How her life informed the beloved poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).
Travisano (Emeritus, English/Hartwick Coll.; Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic, 1999, etc.), founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, draws judiciously on Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters—including those to her psychoanalyst, many lovers, and close friends—to create an authoritative and sensitive biography. Bishop carried lifelong scars from a difficult childhood: Her father died when she was an infant; her mother was sequestered in a mental institution from the time Elizabeth was 5. Passed among relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, Bishop was told nothing about her mother—and never saw her again. Besides abiding loneliness and feelings of abandonment, Bishop suffered from asthma and bouts of eczema. In adulthood, she also succumbed to autoimmune disorders; depression, made worse by cortisone prescribed for her asthma; and alcoholism. Travisano suggests that heredity may have played a part in Bishop’s alcohol abuse, which sometimes occurred for no apparent reason. Often, she became a binge drinker in response to emotional distress. Since she repeatedly attached herself to women who were possessive, headstrong, or mentally unstable, her love affairs could be volatile. Travisano finds sources of Bishop’s poetry in those difficult relationships and in enduring wounds as well as in various settings of her peripatetic life: among them, New York, where Marianne Moore became a mentor to whom, for several years, she would submit poems for approval; Key West, where Hemingway’s ex-wife Pauline Pfeiffer became a close friend; Brazil, where Bishop lived for nearly two decades with the wealthy journalist and arts patron Lota de Macedo Soares; San Francisco; Seattle; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Maine. Although not groundbreaking, Travisano’s sympathetic perspective, thorough research, and perceptive close readings lucidly portray the complexities of a writer noted for her “reserve, calm, meticulous accuracy, and humorous detachment.”
A finely textured portrait of an acclaimed poet.