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One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited.

In 1978 Elizabeth Bishop answered a request from a new neighbor at Lewis Wharf in Boston for information about local shops. Her now famous reply, vivid and exhaustive, thrills us with its energy. She has arranged for a housekeeper, lists pharmacies, fish markets, cafes with descriptions of their owners' foibles, sources for olive oil with a direction for ordering cannoli (filling separate), where to find soft macaroons, and the importance of avoiding tourists on weekends. One of six hundred letters that her publisher and editor Robert Giroux has chosen out of thousands, it reveals a spirit intensely alive to her surroundings. The locale shifts - Boston, New York, Key West, Brazil, Mexico, San Francisco, Europe - while the observing eye remains the same: generous, vigorous, humorous, and wise.

Some surprises help us to understand Bishop in ways the biographies seem to have missed, including Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Millier (see WLT 68:3, p. 575). Her relationship to politics, for instance, generally overlooked or dismissed as unimportant, here seems fundamental. She leaves her beloved Key West when the Navy, claiming its wartime rights, brutally pushes poor blacks out of their shanties. With Pauline Hemingway she organizes a protest against the depredations, which she writes are unnecessary. Lloyd Frankenberg, a lifelong friend and correspondent, was a conscientious objector to the war. Marianne Moore's antiwar poem "In Distrust of Merits" "overawed me into another two months silence," she writes. From Mexico and Brazil, she writes of political matters, and she misses not being in the United States at the time of the political conventions of 1952. Later, in 1965, she writes to Robert Lowell that he had accurately seen the political content in Questions of Travel. She underscores his observation by saying that "From Trollope's Journal" "was actually an anti-Eisenhower poem, I think." Carlos Lacerda, the politician and governor of the state of Rio, decisively affected Bishop and her partner Lota Macedo Soares. These and other threads suggest that, far from being "apolitical," she responded (and how could she not?) to political life pulsing around her.

Bishop's own political poem, "Roosters," recalls another visible strand in her life, her classical education. When the letters begin, she is working on a translation of Aristophanes' Birds, a notoriously difficult undertaking. She hopes to see it performed at Vassar, where she is a senior. Echoes of the ancient world, especially Roman stoicism, come in her remark on love: "Love is cruel & that is all there is to it, and it's never any reflection on one's character, really." In an exchange with Robert Lowell on suffering and which writers handle it convincingly, she comments, "It is just that I think it is so inevitable there's no use talking about it, and that in itself it has no value." She studies constantly: Darwin, a favorite author; George Herbert, a favorite poet; Goethe on granite; the Book of Job, "off and on for ten years," thinking she might do something with it. Her learning never paraded in front of her gaiety and wisdom, but, as Madame de Sevigne remarked, without it the mind has a pale color.

Other impressions from the letters intensify what has been known: the gypsy years of temporary addresses communicated to editors of one or two week's duration, the asthma attacks and dependence on Dr. Army Baumann for drugs and counsel, the difficult and essential relationship with Robert Lowell, the agony of Lota's suicide. We even find a literary mystery in the identity of the Seattle student who became her lover and companion in a brief attempt to settle in San Francisco. Giroux frankly names the woman X.Y., whereas a reader of Millier's biography would assume her name was Suzanne Bowen unless she caught the detail in a footnote that the name is assigned. Bishop's alcoholism recedes in importance; in the introduction Giroux writes that through many years of knowing her he had never seen her drunk. The beautiful sense of manners and the passion for food are evident, and one longs for the recipes.

The principal reassessment comes, I suppose, in viewing Bishop now as a prolific writer, and not exclusively a poet laboring for a small output. She left few poems in comparison with the eight or nine hundred usual for her peers, but as a writer of letters, she is precise and confident, doing as many as forty in a day. Often living far from people she loved and needed (as did Madame de Sevigne), she reports charming details of her encounters with animals, landscapes, grown-ups, and little children, for whom she shows great sympathy and understanding. Her genius for comedy (Aristophanes again?), its rapid pace and startling turns of thought, must have delighted her friends and editors. Perhaps we will see publication of the Bishop-Moore and the Bishop-Lowell correspondence. Certainly this beginning makes us hope so.

Doris Earnshaw University of California, Davis
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Author:Earnshaw, Doris
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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