(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 32)

Since Elizabeth Bishop’s death in 1979, her reputation has steadily grown to place her in the forefront of twentieth century American poets. Interest in her achievement is evidenced by the ever-increasing publication of essays, collections of essays, and full-length studies about her work. Early critical assessment tended to praise the clear, objective description and polished surfaces of Bishop’s poetry while relegating her to a rather minor position in the canon as an observer of, rather than an active participant in, the poetic life struggle. Since complete editions of her poetry and prose have appeared, a critical reassessment of Bishop’s supposed objectivity has been undertaken by such critics as David Kalstone, Lloyd Schwartz, and Thomas Travisano. Lorrie Goldensohn’s Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry is part of this reassessment.

When Lorrie Goldensohn went to Brazil to research her study of Elizabeth Bishop, she was shown a hitherto-unknown poem that began “It is marvellous to wake up together.…” The poem, probably written in the early 1940’s, since a draft of it was positioned between other poems of that period, was finally published in 1989. It is one of very few love poems written by Bishop, and it came to take on a central significance for Goldensohn in her conception of the evolution of Bishop’s poetry and in the organization of her study of Bishop.

In her preface, Goldensohn states that she originally had in mind a chronological plan for her study, but after her experience in Brazil, her focus changed:

This initial discovery [of the poem] steadily drew me into a rearrangement of my material, as the abrupt force of the poem delivered to me by accident made me question more closely why a later Bishop had treated love and sexuality only glancingly. I wanted to open this book with the years that brought the sharpest delineation of change in her subject matter, and to track what looked like a characteristic advance within a characteristic retreat in her self-presentation.

The study thus begins in medias res with Bishop’s residency in Brazil, where she found “a place to work, a library, a society, and a semblance of family” with her companion, Lota de Macedo Soares. Goldensohn argues that the exile in “a primitive, childlike Brazil” allowed Bishop the freedom to rediscover her lost childhood in Nova Scotia and that “both her Brazilian present and her Nova Scotian past fused in a triumphantly double narrative.”

In tracking the advances and retreats of autobiographical disclosure in Bishop’s poems, Goldensohn slips backward and forward in time and hopscotches from one country to another. While this approach is designed to fit Goldensohn’s central argument, it may be confusing to readers confronting Bishop’s work for the first time. A brief chronological listing of the major events in Bishop’s life is provided at the beginning of the book, but it curiously omits a publication history. The best way to read Goldensohn’s book is to have on hand for reference both Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1983) and The Collected Prose (1984). Although Goldensohn quotes copiously, especially from the poetry, it is sometimes difficult to place the work within a chronological framework, especially in her first few chapters.

The focus of the earliest part of the book is Goldensohn’s own encounter with the places in Brazil where Bishop lived, and more importantly, with her discovery of “It is marvellous to wake up together.…” She links this poem, with its imagery of storms, cages, and birth, to the larger ouevre. Although it is only in this unpublished poem that Bishop linked the metaphors with an explicit eroticism, these linkages serve to inform similar imagery in such poems as “Insomnia,” “The Bight,” “A Little Exercise,” and “Rain Towards Morning.” Bishop never allowed “It is marvellous to wake up together.…” to be published, but Goldensohn points out that she was careful to make a clean typescript copy of it and leave that copy as an inheritance to a Brazilian friend, who read or spoke no English, to be sold at an appropriate time after her death. Goldensohn states that Bishop’s poetic expression of erotic intimacy...

(The entire section is 1744 words.)