Reading “On Elizabeth Bishop,” the latest installment in Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, it is possible to forget that the author looking at Bishop’s work and world is neither poet nor her contemporary, but a prominent expatriated Irish novelist — until the narrator switches gears: “I come from a house where Time’s hand had also reached in.” In this way, Tóibín begins the memoir that parallels Bishop’s story, with personal connection established as a way to introduce and elaborate upon her emotional landscape.
Until very recently, Elizabeth Bishop’s private world was opaque, the poems yielding little or no subtext. But Tóibín assembles her story from extensive correspondence and poems, and fuses it into a narrative that draws original, unexpected comparisons between Bishop and writers like James Joyce, includes an extended likening of her poetics to English poet Thom Gunn’s, and mirrors Bishop’s life against his own.
The criss-crossing of narratives gives Bishop’s story a new immediacy. Tóibín’s detailed look at some of her best known poems adds to recent incisive critical essays on Bishop from Adam Kirsch’s “The Wounded Surgeon: Confessions and Transformations in Six American Poets” and Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “The Flexible Lyric,” as well as Paul Muldoon’s “Fire Balloons” from the collection “Letter Writing Among Poets: From William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop.’’ Tóibín responds creatively to her life and work; he also offers a perceptive look at published and unpublished poems and responses on the level of the line. For example, he notes “At the Fishhouses” is “almost mathematical in its exactness,” and in “Arrival at Santos,” he recognizes “[a]t the end of the poem, when she says ‘we are driving to the interior,’ this is simply what she means. It is the interior of a new country. It is not the interior of herself. She wishes to look outward; that is why she has come here.”
Tóibín’s and Bishop’s writing contend with “the pull toward a place despite the lure of elsewhere.” The extended comparison and elements of memoir add framework to the portions exclusively about Bishop, orphaned early in life, who would lose Lota de Macedo Soares, the love of her life, to suicide, and Tóibín’s argument of how her poetry moves away from the past and from grief (and yet, through what’s left unspoken, toward it again). The similarities between experience and artistic methodology in Bishop, Tóibín, and Gunn, all three of whom lost parents suddenly and later escaped their pasts by living abroad — yet chose places that retained just enough of their past geography — identify them as kindred in their ability to mask the pain of their personal histories through exactness and the “space between the words.” This aesthetic and protective nucleus allows them to transform the unspeakable (to “write it”) without laying their private lives bare the way many of their contemporaries — Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, etc. — were doing at the time. These are Tóibín’s life studies, composed through attention to nuance and detail rather than hearsay. Gunn, Tóibín notes, said of Bishop’s reticence (they were neighbors briefly in San Francisco): “[I]t wasn’t so that we spoke much about our private lives. That’s what makes . . . a close friendship . . . She and I talked about poets we liked.”
Tóibín also delves into how Bishop’s correspondence freed her from the shadow of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, two of her closest friends. In those letters, Bishop not only reacted against the New Critics and the Confessional movement, but established her own poetics, becoming the individual, the Elizabeth, who comes so shockingly to light in her famous poem “In the Waiting Room.”
A deep respect and affinity for Bishop evolves from Tóibín’s criticism. There is a reverence for her work as a poet in the unexpected comparisons with others: “Bishop shared with Hemingway a fierce simplicity, a use of words in which the emotion seems to be hidden, seems to lurk mysteriously in the space between.” (Anyone familiar with Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory senses the rightness of Tóibín’s association.) It is there also in his close analysis of the poems. In the poem “North Haven,” her elegy for Lowell, Tóibín notes her singular choice, the “oddly miraculous . . . slow, incantatory dramatization of the tentative and withholding nature of Bishop’s process as a poet” in the line: “repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.’’
ON ELIZABETH BISHOP
By Colm Tóibín
Princeton University, 224 pp., $19.95
Valerie Duff is poetry editor at Salamander Magazine and the author of “To the New World.” She is the 2015 Poetry Fellow at The Writers’ Room of Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com.