poem index

Elizabeth Bishop's 'New' Poems

Written by

Lloyd Schwartz
Contributor Page

Year

2007

I was teaching a graduate course on Elizabeth Bishop this fall, and it was the first time I actually had the opportunity to include the poems, drafts, and fragments that Alice Quinn has made available in her now deliciously controversial collection, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. An issue that always comes up in teaching Bishop is the question of her range. This volume now extends her range of subjects to include poems that contend with such central issues in her life as her sexuality, her age, her drinking, her politics, her mother's mental breakdown, her decision to live in Brazil, the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares—subjects she barely or rarely touched on directly in the poems she published.

It's the poems about love and sexuality—written in Key West, in Brazil, and in Cambridge—that I find especially revealing. The best known, "It is marvellous to wake up together," written in Key West, depicts a situation similar to the later, more cryptic "Rain Towards Morning," the second of a little suite called "Four Poems." (I once asked Bishop about its elliptical syntax and she answered "But it's obvious!") Both poems share the quasi-surrealistic image of rain forming a kind of cage that finally releases the awakening lovers. Another Key West poem, "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," an important poem to Bishop, she evidently never quite finished to her satisfaction. Maybe she couldn't figure out how to complete the connection between the polarities in her title. It's an ambitious, complexly fragmented, speculative poem about cruising a Key West bar. Later, we find her wrestling with, and using similar language in, the even more startlingly homo-erotic and explicit "Vague Poem."

But several other love poems are quite finished. Bishop left in Brazil two copies of a gorgeous poem beginning "Dear, my compass / still points north"—one handwritten and one typed, both elaborately illuminating its images with watercolors of hayloft, fourposter bed, goose, and swan in the margins. It's an extraordinarily physical poem, and the only poem that has come to light in which she weighs her decision to live in Brazil against the pull of her northern ancestry and temperament (a world of "wooden houses / and blue eyes," where "Springs are backward" and "crab-apples / ripen to rubies{C}"), and sees the cold, fairy-tale North from the point of view of the warm South—a subject that also comes into play in her story "Memories of Uncle Neddy," in which the arrival in rainy Rio of old family portraits of her mother and uncle as children trigger memories of her own childhood in Nova Scotia. Then suddenly the end of the poem takes a surprising erotic turn.

—Cold as it is, we'd
go to bed, dear,
early, but never
to keep warm.

Another love poem Bishop wrote in Brazil—"Close close all night / the lovers keep"—has survived as a lithograph her friend, the Brazilian artist José Alberto Nemer, gave to his wife for their wedding. Maybe a slighter version of "The Shampoo," it's an elegant and witty celebration of physical intimacy between lovers who are:

Close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

One masterpiece in this new collection is "Breakfast Song," a late lyric in Bishop's most heartbreakingly direct style (the generation of "In the Waiting Room" and "One Art"). Bishop wrote numerous morning-after poems but this is one of the happiest—and one of the saddest. It's filled with the melancholy intuition of her time running out. She's much older than her lover, so she feels Death as an immediate prospect; which makes their lovemaking all the more poignant (I think of the end of Shakespeare's autumnal Sonnet 73: "This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long"). Or Keats's "Ode on Melancholy": where the grape of Joy, in order to be tasted most fully, must be crushed. Here, the love that Bishop says saves her ("my saving grace") becomes the very source of her greatest fear—that it can't last.

Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you

These finished poems create a real puzzle. Bishop was desperate to publish more poems. Love was always a subject for her, from as early as her school days. Yet she published very few of her love poems. Why—I asked my students to speculate, as do I—did she choose not to publish "Close close all night," "Dear, my compass," or "Breakfast Song"; or decide to drop "Exchanging Hats," a playful poem about cross-dressing and sexual identity, which she worked hard on and published in a magazine but never re-published in a book? Did she feel they were just too private to expose to a wider public? Was she embarrassed by their sexual frankness—even as late as the 1970s? Or, given her nervousness about these subjects, or the simplicity of her language, did she just underestimate how good these poems are?