There is no question that Elizabeth Bishop was a great poet, and a lesbian. The hard part is putting “Love” into the equation. Bishop certainly had all the qualifications for being considered a Great Poet:
- The 1956 Pulitzer Prize for “Poems: North and South/ A Cold Spring”
- 1970 National Book Award for “Complete Poems”
- Harvard University professor for seven years
- Awarded the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets in 1964, and served as Chancellor from 1966 to 1979
And her status as a lesbian poet is undisputed. Her volatile and tempestuous relationship with the architect Lota de Macedo Soares lasted nearly 15 years. If the movie “Reaching for the Moon” is to be believed, it was a dramatically romantic entanglement.
But when I went in search of love poems, I had a tough time. The poet Elizabeth Bishop was simply not a warm fuzzy person who dwelt on emotion. In fact, she often seems downright cold and forbidding.
Most of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry focuses on description, particularly description of places that she visited. As an independently wealthy woman, she traveled extensively, and that influence is reflected in her writings. She wrote of places, of buildings, of scenery, even of whole populations — and did so spectacularly well.
But the love was hard to find.
There is one poem, a beautiful “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” that swept away my imagination to a glorious love, if not a love affair. Marianne Moore was her mentor, and it is intriguing to wonder if there was more than a mentorship in the making.
But that was nearly all.
The Lesbian Love Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
Then I ran across Alice Quinn’s controversial collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s previously unpublished poems. This collection. titled “Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-Box” makes Bishop a whole person. The poetry speaks of her deep sexuality, of her drinking, even her mother’s breakdown, and finally of the suicide of her long time lover Lota de Macedo Soares.
Just as Emily Dickinson’s “The Gorgeous Nothings” were never intended for publication, so too the poems in “Edgar Allen Poe” were not intended for publication. They are works in progress. Some of them were even crossed out entirely, like they were ideas that just couldn’t go anywhere.
The editor has gleaned these poems from over 3,500 pages of mostly hand written notebooks held at Vassar College, and in that sense they are a very limited sampling of Bishop’s personal poetry.
Some critics argue that Bishop never intended to publish these poems, that they were too personal. Most critics say that these are not her best poems. I disagree. I think they are brilliant. Writing about one’s personal emotions is not easy, but Elizabeth Bishop does it so beautifully. For example:
— Cold as it is, we’d
go to bed, dear,
early, but never
to keep warm.
(from “Memories of Uncle Neddy”)
There is another that speaks so poignantly of her deep love and advancing age. She was older than her lover, and the melancholy of leaving her too soon makes me want to reach out and hold her:
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue,
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you.
from “Breakfast Song”
Bishop speaks of a lover in bed again in this poem:
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
Elizabeth Bishop was not prone to a great deal of sensuality. Her sexual comments tend to be sparse, and subtle. In her notebook, this is likely the most sensuous she allowed herself to be:
Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose …
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
forming, folding over,
unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges,
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex —
from “Vague Poem (Vaguely love poem)
As a whole, the poems in “Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke Box” use gentler language than her published works. The images and emotions are easier to grasp. I have a suspicion that Bishop did not publish these poems because she considered them too “amateurish”. After all, a poet with her credentials has an image to uphold.
In one sense, she is probably correct. Many of these poems are not as polished as her published ones. This one, for example, had the handwritten note “Should rhyme” across the top of the hand written poem:
I had a bad dream,
toward morning, about you.
you lay unconscious.
It was to be
for “24 hours.”
Wrapped in a long blanket
I felt I must hold you
Even though a “load of guests”
might come in from the garden
[at] a minute
and see us lying
with my arms around you
& my cheek on yours.
And yet these lesbian love poems are indeed touching, and perceptive. That the language is not sophisticated, nor rhyming, makes them all the more endearing. In fact, I didn’t much like Elizabeth Bishop until I found this fascinating volume. Now I do adore her. I wish I had known her.