The woman behind the poet


Elizabeth  Bishop: A  Miracle  for  Breakfast  by  Megan Marshall,  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,  US $30.00, Pp 384, February 2017, ISBN 978-0544617308

 Elizabeth Bishop is without doubt one of the most-loved American poets. Yet she is also one of the least known poets, although Bishop had published only one hundred poems before her death in 1979. In Elizabeth Bishop, Megan Marshall rediscovers Bishop both as a poet and a woman with the help of newly discovered cache of Bishop’s letters to her psychiatrist and to three of her lovers. At very early in life, Bishop became familiar with the works of most leading poets such as Havelock Ellis, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Hilda Doolittle.

Marshall says Bishop’s love life also started very early in life at Camp Chequesset to which Elizabeth returned for five happy summers. At Camp Chequesset she became an athlete, a tomboy, as she would say. She made friends with other children as bright as her. The girls at Camp Chequesset had a habit of falling in love with one another, forming naïve crushes that, over the course of long days and nights together, sometimes turned physical. The summer Elizabeth was fourteen, she admired from afar the camp’s swimming instructor, a young woman everyone called Mike, a favorite with campers, and she felt the thrill of Mike’s interest in return. Elizabeth — known here as ‘Bishie” — was one of Camp Chequesset’s best swimmers, with her gamine look and wild hair cropped short, she attracted Mike’s attention. She was a favorite too, and precocious, yet under all that, lonely, an orphan, not likely to write letters home reporting a counselor’s trespass.

A year later, she told a fellow camper, “I haven’t any family whatever – excepting a few aunts and uncles – and its glorious not to feel you’ll have to turn out well or you’ll break someone’s heart.” That year, at fifteen, Elizabeth was assigned to Mike’s cabin, a forty-seven foot sloop in dry dock called the Ark; she was pretty sure Mike arranged it that way. Some nights Mike climbed into Elizabeth’s bunk and stayed there, kissing her, exciting her, while the other girls sleep. Elizabeth was pleased to have been remembered for an entire year, glad to be chosen, to be kissed. Had she seduced Mike with her pointed interest? She later wondered.”

Elizabeth knew the worth of her own poems. Marshall says Elizabeth never sought advice as others. Elizabeth sent her poems to editors and friends when she considered them finished. But she also knew she should have written more and simply could not despite vowing to “grit my teeth and write another poem, that’s all. And she knew when she had behaved badly. She begged forgiveness of those she had hurt or offended so often they grew impatient with her.

Elizabeth Bishop is an intimate biography of one of the best modern American poets. Marshall shows many hitherto unexplored corners of Bishop’s life and shines light on new dimensions of her poetry. It is a highly enjoyably readable biography of a poet we all love to know about. If you start reading it once, you will end up feeling you were with the poet all her life. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich