Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Mariana Houskova

The Art of Finding 


Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 367 pp., $30.


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          Elizabeth Bishop is one of the most famous and beloved American poets, and the publication of her unpublished papers was just a question of time. You can debate as long as you like about the pros and cons of releasing works unsanctioned by so fastidious an author, but who could expect the working drafts of such an eminent poet to remain in the archives forever? The large trove of Bishop’s papers in the Vassar College archive was waiting only for the right person to undertake the difficult task of preparing it for publication. The New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn has picked up the gauntlet, and although the result of such an ambitious project can hardly be flawless, readers will be grateful not only for the material this edition brings them, but also for the way the editor presents it. 

          The almost four-hundred-page volume Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and is formidable from the start. One is not quite sure what to expect, and the editor’s introduction and her “Note on the Text” do not afford much help. The introduction offers general information on the archival sources (with quotes and comments, many of which reappear in the endnotes), explains the problems of dating and ordering the poems, and very briefly comments on the transcription of the manuscripts and the occasional use of facsimiles. Only the last sentence hints at the editor’s overall goal: “It is my hope that this book will provide an adventure for readers, who love the established canon, enabling them to hear echoes and make connections based on their own intuitions and close reading of both the finished and the unfinished poems.” “A Note on the Text” gives some more information on the manuscripts, dating, and editing of the drafts. However, this addendum fails to clarify the books’ genre, which readers must decide on their own. In fact, deferring such choices to the readers themselves seems the editor’s conscious decision and her basic method throughout the book.

          It takes some time for the reader to realize what the book is not: first, it is not a new book by Elizabeth Bishop. As all the critics agree, the poems included here do not reach the high standards of Bishop’s published poetry, and some of them are even positively bad, or rather not poems at all. With some texts it might have been Bishop’s restraint in making personal matters public that prevented them from publication, but in most cases it is clear that her self-censorship was based on the quality of the drafts. If the reader hopes to find as yet undiscovered masterpieces that could stand side by side with poems like “The Moose” or “At the Fishhouses”, they will be disappointed. 

          Also to be disappointed are readers who expect a critical edition of the unpublished manuscripts (in spite of the extensive notes forming about one-third of the book). The volume contains a large selection of drafts and fragments of poems, but it is not exhaustive. The introductory note on the contents states: “I have sought to present a thoroughly representative selection of the draft material in the archive. I have not reproduced all of Bishop’s uncollected juvenilia or work that is restrictively fragmentary, that does not indicate to a certain degree something of her artistic ambition for it or otherwise command interest because of its biographical significance”, but Quinn does not specify how much has been left out, or what the exact criteria of selection were. A critical edition would have to be much more detailed on these points, as well as on the extent of editorial interventions in the manuscripts. Neither does Quinn defend her rationale to print some texts only in facsimiles, whereas the majority is transcribed and edited. (The editor only says that “some facsimiles are included to illustrate the range of manuscript material”.)

          The book offers much critical insight into Bishop’s poetic method and suggests interpretations of many of the poems presented, although it is not a scholarly monograph, and is not intended as such. Quinn’s intention as an editor is to be as invisible as possible. Her main task is to stand behind Bishop and make the poet’s work show at its best. Quinn tries to present the texts and contexts as starkly as possible, but to control this starkness so it does not destroy the reader’s pleasure. In the case of an archive containing more that 3.500 pages of drafts, notes and fragments, the editor’s intervention necessarily must be radical. Despite all her efforts, the editor cannot but interpret, even though she does it in the least intrusive way—by picking and showing.

          Rather than a book by Elizabeth Bishop, the “new Bishop book” can be seen as a book about Elizabeth Bishop. The reader learns about Bishop’s creative process, about her poetics, and about her life from 180 pages of drafts/poems followed by some 60 pages of the appendix, and, perhaps most importantly, from more than 100 pages of notes. The texts are ordered more or less chronologically (the dating of many is uncertain: starting with the early drafts of poems influenced by the metaphysical poets and the English Romantics; going through the drafts found in the notebooks Bishop kept when living in Key West; moving to Brazil, where the theme of the poet’s childhood in Nova Scotia emerges among poems inspired by the exotic Brazilian landscapes; taking us to places Bishop traveled to, broaching themes and motives that surfaced in her collected poems, or lurked as unrealized possibilities in her notebooks. About twenty texts are reproduced in facsimiles, some accompanied by a transcription of another version of the poem, some not.

         A transcription of those photocopied drafts would be helpful, as some are hard to decipher—Bishop’s handwriting is famously illegible, and even some of the typed drafts make a challenging, if not impossible read. The typed draft of the two-page poem “In a Room,” reproduced only in a facsimile, includes barely legible handwritten notes; worse, the second page is slightly crumpled in the middle, making one line completely illegible. Finally, the facsimile pages with the notes for “Aubade and Elegy” are cut on the sides, and the endings of some words are missing; the last of the three pages is genuinely maimed compared to the original typescript—for some inexplicable reason, the side and the bottom of the page have been cut. As a result, several words are missing at the start of each line (we have “your hands in the dirt” instead of “and put only your hands in the dirt”, or “e slowed to that of the rock” instead of “no—your life slowed to that of the rock”, etc), and some six lines have completely disappeared. One expects a facsimile to be an exact copy of the original, and believes one can trust it fully. However, here the facsimile is actually more fragmentary than the fragment it represents. The reliance on the facsimile can lead the reader (or the reviewer) to think that the lines are unfinished; indeed, they break off suddenly in the middle of a sentence. In the original version, these lines continue, making perfect sense. The draft is chaotic and fragmentary, but much less so than it would appear from the facsimile.

          On the other hand, it is the facsimiles, particularly those drafts where later changes can be seen, which offer the reader one of the most interesting insights into Bishop’s creative method. In the corrections and changes she made, we can examine the way she worked, the way she slowly moved the poem from a more or less prosaic set of ideas, often very personal and emotional, towards a less direct, “cleaner”, more economical and controlled shape. An excellent example of this development—from the prosaic draft at the beginning to the perfect poem at the end—is the villanelle “One Art” and its sixteen drafts included in the “Appendix”. Bishop scholars have commented on the creative process of this poem; now readers can see for themselves the work underlying perhaps the best villanelle ever produced in English. The efforts at control show themselves not only in the gradual shaping and polishing of the form (some of the drafts consist only of words grouped to fill the rhyming pattern), but also in the development of the poem’s argument. In the first drafts, the speaker lists things whose loss she has mastered (gradually introducing the things we know from the definitive published version), only to end up contrasting them to the loss of the loved one, which is hard to master and is a disaster. The fragmentary note at the end of the “Draft 1” (which is more a page of notes than a real draft): “He who loseth his life, etc.—but he who / loses his love—neever [sic], no never never never again—” seems to suggest that no loss is final or fatal but the loss of love (with a reference to Matthew 10:39: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it”), and the final lines up to the “Draft 12” say the same—“but this loss is (Go on! write it!) is disaster”. But the contrast between all the mastered losses and the disaster of losing one’s love eventually disappears, giving way to the famous

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident 
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

          The fascinating thing here is that the original emotion seems to pervade the final version although the words are hiding it. We are told that losing the loved one is not hard to master, and that it only looks like disaster, but the implicit emotion (expressed in the first drafts) breaks through to explicit statement, creating the unique effect of a desperate struggle for control over the overwhelming pain. The final poem is like a palimpsest, with the original drafts still visible through it, even for a person who has never seen them. Rather than constituting a raw discovery, the drafts confirm what we always intuited. 

          As another instance of the movement towards control, see the facsimile of the typed draft of “Aubade and Elegy”, Bishop’s unfinished (and, in fact, barely started) elegy for her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. Here, Bishop systematically crossed out the second-person pronouns, making the lines more oblique and general, adding an element of mystery (which, according to a text from the appendix, Bishop considered one of three qualities she admired in good poetry—together with accuracy and spontaneity), moving them from a personal lament to a universal plane:

            For perhaps the tenth time the tenth time the tenth time today

and still early morning I go under the crashing wave of your death

                         I go under the wave the black wave of your death

 

Your o [n]Not there! & not there! I see only small hands in the dirt

transplanting sweet williams, tamping them down

Dirt on your hands, on your rings, nothing more than that

                                                              but not more than that –

The personal grief at “your death” changes into the immense universal horror of “death”—the small hands seem almost ghostlike, with no person, no body attached.

          The fragmentary drafts of “Aubade and Elegy” similarly hint at how Bishop’s inspiration worked. The (inaccurate) facsimile page of “notes” mentioned above contains several lines in Spanish, mixed with what seems a rather free English translation: 

I want the mint to be weeping                      Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelano

of the land you occupy (?) and                          de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas,

companion of the soul, so temprano

 Nourishing rains, shells

and organos my grief without instrument

                                                            a las desalentadas amapolas

                                                             y siento mas tu muerte que mi vida.

          Unfortunately, the editor does not include a note explaining the strange presence of the Spanish lines, and so the reader might be lead to believe that the author is Bishop herself. In fact, the lines come from the famous “Elegy for Ramón Sijé” by the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), which begins: 

Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelano
de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas,
compañero del alma, tan temprano.

Alimentando lluvias, caracolas
y órganos mi dolor sin instrumentos,
a las desalentadas amapolas
daré tu corazón por alimento. 
. . .
No hay extensión más grande que mi herida,
lloro mi desventura y sus conjuntos
y siento más tu muerte que mi vida.

[Weeping I want to be the gardener
of the land you occupy and fertilize,
companion of the soul, so early.

Feeding rains, snails
and organs, my pain without an instrument,
to the despondent poppies
I will give your heart for food.
. . .
There’s no expanse bigger than my wound,
I weep over my misery and its allies
and I lament your death more than my life.]

          Apparently Bishop heard an echo of her own grief in those lines (and in a language she was not quite fluent in) and, moreover, that the oddly macaronic fragment emerged in the process of her search for an expression of her pain and loss. Hernández’s style is not akin to Bishop’s at all: it is full of emotion and passion, abundant with rhetoric and big romantic gestures (later in the poem, he wants to dig the earth with his teeth and kiss the noble skull of his dead friend). Yet when trying to find her own words and images for the elegy, she resorts to him for inspiration, and she seems to have had his poem in mind beneath her own images of coffee, and of hands planting flowers. The final shape for the poem was never found, and we can only assume that had Bishop finished her elegy, the drafts would have followed a similar track as the drafts of “One Art”. It is tempting to imagine a poem written in the highly controlled, restrained tone of Bishop’s masterpieces, but with all the heartbreaking emotion of Hernández’s elegy hidden in it. 

          Unlike the facsimiles, the transcribed and edited drafts—and these form the larger part of the book—do not let us catch direct glimpses of the writing process. They offer pleasures and discoveries of a slightly different kind. Few of the poems are satisfactory as wholes (though there are exceptions), but the reader keeps finding beautiful images scattered through the texts, accurate descriptions, flashes of wit, precise observations that echo some of the collected poems, but also show the range of Bishop’s imagination, and suggest the directions it could take. Bishop readers know the Great Village river, which flows into the Bay of Fundy, and changes with the tide, from the description in “The Moose”:            

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home

The same river appears in the draft of a poem for Bishop’s aunt Maud titled “For M.B.S., buried in Nova Scotia”:

            Yes, you are dead now and live
only there, in a little, slightly tip-tilted graveyard
where all of your childhood’s Christmas trees are forgathered
            with the present they meant to give,
and your childhood’s river quietly curls at your side
and breathes deep with each tide.

          The river is seen as a living creature, almost like a pet sleeping at the person’s side, breathing peacefully. At the same time, the image of the tides and the breathing river is almost cosmic, evoking the slow regular rhythm of nature, the sea endlessly washing the land, of time slowed to cyclical eternity. The person lying in the cemetery becomes part of this vast slow rhythm, in perfect harmony with her birthplace.

          Another draft written in Brazil and dealing with Nova Scotia is the short poem “A Short, Slow Life”:

We lived in a pocket of Time. 
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river
the houses, the barns, the two churches,
hid like white crumbs
in a fluff of gray willows and elms,
till Time made one of his gestures;
his nails scratched the shingled roof.
Roughly his hand reached in,
and tumbled us out.

Rather than a fully-fledged poem, it is one expanded image, and a beautiful one at that. Four lines sketch this tiny idyllic village and the next four lines destroy it. The sketch of the village reminds us of the painting described in “Poem” (“elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple”, “some tiny cows, / two brushstrokes each”), and the perspective of this draft also brings to mind the first paragraph of Bishop’s most famous story “In the Village”: 

A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies, skies that travelers compare to those of Switzerland, too dark, too blue, so that they seem to keep on darkening a little more about the horizon—or is it around the rims of the eyes?—the color of the cloud of bloom on the elm trees, the violet on the fields of oats; something darkening over the woods and waters as well as the sky. The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memory—in the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forever—not loud, just alive forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it. 

          In all these texts, the speaker’s perspective is similar: the village is seen in its whole, as if from the outside, all at once—it could be on the palm of a hand. And the hand actually appears both in “A Short, Slow Life,” where the Time’s hand grabs the village, and in the story, where the fingernail flicks the steeple. Rather than an actual village, we have a toy-model of a village, a picture, an image, a mere memory.

          The editor’s notes deserve a separate comment, as they form a substantial part of the book and are sometimes more inspiring and illuminating than the drafts themselves. They comment on the manuscript and other extant versions and drafts of every poem, occasionally explaining some editorial decisions. Apart from this basic information, the notes contextualize each poem by giving the biographical background, quoting extensively from Bishop’s letters and notebooks, and tracing some of the motifs in other texts by Bishop. As I said earlier, the editor’s main method seems to be showing and guiding, not interpreting or explaining. She often quotes from Bishop’s notebook without explaining the passage’s connection with the poem, leaving the reader to join the dots. At some points, one has to struggle hard to imagine what led the editor to include a particular quote in a note to a particular poem, but generally this method proves engaging. Quinn does not pretend to offer any systematical critical commentary; rather, she plucks small gems from the vast archive, and offers them for us to us to enjoy and appreciate. Sometimes it’s just a flicker of an image: “The leaves of the house-plants on the verandah—slightly dirty underneath, like the cat’s ears” (a note from Bishop’s Key West notebook), sometimes a witty observation: “Translating poetry is like trying to put your feet into gloves” (from her Ouro Prêto notebook), sometimes a longer passage from a letter. 

          Reading the notes is enjoyable, and one often realizes that instead of going back to the texts of the poems, one continues reading the next note, as if the text were a kind of literary biography. Which in fact it is. The roughly chronological order of the poems creates a line on which quotes, anecdotes, images are draped, sometimes flashing back to a previous text, sometimes pointing forward, forming a surprisingly coherent overall image of Bishop’s life of a poet. To view Bishop’s life through her poems (however unfinished, fragmentary, and imperfect they may be) seems more appropriate than to read her poems through her life, which is a rather common approach.

          Given the richness of the material, and the care the editor devotes to it, one is surprised to find unnecessary flaws—apart from the problems with the facsimiles mentioned above, the absence of indexed titles and first lines is annoying (even an index of names would be helpful for a better orientation in the notes), and so does the typo in the numbering of the sections in the notes (section IV is mistakenly marked as III). A more detailed introduction explaining clearly the purpose and the method of the book would spare readers initial confusion and would help them to enjoy the book fully from the very start. All this may sound finicky and pedantic, but a reader spoilt by Bishop’s perfectionism tends to expect nothing less than perfection in a book of her texts.

          Going through the Vassar archive is an adventure, and the editor has done her best to mediate the adventure for everyone who lacks the opportunity to go there every now and then, and spend hours and hours reading through the endless boxes of papers, digging for hidden jewels, a sentence here, an image there. The present book cannot have all the charm of the actual manuscripts, neither can it give the feeling of intimacy one has sitting with the boxes full of papers in the silence of the archive, but it conveys a lot of the pleasures of the archival work. The editor has done a lot of valuable work for scholars by reading through the enormous number of papers and giving us to enjoy what she has found there. The texts she has brought us can never be louder than the restrained graceful voice of Bishop at her best. But both the drafts and the notes on them will provide new inspiration for readers and scholars, and will let us enjoy and admire Bishop’s poetry afresh.

 


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