Selections from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box.
From the Bishop archive comprised of some 3,500 pages in the Vassar College Library, Department of Special Collections, and from Bishop's journals and letters as well as biographies and critical works on the poet, Alice Quinn chose material and composed notes, to make the 386-page manuscript of the forthcoming book Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, from which the Editors of APR present the following selections. Bracketed words in the drafts and in journal entries were crossed out by Bishop on the manuscript pages. Words enclosed within slashes are best guesses at words that are unclear in manuscript.
Dream I see a postman everywhere Vanishing in thin blue air, A mammoth letter in his hand, Postmarked from a foreign land. The postman's uniform is blue. The letter is of course from you And I'd be able to read, I hope, My own name on the envelope. But he has trouble with this letter Which constantly grows bigger & bigger And over and over with a stare, He vanishes in blue, blue air.
* This draft can be found on page 65 in Bishop's Key West notebook dating from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. Two other drafts of the poem with the title "Blue Postman" can be dated circa 1945-47 because they are bracketed between entries dated "V-Day, August 14, 1945" and "New Years' 1947." Above the draft on p. 98 of the notebook, she wrote "for music--a wistful, rather dreamy tune--J.S.?" This version contains the lines.
with a letter in his hand postmarked from another land.
The version on the next page:
I see the postman everywhere vanishing in thin blue air with the letter I await postmarked from a different state. The postman's uniform is blue. The letter is of course from you & I'd be able to read, I hope, my own name on the envelope but he has trouble with this letter which constantly grows bigger & better & over & over in despair he vanishes in blue blue air. Blue postman, blue postman, Please stop disappearing down the street --But over & over in despair he vanishes in blue blue air.
References to letters abound in Bishop's papers.
A notebook entry from 1934, when she was living in New York,
Last night (Dec. 22nd) I went out to mail some letters in the corner mail box, at about 1 A.M. Three drunken men were coming along, leaning on each other, very happy and amiable indeed. They watched me putting my letters in the box with an affected silent surprise, then one of them said loudly "Oh, I hope one's for me."
From the notebook Bishop used when she was traveling in France in the summer of 1935 and situated for a time in the fishing village, Douarnenez, on the coast of Bretagne,
I am always getting myself in situations where I depend on some cold-faced woman, some mean-jawed postman, for my pleasures--and they keep them from me deliberately. The postman stands and talks with the patronne--she flicks my letters carelessly against the door frame--she stands there fifteen minutes while I pretend to read my book wondering if I dare raise my voice and call to her in dreadful French to please bring me my letters. The poor little dog, who sits quietly on a bench, at a table, as if at any moment she might order, in a trembling voice, an aperitif, or a cup of cafe au lait, looks at me sympathetically. We look into each other's eyes now & then--she shivers a little and shakes her head "Oh!" & her eyes fill with tears. We are both wretched, around eleven o'clock in the mornings here.
And from the Key West Notebook:
At night the crack under the bedroom door was like a luminous (golden?) letter being slid through. "We hadn't meant to spend so much time ..." We hadn't meant to spend so much time In the cool shadow of the lime. You played with three green leaves all afternoon, --Three green leaves and a red heart. Now it is growing dark. I can't stand your arrangements anymore. They are that shadow; real dark is the truth: The lime tree is a little booth Outlined with leaves, one clotted heart displayed, On the outskirts of a sad suburban fair. Now look behind the dirty curtain where Harlequin lies drunk in his checquered clothes ...
In a letter to the young poet and critic T. C. Wilson whom Bishop had met through Marianne Moore--Moore wrote to Ezra Pound in 1935 that Bishop's letters and Wilson's were "the best letters from young people that I have seen"--Bishop wrote from Key West on June 1st, 1938, of the house at 624 White Street which she and Louise Crane had just bought.
The house is beautiful inside and out--so cool and pure. I have most of my books here at last and stacks of old papers & note-books to destroy. In the back yard we have a lime-tree loaded with limes, which simplifies drink-making--also banana-trees, avocados, a mango, a sour-sop, and a grape-vine which bears one bunch of very wry- looking grapes.
Bishop mentions the lime trees of Key West many times in her letters and journals.
On May 5th, 1938, in a letter to Marianne Moore, "It is spring here now and the Royal Poinciana trees are in bloom all along the streets--brilliant flame color or dark red. Also a large tree--Spanish lime?--that sheds in some places fine green powder all over the streets, very pretty."
From her Key West notebook, "In the icy shadow of the lime-tree. Is the shadow of a large tree colder than the shadow of a small one?"
From the same notebook, "The lime tree, unexhausted by the bees" and "all in a sentimental rush the evening tries to make up for/ the slighted yards & houses."
In another notebook dated by Bishop: "March 6, 1938 Sept 25th 1942," she describes the cat Baby on the lawn of the house. The entry is undated but is preceded by one dated "Jan." (1939) and followed by a note about the visit of President Truman on February 17th, the first time she and Louise had the philosopher John Dewey and his daughter, Jane (who became a good friend), to dinner.
--Baby playing on the lawn, looking very small and bewildered. He lives in the shade of the lime tree, blinking at the white & yellow butterflies, and occasionally pouncing at a cricket or a lizard. If I call his name from an upstairs window, he looks all around, but never quite high enough.
From a notebook entry dated Nov 13, 1939, quoting one of the locals, possibly her housekeeper and friend, Mrs. Almyda,
The yard is full of little green birds--all over the lime tree, even lighting on the limes. "We calls them Chip-Chips; no, they don't have no meats."
It seems evident that this poem is about her relationship to Louise with whom she shared the home "in the shadow of the lime tree." Their life as a couple came to an end in 1940 although they remained friends. (Bishop finally sold the house in 1946.) In Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Peter Brazeau and Gary Fountain, Mary Meigs, a lover of Louise's in the late forties and a great admirer of Bishop and her work, said, "From Louise I heard about the difficulties of her breakup with Elizabeth, about Elizabeth's despair and her suicide threats. Louise was irresistible to women; she had very blue eyes, full, it seemed, of innocent candor and love of life."
In the summer of 1934, just after college, Bishop wrote of her friend in her notebook,
Louise is the only person I've ever seen who has preserved the charm of the really charming, not sickening, baby, up into adulthood. It is, in the baby, a certain wisdom and sophistication of the round- faced sort (Round Faced versus Thin faced Sophistication) plus a little boredom with being a baby, but willingness to let it go on if anyone gets any satisfaction out of it.
Two other entries in the notebook:
L. toddling across the gray, snap-shot colored sand, which was probably snap-shot colored anyway. The happy baby-expression which when one knows the adult well is so sad. For the story-- (picture of L as a child) the photograph colored sand color left out (as love was from your life then)
For many years, Bishop contemplated writing something on the subject of "Tact & Embarrassment." In her notebook she described tact as "the most beautiful virtue going by a minor name because that is its nature."
Another entry on the subject involves Louise,
Examples of Tact--L. at the Walgreen drugstore in Miami--when the woman overheard us saying we wished we had a comb & offering us hers --L. saying so quickly & so politely--"oh thank you. I couldn't--my hair is so dirty ..."
It is Marvellous
* Bishop gave this typed copy to her Brazilian friend Linda Nemer in the 1970s. She also handwrote an earlier version in her Key West notebook. The typed copy reflects three small departures from the earlier copy. In the handwritten draft, the second to last line of the first stanza reads, "All over the roof rain hisses" without the article before "rain." The seventh line of the second stanza begins with "That" instead of "How," but the word is crossed out. And in the fourth line of the last stanza, "must be" is crossed out and replaced by "are."
Bishop also gave her Key West notebooks to Nemer, who shared them with the Bishop scholar Lorrie Goldensohn who visited her in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1985. (Goldensohn wrote an account of this, which appeared in APR in January/February 1988.) As Goldensohn describes the moment in her book, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poet:
... pulling a piece of folded onionskin from one of the notebooks, [Linda] opens it carefully and hands it to me. Linda reads no English. She has questions about what she is giving me. It is a typescript of a rather remarkable poem, no erasures, a doodle in the corner that looks a bit like a fourposter bed.
Bishop singled out Auden's use of the word "marvelous" in a journal passage about William Empson's 7 Types of Ambiguity, published in England in 1930 and in the United States by New Directions in 1947. She took issue with John Crowe Ransom's view of the book in his piece, "Mr. Empson's Muddles," and explores her sense of what Empson was after in his discussion of word fashions.
E. isn't showing what the poet intended--but clearing up the poet's associations because of place, time, vocabulary, etc., etc. with the words he uses. It isn't that he intended a pun here or a reference to this or that personage or event there--E. tries to get the feeling in the air about the words (the switch say inside 3 yrs. of from "nice" to "ravishing" for the same thing--Auden's use of "marvellous"--the word fashion which is so much more subtle, even, than clothes fashions. Cecil Beaton's "infinitely beautiful" in 25 yrs. will sound like "a capitol treat" of 1880.) ... A sensitive reader, I think, familiar with the work of a poet, can feel what words are fashion-words, used ironically, "waked up," etc. etc., but they tend to fall back, I believe, to the previous use--I mean A's "marvellous" will lose its slight tint of mystery-Oxbridge-naivete and become anyone's "marvellous." (D.H. Lawrence & "manly," etc.)
Bishop had made a note about Lawrence a few pages earlier,
What seemed fresh begins to blend so rapidly--"he had a strong manly energy--" D.H. Lawrence.--6 years ago his use of the word manly seemed to indicate something--now I've forgotten what it was & it seems the same word employed by Matthew Arnold--or Kipling. --So Auden begins already to sound more & more like Tennyson--or Kipling.
From Bishop's contribution to the Harvard Advocate's Auden Issue of 1975, entitled "A Brief Reminiscence and a Brief Tribute,"
... when I was in college, and all through the thirties and forties, I and all my friends who were interested in poetry, read him constantly. We hurried to see his latest poem or book, and either wrote as much like him as possible, or tried hard not to. His then leftist politics, his ominous landscape, his intimations of betrayed loves, war on its way, disasters and death, matched exactly the mood of our late-depression and post-depression youth. We admired his apparent toughness, his sexual courage--actually more honest than Ginsberg's, say, is now, while still giving expression to technically dazzling poetry.
When confronted by a young friend seeking advice on love, in 1966, she replied, "If you really are concerned about that subject, I'd suggest that you go and read Auden. If he doesn't know something about love, I just don't know who else does ..."
In Bishop's poem, "Rain Towards Morning," the conjunction of birdcage and bedroom occurs, too, along with "an unexpected kiss." In a diary entry from the Murray Hill Hotel on December 26th, 1937, Bishop describes the birdcage effect of the wallpaper in her room,
Came to N.Y. by train through a dreary, tangled-etching landscape. I have quite a nice room for $2.00 at the Murray Hill. It has a picture of a large mourning woman, with itsy-bitsy wings, in sepia, and an etching of a brook Below the brook, on the mat of the picture, the artist has drawn a fish creel & a couple of dead fish, so that you'll get the idea. I also have a white china spittoon and a gas-log--3 logs with little worm-holes in them, where the gas comes up, I suppose. The shiny silver stripes of the wall-paper make it a bird-cage by lamplight.
Her single entry the next day,
N.Y. Rt. back where I started from.
Bishop also drew on the details of the Murray Hill Hotel room for her story, "In Prison," which won a Partisan Review $100 contest in 1938, a story she described to Marianne Moore as "another of these horrible 'fable' ideas that seem to obsess me."
... the room I now occupy is papered with a not unattractive wallpaper, the pattern of which consists of silver stripes about an inch and a half wide running up and down, the same distance from each other. They are placed over, that is, they appear to be inside of, a free design of flowering vines which runs all over the wall against a faded brown background. Now at night, when the lamp is turned on, these silver stripes catch the light and glisten and seem to stand out a little, or rather, in a little, from the vines and flowers, apparently shutting them off from me. I could almost imagine myself, if it would do any good, in a large silver bird cage! But that's a parody, a fantasy on my real hopes and ambitions. Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box Easily through the darkened room blue as gas, The juke-box burns; the music falls, blue as the pupil Starlight, La Conga, all the dance-halls of a blind man's eye in the block of honkey-tonks, cavities in our waning moon, strung with bottles and blue lights and silvered coconuts and conches. As easily as the music falls, the nickels fall into the slots, the drinks like lonely water-falls in night descend the separate throats, and the hands fall on one another down darker darkness under the tablecloths and all descends, descends, falls--much as we envision the helpless earthward fall of love descending from the head and eye down to the hands and heart, and down. The music pretends to laugh and weep while it descends to drink and murder. The burning box can keep the measure strict, always, and the down-beat. Poe said that poetry was exact. But pleasures are mechanical and know beforehand what they want and know exactly what they want. Do they obtain that single effect that can be calculated like alcohol or like the response to the nickel. --just how long does the music burn? like poetry, or all your horror half as exact as horror here?
* To the right of the title, Bishop jotted Neddy & bone-key. (Neddy is the name given to the character based on her maternal Uncle Arthur, an alcoholic tinsmith from Nova Scotia, in her "Memoirs of Uncle Neddy," from The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop. Many drafts in Bishop's Key West notebook from the 1930s and 1940s are accompanied by the notation "Bone Key" or "Key of Bone," which she evidently contemplated as a title for either a sequence or a collection of poems about Key West.)
Many years after she left Key West, Bishop showed the poem to Robert Giroux, her editor from 1956 until her death, saying that she had envisioned it as the concluding poem in her second collection. It's very likely that this is the poem she mentions in her July 28, 1953 letter to Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin:
I think the poems form a fairly unified book as they are now ... There is one, however, a sort of farewell to Key West, that I should like to add to this one (a poem forthcoming in Poetry, which she enclosed with her letter), and trust I can in a few weeks.
In December, 1953, in a letter to Robert Lowell, she mentions hoping to "get that last impossible poem off to H. Mifflin."
Bishop's letters and journals of the period testify to the role Poe had in her thinking in the late 1930s, and the poem is also biographically significant, pointing up the considerable anguish she was experiencing before her move to Brazil in 1951. The lines at the top of the draft, "blue as gas/ blue as the pupil/ of a blind man's eye" invoke the narrator of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," describing his blind neighbor, "He had the eye of a vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees--very gradually--I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."
Bishop wrote to her college (and Walnut Hill School) classmate, Frani Blough, from Key West on May 2, 1938, about her immersion in Poe,
I begin to wish I weren't where I am, but I'm just going to stay here for a long, long time, I'm afraid. Lately I've been doing nothing much but reread Poe, and evolve from Poe--plus something of Sir Thomas Browne, etc.--a new Theory-of-the-Story-All-My-Own. It's the "proliferal" style, I believe, and you will shortly see some of the results. There was an indication of it in the March Partisan Review (A reference to her prize-winning story, "In Prison").
Three days later, she wrote to Marianne Moore,
I was curious to hear what you thought of the story ("In Prison"), because it is the first conscious attempt at something according to a theory I've been thinking up down here out of a combination of Poe's theories and reading 17th century prose!"
From her Key West notebook,
Poe's "Each law of nature depends at all points on all the other laws"--Versus Pascal's "Nature has made all her truths independent of one another--" etc.
Notes on this poem appear some fifty pages earlier in her Key West notebook,
pleasure is exact, though meretricious & knows before exactly what it wants
Above that entry, a significant note on surrealist poetry,
some surrealist poetry terrifies me because of the sense of irresponsibility & danger it gives of the mind being "broken down"-- I want to produce the opposite effect
Another start of this poem below the notes, "the true course & nature of love--fall downward flight--":
EDGAR ALLAN POE-- & THE JUKE-BOX Glowing in the dark- the awful music falls so easily in the dark & the love that falls [as] easily as the hands fall under the table, everything descending, desceriding (descent of love from the eye=our idea of it, anyway) everything descends falls, falls, the drinks down the throat, one down beat but not mechanical alcohol oh no & [is the] horror here. here.
Notes on the next page jotted below "To Edgar Allan Poe" refer to "the full and final degradation of our love."
Bishop addresses Poe directly on the same page,
you said that poetry was exact but so is pleasure
Earlier in the notebook, "and every fault will find its friend."
Elsewhere in her journals, Bishop has jotted, "Baudelaire ... bad luck ... Poe's moving around, etc." Bishop is referring to Baudelaire's famous essay of 1852, "Edgar Poe, His Life and Works" which begins,
Recently there appeared in court an unfortunate man whose forehead was marked by a rare and strange tattoo: No luck! He bore thus above his eyes the inscription of his life, like the title of a book, and cross-examination showed that this bizarre label was cruelly true. In literary history there are similar destinies, real damnations-- men who bear the words bad luck written in mysterious characters in the sinuous creases of their foreheads. The blind angel of expiation has seized upon them and whips them with all his might for the edification of others.
Bishop continued to reflect on the plight of an unlucky individual as this entry from her notebook of 1948 attests:
Loved the wrong person all his life lived in the wrong place maybe even read the wrong books-- who could say--
"Talk to an American about Poe," Baudelaire wrote, "and he will perhaps admit his genius; perhaps he will even show himself proud of it. But, with a superior, sardonic tone, which smacks of practicality, he will speak to you of the irregular life of the poet, of his alcoholic breath that could have been set on fire with a candle, of his vagabond habits; he will tell you that Poe was an erratic and eccentric person, a stray planet, that he moved constantly from Baltimore to New York, from New York to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Boston, from Boston to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Richmond."
Baudelaire's eloquent appreciation of Poe's poetics chimes with many of the reflections on the art in Bishop's early notebooks. Baudelaire exclaims of Poe,
The choice of means! He returns to that constantly, he insists with a learned eloquence upon the adjustment of means to effect, on the use of rhyme, on the perfecting of the refrain, on the adaptation of rhythm to feeling. He maintained that he who cannot seize the intangible is not a poet; that he alone is a poet who is master of his memory, the sovereign of words, the record book of his own feelings always open for examination.
In an early notebook entry, Bishop refers to rhyme as "mystical," and throughout her notebooks, lists and lists of end rhyme words make it clear she looked to rhyme to drive and refine her intuitive thinking on the basis of the unfettered associations that rhyme yields up, and with respect to Poe's conception of the poet as "master of memory" compare this entry from Bishop's post-college notebook from 1935,
Anyone who can learn really to "face the facts," as they say, should have much more to write about, should have hundreds of fresh things to say. It is because you don't, can't, won't, admit many unpleasantnesses, recollect them or see them at present, that you occasionally feel that there is nothing to be said. Think: if you were to resurrect any one year or week of yourself at any past age and be quite honest with it--how awful you were, how awful all those people were, what things really looked like--there'd be enough there for many poems. This holds good for the smallest impression as well as "morals." That's where a foolish passion for order, getting anything to fit, would be all wrong for anyone who wants to write poetry. You're bound to have to fix things a little if you insist on order, just as "social orders" have to use "propaganda."
In "The Poetic Principle," Poe wrote, "That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment ... I make Beauty, therefore--using the word as inclusive of the sublime--I make Beauty the province of the poem...."
In his "The Philosophy of Composition," he wrote, "Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation--and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears."
Bishop's college friend, Harriet Tompkins Thomas, recounts an upsetting dinner conversation in Paris in 1935 when Bishop felt she had to defend "the idea of beauty," which for her (in her friend's words) "was one of the eternal verities, the most important thing in life." Bishop, frustrated by the superior arguments of a "practiced debater," fled the table, and Thomas found her in the kitchen ten minutes later "drinking a large glass of gin and weeping profusely."
On December 21, 1948, Bishop sent a postcard from Key West to her New York friends, Loren MacIver, a painter, and her husband, Lloyd Frankenberg, a poet and critic,
Had the good luck to find a huge, wonderful apartment with my former landlady, Mrs. Pindar--upstairs, with the biggest Poinciana tree in Key West shading the screened porch. Don't know what I did to deserve it ... Jane [Dewey] and I went to the museums in Baltimore, and to Poe's grave in the pouring rain.
In a letter to Robert Lowell (August 26th-27th, 1963), Bishop compares William Burroughs to Poe. Lowell had evidently been quoted on the jacket of "Naked Lunch."
James says wonderful things about naturalism--the more natural just means the more art, etc.--but try to apply that to "The Naked Lunch," say. (I am glad your "blurb" is rather careful ... nao e) I derived a Polly-Anna-ish pleasure from that book. I'm so happy I'm not a drug addict. But it's really not very good. The notes and medical facts and omniscience remind me very much of Poe--he's probably very much like Poe, don't you think? Don't you call me that word, honey ... Don't you call me that word, honey. Don't you call me that word. You know it ain't very kind & it's also undeserved. I could take that to court, honey. I could certainly take that to court, But maybe I misunderstood you, and besides life is much too short.
* In the Vassar Archive, there are twelve pages of notes labeled "Blues, etc.--K.W. 1938? 39?" including titles, lines, and refrains of some of Bishop's favorites--among them,
EVIL HEARTED WOMAN by  Boy Fuller "You're a hard-hearted woman Don't mean me no good" KIDNAPPER'S BLUES by Petie Wheatstraw--the Devil's Son-in-Law "They kidnapped ma baby She was all I had"
etc., along with a number of observations intended for an article, including these,
"displacement of accent" care in giving the dates, names (use of "Mr.") etc. cliche of the white songs occasional poetic effects of the N. songs "My baby's gone and left me Got a big bed all to myself." General use of very simple statements They're all "Blues" while the ballads are rather smug about the fate of the victims, etc.
From a letter to Anne Stevenson, March 20, 1963, from Brazil:
I have always wanted--like many other poets, I think--to write some really "popular" songs, not "art" songs. One thing I like very much in Brazil is the popular music--the yearly sambas are, or were (too much U S influence now, I'm afraid), often superb spontaneous folk-music, and I want very much to write a piece about them--the collecting is very difficult here, however. There is also a living tradition, in the interior, of ballads--news events, old tales, etc.--not such good poetry as the sambas but rather wonderful all the same-- Current Dreams I From all confusions come different dreams for each: on a long wild beach with breakers rolling in on a sullen ledge of rock as dull & smooth as flint, there has been a bombardment and where the shells have fallen the flint has turned red-hot in irregular patches under an inch of clear black water, beautiful stains, like Chartres; and at the edge of the waves where the stains burn ragged red and the water hisses, a crowd of hesitant little children pick their way along in fastidious concern in order not to burn cold, wet, white feet. II Will it go off or will it forget? We labor at the indicators. They burnt the fingers. We examine the cluttered back. Somebody says in a scolding voice "Don't be so stupid about an old alarm clock! Don't you know that everything is an alarm clock? Children, houses, churches, books and pictures? Yes, everything in the world is set, Set, and will go off, brrrrr, [Right to the second!"] III The sea [is a deceptive footing] & we search its drunken, shifting sidewalks. The air turning to salt-water on the way we descend some creaking stairs drawn by music of marimbas to a cellar-cabaret. But when we get there it is silent. Around us impetalled fish swim seriously; it is not a cabaret at all. It is an endless wax-works, dimly lit, where rows of lonesome figures sit whose fresher tears, naturally, cannot fall. IV He is reading the funny-papers in a long ante-room and continues reading them right in an auditorium where they are making speeches and hammering mahogany hammers, Seated in the large audience he reads the Katzenjammers. What goes on up on the platform seems to concern economics. It is all very embarrassing. So he keeps reading the comics, crying, & holding them close so the little dots of red that make up the small pink faces really look like blood. He holds them close to his face. What a wretched situation --the paper gets all wet with his tears of mortification.
* In her journal entry of February 24th, 1941. Bishop described the dream that sparked this draft,
Last night I had a horrible and beautiful dream--I was on the edge of a wild, dark coast, with breakers rolling in. The beach was all of dark rocks, like flint. There had just been a "bombardment," & wherever the piece of shell had fallen the flint was red-hot--large stairs, under ten inches of clear, black water--like stained glass. There were lots of little children trying to pick their way along the edge of the water, avoiding the stairs in order not to burn their bare feet. The night before I dreamed that very early in a cold gray morning, M. said to me "What my life is coming to; I can't imagine" & then neither of us could think of anything further to say."
M. is most likely Marjorie Stevens (with whom Bishop lived on and off in Key West from 1941 to 1946, the year North and South was published) because she is mentioned in the notebook just above the following entry, dated on Bishop's birthday, February 8th, 1941,
--I am thirty years old to day-- & nothing accomplished. Dear Dr.-- Yes, dreams come in colors and memories come in colors but those in dreams are more remarkable, particular & bright like that intelligent green light in the harbor which must belong to some society of its own, & watches this one now unenviously.
* This is the last of four drafts entered in her Key West notebook. In the spring of 1946, in the last painful stages of Bishop's relationship with Marjorie Stevens, the psychiatrist Ruth Foster was particularly helpful to her. In a letter to Marianne Moore from Yaddo, October 22, 1950, Bishop spoke of Dr. Foster's death a week or so before.
It was so sad--she was so nice--I wish you had met her, or maybe you did ... Dr. Foster was so good and kind, and certainly helped me more than anyone in the world.
Above the draft of "Dear Dr." on page 153, Bishop wrote "from Halifax," where she stayed for two or three weeks in July of 1946, at a hotel Brett Millier locates "across the bay from the hospital in Dartmouth where her mother had lived and died."
In December, 1947, she wrote to Lowell about his poem, "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid,"
I am terribly impressed with the dream poern & I gather from it that when you dream you dream in colors all right--(a psychiatrist friend of mine is writing an article on color in dreams and I've heard quite a lot about it).
The version of this poem on page 153 of the notebook,
Dear Dr., yes dreams come in color and memories come in color though that of dreams is more remarkable, particularized & brighter; sometimes when at its best like that green light suspended here out there above the harbor which must belong to a society of similar lights somewhere, peaceful & clean, but came to look at this one just for now unenviously.
In other notes to the poem, Bishop describes the green light as "gregarious."
In a letter to Loren MacIver written from Yaddo on July 19, 1949, Bishop wrote, "If there is anything one gains from psychiatry at all it's the simple thing you kept saying yesterday and said for nothing, too--that one must be oneself."
"I had a bad dream ..." I had a bad dream, toward morning, about you. You lay unconscious-- It was to be for "24 hrs." Wrapped in a long blanket I felt I must hold you even though a "load of guests" might come in from the garden [at] a minute & see us lying with my arms around you & my cheek on yours. It was /warm/--but I had to prevent you from slipping away from your body your cheek from the wound-round blanket-- grave dark morning Thinking of you, a thousand miles away, how I tried to hold you with the numb arms of a dreamer in the deep of the morning the day coming that loneliness like falling on the sidewalk in a crowd that fills [one with shame], some slow, elaborate shame the sidewalk rises rises like absolute despair
* The last lines of this draft, which is accompanied by the instruction "Should rhyme," share the phrase "loneliness like falling" with a fragment entitled "The Strike of Love," which follows it on the next page of the Key West notebook.
On a subsequent page, p. 169, the dream is an active protagonist,
The bad dream stepped in toward morning, speaking of you. You lay unconscious. The dream said it was for "twenty-four hours." Wrapped in a khaki blanket on a bed close to the floor
Other notes on the page:
The bad dream stepped in toward morning, speaking, in the dark, of you.
Another draft of this poem begins,
Towards the grave break of morning a bad dream stepped in speaking about you.
A terribly prescient poem when one considers the death of Bishop's companion of fifteen years, Lota de Macedo Soares, who died after lingering in a coma for five days after taking an overdose of pills while visiting Bishop in New York in September, 1967.
"In the golden early morning ..." In the golden early morning you came to take me to the airport. There was an unusually heavy dew even for there; the brick walk looked like plums & the newspaper was wet outside. M--& I stood & waited & made some kind of conversation. Then I looked at the paper & learned of the crash the day before; some women and babies were killed. After that I couldn't seem to think of anything to say & she couldn't either. I kept wondering why we expose ourselves to these farewells and dangers-- Finally you got there & we started. It was very cold & so much dew! Every leaf was wet and glistened. The Navy buildings & wires & towers, etc. looked almost like glass & so frail & harmless. The water on either side was perfectly flat like mirrors--or rather breathed-on mirrors. I said oh look at the blue heron, Several stood about in the shallow water & one white. The road is very bumpy, & you drove fast but for some reason I'm not afraid of your driving. The little airport looked half-asleep. Our voices sounded loud & clear & so like themselves --if anyone knows what that means-- We had to wait & wait. There were 3 or 4 other people A salesman and a very fat young Cuban girl-- Then we heard the plane or felt it & it seemed to appear as if it were made out of the dew coming together, very shiny. When it landed the 2 pilots & the stewardess walked in a sort of formation toward us over the yellow sand. I said to you that it was like the procession at the beginning of a bullfight--it was exactly, & you said, "yes exactly only not so colorful." M gave me a few last minute instructions & said "Call me from Miami." You to my surprise gave me a violent hug & a kiss on the cheek M. kissed me on both cheeks & I knew she was about to cry. So off I went and why do we undertake these terrifying & cruel trips & why did I come here
* This single draft was removed from one of the Key West notebooks and is undated. "M." would appear to refer to Marjorie Stevens. In her biography of Bishop. Brett Millier describes their struggle, which seems reflected in this draft:
Elizabeth spent the fall of 1945 in Key West with Marjorie at Margaret Street. She had a late-November deadline for new poems from Houghton Mifflin and set out to finish the elusive two or three ... She left Key West for New York in December, then returned in early January, only to leave again on the nineteenth. As she struggled to write, her relationship with Marjorie Stevens was ending. Marjorie's letters to her in the spring of 1946 suggest that Elizabeth was drinking heavily, that her lifelong tendency to use the long-distance telephone when she was drunk had begun to irritate the recipients of her calls, and that she was wavering painfully in her decision to leave both Marjorie and Key West. Finally Marjorie, essentially out of kindness, forbade her to come back. "I don't think you should consider it a possibility any more, for as long as you do you obviously aren't going to adjust yourself to anything else ... [We've been] trying to make something work that doesn't." When she came North, it was for more than a year, and when she returned in the winter of 1947, she lived for a time in Pauline Hemingway's house at 907 Whitehead Street.
Pauline Hemingway may be the person addressed in this draft.
"From the shallow night-long graves ..."
From the shallow night-long graves of the sleeping town, from a graveyard's thin gray soil springs the stubble of sound: A voice calls out, "Where is he at?" Someone at the corner whistles. Nothing is expected of us yet, but what was that the mirror just reflected? Hush, shut up, the sun's not up. Pale small face without make-up, small /arms/ along the sheets; but there,--the lying eyes and there the sun's peremptory reach, imposing his --responsibilities
* Another poem earmarked for "Bone Key," a sequence of poems about Key West and a title Bishop considered for her second collection. Another was "Hotels."
Bishop remarked on the soil of Key West in the following notebook entry dated October 26, 1939:
Something inherent about the soil here--so shallow, & digging in it with a trowel I found a bottle neck, several bones, an old celluloid hairpin, lots of rocks, plaster, etc.
On the "Prince of Fundy"
We must weigh tons and tons and tons with all those cars & cars & trucks stowed below. The cabin is pitch-black. We gently rock this way and that. Someone has a heavy tread, above. Someone else--a woman--is singing. Why? And why does she sing so high? Everything creaks. And someone taps the pipes. We gently rock. We think we rock because there's nothing real to judge by. I love you more today than I did yesterday. Isn't that nice? [I thought I loved you. Now I know I do.] Why are they walking around like that and singing, too, at all hours of the night? While we sway gently gently in the dark (up, down and sometimes sidewise, too) (We shall be arriving at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in approximately two hours and twenty-five minutes.)
* To the right of the third to last line, Bishop jotted this instruction to herself: "put in 4's." The draft represented is the most developed of those on four pages of notes, which contain lines indicating that Bishop envisioned a larger poem than the draft suggests--among them,
The Portuguese explorers came and found it looking much the same Something diffident, withdrawn ... History has come and gone to [see] the famous autumn foliage the apple crop that breaks the trees Lifting a veil of fog mist so like a frontispiece engraving We edge in gingerly bump like a misplaced un-kiss No sooner had our trip begun than craps, roulette, and twenty-one The Gift Shop has the usual 150 proof Lamb's Rum, and that fake Nova Scotia plaid in blue and yellow--
This draft dates from Bishop's trip to Sable Island, about 180 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, in August of 1951 when she did some research for an article she hoped would interest The New Yorker. On July 11, 1951, she wrote to Lowell about her upcoming trip,
I'm trying to get out to Sable Island--cheerfully known as "the graveyard of the Atlantic" (my great-grandfather & his schooner and all hands were lost there, amongst hundreds of others) and if I am not fulfilling my destiny and get wrecked, too, I think I can turn it into an article and maybe a poem or two.
On August 19th, she wrote to Lowell describing her jaunt,
... It was quite an interesting outing; I had to get permission from Ottawa to get taken out on a lighthouse tender, etc. The actual place is nothing much except sand-dunes like Cape Cod, but its history is spectacular, just the kind of thing I feel you might like ... Anyway I'm hoping to sell a travel piece about it and make some money. If I do I may take a trip of some sort, probably a long freighter one ...
Bishop's notebook for the trip begins with a description of clouds seen from above on the airplane rides from New York to Boston and from Boston to Halifax. Upon her arrival in Nova Scotia, she is jolted by the sight of the Insane Asylum where her mother lived from 1916 to 1934, when she died:
We sailed among many more of the great soft white snow-heaps 11,000 Ft-high--enough to follow the map of the coast easily, the Bay of Fundy, etc. N.S. looked lovely from the air--fresh dark greens, red outlines, glittering lines of rivers--more animated than Maine had looked & that amazing cleanness that strikes me every time. We landed in Dartmouth--a clearing in the fir woods--the taxi comes across on the little ferry--1st driving right by the Insane Asylum (I was quite unprepared for this.) A beautiful, dazzling day, & the unparalleled dullness of everything--I feel it in everything here, shop-windows, food,--the smallest trifles. Depression here must be worse than anywhere--only fortunately I'm not depressed.
At Yaddo nine months earlier, she recorded a "ghostly nightmare about my mother--outside the closed door, 'they', beating, etc.--1st time in about 15 yrs., I think & wonder why--"
The plaintive interrogative in this draft of "On the 'Prince of Fundy'"--"Why are they walking around like that/ and singing, too, at all hours of the night?"--echoes lines in the draft called "Ungracious Poem" about nurses in a clinic and also anticipates the phrasing (so different in tone) in lines from "Filling Station," published in The New Yorker on December 10, 1955.
Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily?
Bishop's favorite aunt, her mother's sister Grace, owned a wild pony named Pansy from Sable Island. In a letter to Lowell, August 19, 1951, Bishop refers to Pansy as "about 40 now," and in a letter to her aunt Grace dated September 16, 1957, from New York, Bishop alludes to "the famous autumn foliage" that crops up in the notes for this poem.
I spent the morning at the dentist's 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, and I do wish I could get there now to see the colors of the maple trees. Letter to Two Friends Heavens! It's raining again and the "view" is now two weeks overdue and the road is impassable and after shaking all four paws the cat retires in disgust to the highest closet shelf, and the dogs smell awfully like dogs, and I'm slightly sick of myself, and sometime during the night the poem I was trying to write has turned into prepositions: ins and aboves and upons [overs and unders and ups] what am I trying to do? Change places in a canoe? method of composition-- The toucan is very annoyed. Uncle Sam! Sammy! Shut up! He stands up straight in his cage with his bright blue eyes aglare and shrieks in a perfect rage [and] braces his tough blue feet Maria do Carmo, please, give him a piece of raw meat-- Marianne, loan me a noun! Cal, please cable a verb! Or simply propulse through the ether Some more powerful meter The radio battery is dead, for all I know, so is Dulles the toads as big as your hat that want to come into the house and mournfully sit at the door spotted, round-shouldered, and wet, with enormous masochist eyes --the biggest snail seen yet moving mysteriously to his fate like a melting white dinner-plate left over from a seance tiered like the tower of Babel with his brown glazed house on his back with no gift for languages and even less for gesture exchange anxiety but my dollar goes higher and higher with a visa about to expire Brazil, "where the nuts come from" with a car with one good tire
* Bishop alluded to this poem in a letter to Robert Lowell, December 11, 1957:
The one poem I've done anything with since I've been back is a long one I started two years ago; to you and Marianne, called "Letter to Two Friends," or something like that. It began on a rainy day and since it has done nothing but rain since we've been back [from New York, in November, 1957] I took it up again and this time I shall try to get it done. It is rather light, though. Oh heavens, when does one begin to write the real poems? I certainly feel as if I never had. But of course I don't feel that way about yours--they all seem real as real--and getting more so.
In the same letter, she describes the "flying fish" mentioned in her Bow-plate journal of 1951, when she took her first trip from New York to Rio. Lota was apparently very bored on this 18-day boat trip taking them home from New York in November, 1957.
I like the sea, but the Latin races haven't really liked it since the 15th century, I think. We actually did go through the Doldrums-- a day of them. The water absolutely slick and flat and the flying fish making sprays of long scratches across it, exactly like fingernail scratches.
When I was three, I watched the Salem fire. It burned all night (or then I thought it did) and I stood in my crib & watched it burn. The sky was bright red; everything was red: out on the lawn, my mother's white dress looked rose-red: my white enamelled crib was red and my hands holding to its rods-- its brass knobs holding specks of fire-- I felt amazement not fear but amazement may be my infancy's chief emotion. People were playing hoses on the roofs of the summer cottages on Marblehead Neck; the red sky was filled with flying motes, cinders and coals, and bigger things, scorched black burnt. The water glowed like fire, too, but flat. I watched some boats arriving on our beach full of escaping people (I didn't know that). One dory, silhouetted black (and later I thought of this as having looked like Washington Crossing the Delaware, all black-- in silhouette-- I was terribly thirsty but mama didn't hear me calling her. Out on the lawn she and some neighbors were giving coffee or food or something to the people landing in the boats-- once in a while I caught a glimpse of her and called and called--no one paid any attention-- In the brilliant morning across the bay the fire still went on, but in the sunlight we saw no more glare, just the clouds of smoke. The beach was strewn with cinders, dark with ash-- strange objects seemed to have blown across the water lifted by that terrible heat, through the red sky? Blackened boards, shiny black like black feathers-- pieces of furniture, parts of boats, and clothes-- I picked up a woman's long black cotton Stocking. Curiosity. My mother said sharply Put that down! I remember clearly, clearly-- But since that day, that reprimand-- that night that day that reprimand-- I have suffered from abnormal thirst-- I swear it's true--and by the age of twenty or twenty-one I had begun to drink, & drink--I can't get enough and, as you must have noticed, I'm half-drunk now ... And all I'm telling you may be a lie ...
* This poem is mentioned in a letter from Bishop to Lowell, dated February 15, 1960, "Please send me the poem called 'The Drinker'--I have a sort of sonnet called 'The Drunkard' but I've never been able to decide whether it's any good or not."
On April 22nd, 1960, she again brought up the poem to Lowell, "Oh, I think your drunkenness poem is going to be superb! It started me off on mine again--mine is more personal and yet a bit more abstract, I think."
Thomas Travisano, author of Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, and the editor of the forthcoming volume of correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, published a piece about three Bishop drafts in the winter, 1991 issue of The Georgia Review, "A Drunkard," "Salem Willows," and "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator." From his careful analysis of both the context for the poem and the draft that exists,
"A Drunkard" [which he dates from the 1970s] describes a terrifying historical incident, the Great Salem Fire, from the perspective of a three-year-old child. The fire took place on 25 June 1914 and is termed in Frances Diane Robotti's Chonicles of Old Salem (1948) "the greatest disaster in Salem's history." The fire devastated 252 acres, destroyed 1,800 buildings, and rendered 15,000 people homeless. Like "Suicide," this poem is unusual for Bishop in that it is linked to a dramatic historical event. More significantly, it alludes frankly to Bishop's lifelong problem with alcohol--an admission made nowhere in her published work--and explores feelings of guilt and anger toward her mother more directly than anything she published ... In 1916, when Elizabeth was five, her mother had a terrible final breakdown and was placed in a mental institution, where she remained until her death in 1934. Bishop never saw her mother again. "A Drunkard" links Bishop's problem with alcohol to a traumatic early moment when her mother is still present but is ignoring her to meet the more pressing needs of others. Overtones of abandonment, betrayal, incomprehensible danger, and inadvertent transgression run through a piece that is among the most personally revealing that Bishop ever produced (The Gettysburg Review). (Florida Revisited)? I took it for a bird-- Just at the water's edge I picked it up--not a bird a dead, black bird, or the breast It was light, too light to be a bird, of one, weightless-- coal-black, glistening, each wet a surprise like missing a step feather distinct that turned out to be a piece of [charred] wood, feather-light, feather marked but not a bird at all--dead, delicately graven, dead wood light as the breast of a bird in the hand-- feathers The coconut palms still clatter; the pelicans still waddle, soar, and dive. Tall, sickly-looking willets pick at their food. The sunset doesn't color the sea; it stains the water-glaze of the receding waves instead. At night the "giant dews" drip on the roof and the grass grows wet and the hibiscus drops blossoms folded, sad and wet, in the morning [And it] still goes on and on, more or less the same. It has, now apparently, for over half my life-time--: Gone on after, or over, how many deaths, many deaths by cancer, & how many deaths by now, love lost, suicides lost forever. friendship & love lost, lost forever The sun sets, and a man is making a movie of it (this is hard to believe, but true) and directly opposite a full moon [rises], covered with tears. The moon can't stop crying now but, one supposes-- it will eventually, & look down clearly & composedly bravely-- day & /bright/, on all this earthly dew-- Oh now, stop crying-- Change is what hurts worst; change alone can kill. Change kills us, finally--not these earthly things. One hates all this immutability. Finally one hates the Florida one knows, the Florida one knew. Oh palms, oh birds, and over-exaggerated sunsets-- oh full and weeping moon why do you weep? --oh unendurable [world] Well, loneliness is always an excuse.
* Brett Millier dates this draft from August, 1976.
with notes by Alice Quinn
ALICE QUINN is poetry editor of The New Yorker and executive director of the Poetry Society of America. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of the Arts.
From Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Alice Quinn. To be published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. Copyright [c] 2006 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Introduction and Notes copyright [c] 2006 by Alice Quinn. All rights reserved.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. Edited, with an introduction, by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.
______. Letters to Kit and Ilse Barker, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Published with permission of the Princeton University Library and Alice Methfessel, executor of the literary estate of Elizabeth Bishop.
______. Letters to Anne Stevenson. The Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Washington University Library Special Collections, St. Louis, MO. Quotations from the materials in this collection are used with permission from the library and from Alice Methfessel, executor of the literary estate of Elizabeth Bishop.
______. Letters to May Swenson. The May Swenson Papers, Washington University Library Special Collections, St. Louis, MO. Quotations from the materials in this collection are used with permission from the library and from Rozanne Knudson, executor of the literary estate of May Swenson.
______. Notebooks and papers. Vassar College Library Archives and Special Collections. Poughkeepsie, NY. Quotations from materials in this collection are used with permission from the library and from Alice Methfessel, executor of the literary estate of Elizabeth Bishop.
______. One Art: Letters. Selected and edited, with an introduction, by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Fountain, Gary, and Brazeau, Peter. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Hyslop, Lois Boc and Francis E., editors and translators, Baudelaire as a Literary Critic: Selected Essays. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964.
Javadizadeh, Kamran. "An Audience May Be Found: Letters to T. C. Wilson." The Yale Review (Vol. 93, No. 4, October 2005).
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, with Selections from His Critical Writing. Edited by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edward H. O'Neill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.
Schwartz, Lloyd, and Estess, Sybil P., editors. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Travisano, Thomas, editor. The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. (Forth-coming.) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Travisano, Thomas. "'With an Eye of Flemish Accuracy': An Afterword." Georgia Review (Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter 1992).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||A Special APR Supplement|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
|Previous Article:||In the studio.|
|Critical companion to Edgar Allan Poe; a literary reference to his life and work.|
|The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe.|
|Edgar Allan Poe's Annotated Short Stories.|
|Acoustic Learning Inc.|