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More Hits from the Bishop Jukebox

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.

As Reviewed By: Carol Bere

“I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man, I probably would have written more. Dared more, or been able to spend more time at it. I’ve wasted a great deal of time,” Elizabeth Bishop commented in an interview with George Starbuck (Ploughshares, Spring l977). Yet Bishop dared in her own way to capture an individual world within each poem; her poetry was generally exploratory, truth-seeking, different in the best sense of the word, non-repetitious, and underpinned by a controlled mastery of form. Bishop’s poetry may be grounded in everyday descriptive details, but she is also preoccupied with dreams, mysteries, and the strangeness of existence. All of those elements can be found in varying degrees-and in occasionally surprising ways-in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, Alice Quinn’s well-edited collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments. The volume may stop short of representing Elizabeth Bishop Unplugged, but it does provide a welcome opportunity to consider her creative process-brief sketches, fragments, letters, bracketed false starts, early templates for more fully realized poems, and poems that appear complete–all of which add a significant dimension to Bishop studies.

[private]Several years in the making, and drawing on 118 boxes, and 3,500 page holdings in the Bishop archive at the Vassar College Libraries, Quinn selected 108 previously uncollected poems and fragments spanning Bishop’s career. Quinn also included the drafts of Bishop’s well-known villanelle, “One Art,” an appendix with some previously unpublished prose pieces, and about 120 pages of valuable annotated information-a literary biography of sorts-that draws on Bishop’s extensive correspondence, journals, biographical, and critical studies. Bishop was not a poet given to full disclosure-if anything, we tend to look for the inner landscape beneath the often straightforward descriptive detail-and the comprehensive notes provide a fuller context for understanding Bishop’s preoccupations, for making connections between her life, her reading, her extensive travels, and the development of her poetry, occasionally between early sketchy drafts and later published poems.

Many of the poems in the collection were published previously in magazines and literary journals. Yet the actual publication this year provoked some strong, although relatively limited, negative criticism. The general argument was that Alice Quinn had transgressed by publishing work that Bishop would not have wanted published, that had she wanted those poems published, she would have done so in her lifetime. Whether editors, literary critics, even journalists, are free to declare open season on the unpublished work of a poet-any writer for that matter-is another question. And there’s no simple answer to this question. We don’t know what Bishop would have wanted, but what does seem clear is that if she had strong feelings against publication of archival material, prohibitions would have been in place. Granted, the ability to publish archival work doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be acted upon. Bishop may well have considered that some of the poems were not ready for prime time, but there is sufficient variety and more than enough good poems in this collection that will certainly give her readers pleasure-after all, readers of this volume will no doubt already be Bishop readers (or acolytes as the case may be). Poems such as “Full Moon, Key West,” “The Salesman’s Evening,” “Keaton,” “For Grandfather,” “St. John’s Day,” “A Short, Slow Life,” “Breakfast Song,” “Salem Willows,” her enjoyable pass at blues lyrics, “Don’t you call me that word, honey….” “Just North of Boston,” and “For M.B.S. buried in Nova Scotia,” to name just a few poems among many, more than justify publication.

Alice Quinn’s trump cards are what she calls the Key West notebooks, two notebooks dating roughly from l937-1947. About one-third of the poems in the overall collection have been drawn from the notebooks, which cover one of the least known periods Bishop’s poetic development. As noted by Alice Quinn in the introduction, the notebooks had been entrusted by Bishop to her friend Linda Nemer around 1970, and were later discovered by poet and scholar Lorrie Goldensohn on a trip to Brazil in 1986. Bishop anticipated their value because, as Goldensohn noted in her later study, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (l992), Bishop gave Nemer permission to sell the notebooks, which were later purchased by the Vassar College Libraries.

David Kalstone, who wrote so well about Bishop in Becoming a Poet (1989), commented that it was ironic that in Key West Bishop had found a congenial place in which to write and live because she “suffered more about her work here than she ever had or ever would again.” Kalstone quotes a letter Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore from Key West that suggests her sense of nascent writing energies, uncomfortable feelings of “things” in the head, fragmented ideas: “I can’t help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will occur . . . .” Yet Bishop did make some breakthroughs during the late 1930s and early l940s with published poems such as “Roosters” (which she referred to as her “war” poem), “The Fish,” and, perhaps, “Jerónimo’s House.” Quinn’s comprehensive notes and letters of the period tell us that Bishop re-immersed herself in the writings of Poe and Baudelaire, and their influence is reflected, to some extent, in “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box,” and in some of her published poems and fiction.

Bishop also began work on a projected sequence of seven or eight poems about Key West, tentatively titled “Bone Key.” It is also possible that the sequence might have had the subtext of providing Bishop, who generally saw herself as an outsider, with another way of locating herself in the world. The envisioned sequence was never completed, but did include “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box,” “Key West,” and “The Street by the Cemetery,” and all three poems appear finished. Robert Giroux, Bishop’s long-time editor, said Bishop had intended “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box” as the concluding poem of her second volume. Letters suggest correspondence with editors, but whether the poem ever met her rigorous standards, or was submitted is unclear. She did submit “The Street by the Cemetery” to the New Yorker in l941, but it was rejected (no reason given here), and later published in the February 21/28, 2000 issue of the magazine. Bishop’s working and reworking of her poems may have been legendary, but the notes to this poem suggest that at least the opening stanza was developed without her usual second-guessing. For example, notebook observations such as “These people sitting on their porches in the moonlight-looking at the graveyard-like passengers on ship-board. Third class, steerage passengers who nevertheless, somehow or other, have been given deck-chairs,” morphed easily into:

The people on little verandahs in the moonlight
are looking at the graveyard
like passengers on ship-board.
How did it happen on this warm & brilliant night
that steerage passengers
were given deck-chairs?

One of the finds of the Key West notebooks is the delightful love poem, “It is marvellous to wake up together.” There is some question about when the poem was written. Brett C. Millier, Bishop’s biographer, dates composition of “It is marvellous…” as early to mid-l940s when Bishop was living in Key West with Marjorie Stevens, while Alice Quinn suggests that the poem may have been written in the late l930s when Bishop was with Louise Crane. Quinn also tells us more than we need to know about Bishop’s interest in the word “marvellous” (Auden’s use of the word in a journal passage about William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity).

Here, the sensuousness, openness, and comfort in intimacy-relatively rare in Bishop’s poetry-are strengthened by impermanence, and incipient threats of familiar Florida storms:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

Bishop’s “It is marvellous . . .” is all the more unusual since Bishop often tends to circumvent exploration of intimate relationships in many of her later poems. Whether driven by Bishop’s inherent sense of propriety, her need for control, or her sporadic pessimism about the difficulties and failures of relationships, the comparatively few love poems Bishop wrote are often guarded or generalized in approach. In the title poem, “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box,” (which admittedly has much broader ambitions), love is defined as lust, and temporary at best; or as Bishop commented in her notes, “the true course & nature of love-fall downward flight-”:

As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in nights descend the separate throats,
and the hands fall on one another
[down] darker darkness under
tablecloths and all descends,
descends, falls,-much we envision
the helpless earthward fall of love
descending from head and eye
down to the hands, and heart, and down.

In the later sequence, “Four Poems,” written around l948 and collected in A Cold Spring (l955), distance, occasional eroticism, and ambivalence are the prevailing moods. In one of the four poems, “O Breath,” while implying her own chronic bouts with asthma, and difficulties breathing-accentuated by broken lines-Bishop suggests inability to communicate freely, indecision: “Something that maybe I could bargain with / and make a separate peace beneath / within if never with.” And in “Insomnia” from the same collection, Bishop looks for renewal, of moving freely and validating her love for women, or here a particular woman, in a world where they are outsiders, where difference is the predominant reality:

. . . that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Marianne Moore dismissed “Insomnia” as a “cheap love poem,” and Bishop did have some doubts about publishing the poem, possibly about the phrasing of the last line. Bishop remarked that she had heard the poem set to music–along with five other Bishop poems–and thought it “sounded much better as a song.” One has only to hear the more recent somewhat moody, sensuous version of “Insomnia” by Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza, to be persuaded of the poem’s emotional validity. Robert Lowell remarked in a l948 letter that Bishop “is genuine . . . you never doubt her solidity, her intuition for material that is hers.” Yet with many of her love poems, one senses that she is uncomfortable with her “material,” which she cannot make instinctively her own, or translate into poetry that meets her exacting standards. Several critics have suggested over the years that had Bishop lived in an environment where lesbianism was accepted, she would have been able to write more directly about intimate relationships-in fact, to write more freely in general. But Bishop did not live in this time, and we can only speculate about a possible creative shift in a different social environment. And it would be my guess that even in a more so-called open time, that her New England background, her dislike of confessional writing-after all, Bishop implored Lowell (unsuccessfully) not to include his former wife’s letters in The Dolphin-and her innate reticence might still have inhibited her from writing of close relationships. Bishop has always told us quite a bit about herself in her poetry. Had she gone further, been more explicit, she might have felt needlessly exposed.

Critics and readers are often protective of Bishop, perhaps because of her assumed fragility, her aloneness, and her lingering self-doubts about her poetry. Yet reticent, shy, unsure, different, an outsider, this is who Elizabeth Bishop was–a poet who wrote more fully realized poetry than those less troubled, perhaps because of her so-called afflictions. Her poetic reputation continues to grow as the complexity, skill, range, and the often deceptively simple topography of her poetry become more widely appreciated. This collection, which can only add to her reputation, is particularly valuable in that it allows us to consider the beginnings of some of Bishop’s poems, the “things” she gave up on, the poems that transmuted into stories, and with the addition of the sixteen drafts of her villanelle, “One Art,” the evolution of one of her most well-regarded poems.

Bishop remarked in a Paris Review interview that she had always wanted to write a villanelle, but had never gotten very far: “And one day I couldn’t believe it-it was like writing a letter.” García Lorca might have said that this signaled the arrival of the duende, or unimpeded inspiration in the creative process. “One Art” was written within months, an unusually quick period of time for Bishop who often labored for years on a poem. The major notion of “One Art”-loss or the mastery of loss-builds on earlier work, and on the personal, unforgettable losses in Bishop’s life. The immediate impetus for the poem, however, was probably Bishop’s anticipated loss of her friend and companion, Alice Methfessel (which never occurred).

Quinn notes that there is some disagreement among scholars about the sequence of the drafts, but the collection prints the sixteen available drafts as numbered in the Vassar archive. The first draft, titled variously “How to Lose Things,” The Gift of Losing Things,” and “The Art of Losing Things,” begins as a somewhat loose commentary on losses, or here “mislaying.” In the next draft, Bishop attempts the villanelle form, and although the poem is not completed, this version does include what will become the final opening lines of the published poem, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Bishop continues to make edits in the opening tercet in subsequent drafts, but doesn’t settle on the final form until the fifteenth draft: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master: / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” Several of the handwritten drafts are difficult to read, but it is possible to follow the later typed drafts, along with marginal handwritten notes-assuming one has sufficient patience-and to consider Bishop’s accomplishments in this poem. She builds her losses incrementally-door keys, mother’s watch, three homes, two cities, two rivers, a continent, and the loved one (or perhaps loved ones). At the same time she assures us with a bit of irony that the losses, while stronger and more personally overwhelming, can still be “mastered.” Bishop is talking about the painful loss of a loved one as the greatest loss of all, but the use of the villanelle itself is significant. In other words, through the structure of the villanelle, with its traditional format of five tercets and a quatrain, established rhyme scheme, refrains, and shifts, Bishop simultaneously explores and confronts her devastating losses, ultimately achieving mastery through her poetry-her art:

-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.

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Carol Bere, a freelance writer, taught English literature and writing at New York University (where she attended graduate school), and at Rutgers University. She was also an officer in a New York investment bank. Her articles and reviews have been published in several venues including the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Review, The Literary Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Ariel, and in many international finance magazines.

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