethke scarcely challenge Bishop’s supremacy. The next generation of poets, born a decade or more later, for all their acknowledged technical and human accomplishments haven’t and prob- ably won’t win the special place accorded Bishop. To put it flatly, she is the poet no one is permitted to condescend to, surely not to dislike. Brett Millier’s sturdy 600-page biography of the poet appeared in 1993; the Library of America has published in one volume everything of Bishop’s except her incomplete, unpublished work, which has been collected in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box. Now Megan Marshall, who won a Pulitzer some years back for her biography of Margaret Fuller, has ambitiously attempted a very personal account of Bishop’s life, while singling out for brief commentary a score or more of, in Marshall’s opinion, her best poems.

What makes this book something other than a straight biography is the active presence in it of the biographer. Marshall has chosen the somewhat risky procedure of alternating her account of Bishop’s life with a parallel (much shorter) one of her own. A student at Radcliffe in the 1970s, she took writing courses from both Lowell and Bishop, and the six parts into which her book is divided are each prefaced by an account of her own relation to the scene in question. For example, the book begins not with Bishop’s childhood, but with an account of a memorial service held for her at Radcliffe shortly after her death. Marshall gives us the picture of an audience waiting for the poet John Ashbery, who is scheduled to kick off the proceedings by reading a Bishop poem, to appear. Ashbery is late, and Alice Methfessel, the young woman who was Bishop’s devoted secretary and final love, decides to start things off regardless. We are then told that in fact Marshall was not there for the occasion, since new interests were replacing her once central aspiration to be a poet. Eventually Ashbery arrives and reads Bishop’s early sestina, “A Miracle for Breakfast,” thus providing Marshall with her book’s subtitle. She proceeds to quote the poem entire, and organizes her book around its end line words––river, balcony, sun, miracle, crumb, coffee––that combine in the poem’s final three lines as follows: “We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee. / A window across the river caught the sun / as if the miracle were working on the wrong balcony.” Since the sestina is the most difficult and ingenious of poetic forms, her own book puts itself forth as a corresponding, if smaller, miracle.

It would be surprising if this rather extravagant organization of a biography didn’t provoke some less-than-enthusiastic responses, and Dwight Garner, noted for his sometimes acerbic reviews in the New York Times, landed hard on Marshall’s effort, calling it “dull and dispiriting.” I found the book not at all dull, though on occasion the intrusion of personal “coloring” detracts rather than aids my perceiving Bishop, as when we hear that Marshall, settling into Radcliffe as a somewhat older student, salutes her “tarnished but still-whirling eggbeater I’d picked up at Goodwill for a few dollars.” Mainly though, the personal narrative is straightforward, thoughtful, maybe a bit less than humorous, but steadily committed to the reasonable belief that, for Marshall to talk about her growing involvement in Bishop’s work, she needs to make some sightings of her own changing career.

The book is handsomely designed, with its 45 illustrations, most of them small photographs (some that I’d not previously seen) which help to anchor us to a specific moment in Bishop’s career, often marked by the presence of a new poem. Marshall is graceful in her avoidance of lengthy close readings of poems, most of which have already been close-read enough. A good example of her treatment of the poetry involves the first stanza of probably the first wholly successful poem Bishop wrote. “The Map,” the opening poem of her first volume (1946) North and South, which begins thus:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
Is the land tugging at the sea from under?

Writing about Bishop a while back, I complained that these questions were really put-up jobs designed to produce the illusion of scrupulous close looking, but instead sounded precious. She was supremely self-aware of that possibility, when in a letter to Lowell she feared that “I’m going to turn into solid cuteness in my poetry if I don’t watch out––or if I do watch out.” (The humorous bit after the dash is tonic.) In her sentences about the poem, Marshall, after deftly noting the prosody of its first and third (final) stanzas––”eight lines each, arranged in a mesmerizing pattern of rhymes and repeated end words”––generalizes about the poem’s technique: “Statements, refined and expanded by questions that follow, would become a characteristic means of drawing the reader into her process of thought. The biographer then quotes, relevantly, Marianne Moore’s review of Bishop’s work where Moore declared that “Tentativeness can be more positive than positiveness.”

Marshall’s description of Bishop’s technique is further explored in Colm Toibin’s little book on the poet where he formulates succinctly the best observation I’ve encountered on that technique: “A true statement for her carried with it, buried in its rhythm, considerable degrees of irony because it was oddly futile. . . . The space between what there was and what could be made certain or held fast often made her tone playful.”

That tone attended to “the truth of things, a tone also of mild, distracted, solitary unease in the face of such truth.” He adds, significantly, that Bishop’s effort was “in one way, a trick, a way of making the reader believe and trust a voice.” Admittedly these lines from “The Map” are of insufficient stature on which to hang large pronouncements about Bishop’s style. But in her late poems from Geography III (“Poem,” “The End of March,” “Five Flights Up”), the tone deepens in its efforts to render the truth of things. Marshall’s book contains no stylistic criticism as pointed as Toibin’s; but then, she has Bishop’s life to attend to in all its own complications.

There is an overriding feeling of sadness when we contemplate that life in its entirety. She once said about “One Art,” which has replaced “The Fish” as the signature Bishop poem, “It makes everyone weep, so I think it must be rather good.” Marshall faithfully catalogues the many disasters through which Bishop lived and moved: another asthma attack; one more drunken episode, another fall, another love––it’s hard to handle these in a narrative without some wise head-shaking going on. Marshall’s sincerity and integrity help her navigate a life that, looked at in a certain light, comprises a very large disaster; yet Bishop traveled widely, taught, and wrote the poems. “[T]he art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

The significant contribution to our knowledge of the poet’s life is Marshall’s extensive use of correspondence unused before: letters between Bishop and her first analyst, Dr. Ruth Foster; and letters from the two major loves of Bishop’s life, Lota de Macedo Soares and Alice Methfessel. Forty-six pages of closely-spaced reference notes testify to the fullness of Marshall’s research. I’m not sure just how common the knowledge of Bishop’s extensive erotic life was. Would it be helpful to recall the words of an old Frank Sinatra song: “I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast; I fall in love so terribly hard, for it to ever last.” A particularly gloomy affair to contemplate was with 25-year-old Roxanne Cumming, whom Bishop took up with when she spent time teaching at the University of Washington in 1966. Cumming was about to give birth to a child, and mother and child accompanied Bishop back to Brazil where Lota, furious, had already learned of the affair. What part it played in Lota’s suicide one can’t say, but Roxanne Cumming, after being sent home to her husband, eventually surfaced again in Cambridge when Bishop was teaching there. Marshall says in a note, “It is difficult to establish precisely what happened between them in the months February through March 1970.” I should think it was not pleasant.

I have two reservations about Marshall’s heroic effort to put Bishop together. The first is a recurring use of “perhaps” as when, addressing the question of how Bishop and Lota became lovers after Bishop became very sick from eating an ill-advised cashew fruit: “Perhaps Lota stroked the suffering Elizabeth’s stiff wild hair with its ripples of grey.” This is one in a stream of perhapses, which could be justified on the grounds that the biographer wants to remain speculative and open in her suppositions. On the other hand, there is Ezra Pound’s comment in the margin of the version of Eliot’s The Waste Land he oversaw: “Perhaps be damned.” My second reservation is about the use of overly “steamy” language to describe erotic attraction (like the stroking of “stiff wild hair”) as when Marshall sets the scene for Bishop’s betrayal of Lota with their mutual friend, Lilli Correia de Araujo, whom Bishop visits for two weeks in Ouro Preto, Brazil: “How long after her arrival . . . did she write a poem for long-limbed Scandinavian Lilli”? The heroic epithets sound slightly absurd, as they do when Doctor Ruth Foster becomes “the tall, blue-eyed analyst.” There were a number of blue-eyed women in Bishop’s life, from Dr. Foster to Alice Methfessel, the “slim and athletic Kirkland house secretary with blue blue blue eyes.” Marshall includes an appealing antidote to the “romantic” side when she reveals that Bishop once announced to her friend Frank Bidart that she’d never met a woman she couldn’t “make.”

Despite these perhaps trivial objections, Megan Marshall’s book is such as to make the cliché “a labor of love” inadequate to characterize its combination of the scholarly with the personal.