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

Monday, March 21, 2022

Review: “Elizabeth Bishop in Context: Glimpsing (and Holding) the Poet’s Messy Universe” by Tristan Beach


How far back do you go to find the sources of a writer’s life and work? To ancestry and community? To family and childhood? To education and experience? … Art is, probably, created somewhere in the messy middle… it was so for Elizabeth Bishop, who described life as an ‘untidy activity’ (Sandra Barry, “Chapter 1: Nova Scotia” 17) 

Elizabeth Bishop in Context, edited by Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis, is a groundbreaking, comprehensive collection of essays that penetrates and reveals numerous facets of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and legacy—observed within and across different contexts. Cleghorn and Ellis write in their introduction, “Contexts do not provide all of the answers to the many questions her poems and stories ask. In some cases, it feels as if they make things messier… What happens when one context contradicts the other? Which context matters more? Why these contexts and not others?” (2). Cleghorn and Ellis do not attempt to answer these questions; rather, they let the collection speak for itself. And, as Sandra Barry notes in her chapter on Nova Scotia quoted above, like “Art,” this collection takes its readers “somewhere in the messy middle,” offering numerous overlapping, contrary, and highly unique ways of seeing, and reading into, the person, poet, philosopher, critic, artist, correspondent, and teacher that was Elizabeth Bishop (17). 

Structuring the Collective

The thirty-five essays comprising the volume were penned by a global collective of scholars, translators, poets, critics, editors, and admirers. Each essay bears a chapter title corresponding with its respective context, and each context is grouped with other similar contexts under a related thematic section. For instance, Part II. “Forms,” contains chapters on literary, visual, and epistolary genres as contexts such as “Lyric Poetry” by Gillian White and “Translation” by Mariana Machová. Likewise, Part V. “Identity,” includes the contexts of social constructs, such as “Gender” by Deryn Rees-Jones and Eira Murphy, as well as the rich realm of symbols and the unconscious, such as “Dreams” by Bonnie Costello. 

These chapters provide nuanced ways of seeing Bishop’s life and legacy: glimpses into the mess that the editors and contributors each contend with. The chapters echo one another in their interpretations either by proximity (in their sequential chapter order) or by examining common primary sources, such as Bishop’s poems and letters—or by drawing on frequently cited criticism and biography. Through these common dimensions each contributor offers numerous similar contextualized frames for glimpsing Bishop. However, while these chapters briefly (few span beyond 12 pages long) resemble one another, many through their dissimilarity appear to enforce the messiness. Thus, collectively the contextualized glimpses of each chapter do not total, nor do they form, a singular image of the poet.

Where one chapter may trace the “apocalyptic threat” of WWII in “At the Fishhouses” (Charles Berger’s “War,” which finds in the poem’s “total immersion” a “dream-vision of the world sliding into extinction” 217), another chapter may note the same poem’s musicality and earthly humor (Christopher Spaide’s “Music,” in which the poem’s “total immersion” is identified as being “lifted” from “interdenominational debates over baptism” 239). Coincidentally, both chapters, despite operating from distinct contexts and even more distant interpretations of the same poetry, appear in the same section, Part IV. “Politics, Society and Culture.” Such separate, yet adjacent, thematically related readings of the same poetry, letters, prose, and other primary sources results in complex, nuanced visions of Bishop’s world—more accurately, her universe—that trend more towards complementing than contradicting.

 Contextualized Glimpses

Among the many contextualized glimpses in the collection are Bishop’s childhood detailed in Nova Scotia (Barry’s “Nova Scotia”), as well as her boisterous, troubled years in Brazil—the literary legacy there being politically mired (Neil Besner’s “Brazil,” Machová’s “Translation,” Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins’s “Brazilian Literature”). Other glimpses can be found in Part III.’s “Literary Contexts,” which includes romanticism, surrealism, modernism, among others. These chapters detail Bishop’s encounters with the different movements, locating through hints or outright declarations in her letters and poems her resistance, dismissal, or embrace of such movements. Also of note is her ambivalence toward psychoanalysis due to several instances of failed psychotherapy as a child but followed by her captivating and complicated friendship with her psychoanalyst, Dr. Ruth Foster (Lorrie Goldensohn’s “Psychoanalysis”). Such ambivalence, typical of Bishop who knowingly held opposites, can be seen in her apolitical public stances yet personal anti-fascist sentiment captured in Berger’s “War,” Steven Gould Axelrod’s “The Cold War,” and Jeffrey Gray’s “Travel.”

These multiple contextualized glimpses into the mess of Bishop’s universe present us with a person whose global influence extends beyond categorization, taking root in our imagination, as Stephanie Burt examines in “Bishop’s Influence,” in Part VI. “Reception and Criticism.” Burt charts Bishop’s far-flung influence—in poetic form, device, attention, subject, and obsession—on American poetry in the 21st century. Just as Bishop’s influence is extensive and her apparent literary descendants numerous, her figure, too, appears multiple, as a collective: we glimpse through Elizabeth Bishop in Context the individual Bishops, the many faces of Bishop that populates this universe. Bishop the social critic, Bishop the alcoholic, Bishop the loyal friend, Bishop the survivor of abuse, Bishop the patient, Bishop the lover.

 Common, Complex Facets

One common facet among many glimpsed across contexts is Bishop’s queerness, which informed much of her attitudes, relationships, and resistance to literary categorization or being lumped into a single movement (she famously resisted being defined as a “woman poet” and disdained much being anthologized as such). As Axelrod notes in “The Cold War,” Bishop’s position as a queer woman cast her as an outsider to American society, vulnerable to McCarthyism through its rampant, homophobic persecution of sexual and gender minorities. Axelrod locates Bishop’s “binary thinking in the service of queer non-conformity” in her poem “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress” that castigates white, straight, heteropatriarchal nationalism that dominated the American political experience (223). Axelrod finds that although Bishop “had a ‘horror of Communism’,” her “skepticism toward democracy… reflects queer alienation at mid-century as well as forecasting later strains of liberal unease” (223, 224).

Where Bishop’s queerness underlay her political affiliations and attitudes, it also unpinned her complex relationships with other women and her conception of gender. From childhood to late adulthood, her life was enriched by a global network of female relations—aunts, teachers, mentors, students, friends, and partners. In Rees-Jones and Murphy’s “Gender,” the authors chart the impact of these relations on Bishop as a queer poet. They observe that, inspired by her own intimate relationships and with other women while navigating openly homophobic American society, Bishop’s view of gender was highly nuanced and less monolithic or stable. For instance, the authors describe North & South as “a book of sleepy disorientations; … a book which creates a world in which bodies are not fully assembling or coming together” (315). Here, Bishop resists fully, or at least consistently, gendering her speakers and, at times, their subjects—frequently encompassed in an gender neutral “we” (315).

Yet Bishop’s playful, queer explorations, reversals, and deflections of gender roles and norms are further complicated by her whiteness, which Rees-Jones and Murphy identify in poems such as “In the Waiting Room,” in which Bishop, “[setting] herself in a place of difference from the Black women in the National Geographic,” reproduces “hierarchies… in terms of race [that] risk constructing a racist narrative of difference, a narrative which continues in Bishop’s work” (320). Bishop’s politics, queerness, female relations, gender conceptions, and whiteness—however clearly glimpsed or carefully explained—nevertheless add many depths to the mess of her universe.

 Conclusion: Community in Bishop’s Universe

As individual readers of Elizabeth Bishop, we may investigate and grapple with the many faces and forms of Bishop. In solitude and with only the original work in our hands, our glimpses of the poet is ever elliptic, partial, and often outside a community of other ways of seeing. However, Elizabeth Bishop in Context attempts to corral the mess without containing or parsing it, despite the collection’s careful organization that resists a single, dominant gaze. By admitting multiple ways of envisioning Bishop and within a collection that covers an exhaustive (though not complete) amount of ground, we as solitary readers gain this community of thoughtful, incisive glimpses grounded in their respective contexts.

Elizabeth Bishop in Context adds a necessary volume to the steadily growing field of Bishop studies, a field whose community history Thomas Travisano narrates in his titular chapter, “Bishop Studies.” Like other recent volumes, including Bethany Hicok’s Elizabeth Bishop and the Literary Archive and Cleghorn’s own Elizabeth Bishop and the Music of Literature, Elizabeth Bishop in Context further elevates and legitimizes not just Bishop studies writ large but Bishop herself as a literary force worthy of study within and throughout multiple contexts. And as Travisano states in this community of scholars, students, readers, and teachers, “it was precisely by learning to read Bishop’s work in context that Bishop studies emerged as the steadily expanding and influential international field that we know today” (author’s emphasis 382). 

Tristan Beach is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his MFA in Poetry from Goddard College and a BA in English from Saint Martin’s University. He is a member of the board of directors for Olympia Poetry Network and is the poetry editor for Pif Magazine. His creative and critical writings have appeared in Pif, Conium Review, Shantih, The Pitkin Review, and elsewhere

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