"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Thursday, December 26, 2019

What do we know and how do we know it? A response to Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano

Thomas Travisano’s long-awaited biography Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop (Viking 2019) has finally appeared. Many will be keen to read what he has written because he has been researching and writing about Bishop for forty years. (2) He is, arguably, the pre-eminent American Bishop scholar, having published numerous essays and authored or edited several books about her. His first book, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development (1988), declared in its title his primary focus, one that remains firmly in place in 2019. Charting how Bishop became a poet and then a great poet has been a life’s work. Co-founder of the Elizabeth Bishop Society in the U.S., Travisano has been in some way involved in every major conference about her in the past twenty-five years. Few other Bishop scholars carry the kind of authority he has acquired.

This biography is a significant account of Bishop’s artistic development and an important account of her complex life. It makes use of sources that were unknown when Brett Millier published the inaugural biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life & the Memory of It (1993). Travisano’s biography is structurally akin to Millier’s, that is, basically, a chronological narrative that integrates her oeuvre into the story, using it to explain, enhance and reflect experiences and events. This approach is different from the previous biography about Bishop, Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (2017), which includes a substantial autobiographical component. (My response to the Marshallbook can be found on this blog.)

As with Marshall’s book, I feel compelled to respond to this view of Bishop. All biographers select, arrange and present based on a perspective and an agenda. Biography is an act of hindsight founded on, at best, a partial record. A biographer knows the full arc of the life, something the person who was living it did not know. A biographer has the right to his or her interpretation, and Travisano has enough knowledge and experience to offer a valuable take on Bishop’s life and work, enough authority to make this book essential reading. His scholarship on Bishop has been done with serious regard, genuine respect and admiration, and with discernment and care.

I am one of the keen readers who has been waiting for this book. I respect Travisano’s view and sometimes agree with him. I learned new things about Bishop in this book, for which I am grateful. For years the literary critics of Bishop’s work have repeated the same old stuff about her life. Travisano offers some correctives, which are refreshing to read ….

Here is my “But.” – I have not been researching and writing about Bishop for as long as Travisano. I have reached only three decades. I have written over the years, particularly on this blog, about some of the Bishop scholarship being churned out at a great rate. While I recognize that no one book can say everything about a life, especially one as complex as Bishop’s; still, it behooves scholars to know something of the multiple contexts (historical, biographical, cultural, psychological, aesthetic) of a subject’s life and to offer as solid a version of these contexts as possible, especially when making major statements about events and experiences. Sometimes in Travisano’s biography, contexts are rich and nuanced. Sometimes they are thin or even absent. And sometimes his facts are incorrect. At times I was puzzled by Love Unknown because of odd inconsistencies, contradictions and repetitions, ranging from an erratic citation system to ‘have it both ways’ conclusions.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have known Travisano since 1994, when I met him at the Vassar symposium about Bishop. He was instrumental in my being able to attend that event. He has always been supportive of my Bishop work, the focus of which, as he directly says in his
Acknowledgements, is Nova Scotia. He knows this focus resulted in a major monograph, Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, which remains unpublished, but which I have shared electronically with a wide range of scholars and readers, including Travisano. Moreover, he was involved in the ownership of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S., from 2004 to 2015, a project I spearheaded. I have thought long and hard about how to respond to this book because of the history between us. His book is too important and Travisano too authoritative in the Bishop world to remain silent about my concerns.

The deeper I got into Love Unknown, the more I realized its intended audience. It is written almost exclusively for an American audience and for, primarily, a general readership, though with established and budding scholars, and students of literature, in mind. I say this because one of the book’s aims is to place Bishop fully within an American context – even, perhaps, to Americanize her. Bishop is, in this book, first and foremost, an American and, more importantly, an American poet. Fair enough. She certainly was both. Still, that view is not the whole picture and part of my issue with this aim is that other significant aspects of her life that were not American are sometimes skewed or ignored. Again, of course, no one book can cover it all; but when strong, even absolute claims are made, the evidence and facts need to support those claims.

I offer an example of one claim that appears on the first page and carries through to almost the last page.

A list of Travisano’s descriptions of Bishop’s childhood and early adolescence reads like a set piece:


“who had grown up orphaned, abused, and isolated” (1)
“a lifelong struggle against adversity” with “physical and emotional liabilities” (2)
“a childhood marked by loss, isolation, and constraint” (3)
“her work remains persevering and curiously buoyant even as it grows out of and confronts isolation, suffering, and loss” (4)
“frequently traumatic past” (6)
“one of the many silences that would surround Elizabeth Bishop’s life” (18)
“the escalating series of losses and dislocations that preceded Gertrude’s breakdown” and “more painful – [the] series of such losses that followed hard upon it” (24)
“a vast emptiness” (28)
“the weight of anxiety and uncertainty under which the young Elizabeth was living following the unexplained disappearance of her mother” (37)
“she lived through her early teens in a state of near isolation” and “confined by illness” (45)
“mirror the state of suspension and incompletion defining the life of deferral she was now compelled to live” (48)
“confinement in a narrow world” (61)
“Bishop had lived a life of extreme isolation, scarcely able to find any friend her own age with whom she might share her numerous interests and passions” (65)
“long, sequestered hours in the Revere apartment” (74)
“Bishop’s social difference – born not only out of her history of childhood isolation and abuse but also out of the Calvinist reticence or taciturnity of her Bishop and Bulmer forebearers [sic: forebears]” (82)
“the bleak isolation of her early years in Revere” (241)
“having lived among the tight-lipped Puritans of her Bishop and Bulmer families” (243)
“at 55 Cambridge Street in Revere where she had spent so many childhood years of isolation under the eye of her aunt Maud and uncle George” (351-2)
“Bishop passed through a childhood and adolescence plagued by illness, isolation, and emotional distress.” (382)


I know, I have removed these statements from their contexts, but bringing them together provides a sense of Travisano’s overall take on, arguably, the most important time in Bishop’s life. Repeating strong words such as isolation, abuse, constraint – true as they are in their way – creates a sense of unmitigated “trauma.” Yet, he asserts, incongruously it seems to me, that “at the core of her greatness as an artist lies her unparalleled re-creation of her experience as a child.” (4) Why would anyone so isolated, abused and traumatized in childhood want to re-create her experience – and in a way so luminous as Bishop did? And how did she become such a great poet, considering all those “physical and emotional liabilities” at such a young age? Travisano argues that this achievement happened despite the losses and suffering and, ultimately, because of the American education system, when Bishop was well enough to enter it. He argues that it was Camp Chequesset, Walnut Hill School and Vassar College where Bishop blossomed, as indeed she did; but the seed had to be planted and nurtured somewhere, somehow amid all that isolation, constraint and dislocation – though reading Travisano one gets a sense that Bishop emerged fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, more or less in 1925-1926.

My own bias has always been obvious. I have spent decades researching, as deeply as the record allows, the time, people, places and experiences of Bishop’s Nova Scotia childhood. My book follows many threads through this zeitgeist, but certainly not all of them. I would never claim that I offer the whole story, even of the subjects I explore, let alone of her other “worlds” of New England, Florida, Europe and Brazil. Thus, my work has also skewed the vast fullness (not, I would argue, “emptiness”) of Bishop’s early life. Travisano is also allowed to bring together the evidence that supports his view and aim; but when I read, repeatedly, a set of words that create a specific, reductive characterization of something complex, I felt frustrated. Travisano does offer a couple of positives amid the relentless childhood negatives. For example: “her cherished world of Nova Scotia” (150); “As she experienced once before in her beloved Great Village” (232); but these are few, late and weak.

What follows is my response to some of the things that stood out for me, issues and errors I feel need to be addressed. I have organized this response thematically. I do not offer all my issues, but the reader will get my point. I respond mostly to the things about which I have some knowledge. I leave a response to her Brazilian years, for example, to the Brazilians.

PROLOGUE

Travisano begins Bishop’s “great story” (1) with the illnesses and deaths of her parents, unquestionably defining events in her life. My response to his take on these events, especially to her mother’s “incurable mental breakdown” (1), follows in the section on Gertrude. What the Prologue conveys to me is that the challenging aspects of Bishop’s life – her “shyness and self-doubt,” her struggle “with alcoholism and severe and lasting autoimmune disorders,” the result of all that early trauma, contrasts sharply with the great poet’s career (achieved against all odds it seems) and her remarkable “network of relationships with literati, glitterati, visual artists and musicians, locals [?], travelers, students, scholars, medicos, and politicos.” (1) This contrast – a great divide, it seems to me – holds consistently throughout the book.

GERTRUDE

The “great story” continues with an account of the Great Salem Fire of 25 June 1914, which Bishop and her mother witnessed. Travisano offers a read of Bishop’s late and unfinished poem “A Drunkard,” which recounts some of her memories of that event. Placing these things at the start gives them great weight, sets the tone for this relationship. Indeed, it sets the tone for Bishop’s early childhood. I certainly agree that the fire and Bishop’s memories of it have significant gravitas, but what this placement does is put the cause of Bishop’s alcoholism firmly at the feet of her mother. One of the most telling lines of this abandoned poem, however, which Travisano does not include, is the final line: “And all I’m telling you may be a lie…” (EAP 151) All I am saying here is that Travisano introduces these powerful, profound experiences with exceedingly thin context. I view the fire experience and read the poem differently in Lifting Yesterday, not discounting the negative effects, but endeavouring to understand the bewildering layers of this moment in time. Travisano is doing what most scholars before him have done: presenting Gertrude as the unstable, disturbed mother who damaged her child, perhaps even intentionally. He does so with minimal context. Gertrude had “worlds” too, just as her daughter. Even in Bishop’s own oeuvre, Gertrude is not only “the scream.” Gertrude has deserved far better than the treatment she has always received.

Bishop’s alcoholism is frequently discussed, as it should be since it was such a major condition and struggle in her life. Only once does Travisano mention the possibility of another cause, besides “childhood trauma,” for this condition. On page 177, he writes: “heredity may also have been a factor. There are suggestions that Bishop’s father … struggled with alcoholism … Bishop’s uncle Jack, had a severe problem … [and] uncle Arthur Bulmer.” The “may” keeps it tentative, though more often Travisano uses “must” or “most” in his assertions. If so many close relatives had problems with alcohol, surely that predisposed Bishop to have an organic/genetic issue, and the trauma of her childhood was a trigger, not the cause. But Travisano has already set Gertrude as the cause, so this late “maybe” carries little weight.

William Thomas Bishop and Gertrude were married on 22 June 1908 in New York City. My research turned up only that the ceremony took place at “Grace Church.” Travisano states it was the “elegant, neo-Gothic Grace Church” (14) in Manhattan. I would be keen to know the source of this information, but none is given. In the 1990s, I had a researcher in New York check for a marriage certificate, but she found nothing (she told me a fire had destroyed civic records for that time). She also told me there were several Grace Churches. With few financial resources, I did not pursue it. Travisano later writes, “Gertrude’s younger sister Grace was then working as a nurse in New York. Grace may have been the only family member on either side to attend the ceremony.” (150) In 1908 Grace was attending the Acadia Ladies’ Seminary in Wolfville, N.S. She did not go to Massachusetts to train as a nurse until 1911-1912 and it was during World War I that she worked in New York City. This is not to say that Grace did not attend, but it is unlikely she was there. From what evidence I have seen, William and Gertrude eloped. Again, no source is given for this statement.

On page 49 Travisano states: “John W. Bishop, continued to pay all Gertrude’s medical expenses while she remained in the Nova Scotia Hospital, and according to Bishop, her paternal grandparents made repeated attempts to have Gertrude transferred to a private hospital in the United States, only to be defeated by US immigration laws.” The source for the first statement is a 1923 letter from the Municipal Clerk of Truro, N.S., to Dr. F.E. Lawlor, Superintendent of the Nova Scotia Hospital, which is in Gertrude’s hospital file. The letter reads in part: “The Bishop’s [sic] I understand are pretty well fixed, but in any case, her father-in-law, John W. Bishop Sr. has always paid for her maintenance.” The letter was written because John W. Bishop Sr. had died and his son, John W. Bishop Jr., needed Gertrude to sign papers transferring conservatorship from his father to him. What Travisano does not discuss in any manner is this conservatorship, put in place in 1914, at the same time John W. Bishop Sr. became guardian for Elizabeth. What this action meant was that he took over the administration of their estates, inherited from William Bishop. I have a two-inch binder filled with estate and probate documents, as well as conservatorship and guardianship documents. These documents reveal a complex financial situation for both Gertrude and Elizabeth; they also reveal that Gertrude’s estate paid for all her medical and hospital bills. JWB Sr. sent the funds for her maintenance, but it was not his own money. It was Gertrude’s money. In Lifting Yesterday, I examine closely this highly complex arrangement. (On page 58, Travisano writes: “John W. Bishop was paying for his granddaughter’s expenses in Revere.” As with Gertrude, JWB Sr. was sending payments to the Shepherdson’s from Bishop’s estate. The wording in the next sentence irked me: “These remunerations likely had formed a significant slice of the Shepherdson family income.” (emphasis added) Flippant phrasing does not do his aim any service.)

As for the Bishops repeatedly trying to get Gertrude to a hospital in the U.S, Travisano says the source is Bishop herself in a letter to Anne Stevenson, which he does cite, later, on the same page. There is no evidence I have seen that the Bishops made any such attempts, but Gertrude’s hospital file does have letters from the Bulmers asking the NSH Superintendent about the possibility of her being transferred to a private facility in the U.S., where they felt she might get more personal attention. It did not happen because her citizenship was in question. That Bishop made this claim to Stevenson only shows that is what she was told, probably by the Bishops.

Also, on page 49, Travisano states: “There is no evidence that Gertrude Bulmer Bishop ever received either any form of psychiatric diagnosis or analysis or any form of drug therapy.” He asserts that “the renowned McLean Hospital … or … the progressive Worcester State Hospital” would have been better institutions than the Nova Scotia Hospital. I do not necessarily disagree with him, but what annoys me is that Travisano makes statements without much or any context. I think he has no idea what kind of institution the Nova Scotia Hospital was. He refers to “Gertrude’s caretakers in the asylum” (51), as if there were no doctors or nurses staffing this huge provincial facility. He mentions the “Great Halifax Explosion, which occurred on December 6, 1917,” and says, “Gertrude’s response to these events went unrecorded.” (52) That made me sigh. The impact of this tremendous, tragic event (Travisano calls it a “traumatic conflagration”) was felt across the city and directly included the NS Hospital, causing serious damage.

He devotes several pages (26-8, 50-3) to the “clinical record” for Gertrude, but in each instance I winced at the insensitivity. He presents a highly condensed, simplified version of Gertrude’s eighteen years at the NSH as a kind of backdrop to reinforce the backwardness of psychiatric care in Nova Scotia.

In a note for the quotation above on page 49, Travisano thanks “Dr. Kenneth Gordan, MD, for his consultation over diagnoses of Gertrude Bulmer Bishop.” (394) On page 50 he states, “the symptoms detailed by Grace Bulmer in her statements to the Nova Scotia Hospital, as well as those chronicled in the hospital’s own clinical record, might lead to a diagnosis of severe bipolar disorder with depressive features.” The “might” is the out, of course, but the assertion is there, especially with a doctor’s imprimatur. I am no doctor, but from my read of these documents, I argue in Lifting Yesterday that Gertrude suffered from untreated hyperthyroidism.

(An aside: I had never noticed before, but Bishop mentions hyperthyroidism in “The Country Mouse,” when she describes Beppo, the Bishops’ family dog. Travisano quotes this description on page 40: “He had a delicate stomach, he vomited frequently. He jumped nervously at imaginary dangers, and barked another high hysterical bark. His hyperthyroid eyes glistened, and begged for sympathy and understanding.” Beppo also punished himself when he committed an infraction, by taking himself to a corner and staying there. Bishop deeply identified with this creature, as Travisano states, especially Beppo’s sense of guilt. Her vivid description of him could be overlaid, not incongruously, not only on the young, ill Elizabeth, but also on her mother. Perhaps the child in the moment and the adult in the recollection knew more about the larger circumstances and conditions than she let on.)

At this point, I want to ask Travisano, where is World War I? There are two passing references to it on pages 40 and 52. This global conflict directly affected Gertrude, the Bulmers, Great Village and Nova Scotia, even Massachusetts, for heaven’s sake – and, consequently, Elizabeth Bishop. “The Great Halifax Explosion” (not its official name, by the way), which he mentions on page 52, had a profound impact on Gertrude’s life and health, indeed, on the life and health of every resident in Halifax and Dartmouth in December 1917. Margaret Dickie wrote about the impact of World War II on Bishop (Stein, Bishop, & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, & Place (1997)), but Bishop’s first war was not the 1939-1945 catastrophe (which comes in for more treatment by Travisano), it was the “Great War” of 1914-1918. I wrote an essay about World War I and Gertrude for War, Literature & the Arts (Spring/Summer 1999), but since this major world conflict has no presence in this book, such scholarship has no bearing.

On page 28 Travisano writes: “Having received no explanation of what had happened, she [Bishop] had no opportunity to share in a grieving process with her family over their common loss. Instead, she faced a vast emptiness.” How can he claim this? Bishop knew very well her mother was in a hospital. In 1916, when Bishop was five, no one believed Gertrude would never come out of the hospital. That fact was not conceded for some years. Bishop did share grieving with her maternal family. “Sestina” is an example of shared grief with her grandmother, which might not have been a long talk about the issues and circumstances, but it was shared, nonetheless. Such statements are generalizations that are dismissive of the complex reality. And what is “vast emptiness” anyway?

On page 33, Travisano writes: “Bishop’s mother’s committal to the mental wards of the Nova Scotia Hospital was by no means without its tangible signs.” First, what are “mental wards” in a psychiatric hospital? Second, these “signs” are, in fact, knowledge for Bishop, even as a child of five, six, seven. He is referring in part to the weekly care package Elizabeth Bulmer sent to Gertrude, which Bishop took to the post office – another shared caring-grieving ritual.

On page 123, Travisano deals with Gertrude’s death. He offers a brief summary of the final days of her life based on the hospital file, what he refers to as “the rapid onset of dangerous medical symptoms.” Gertrude died on 29 May 1934, having, according to Travisano, “spent the last eighteen years in a sanatorium, living mostly in confinement on a solitary ward.” Again, a gross generalization. “Most” is a common word, but just what it means quantitatively is entirely vague. And what is a “solitary ward”? Over the years, she spent time alone (a kind of solitary confinement) in a room on a ward that was for agitated patients. Travisano then declares that “her mortal remains” were returned to the United States and she was buried next to her husband “in Worcester’s Hope Cemetery” (an irony since the Nova Scotia Hospital was commonly called Mount Hope – a detail that does not matter to Travisano, though Bishop knew it well enough). He then includes the inscription on the gravestone, but with a typo:


                WILLIAM T. BISHOP
                1872-1912 [sic] 1911
                HIS WIFE
                GERTRUDE BULMER
                1879-1934

Then he states: “There is no evidence that Bishop was encouraged to attend the interment.” (123) That may be so, but Grace accompanied Gertrude’s body back to Worcester and one might think that even if she didn’t go to the cemetery, Bishop would have wanted to see her beloved aunt.

After this point in the book, Gertrude disappears. She becomes “absent” (146) and then simply a grave (352, 370, 384, 386). I suppose I should expect no more from the scholar who wrote in Mid-Century Quartet: “Gertrude disappeared almost without a trace. In effect she became an un-person in Bishop’s world, leaving her daughter Elizabeth both haunted by her own lack of power to shape that future and sensible of being ‘alone, alone.’” (97). What, I ask, is an “un-person”?

MAUDE AND GEORGE

On page 8-9, Travisano writes: “Between the ages of eight and sixteen [1919-1927], she lived most of the year with a maternal aunt [Maude] in a working-class neighborhood [Revere] near Boston. These long and weary months, when she was mostly housebound due to illness, were relieved by summers with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia.” Bishop arrived at Maude’s in May 1918 (Travisano notes this on page 43) and visited Great Village (not always in the summer) until 1930 (her last visit before a long hiatus was the Christmas/New Year holiday of 1929-1930). Travisano is describing an eight-year stretch. His phrasing implies that Bishop was confined in Revere for “most” of this time. Even though Bishop felt isolated because of illness, her own writing reveals that in Revere she had more than occasional outings and contact with neighbours and relatives (Grace visited, the Bulmers spent at least one winter there, Bishop often visited Mrs. Sullivan, their downstairs neighbour; and she played with neighborhood children). How can Travisano account so generally for the dozens of months, the hundreds of weeks, the thousands of days this stretch comprised? Bishop often compressed space/time in her poems and stories, but she never eschewed complexity and nuance, and she rarely sacrificed accuracy.

On page 46, Travisano writes: “Aunt Maud had given up her career as a nurse and was focused on her housekeeping, her marriage, and the needs of her husband, George.” A few lines later he observes, “Maud was a painter not without talent who did ‘beautiful sewing’.” Maude was never trained as a nurse. In Nova Scotia Census records, she described herself as a professional painter. She was quite gifted in her own right, and indeed took art classes with George Hutchinson in 1896, and subsequently with George’s colleague Bertram Knight Eaton. Gertrude, Grace, Mary and two of Bishop’s cousins became nurses, but not Maude. She did, of course, nurse Bishop back to health in 1918-1919, when Elizabeth was brought to her ill from the Bishops’ home.

Travisano is not the first scholar to reveal the secret of Bishop’s childhood and adolescence, which she told to Dr. Ruth Foster, a psychiatrist she saw in 1946-1947. In 1947 Bishop wrote a long, multi-part account about aspects of her childhood and adolescence, particularly during her time with Maude and George Shepherdson. I wrote about this revelation – the fact that George Shepherdson physically and sexually abused Bishop – on this blog in August 2016.

Travisano makes ample use of the Foster letter and allows it to define George Shepherdson, who was indeed a brutal man. What he did was unforgiveable, even criminal. I would never defend such a violent person. My issue is with the way Travisano treats Maude in these circumstances. He declares more than once that Bishop suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (29, 47, 59), an interesting diagnosis, and one that makes a lot of sense. But Maude was clearly an abused spouse. Bishop knew about Maude’s situation, she witnessed it every day. At one point, she writes to Foster: “Yet my aunt ‘put up with him’ as they say and even seemed pretty fond of him.” Prompting Travisano to write: “The Foster letters also imply that one feature Bishop ultimately did see to criticize in her shy and worried aunt was her meekness toward her husband. This, while understandable given the physical power and threat he represented, left Maud in no position to defend either herself or her niece.” (59) Surely Maude also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or abused wife syndrome. Considering how hard it is even today for an abused wife to leave an abusive husband, in the 1920s it was nigh impossible, even if Maude had wanted to leave, which Bishop also says she considered doing. I have much more to say about this situation, but my intention is to write separately about the Foster letter on this blog, at a later date.

THE ADOLESCENT BISHO

One of the most exciting new elements in Travisano’s book is the letters Bishop wrote to her Camp Chequesset friend Louise Bradley. It would have been nice if he had offered a note about how he came to discover this treasure trove at Wylie House Museum at Indiana University. I checked the finding aid on their website and there are over 75 letters, most from 1925 to 1934. Bishop was only fourteen when she started writing to Louise. Travisano makes extensive use of these letters, though he quotes them only in short excerpts. What they show is not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what biographers and scholars have already sensed, that her poetic precociousness, her desire to be a poet, was in place early. The expressiveness and self-awareness of these letters show that one of the foremost practitioners of the epistolary art form was engaged in it as a teenager. As I read the quotations, I kept thinking how much I wanted to read all the letters and hope that someday her estate will agree to publish them. It seems unlikely, however. The Bishop estate and her publisher appear to be interested only in correspondence with famous friends: Lowell, Moore, Swenson, her New Yorker editors, etc. (easier to market, I suppose) Louise Bradley is a nobody, just as Aunt Grace, Dorothee Bowie, and many other non-famous people, are nobodies. I assume the reasoning is that these “locals” do not have the same quotient of literary value as her writer, musician and visual artist friends. Curiously, on page 353, Travisano quotes Célia Bertin, one of the “famous” people who knew Bishop in North Haven, Maine: “Of her relationship with these and other rugged-year-rounders on North Haven, Bertin added, ‘She loved real people’.” Not that famous people aren’t “real,” but Bertin clearly means the non-famous ones who lived there.

The letters to Louise Bradley show, among other things, an adolescent dreaming and scheming, resisting and even rebelling against the adults in her life. The quotations Travisano includes to show this person are intended to reveal someone desperate to free herself from “extreme isolation.” Here are a few of these quotations:


“Please write to me as I am awfully lonely.” (69)
“Did you ever feel like a cat? I do tonight. Like a battered old alley-cat with chewed ears wandering around in the dark. It’s a very strange feeling – so alone. Did you ever think – no matter how many friends you have – no one can really reach you? I feel sometimes like a person on another planet – watching someone on this world.” (71)
“I am eaten up with dust and dullness – and Auntie [Maude] says ‘Elizabeth – if you don’t take that bored superior look from your face no one will like you.’ What do I care – I only want certain people to like me anyway.” (72)
“I haven’t any family whatever – excepting a few aunts and uncles who are all trying to bring me up a different way.” (73)
“I would give anything I own for one hour of complete – understanding.” (73)

As I read these and other such quotations, especially that last one, all I could think was BUT SHE IS FIFTEEN! I felt the same way when I was fifteen. What teenage girl hasn’t felt utterly misunderstood, bored with all those around her, ashamed of her family, wanting to run away (Bishop did that at least once, as I wanted to). Yes, Bishop carried more loss and trauma than most people do in an entire lifetime, but from what I see in her letters to Bradley and even the confessions to Dr. Foster, she was able to lift it all and even transform it. How did she do it? Where did she get her fortitude, imagination, practicality, humour? She struggled with serious auto-immune disorders, alcoholism and depression throughout her life, but only death (theirs and hers, eventually) cut the ties with the very people who had been part of that traumatic childhood. Travisano quotes “a momentous declaration that would color her entire future,” from a 16 October 1916 letter to Bradley: “We live but once and I’m going to live!” Bravo to this fifteen-year-old to know her goal so early. I’d say this declaration was the exceptionalism in her adolescent mind-set. I don’t remember believing that I could “live!” like that. But I do remember how important writing was to me at fifteen. It clearly was Bishop’s saving grace and bless Louise Bradley for coming along.

On page 204, Travisano writes of Bishop’s “resistance to hearing praise of her work.” His reasoning goes: “Perhaps the steady disapproval Bishop had absorbed from the Bishop side of her family, and the abuse from her uncle George, made her shrink from openly acknowledging or accepting the approval she earned from the distinctive quality of her work.” Perhaps this reasoning works, but as the declaration to Bradley above declares, Bishop would have given a lot for “understanding” – for that “approval.” Surely, a yearning that carried through her whole life. Bishop was insecure (shy, stage fright, suspicious and distrustful of men), but she was also certain of the “distinctive quality” of her work (Travisano shows this many times). She could even be a snob about inferior poetry, especially as an adolescent. Her own steady efforts to get her work published and her frustration when editors/publishers didn’t grasp her intentions (amply revealed in her correspondence with her New Yorker editors), shows an artist who did care about what others thought, even if that caring didn’t control her creative process and daily life.

Travisano makes much of the letters to Louise Bradley, as if suddenly, Bishop is a full-blown writer, as if these expressions burst forth unexpectedly. I wondered how someone so extremely isolated, confined and constrained for the first fourteen years of her life could launch such an exuberant and articulate correspondence. Travisano implies it was a kind of miracle. But remember that Bishop grew up in the 1910s and 1920s, a time when communication across space-time was still primarily words on paper. Telegraph and telephone existed but was not yet widely available. And there were certainly no computers! All around Bishop, the adults in her life wrote letters. Taking to this form of communication and expression was entirely natural, especially for someone as precocious as Bishop. She embraced letter writing and made full use of it, but she was not unique, even if she was more poetically gifted than the average person. The letters to Bradley might have been her first sustained correspondence with a friend, but that she could embark on it so vividly suggests she was primed for it.

THE BULMERS (Gammie and Pa)

On page 9 Travisano quotes Bishop: “My maternal grandparents were, some of them, Tories, who left upper N.Y. state and were given land grants in Nova Scotia by George III.” Bishop obviously cannot have “some” maternal grandparents. We all only have two. The sentence before this one, in the letter to Anne Stevenson from which it comes, reads: “I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander – I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war [1770s].” Clearly, Bishop is talking about great-great-grandparents (of whom we all have many). Her error is not so silly in this full context – she just forgot to type the “great.” She means ancestors, not William and Elizabeth Bulmer.

On page 12, Travisano lists William and Elizabeth Bulmer’s remaining children (not Gertrude), Maude, Arthur, Grace and Mary, and “Another sister, Lizzy, died stillborn.” I have seen the stone for this infant in Mahon Cemetery in Great Village. There is no given name on it. It was their first child, 1 August 1872. I would like to know his source for this name, but none is given. It was common to give the first child the name of the parent, but why nickname a child that did not draw breath? The Bulmer’s last child also received her mother’s name: Mary Elizabeth Bulmer.

Travisano offers a read of “First Death in Nova Scotia” on pages 21-2, noting that, as revealed on the “small, heart-shaped stone,” the real infant, Frank Elwood, died in June 1915, at odds with the winter setting of the poem. He wonders: “What is impossible to know for certain, from this distance, is whether Bishop misremembered the name of her infant cousin, or the season of his death, or both – or whether she deliberately altered these details to create a more effective poem.” There are two heart-shaped stones in the Bulmer plot in the Mahon Cemetery. One is for Frank Elwood, the other is for his sister Dorothy Elwood, who died on 4 January 1909 at the age of six months. Though born and dead before Bishop existed, Bishop knew Dorothy’s stone as intimately as Frank’s. Perhaps it is not so hard to imagine that Bishop conflated these infants. Travisano has seen these stones, but clearly forgot that there are two and the information on them. And surely Bishop did not forget the name of her infant cousin, but felt “Arthur” was a much better name (a more regal one) than Frank!
(Dorothy Elwood on the left; Frank Elwood on the right.)


On page 37, Travisano writes, “Bishop’s sixteen-year-old aunt Mary was the child of her grandparents’ old age.” This observation made me smile. Mary was born in 1900. Elizabeth Bulmer was 50 years old. Mary was undoubtedly a surprise, but the Bulmers lived for another thirty years, by which time Mary was herself married and beginning her family. If 50 is an advanced age for a woman to have a child, by the same token, it was not unheard of in an era when large families were much more common than they are today. If fifty is old age, then Travisano and I are true elders.

On page 91, Travisano writes: “Bishop’s family life continued to be a challenge as she approached her final year at Walnut Hill [1929-1930]. Her Bishop grandparents had died in 1923. Bishop’s now quite elderly Bulmer grandparents had moved away to Montreal to be cared for by their daughter Mary, so for the first time in years, Bishop did not make her annual summer trip to Great Village following her stay at Camp Chequesset.” Bishop’s last visit to Great Village before her maternal grandparents died was the Christmas/New Year holiday of 1929-1930. In February 1930 her beloved Pa died. Gammie is the one who went to Montreal later that year. Bishop visited Montreal in the spring of 1930, where she saw her grandmother for the last time. Elizabeth Bulmer died there in April 1931.

THE HUTCHINSONS

George W. Hutchinson, Bishop’s great-uncle, is mentioned three times in Travisano’s book. On page 14 he writes that “although she ‘never knew him’,” two of his paintings “would figure in two notable Bishop poems.” At that point, he does not name them, but describes George as “a then-popular artist and illustrator.” (14) On page 54 he mentions “Poem,” which he describes as “a small good picture dashed off ‘in an hour, “in one breath,”’,” by her great-uncle, the artist George Hutchinson.” “Poem” and “Large Bad Picture,” the second of these poems, appear on page 343. He can’t help but repeat the “Small Good Picture” phrase, attributing it to “visitors to Bishop’s apartment” at Lewis Wharf where the painting hung in the 1970s. He also repeats the fact that “Bishop never had the opportunity to meet” him, which is technically not correct (she did have an opportunity in the 1930s but did not avail herself of it). He then describes George as “a prolifically published professional book illustrator.” He then gives a descriptive read of “Poem” (343-5). While not suggesting Travisano give George the entire chapter that I give him in Lifting Yesterday, it would have been nice to have had even a note offering more background for this significant relative, about whom Bishop knew quite a lot. She also knew quite a lot about his brothers, John Robert Hutchinson (a writer, translator and antiquarian) and William Bernard Hutchinson (the first student of Acadia University to become its president, also a writer, scholar and translator). Bishop placed her wanderlust firmly at the feet of these globe-trotting great-uncles. Moreover, Bishop herself painted and translated. As for “Large Bad Picture,” Travisano could have seen an image of what he calls “the technically inept bad picture” (why amplify Bishop’s more succinct, clearer judgement?) on this blog. He does concede it was “an early work,” but that qualification does not redeem it, and neither, apparently, does Bishop’s wonderful poem about it. He could have explained that this painting was done when George was a young man, before his time at the Royal Academy in London.
(Large Bad Picture painting.)
THE BISHOPS

I appreciated the background of “Bishop’s father’s family, the Bishops of Worcester” (9), especially of John W. Bishop, Sr., her paternal grandfather. Travisano affords JWB’s rise to prominence a couple of pages and takes pains to link his success in the construction business to Bishop’s artistic abilities. A fair enough effort, I suppose; but JWB’s effect on Bishop’s life operated most directly in the realm of finances, when he became conservator to Gertrude and guardian of Bishop in 1914. On page 9, Travisano writes, “John W. was born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1846. At that time, PEI was a colony of the British Empire. Canada became a nation only in 1867.

I was also grateful for the information about William Thomas Bishop, Bishop’s father, and especially the photograph of him, which I had never seen before. So little is known about him and the portrait Travisano sketches is sympathetic. I was disappointed that Travisano chose to quote only a fragment of a letter that William wrote to his in-laws a few days after Bishop was born (12), the fragment that Brett Millier quotes. (3) This letter is extant at Vassar and is the only “voice” for him that we have. It is a document Bishop kept her entire life, and undoubtedly treasured it. The subject of the quotation Travisano uses is lactation, but there is so much more in this letter.

On page 125, Travisano notes the death of John W. Bishop Jr. (Uncle Jack), who took over guardianship for Bishop from his father when senior died in 1923. Jack died in October 1934, not long after Gertrude. He observes that “her only surviving elder Bishop relative was her ever-critical aunt Florence.” (An aside: Travisano describes Bishop’s aunts variously as “captious” (84), “carping” (93) and here “critical” (125) – while these characterizations are dispersed through the text, it does set up a strongly negative view of them.) Then Travisano makes an extraordinary claim about Florence. She “had recently spent time at the Austen Riggs sanatorium in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for what appears to have been bipolar disorder and who was now running a bookshop in Stockbridge on her doctor’s advice.” He gives no source for this information. It struck me forcefully, for he also claims that Gertrude “might” have suffered from the same thing. Poor Bishop, bipolar disorder on both sides. Since there is a genetic component to this disorder, Bishop’s genetic cards were stacked against her. How did she escape it? Did Florence have any more episodes of this cyclical, recurring condition? Bishop often mentions Florence in her letters to Aunt Grace in the 1950s and 1960s. Grace had known Florence for a long time. Bishop passed on the stories about Florence’s behaviours that came from her Bishop cousins. By the late 50s and early 60s Florence struggled with some form of dementia and was often in nursing homes, but Bishop does not indicate at any point in these letters that Florence was manic-depressive (as bi-polar disorder was called then).

GRACE BULMER BOWERS

This aunt comes in for much more sympathetic treatment by Travisano, not “captious” or “carping” or “critical,” but rather “alert, kind, levelheaded, keenly intelligent, and more openly communicative than any of her other relatives on either the Bishop or the Bulmer side.” (26) She warrants almost as many positive adjectives as Lota. (239-40) On page 50 he states, “Grace continued to be involved in the oversight of Gertrude’s care in Nova Scotia.” Besides an odd usage of the word “oversight,” this claim is not entirely accurate. Gertrude was in the NSH from June 1916 to May 1934. Grace, who was a nurse, kept in contact with the hospital on behalf of the family in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The hospital file contains letters from her to the hospital authorities; but as the years passed, the family gave up hope and remained in touch only in a minimal way. Grace was busy with her career and then marriage to William Bowers in 1923 (a widower with six children and a big farm) and began having her own children in 1929.

Although he often mentions the people Bishop wrote to and indicates if those letters survive or were destroyed, Travisano does not mention the hundreds of letters that Bishop wrote to Grace, which are at Vassar College. He quotes from these letters only once. Nor does he mention Grace’s death in 1977, just a couple of weeks before Lowell died. Bishop called Grace “the last real Bulmer” and her death severed a bond that had endured Bishop’s entire life.

PLACES

On page 110, Travisano writes: “Then, in August 1932, Bishop embarked on a walking tour of Newfoundland with classmate Evelyn Huntington.” The paragraph he devotes to this unusual choice of destination gives not the slightest indication why Bishop would go there – her first major trip as an adult. In the 1930s, Newfoundland was still a British colony (it did not become part of Canada until 1947). It was not the tourist mecca it is today. Indeed, at that time, it was a neglected colonial society struggling with poverty. Yet Bishop loved being there, writing to Frani Blough: “This place is far beyond my fondest dreams. The cliffs rise straight out of the sea 400-500 feet.” (111) Travisano mentions the journal she kept but quotes nothing of significance from it. What does it say about Bishop that at twenty-one she ventured to such a place (no easy feat) and loved it? Might she have been seeking the land that Great-uncle George visited in the 1870s, a “large bad” depiction of which hung in her grandparents’ home. Given his bent for definitive statements, this trip warrants not even a slight speculation.

Bishop returned alone to Nova Scotia in 1946, after a sixteen-year absence. She spent time in Lockeport, Halifax and Great Village. She also visited Nova Scotia in 1947 with Marjorie Stevens and spent time in Cape Breton and Great Village. In Cape Breton she stayed in Breton Cove, which Travisano spells Briton Cove – not a typo because it is found three times on pages 194-5.

On page 210, Travisano quotes from a letter May Swenson wrote to Polly Hanson, that Bishop was “in good health … she herself says she is as strong as a horse … maybe like one of those sturdy little Nova Scotian ponies.” What Swenson means is a Sable Island horse (which many outsiders called ponies, like the one Aunt Grace had on the farm in Great Village). This slight comment is the only oblique mention of Sable Island in Travisano’s book. Bishop went to Sable Island in the summer of 1951, just before leaving for South America. This trip, like the one to Newfoundland in 1932, was triggered by ancestral connections, this time her Great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson. Bishop also intended to write an article about this place for The New Yorker – something her editor Katharine White keenly wanted. Bishop never finished “The Deadly Sandpile,” but intended to for some time, even after Brazil intervened. Again, a biographer can’t include everything, but even Brett Millier understood its importance. Might this trip (again no easy feat to get there) have warranted a sentence?

Bishop finally settled for good in Boston and began teaching at Harvard in 1970. One of the first things she did was visit Nova Scotia, and she went back again, often in the fall for a week or so, nearly every year during that decade. Her final visit was in May 1979, when Dalhousie University gave her an honorary degree. She died in October. There is no mention, not even a note, of any of this re-connection.

LETTERS

Travisano not only mines Bishop’s ample correspondence (her letters are perhaps the single largest source in his book, naturally enough, as Bishop wrote thousands of them), but he also speaks to this correspondence as a unique phenomenon and mentions when letters have vanished or were destroyed. It seems to me that a whole study could be done of “Bishop the Letter-Writer.” A hint of what might be possible is found in Letter Writing Among Poets from William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop (2015), edited by Jonathan Ellis, in which Travisano has an essay about his editing of Words in Air (2008), the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell.

Besides the Bradley letters, other significant correspondence Travisano mines, which was not available to Brett Millier, Gary Fountain, me and all the other scholars and literary critics writing before the 2010s are the long letter to Dr. Ruth Foster, letters from Lota de Macedo Soares written in 1967, and letters to and from Alice Methfessel from the 1970s. I speak to the Foster letter in the section on Maude and George. I have yet to finish reading the letters to and from Lota, from a transcript done by David Hoak, but what I have seen so far is poignant. I have not seen the letters to and from Alice, but it is clear from Travisano’s quotations, they were tender and vivid. After Lota died and Bishop’s failed relationship with Roxanne Cumming, her partnership with Alice was, as she put it, a “saving grace.” On page 325-6, Travisano writes: “In fact, these words [“I LOVE YOU!”] in full caps appeared frequently in the missives flooding Bishop’s mailbox at Casa Mariana. After the fraught relationships Bishop had recently experienced with Lota de Macedo Soares and Roxanne Cumming, this new and warmly affectionate bond with the young Alice Methfessel must have come not only as an overwhelming relief but as an overpowering surprise.” It is not that I disagree with Travisano here, but surely linking Lota and Roxanne thusly (one relationship of over fifteen years and one of only about two years) is unfair to Lota. Yes, the end of that partnership was tragic and painful, but the context for it was far deeper, greater, more enduring and tragic than the relationship with Roxanne. We are each entitled to our opinion, but Travisano often makes strong declarations – that “must” again – which gloss over serious complexity.

On pages 332-3, Travisano writes about Bishop’s love of  “the epistolary form.” Throughout the book, he makes observations about the quantity and quality of Bishop’s letter-writing, and the remarkable range of correspondents. He mentions some of the published collections of her letters that have already appeared. More are in the works. At one point, he concludes, “So in teaching a course on ‘just letters, as an art form or something,’ at Harvard in 1971, Bishop was anticipating a trend.” “Trend” strikes me as an odd term for what is perhaps an extraordinary phenomenon. Few other mid-century writers are an equal to Bishop’s practice of this “art form.” Travisano is never averse to using strong adjectives, such as “great” and “remarkable” and “brilliant” to describe Bishop’s writing achievements; but Bishop wasn’t prescient, she was simply practicing and teaching a genre which had been part of the world around her, essential to her gestalt. It is us who have lost this art and in reading her, we re-discovered what she knew all along, that letter writing was a vital and necessary part of life.

SOURCE

On page 15 Travisano states categorically of Gertrude’s hospital file that they were “records whose content Bishop would never see.” He repeats this “never” claim on pages 26, 50 and 183-4; but does not provide a source for this assertion. In 1946, on her first trip back to Nova Scotia after a sixteen-year absence, Bishop asked her friend Zilpha Linkletter, a bureaucrat, how she might get access to these records. Zilpha advised her, but she told me that she never asked Bishop the result. Zilpha told Gary Fountain (Remembering Elizabeth Bishop) that “she [Bishop] didn’t say it had been a failure.” (100) Unless Travisano has another source that confirms her effort was “unsuccessful” (183), claiming absolutely that it was is over-stepping. The best we can say, to my knowledge, is that perhaps she saw them, or perhaps she did not. It is highly probable that she visited the Nova Scotia Hospital in 1946. I must correct Travisano’s name for this institution. He refers to it officially as the “Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane,” which is how it is listed in the book’s index and occasionally in the text (though he also shortens it to the Nova Scotia Hospital and in one instance the Dartmouth Hospital). It was officially the “Nova Scotia Hospital,” as confirmed by the annual reports of its superintendent to the Nova Scotia Legislature. It was also referred to as Mount Hope.

On page 29 Travisano refers to “Reminiscences of Great Village,” which he says Bishop worked on in 1936. I suggest in Lifting Yesterday that she had been working on this account of her childhood as early as 1934 (she mentions it in a letter to Frani Blough). This title is not Bishop’s, but a file title given to the document by the archivist at Vassar College.

On page 32, Travisano writes: “When ‘In the Village’ first appeared in The New Yorker in 1953, it was attentively read and actively discussed in Great Village. Several neighbors recollected Mate Fisher, the village smith, and his affinity for children, and for the young Elizabeth in particular.” What is the source for these statements? I assume Remembering Elizabeth Bishop. I learned from Donalda Nelson that her sister Margaret Motley, living in New York City in the 50s, saw “In the Village” and sent a copy back to Great Village. Decades later Donalda generously gave me that very copy. Bishop was especially concerned about what Grace thought, so a copy was sent to her. It, however, no longer exists. Travisano is so specific here, I wonder where he learned about the memories of Mayhew (Mate/Nate for Bishop) T. Fisher? Fisher was still very much alive and living in Bass River in the 1950s. Indeed, he died in the 1970s, in his 90s, not long before Bishop. I met his daughter (also now deceased) who told me about her father: how he would recite poetry and sing while at his forge, and how whenever she stopped in after school, he always paused to talk with her and find out how she was doing.

CITATIONS

The general reader probably doesn’t care a bit about sources and citations, but any scholar reading this book will be keen about them. Having been kindly mentioned in the acknowledgements that my “expertise on Bishop’s early years in Nova Scotia is unparalleled,” imagine my surprise to come across the only time I am quoted, on page 22, and to see that it is from the very first essay I ever published about Bishop in the Nova Scotia Historical Review in 1991. While I stand by what I wrote then, it was at the very beginning of my research about Bishop and Nova Scotia, and since then, a good deal of its content has been expanded upon significantly. I am cited once again on page 38, but it is for a quotation from the Truro Daily News. My article offered a preliminary chronology of Bishop’s time in N.S. based on information from that newspaper. Curiously, there are two more quotations from this newspaper on page 38, but Travisano does not cite my essay further. I say curiously because there are instances when he cites every quotation from the same source that are immediately sequential. For example, on pages 26-8, he quotes four times from Gertrude’s hospital file, a section he calls “Statement.” Notes 8 to 11 are all this statement (without page numbers). But then, there will be instances when he will not cite any source for information that clearly he has extracted from some place. In the end, I was puzzled by his citation method.

In Note 28, page 394, he writes: “The Dartmouth [sic: Nova Scotia] Hospital’s ‘Clinical Record’ is now on file in the Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds at the library [sic: archives] at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.” Actually, the archives holds only a photocopy of this record.

CODA

The final chapter in Travisano’s book deals with Bishop’s legacy and the steady build-up of interest in the decades since she died. He mentions the founding of the Elizabeth Bishop Society and lists the initial conferences/symposia that happened: Key West Literary Seminar (1993), Vassar College conference (1994) and the Elizabeth Bishop Conference and Poetry Festival in Worcester, MA (1997). C’est tout. Even if he didn’t want to list others that followed (in Wolfville, N.S. (1998); Ouro Prêto, Brazil (1999); Halifax, N.S. (2011); Sheffield, England; Paris, France; North Haven, Maine; and more), might he just have indicated that such events have continued into the twenty-first century? But all of these are outside the U.S., which would distract from the American agenda of this book. He mentions a CBS News Sunday Morning feature about Bishop done in 1994, but he does not mention the inaugural documentary done for PBS’s “Voices and Visions” series in the late 1980s. This documentary is cited in the notes (7, 25, 26, 33) for Chapter 6. (396-7) This documentary certainly would have bolstered the argument for Bishop as an American poet. A feature film has been done, “Reaching for the Moon,” by the Brazilians; and the late film-maker Barbara Hammer did the most recent documentary, “Welcome to this House.” The truncated lists he offers are another puzzling element in this book.

MISCELLANEOUS QUIBBLES

On page 18, Travisano notes, “Such travel, whether by rail or via a direct ferry service between Boston and Yarmouth … was considered easy and commonplace in those days…” Those days are the 1910s and 1920s. The sea route mentioned was not served by a “ferry” at that time, but by a steamship. Ferries are a mid- to late-20th century vessel.

On page 20, Travisano quotes from Gertrude’s hospital file, “…then sent to Dr. Morton’s private Sanatorium, Norwood, Mass.” The doctor is Dr. Eben C. Norton. If Travisano had consulted Lifting Yesterday, he would not have made this error.

On page 38, Travisano writes of the Great Village School, “Bishop’s was not a one-room schoolhouse – there were several classrooms on the first two stories of this tall, wood-framed building.” This phrasing implies this building had more than two stories. It has only two stories. Even so, it is an impressive structure.

On page 70, Travisano quotes Bishop writing to Louise Bradley on 30 March 1926: “Dearest of all dear Kindred Spirits.” (70) I guess being male, Travisano doesn’t recognize this phrase for what it is and where it comes from, meaning that Bishop had clearly read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908. By the late 20s, its protagonist, Anne Shirley, had already become the most famous cultural icon of a precocious orphan girl, living with strangers on Prince Edward Island, making life-long friends at school. Travisano does have a sense of the importance of this phrase because he uses it himself on page 82. This phrase is perhaps the only direct reference to this classic in Bishop’s writing, but perhaps indirectly, there is a hint in “The Gentleman of Shallot.” Anne Shirley loves “The Lady of Shallott,” and while Bishop could have come upon Tennyson’s classic solitary woman on her own, she perhaps was sent there by Montgomery. All this is speculation, of course, and I don’t suppose noting the origin of this phrase matters much, but Travisano contextualizes other seemingly slight echoes and convergences.

On a couple of occasions, Travisano invokes Calvinism and Puritanism, applying them in negative ways to the Bulmers and Bishops. On page 82-3 he writes: “Yet Bishop’s social difference – born not only out of her history of childhood isolation and abuse but also out of the Calvinist reticence or taciturnity of her Bishop and Bulmer forebearers [sic: forebears] ….” On page 221: “Bishop who had felt so often deprived of tender care during her loss-haunted Calvinist childhood ….” Then on page 243: “Having lived among the tight-lipped Puritans of her Bishop and Bulmer families ….” The only definition he offers for Calvinism comes on page 142, in a read of George Herbert’s poem “Love Unknown,” from whence comes his title: “This interpretation is consistent with the Calvinist view that God visits the most intense trials as acts of grace on those he wishes most to save ….” Calvinism and Puritanism are huge, complex movements that may or may not have affected the Baptist faith as practiced by the Bulmers and the Congregationalist faith as practiced by the Bishops. Travisano uses these terms as negative stereotypes, in a colloquial way: Calvinists and Puritans are repressed, silent, punishing, even abusive people. The Baptist faith that the Bulmers practiced was one deeply enlightened about the importance and value of education, not the anti-intellectual, ultra-conservative practice that can sometimes be seen in some sects of the Baptist faith today, say, for example, in the southern United States. Bishop’s Great-uncle William Bernard Hutchinson was an accomplished scholar of Baptist history and was the first graduate of Acadia University (founded as a Baptist college in the nineteenth century) to become its president. John Bishop Sr was certainly no Puritan descendent, having migrated from PEI in the mid-1800s. William Bishop had an open, homely, inclusive kind of faith, since he also worshiped at the Presbyterian Church in Great Village. Travisano uses these terms to disparage the belief systems of two families which had their own complex beliefs and practices.

On page 100, Travisano notes, “Beneath the intent profile [of her class picture at Walnut Hill], and that Shelleyan motto [‘The locks of the approaching storm.’], Bishop’s native place is given as Great Village, Nova Scotia.” I was delighted to see this because I had not known about it, but I wondered why he did not include the Walnut Hill class prophecy for Bishop, which Gary Fountain (Remembering Elizabeth Bishop) found decades before: “Miss Bishop, the poet laureate of Nova Scotia. Walnut Hill has proudly placed her bust in the alcove, while she remains in Nova Scotian seclusion.” Bishop continued to identify her “native place” as Great Village under her Vassar College yearbook photo in 1934. Why mention one thing and not the other, even if only in a note?

I am not knowledgeable enough about Bishop’s life in Brazil to speak to factual accuracy or interpretation. What I know comes from secondary sources. But I did wonder about a term Travisano uses to describe the people surrounding Lota de Macedo Soares. On page 241 he writes: “Macedo Soares … depended on a shifting assemblage of domestics, while also gathering around her a varied array of adoptees and hangers-on who amounted almost to surrogate family.” He repeats “hangers-on” on this page and then again on page 253. It strikes me as a somewhat disparaging term for her “surrogate family.”

On page 248, Travisano offers a read of “Gwendolyn,” about a Great Village childhood friend who died young from diabetes. He writes: “But long after Gwendolyn’s death, one of her surviving brothers, who had read Bishop’s story, insisted his parents had no idea that sugar was a danger to individuals with diabetes. This seems quite probable, since the risks of sugar for diabetics was only just becoming known in the early 1920s, and the pioneering research on these risks was taking place at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Bishop’s mother and aunts had trained as nurses.” No source is given for the brother’s comments, but they are from Remembering Elizabeth Bishop. (11) Intending no disrespect to the pioneering work at MGH about the danger of too much sugar for diabetics, but it was a Canadian team at the University of Toronto, including Frederick G.Banting and Charles Best, that discovered insulin in 1921. Gwendolyn died in September 1922, sadly too soon for the ground-breaking discovery to have helped her.

On page 331, Travisano describes Bishop’s trip to the Galápagos Islands in 1971, where she encountered “mother seals” showing “off their babies to the island visitors.” Travisano brings in “At the Fishhouses” with its hymn-loving seal that “had shared silent colloquies each evening” during Bishop’s Nova Scotia trip in 1947. “Now, in these much warmer waters, Bishop enjoyed casually sharing the beach with an entire pod of equatorial mother seals and their offspring.” Whales collect in “pods”; seals in “herds.”

Sometimes Travisano’s characterizations of people or places or poems puzzled me. For example, on page 356, he observes that “The End of March” “is a very different poem from the astringent ‘Crusoe in England’ or ‘In the Waiting Room’.” What a strange term to apply to a poem. I looked it up. My Concise Oxford gives the first definition as “causing the contraction of body tissues.” The second definition is “checking bleeding.” The third is “severe, austere.” How is “Crusoe in England” any of these things? And does he also mean “In the Waiting Room,” too? The syntax might suggest it. Both these poems are filled with vivid detail and while they are serious, with bursts of humour, they are not severe or austere. There are other such characterizations that puzzled me, but this one makes my point.

On page 361, Travisano writes: “In the 1960s, in Rio, Bishop had lived near the epicenter of a tumultuous era of Brazilian politics …” Is it just me, or is this something of a mixed metaphor?

On page 369, in offering a read of “One Art,” Travisano writes: “alternating positions at the end of each three-line stanza, carry us willy-nilly through the entire length of the poem.” As the read progresses, he writes: “Henceforth, the poem’s catalog of losses become more specific, and more personal.” I have never encountered such an odd juxtaposition of the colloquial phrasing with formal style. Moreover, it seems to me that the poem is advancing in a very specific way, not “willy-nilly,” that is, randomly, at all.

One of the saddest losses for Bishop in the 1970s was Robert Lowell’s unexpected death in August 1977. Travisano discusses this event and Bishop’s tender, aching poem “North Haven,” her tribute to Lowell. Lowell was known as in inveterate reviser, which prompts Travisano to write: “Perhaps the ultimate revision we as humans face is death itself ….” (376). “Perhaps”? Isn’t it a certainty?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019



"Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas.  The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones."

 [from "At the Fishhouses."]

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Pocket of Time noticed on 49th Shelf site

Emma FitzGerald has just sent a link to a site called 49th Shelf -- to their pick of 2019 children's books they loved. Scroll down the page to see their notice of A Pocket of Time. Great to see this wonderful book receiving notice among those who know books for young readers. Congratulations Rita, Emma and Nimbus.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

More photos from the launch of A POCKET OF TIME in Great Village

Emma FitzGerald, illustrator of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop, sent along these photos of the launch on 8 December. I'm delighted to share them with you.
(Awaiting the audience.)
(The gathering.)
(A book "selfie" -- the pantry.)
(On the verandah.)
(In the Village.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Pocket of Time goes to Colchester school libraries

The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia is donating copies of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop to several Colchester County schools: Great Village Elementary, West Colchester Consolidated, Chiganois Elementary and Debert Elementary. Laurie Gunn has sent me these photos of the copies in question. Nice to see the book is already receiving some attention in the local press (check out the link in the News section.) Rita Wilson and Emma FitzGerald had a day with the students at Great Village Elementary School yesterday. I am sure Rita and Emma will be visiting more schools with this enchanting and important book.
(signed by the authors)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Great Village launch of A POCKET OF TIME

On Sunday, 8 December, at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S., Rita Wilson and Emma FitzGerald launched A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Great Village. I wish I could have been there, but it was not possible. Laurie Gunn kindly sent me some photos of the event, which looks like it was a grand time. I know for certain that the house itself would have loved all that company, all those wonderful people celebrating Bishop's time there. Thanks, Laurie, for sharing some glimpses of the event.
(Rita reading in the dining room.)
(Emma talking about her illustrations.
Meredith Layton listens.)
(Many folks gathered to listen.)
(An enlargement of one of Emma's images.)
(Lisa from Woozles selling books.)
(Rita signing. Thanks Rita for seeing this book
through to its beautiful conclusion. Now the fun begins.
Today in Great Village, Rita and Emma are spending
time with the children at the GV School.)