Exile’s Return

Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It

by Brett C. Millier
University of California Press, 602 pp., $28.00

Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry

by Lorrie Goldensohn
Columbia University Press, 306 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity

by Joanne Feit Diehl
Princeton University Press, 119 pp., $17.95

Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell

by David Kalstone, edited by Robert Hemenway, afterword by James Merrill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 299 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Complete Poems, 1927–1979

by Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Collected Prose

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and with an introduction by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 8 pp., $12.95 (paper)


To one expecting a glamorous Famous Poet, the sight that first day of class dismayed: a small, white-haired woman, shy and weary, adorned with, of all things, a brooch. That winter and spring of 1977 in a basement room at Harvard, about a dozen of us met for Elizabeth Bishop’s weekly seminar on modern poetry, which consisted almost entirely of her reading aloud, in a dry drone, from the works of Frost, Stevens, and Moore.

Fools she suffered not at all; soon half the class was absent, and if she noticed, it could only have been with pleasure. One poor girl announced that she had read somewhere that Marianne Moore wasn’t a “feminist.” Miss Bishop replied: “My goodness, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all, do you?” Then after a pause, she growled, “Feminists!” We were all vaguely scandalized, and didn’t know whether she thought Moore was so obviously a feminist that one shouldn’t have to ask such a stupid question, or whether Miss Bishop (who, after all, did insist on the “Miss”) herself disliked feminists. Later I was to learn it was both.

We were often reminded to consult the dictionary. This excellent advice was “homely,” like so many other things about Miss Bishop, as well as droll. She could teach these Harvard smarties a thing or two. We wrote imitations of the poets under study, and she was especially taken with one student’s pastiche of Moore, a syllabically counted poem about a lizard. She read it to the class. “You got her tone exactly,” she said, handing it back to the beaming student, then added thoughtfully, “Of course it’s not nearly beautiful enough.”

At a recent session of the MLA, a speaker on the subject of biography proposed, jokingly, that there be a period of respectful mourning following a writer’s death before biographical work should begin—perhaps fifty years or so, “to give the ghost time to go away.” But it has only been fourteen years since Elizabeth Bishop’s death, and no such qualms have delayed the biographers. The number of studies of the poetry, the life, and the life-and-the-poetry are amazing—dozens of articles, and at least nine books at last count, including, most recently, Brett Millier’s exhaustive Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.

By now, the detailing of the poet’s life is nearly encyclopedic. Yet there’s not that much to astonish: love affairs between women and a tendency to drink too much thrill, perhaps, less than they once might have. Indeed, most artists’ lives shock only by virtue of their very dullness. James Merrill has written memorably of Bishop’s “life-long impersonations of an ordinary woman.” But one suspects that she was exactly that, an ordinary woman, no impersonation necessary—as well as, of course, an extraordinary poet.

Bishop was born in New England in 1911, lost her father to Bright’s disease when she was only eight months old, and then lived with a grieving and increasingly unhinged mother for the next five years. When her mother was permanently institutionalized—the diagnosis at the time was schizophrenia—Elizabeth was taken in by her maternal grandparents in the town of Great Village, Nova Scotia. By the time she was on scholarship at the Walnut School and then at Vassar in 1930, she felt herself to be homeless. The rest of her life was spent in travel, with long residences in New York, Key West, Brazil, and finally Boston.

She avoided the world of literary careers and literary feuds; what prizes and publications came her way did so often in spite of her prickliness and the slow pace of her work. Although Bishop’s oeuvre is relatively compact—fewer than a hundred mature works in The Complete Poems: 1927–1979, and only a handful of stories and essays gathered in The Collected Prose—it seems larger, because the poems grow in complexity and ambiguity upon rereading. But often Bishop felt that the slenderness of her work made her a failure. Meanwhile, contact with her fellow writers was confined largely to letters, especially with two of her closest friends, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell.

Given her decision to excuse herself from the literary world, the fashionable academic tendency of today to reclaim Elizabeth Bishop qua woman, even qua lesbian, would probably have struck her as both infuriating and funny. Millier quotes Bishop’s eloquent words on a related matter, why she never allowed herself to be included in all-women anthologies:

I don’t want to scold or preach—but I have never believed in segregating the sexes in any way, including the arts…. It is true there are very few women poets, painters, etc.,—but I feel that to print them or exhibit them apart from works by men poets, painters, etc., is just to illustrate in this century, Dr. Johnson’s well-known remark—rather to seem to agree with it.

Raised by conservative Presbyterians, Bishop disliked public scrutiny instinctively. She was understandably not eager to broadcast her lesbian relationships, and felt deep shame for her “thirst” for alcohol. These and many other personal matters she kept to herself and within the circle of her intimate friendships. Except very obliquely, she did not discuss them in her published poetry or fiction; reticence was an artistic, and of course emotional, choice. So it offends one’s sense of fair play to read Millier’s account of every drunken tumble on the sidewalk and every lovers’ quarrel.

Although Bishop did write about her childhood and even her early years in New York, she allowed only one such autobiographical story, “In the Village,” to be published during her life. In it, a little girl watches her mother’s final descent into madness, and at the same time is jarred into her own first experience of self-consciousness. The widowed mother is being fitted for a new dress, her first not in the black of mourning, when she begins to scream uncontrollably—and, in the face of this horror, “the child vanishes.” In the narrative, “the child” becomes “I”.

I am not allowed to go upstairs…. My grandmother is sitting in the kitchen stirring potato mash for tomorrow’s bread and crying into it. She gives me a spoonful and it tastes wonderful but wrong….

We are waiting for a scream. But it is not screamed again, and the red sun sets in silence.

Even here, or, rather, especially here, the fictional mask is kept rigorously in place.

Bishop did not destroy her journals and papers (though she thought about it) and after she became famous even urged recipients of her letters to hold on to them and wait until they could “get a good price” for them. She may have been resigned to the realities of posthumous literary probing, but that doesn’t mean she made it easy. In her recent book, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, Lorrie Goldensohn describes—in breathless present tense—her discovery of a stash of papers and drafts of previously unknown poems that Bishop had left in the keeping of a friend in the Brazilian village of Ouro Preto, where the poet had bought and renovated a house that she then barely ever lived in.

The prize is “a typescript of a rather remarkable poem, no erasures, a doodle in the corner that looks like a fourposter bed…. It’s a love poem, beginning ‘It is marvellous to wake up together’.” The poem, written in the early 1940s, opens with the description of a couple startled by an electrical storm: “And we imagine dreamily / How the whole house caught in a birdcage of lightning/Would be quite delightful rather than frightening.” Goldensohn pursues the notion that this poem reveals that Bishop “repressed” expression of her sexual, lesbian self in her published work, and elaborates on what she perceives to be the double image of the caged bird—caged within the embrace of love, but also caged by society and so not free to express that love.

My suspicion is that Bishop never published “It is marvellous to wake up together” not merely because of its subject (there is no reference in any case to the other occupant of the bed being a woman) but because it was a private poem. She was a playful writer as well as a deadly serious one; her letters and other papers are filled with parodies and ditties, fit for intimates but not for the more formal and public purpose for which she conceived her published poetry. That may be an old-fashioned distinction—of which she was aware—but that does not make it any less her distinction.

Bishop did change as she grew older, and tried to incorporate what she admired of direct personal expressiveness in the poems of Robert Lowell (though she disliked most other “confessional” poets) into her own style. Moments in many earlier works, especially the more intimate lyrics directed at a particular “you,” lean in that direction. “Days that cannot bring you near/or will not,” begins the poem “Argument” from A Cold Spring (1955); also in that collection are the epistolary “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” and “Letter to New York,” as well as “The Shampoo,” in which the speaker urges the “you” of the poem to “Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin.” But not until “In the Waiting Room” was published in Geography III in 1976 did Bishop try a radical shift in tone. As if told to a psychiatrist or other confidante, the poem offers an avowedly autobiographical account of Elizabeth Bishop as a child waiting and reading magazines while her aunt sees the dentist. The aunt in the next room emits an “oh! of pain” that prompts a spell of dizzying self-consciousness in the listener.

How—I didn’t know any
word for it—how “unlikely”…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

(In many ways, this poem retells, in another setting and with an aunt rather than a mother, the moment of terror and self-consciousness of “In the Village.”)

But even at her most “confessional,” Bishop never lost a decorum that came from two impulses: the desire to protect her vulnerable self (not the same as “repression”) and the good manners that would make of poetry a public, accessible discourse. The intimacy that Bishop develops with her reader is perhaps best described as the sort that Rilke characterized as “true love,” wherein two people gaze not at each other, but at a third, shared, thing.

Brett Millier regards it as her sorrowful biographical duty to gaze hard at her subject and then to tell us the worst. The very worst, however—a grim story about Bishop putting a young lover into a mental hospital in Brazil—is also very confused, especially since Millier’s source is the lover, now no longer young, who wants her story told while her identity remains secret. In any case, Bishop did not leave the girl in the hospital but sent her home to the United States as soon as possible. Bishop did seem to lose a distressing number of loved ones to madness. She thought of it as a curse; Millier points out the obvious, that Bishop may have been attracted to instability as a repetition of her relationship with her mother.

Overall there is something dismayingly charmless about Millier’s biography. Despite the promise of “life and the memory of it” that is contained in the title, Millier did not rely nearly enough on the memories of those Bishop knew—absent are such vivid passages as those collected in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, by the editors Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil Estess and from its contributors Frank Bidart, Octavio Paz, James Merrill, Mary McCarthy, and others.* Merrill describes how she might in the evening “jot a phrase or two inside the nightclub matchbook before returning to the dance floor” and of her playing cards with Neruda, ping-pong with Paz, and “getting Robert Duncan high on grass—’for the first time!”’ Schwartz remembers that she once announced that her favorite perfect iambic pentameter line was “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down.”

Millier’s biography only comes alive when Bishop’s own words from notebooks and letters appear, with their chatty references to samba lyrics, cooking, cows and waterpipes and cats and dreams and post offices. A journal entry from a 1942 visit to the Mexican village of Mitla and its pottery works perfectly captures Bishop’s deadpan truth-telling, her refusal to romanticize:

The clay is thick & gray, when baked it comes out a sad gunmetal color…. The pots are a beautiful round shape—but desperately sad—used only for water and mescal. It seemed to me to be the dreariest artistic tradition I’ve ever seen.

Millier tells us how in July of 1968, suffering from the culture shock inflicted by temporary residence in San Francisco,

to cheer herself…Elizabeth bought “Jacob,” a mynah bird…. Among the phrases she hoped to teach him were “Nobody Knows” (from Grandmother Boomer); “I, too, dislike it,” from Moore; and [her own] “awful but cheerful”.


In 1934, her last year as an undergraduate at Vassar, Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore and began the friendship that lasted until the older poet’s death in 1972. “Efforts of Affection” describes in detail everything from the brown bread they fed to the circus elephants on an early outing, to the farcical gift-giving and the intense letter-writing they shared, to the preposterously quaint ways of Marianne’s mother (Mrs. Moore and Miss Moore lived together), along with the ups and downs of Bishop’s tutelage, then parity, with Moore. The tutelage had begun before they met, when Bishop read Moore’s Observations. “[The poems] struck me, as they still do, as miracles of language and construction. Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?”

In Moore’s poetry Bishop found an indispensable model for her own, in which baroque language and scientifically precise descriptions of the natural world provided a structure for philosophical, spiritual, and, indirectly, emotional speculation. Although at first Bishop was reluctant to show Moore her own writing, Moore eventually became her most constant reader—and along with praise came many corrections and suggestions, as well as reprimands for the use of such vulgarisms as “spit” and “water closet.” In Trial Balances, a 1935 anthology wherein senior poets were invited to sponsor newcomers, Moore introduced a few poems of Bishop’s. Bishop later wrote:

I had two or three feeble pastiches of late seventeenth-century poems called “Valentines,” in one of which I had rhymed “even the English sparrows in the dust” with “lust.” She did not like those English sparrows very much, and said so (“Miss Bishop’s sparrows are not revolting, merely disaffecting”)…

In her habit of correction, Moore was made in her mother’s mold: “Marianne was in the kitchen making tea and I was alone with Mrs. Moore. I said that I had just seen a new poem of Marianne’s, ‘Nine Nectarines & Other Porcelain,’ and admired it very much. Mrs. Moore replied, ‘Yes. I am so glad that Marianne has decided to give the inhabitants of the zoo…a rest.’ ” Bishop’s only serious quarrel with Moore (which she does not discuss in “Efforts of Affection”) erupted in 1940 when Moore, having received a copy of Bishop’s poem “Roosters” in the mail, rewrote it heavily and sent it back. Her changes included a completely overhauled stanza and rhyme scheme, a new title (“The Cock”) and the deletion of the offending phrase “water closet.” Bishop firmly held her ground, and although she continued to send her poems to Moore, Moore no longer presumed to rewrite them.

Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity by Joanne Feit Diehl takes “Efforts of Affection” as its central text. Diehl uses the psychological characterizations of “aggressive” and “hostile” to describe the “child and parent” interaction between Bishop and Moore—not the most illuminating way to talk about these two devoted, competitive, and mutually helpful writers, surely. But Diehl does have many excellent small observations to make about the specifics of influence and the sort of conversations-in-poetry the two engaged in. She draws the parallels in Moore’s “The Pangolin” and Bishop’s later “The Man-Moth,” for instance, subtly delineating the way in which unobvious connections, such as the “scale/lapping scale” of the pangolin’s armor reappear in verbal form as the fantastical Man-Moth “nervously begins to scale” the sides of buildings, along with a dozen other echoed phrases that underscore the poems’ common theme of self-protection.

The late David Kalstone’s Becoming A Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell uses those two pivotal friendships as a way of exploring the work of all three poets. It remains the best book yet on Bishop, at least partly because there is so often laughter in the author’s voice. The comic side of missed connections, of the public and the private, of drinking and teetotaling, of love and even of death are never far from Kalstone’s sight. He is particularly helpful in dissecting the nuances of Bishop’s and Lowell’s see-saw discussions about the “personal.” In the early 1950s, when Lowell was writing the prose memoir “91 Revere Street” and Bishop was working on “In the Village,” they both came to realize that direct prose could obscure what indirect verse might better reveal. “They were exploring the limits of prose as a vehicle for autobiography—just the reverse of what those efforts appeared to be. They were sharpening and altering their notions of what it meant to tell the truth in verse.” So prose, they learned, is not necessarily fact; and fact is not necessarily truth. By challenging conventional wisdom about what confessional and truthful mean, Kalstone honors better than any other critic the spiritual dimension of both Lowell’s and Bishop’s work.

The title poem from Questions of Travel makes explicit the unanswered questions that pervade nearly all Bishop’s work;

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?…
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?

Her longest stay anywhere was in Brazil, where she made a home for nearly fifteen years, from 1952 on, with Lota de Macedo Soares. The things, the people, the history of Brazil filled her work, as if she had been reborn into a new world that she needed to learn. Like a newborn, she was cared for in Lota’s household, emotionally and economically. She was given the time and the space—her own studio—in which to write. Much of Questions of Travel and numerous prose pieces were written there, and she devoted four years to the translation of a memoir by a Brazilian “lady of quality,” Minha Vida de Menina, translated as The Diary of ‘Helena Morley.’ The contrast of this girlhood—“Helena” was bold, flirtatious, aggressive—with Bishop’s own seems to have contributed to her enthusiasm for the project. It was almost as if the diary provided a childhood that Bishop could borrow for her own use.

Even more than those of Key West, Brazil’s landscapes (“a modest promenade and a belvedere/about to fall into the river”; “the book sings loud/from a rib cage/of giant fern”) and flora and fauna (“big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,/blue, bluegreen, and olive” and armadillos, rabbits, owls, giant snails, horses, dolphins, and “the fat brown bird/who sings above the broken gasoline pump”) presented lush, exaggerated possibilities to a New England sensibility. Here as well she began her explorations in poetry and prose into the lost world of her early years, in “In the Village,” “Gwendolyn,” and “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Perhaps the alien nature of Brazil was a help to Bishop in her work, its strangeness pushing her further inside herself. As Bishop remarked to an interviewer in 1965, in response to a question about how well she knew Portuguese—“After all these years, I’m like a dog: I understand everything that’s said to me, but I don’t speak it very well….”Also telling, given the nature of her work, is her dry observation: “It’s an interesting fact that there is no word in Portuguese for ‘understatement.’ ”

With Lota’s help, Elizabeth drank less; and this productive, relatively happy period lasted until they separated and Lota died, an apparent suicide, in 1967. Bishop may never have recovered from this loss, even after she moved to Boston in the 1970s, when she taught at Harvard and lived with Alice Methfessel. “Crusoe in England,” in some ways the most autobiographical of Bishop’s poems, albeit indirectly—with Crusoe lamenting his lost island and his dead companion—is a kind of emblem of the exile exiled from his exile (as Bishop in Boston was exiled from Brazil) and hints by the strategy of elision at the ache of such a loss—of a beloved place and beloved person.

Perhaps elision, the strategic silence, incorporated itself into her poems because Bishop so often fell silent, searching for the right word for a poem for years, even decades. She was, she wrote, “determined…never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it, no matter how many years it took—or never to publish at all.” Further, silence as a habit of perfectionism and of emotional reticence also expresses itself in the formal silences of the space around words on a page. Octavio Paz has written in praise of “what is said between [Bishop’s words], that which appears fleetingly in pauses and silences.” In an essay she wrote while still in college, Bishop articulated this metaphorically, describing migrating birds:

I watched closely the spaces between the birds. It was if there were an invisible thread joining all the outside birds and within this fragile network they possessed the sky; it was down among them, of a paler color, moving with them. The interspaces moved in pulsation too, catching up and continuing the motion of the wings in wakes, carrying it on, as the rest in music does—not a blankness but a space as musical as all the sound.

Of course some silences were not a consequence of perfectionism or of poetics; some silences were the result of drinking. Millier devotes many pages to a discussion of the worked-over drafts of a poem Bishop never finished, “A Drunkard.” Here she located the source of her drinking in a memory from when she was three years old, living with her mother in Marblehead, Massachusetts. A great fire in nearby Salem lit the night sky, and the little girl was left caged in her crib, terribly thirsty, watching the reflection of the flames on the walls. The next day, poking in the ashes,

I picked up a woman’s long black cotton
stocking. Curio. My mother said sharply
Put that down!
I remember clearly, clearly—
But since that day, that repri- mand…
I have…suffered from abnormal thirst—
I swear it’s true—and by the age
of twenty or twenty-one I had begun
to drink, & drink—I can’t get enough
and, as you must have noticed,
I’m half-drunk now….

We do notice. The story may be vivid but the writing is muddled. Drinking is antithetical to the exactness Bishop aimed for in her work. The published double sonnet “The Prodigal,” on the other hand, written from ice-cold so-briety, is explicit about the symbiosis of drinking and exile.

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten, the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare—
even to the sow that always ate her young—
till, sickening, he learned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind a two-by- four),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red;
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he might almost endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked light- nings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern—like the sun, going away—
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain stagger- ing flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

Behind Bishop’s seemingly unflappable voice one hears her agitation and anxiety, a wish for security constantly thwarted by skepticism that security is possible. The last lines of “Questions of Travel” pose the issue plainly:

Continent, city, country, society:
The choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

Her poise is a choice, a pose, as are her formality and her consciously conservative habit of writing in complete sentences. The impression of certainty, the impression of clarity, is her greatest trick as an artist. And yet she is always willing to show her hand, as if she also felt a moral responsibility to express the doubt—about the world and about poetry itself. Employing a technique of visible revision, she shows you her poems discovering themselves. One way she does so is by peppering her descriptions with questions that raise doubts on the heels of apparent clarity. In the opening lines of “The Map,” the first poem of her first book, North & South

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea- weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself:
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

—she invites the reader to perceive and revise with her. “Or—what else?” she seems to say.

In “Poem,” from her last book, Geography III, she describes a small painting in a series of hesitant claims: “It must be Nova Scotia…a thin church steeple—that gray-blue wisp—or is it?…some tiny cows,/two brush-strokes each, but confidently cows…. A specklike bird is flying to the left. Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?” Like paint on canvas, words offer their wispy moments and their confident moments, but sometimes maybe it’s all just an accident.

Most explicitly, in “The Bight,” written in 1948, the objects in the harbor at Key West are described in a series of metaphors that accumulate absurdly. (The pilings are “dry as matches,” the water is “the color of a gas flame turned as low as possible”; “One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire/one could probably hear it turning into marimba music.” The pilings, bumped by a dredge, are “claves,” the pelicans are like “pickaxes,” man-of-war birds “open their tails like scissors…or tense them like wishbones.” Boats come in “with the obliging air of retrievers”; the shark tails are “glinting like little plowshares”; the boats lying on the sand are “like torn-open, unanswered letters.”) At the end, the conclusive metaphor arrives: “The bight is littered with old correspondences.”

This poem, subtitled “On my birthday,” reveals an anxiety about that “litter” of letters that self-satire cannot erase. She is brooding on failed correspondences between people, of course; but also on a failure of “correspondence” in the Emersonian sense, between the world as it is and the world as it can be seen; perhaps, too, on a failure of her own poetic enterprise. Some years earlier, upon visiting underground caverns in Mexico, Bishop had written in her notebook:

With complete solemnity the leader shouts: “On the right we see the King. On the left the Queen. Over our heads to the right the Spread Eagle. I am standing beside the Loaf of Bread …etc. etc… Nothing else was given us in the way of information; it was just a system of Correspondences. But the Mexican imagination is poverty-stricken, anyway.

Simply drawing the connection of metaphor is insufficient. That same exasperation concludes “The Bight,” the bravado of the final line offering Bishop rueful appraisal of herself and her writing life: “All the untidy activity continues,/ awful but cheerful.”

Santarém,” written in 1979, the last year of her life, recalls a visit to a town where the Amazon and Tapajós rivers meet. Deceptively chatty, the poet remarks, “I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.” Here at last is a place in the real world that would match the dream of safety, of home, often longed for in her work. A small, snug dot on the map is the traveler’s lure; here, for once, the idea and the place fully and satisfyingly correspond. Even space and time seem tamed in this magic haven, where the rivers flow and meet in a “watery, dazzling dialectic.” But despite her wish to stay, the poet has to leave with the others on the boat. She carries a wasp’s nest as a memento, and is awakened from her idyll by a fellow passenger’s question: “What’s that ugly thing?”

I can scarcely wait for the day of my imprisonment,” begins the only slightly absurd 1938 narrative, “In Prison.” “Many years ago I discovered that I could ‘succeed’ in one place, but not in all places, and never, never, could I succeed ‘at large.’ ” When Elizabeth Bishop died suddenly in the fall of 1979, of a brain aneurysm, she left behind a few finished but uncollected poems. Especially startling is her last, “Sonnet,” and its apparent reversal of her life’s theme of the search for rest and containment. Instead, she imagines herself ecstatically “at large.”

Caught—the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass-needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed—the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

The cropped lines and the diction recall Emily Dickinson, in particular her “Wild Nights,” with its emphatic “Done with the compass!—/ Done with the chart!” Bishop seems to be offering an homage to the woman who so spectacularly stayed put. The poem itself becomes its own release from the prison of wandering. As Dickinson’s contradictory poem ends: “Rowing in Eden—/ Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor—Tonight—/ In Thee!” For both poets, of course, that double impulse, to sail the wide sea and to tie up in port, remains unresolved, and deepens their mystery.

  1. *

    More anecdotes and observations of this sort are now promised; both the collected letters, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and an “oral biography” from the University of Massachusetts Press, are to be published in 1994.