Elizabeth Bishop’s selected letters take their title from her villanelle “One Art”: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The letters, in total, are very much about loss. Bishop, who lost her mother and father and home as a young child—had to go looking for her life, finally found it in middle-age, then lost it too easily: a life partner, a house, a country, the sense that she belonged to someone and someplace. The letters chronicle 50 years of her life from 1928, age 17, until her death in 1979. They document her relationship with her poetry, with mentor Marianne Moore, peer Robert Lowell, and a large circle of friends. They describe life in American cities as varied as New York, Key West, San Francisco, and Boston, and in Brazil, the only real home she ever had, where she made a life with Lota Soares until Lota’s suicide fifteen years later. And they reveal Bishop’s humor, grace, and practical mind, along with the alcoholism she fought her entire adult life.
Bishop’s poems shielded her private life. She mostly stayed out of them, but invested objects and places with her emotions—the only brand of confession she allowed herself in her poetry. Her letters tell more, but because only one of her love letters to Lota exists (found by accident tucked in a book), and because this collection does not include letters to her other partners—Louise Crane, “XY” or Alice Methfessel—there is a limit, rightly, to the revelations here. This is the Elizabeth she allowed her friends to see. She proved herself a most attractive and compelling friend. Her letters often focused on the everyday—her garden, her cooking, the housekeepers’ babies, her cats, and her birds (especially Sammy her Toucan). “Sammy is fine & can play catch with rounds of banana—I am very mean and throw them too low so that he almost falls off his perch trying to catch them and being overtoppled by his beak….He’s…always making that sound you described as gourds being knocked together, meaning he’s pleased.” : “Now I know why poor children cry more than rich ones: Their parents are so dumb.” She wrote of adventures with friends, funny and aggravating episodes with storekeepers and workmen, and moments that might work their way into future poems. Of a very old black woman working for her in Key West during WWII she wrote, “She was ironing and she said to me in between solemn thumps, ‘We’ll have wars as long as people’s hearts is so hard.’” She had a few friends she could confess to about her health problems—which were often alcohol related. Her letters to Dr. Anny Baumann document her binges, her weight gains and losses, her terrible bouts of asthma and its treatment, but even in these letters to her doctor she manages this subject modestly. “I’m sorry to have gone on so about myself, but I think perhaps you like to get reports on your patients once in a while.” She sometimes spoke of how difficult it was to write—poems often came very slow to her—“I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it”—and it is clear in her imaginative and colorful correspondence that letter-writing was a kind of release.
Bishop’s correspondence with Marianne Moore speaks volumes about their friendship, and signals a more complex relationship than one might think from reading Moore’s side. Moore in her letters is consistently solicitous, nineteenth century in her mores, generous with support and advice. She was in her mid-forties at their first meeting and an established (if not famous) literary figure. Bishop was twenty-three, and just beginning. Much has been made of the fact it took four years for Moore to invite Elizabeth to call her Marianne. This as much as anything signals the difference in their generations. For as forward and experimental as Moore’s poems were, she was old-fashioned (and eccentric) in her habits and social tastes. Elizabeth always accommodated Moore, and her early letters are clearly admiring and, with time, full of expressed affection. There is no doubt Bishop loved Moore and felt gratitude to her. But simultaneously, she couldn’t help tell tales about Moore to friends. “We considered taking a drawing room together, but probably it is just as well…. She insisted on bringing ‘our food,’ in the old-fashioned way, and I had a canary with me & I’m afraid we’d have both been nervous wrecks….” “Apparently [Marianne] is having difficulties with her hostesses because they refuse to let her mow the lawn.” “M. keeps wintergreen leaves in her room to chew & okra tablets. I said, ‘Are they green?’ “No, Elizabeth. They are fawn color.’ That was that.” “Marianne thinks [“Burglar of Babylon”] my ‘best’—but I’m afraid that’s because she approves of the moral.” Elizabeth worried about Moore’s sanity. After the shocking death of Dylan Thomas she wrote, “Marianne…hangs on just by the skin of her teeth and the most elaborate paranoia I’ve ever heard of.” And later, “Meticulous attention, a method of escaping from intolerable pain…[is] something I’ve just begun to realize myself—although I did take it in about Marianne Moore long ago. (It is her way of controlling what almost amounts to paranoia, I believe—although I handle these words ineptly.)” The rising sun of one poet and the setting of the other may have complicated the relationship for Bishop. “I was glad to see…[a] reply to that silly review of Marianne Moore by Karl Shapiro. It seemed completely uncalled-for to me. To be able to produce something as good as her St. Jerome poem at the age of 72 should be enough, I think.” “I want to…write up all my recollections of her over…the 1930’s & 1940’s…when she was at her best.” And perhaps she worried about her own future, alone, as she watched Moore age. Very soon after Lota’s suicide she wrote to Marianne, “I do hope you are well and please don’t overdo, and please eat lots and lots of nourishing food, and call dear Dr. Anny at the slightest cough, won’t you?—It was so nice of you to come over that day and I shall never forget it.”
One Art contains one letter not written by Elizabeth Bishop: It is the letter in which Robert Lowell confesses how once he had wished to ask Elizabeth to marry him, for a “Strachey and Virginia Woolf” kind of relationship. She did not respond for three months, and when she did, she sidestepped the matter. It is deeply satisfying to speculate on her thoughts. What is clear from their years of correspondence, from their easy way with each other and their peer status, is her devotion to Lowell. She acknowledges late in her life that she only loved Lota more.
There are no letters to Lota but one, but Lota imbues these letters after 1952, the year Bishop traveled to Brazil on a lark and stayed. What Elizabeth says after Lota’s suicide in 1967 is many versions of this: “I was very happy with her—happier than I had ever been in my life—for about 14 years—until this wretched park business got so bad, really—and that is saying a great deal, I suppose.” The “park business” was the government work that Lota took on in Rio that submerged her life. Elizabeth’s return to Brazil to straighten Lota’s affairs turned disastrous—jealous friends and family destroyed many of Elizabeth’s belongings, including her letters to Lota. She found they had turned against her. The house—their pride, her only real home—was taken away. Bishop tried living in Brazil again, in a second house she owned, Casa Mariana, but the locals turned on her and her companion “XY” had a breakdown, further souring the place. In the years that followed Lota’s death Bishop lived in San Francisco, Cambridge and Boston, where she bought a home. She found companionship with Alice Methfessel. But it is clear from her letters and poems thereafter that she was occupied by the past and all she had lost.