"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Evelyn C. White reviews The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop

The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop
Edited by Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis
Cambridge University Press, 2014, 216 pages.
(Review appeared first in the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia Newsletter, Summer 2014)

The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop
New and long-time admirers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who proudly proclaimed herself “three fourths Canadian and one fourth New Englander” will rejoice in the release of The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop.

The engaging volume features a wide range of essays that explore the life and literature of the Massachusetts born writer who was indelibly shaped by her family roots in Nova Scotia and long sojourn in Brazil with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares.

In “Bishop, History, and Politics,” University of California, Riverside English professor Steven Gould Axelrod examines the “understated” complexity of Bishop’s writing and personal liaisons. He notes her friendship (albeit brief) with Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). Bishop met the Black, gay Harlem Renaissance era painter when they were both residents at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Delaney would die, the same year, as did Bishop, in a mental hospital in Paris.

In 1951, an art critic offered observations about Delaney that speak volumes about the qualities that likely drew Bishop to the artist (and vice versa).

The critic wrote: “[His] paintings seem to say, ‘I may be suffering, but what an experience this is.’ ... Though Beauford was often depressed, he could say yes to life in spite of the fact that life was kicking him in the ass.”

In a provocative close to the piece, Axelrod ventures that Bishop outed herself, intentionally, through the use of the final word, “gay!” in “Sonnet.”  Generally taken as Bishop’s last poem, “Sonnet” was published in The New Yorker (October 29, 1979), three weeks after the author’s sudden death. 

Axelrod writes: “[Gay] is an old word for Bishop, one she used so many times before, but it is new here, with its multiple valences of happiness and homosexuality clearer than ever before.”

At a time when the practice of letter writing is in dramatic decline (note To The Letter: A Celebration of The Lost Art of Letter-Writing by Simon Garfield), Siobhan Phillips presents a mesmerizing essay in “Bishop’s Correspondence.”

The Dickinson College English professor details the writer’s near-obsession with the collected letters of figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Sexton, and Horace Walpole.  In doing so, Phillips underscores the respect with which Bishop held the epistolary tradition and embraced it as a vital component of her creative process. 

She writes: “Bishop’s interest in epistolarity helps to demonstrate the still-underappreciated breadth of her reading, as she ranges across categories of time, style, and type of writer in her admiration for the genre of correspondence.”

Phillips also suggests that for Bishop, the writing and receipt of letters served as a stabilizing counter to the emotional anguish the author suffered (early and often) in her life.  “Togetherness was particularly important to Bishop, since she endured the loss of many people close to her and often felt the lack of any permanent home,” Phillips writes. “Bishop’s focus on correspondence supports a critical emphasis on her orphaned, outsider status.”

As editors Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis aptly note in their introduction to The Cambridge Companion, independent scholar Sandra Barry delivers a landmark discussion of the relationship between Bishop and her mother, Gertrude May Bulmer, who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital when the future writer was age five.

Indeed, Barry’s “In The Village: Bishop and Nova Scotia” stands – in its craft, compassion and intelligence -- with Alice Walker’s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,’” as an exquisite exploration of the gifts that mothers  (victorious or vanquished) can bequeath to their daughters. 

In a deft weaving of Bishop’s ancestry (her father died when she was eight months old), and rigorous analysis of her Nova Scotia-inspired work, Barry observes: “The most important influence … during the first decade of [Bishop’s] life is the one least acknowledged … that is, her mother. … If it was only a matter of ignoring Gertrude, that would be unfortunate; but when she is mentioned at all, it is generally to dismiss her as an insane, absent woman who played no active (certainly no positive) role in her daughter’s life, let alone her art.”

Through the skilful execution of her arguments, Barry goes on to refute the expert scholars (emphasis mine) who’ve disregarded the myriad ways in which the grief-stricken soul that was Bulmer shadows (and shines) as a powerful force in the real and imagined world of Bishop.

As such, the piece highlights the need for a thorough examination of the factors that prompted Bulmer’s 1916 admission to the Mount Hope Asylum for the Insane (now the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, or NSH) where she’d die, in 1934, without ever seeing her daughter (and only child) again.

Barry writes: “It must be remembered that no one could foresee that [Gertrude] would remain [in hospital] for the rest of her life. … The family hoped for her return for years. … [Bishop’s] efforts to understand what happened to Gertrude and herself, and to come to terms with its impact was lifelong. … Bishop learned about ebb and flow, now and then, sound and silence from her mother. … Their relationship was complex, fraught, contradictory, and mysterious; it cannot be reduced to a vague speculation or reductive conclusion.”

Recent revelations about the forced institutionalization of residents at the NSH (see the April 2014 newsletter, Canadian Mental Health Association – Kings County Branch) emphasize the importance of research on patient care at the facility, first opened in 1858.

The Cambridge Companion also includes (among other pieces) reflections on Bishop’s romance with Lota (“Home, Wherever That May Be: Poems and Prose of Brazil”) and her abiding appreciation of art (“Bishop and Visual Art”).

In “Bishop’s Posthumous Publications,” literary critic Lorrie Goldensohn offers insights on the author’s struggles with alcohol. “She tried out the topic of drunkenness in a variety of poems, sometimes in glancing allusion and sometimes head on – with mixed success,” Goldensohn notes.

The absorbing collection joins the acclaimed CD I Am In Need of Music: Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop and the film Reaching for the Moon (both released in 2013) as recent contributions to the ongoing study of the writer.

And its not been lost on me that The Cambridge Companion cover design features a photo of Bishop (set against the backdrop of one of her paintings) in which she sits, twinkly-eyed, on the steps of the Square Roof brothel in Key West, Florida.

On 28 July 2013, Evelyn White, the author of Alice Walker: A Life (W.W. Norton, 2004), gave a talk at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S. A wonderful storyteller, Evelyn kept a small but enthusiastic audience spellbound with her account of how she came to write a biography of one of America’s most recognized writers. Here is a glimpse of that wonderful afternoon.

Evelyn White (r) with writer Binnie Brennan (l),
at the Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, N.S.

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