‘Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast’ More of a Four-Course Meal

4 Stars

“A poet’s poet’s poet,” as acclaimed poet John Ashbery described her, Elizabeth Bishop, one of the finest mid-twentieth century American poets, is masterfully portrayed in Megan Marshall’s new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast.” Marshall, a former student of Bishop’s, interweaves a richly descriptive account of Bishop’s personal life and artistic output with sections about Marshall’s own life. While this hybrid form doesn’t always succeed—Marshall dwells a little too much on the academic grade she received from Bishop—it provides an intriguing look at the relationship between subject and biographer. Both for those who adore Elizabeth Bishop, and for those seeking an introduction to her life and work, this book is a captivating and illuminating read.

Marshall provides a well-researched and sensitive account of Bishop’s exceedingly difficult childhood beginning with her birth in Worcester, Mass. in 1911. Bishop’s father died when she was 8 months old and her mother was permanently committed to a mental hospital when Bishop was 5, after which she spent the rest of her childhood being shuffled between different relations. She was sexually abused by an uncle and was often seriously ill. She later found refuge in boarding school. She attended Vassar College, and graduated with a degree in English in 1934. Supported by an inheritance, Bishop pursued a career as a writer upon her graduation. She lived in New York, Key West, and then Brazil, where she lived with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, the architect who designed Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro. Starting in 1970, Bishop taught at Harvard for 7 years. She passed away of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979. Marshall is a particularly compelling narrator of the significant relationships in Bishop’s life. She provides a moving and powerful account of Bishop’s relationship with Soares, from its heady beginning to its tragic ending with Soares's suicide in 1967. Marshall is overall a compelling narrator of the significant relationships in Bishop’s life—she beautifully captures Bishop’s mentor-mentee relationship turned friendship with Marianne Moore, the esteemed Modernist poet, as well as Bishop’s deep kinship with Robert Lowell, her celebrated contemporary.

Bishop published only 101 poems in her life, but those that she did were masterful. She received a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award in Poetry, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Prof. Helen Vendler, the distinguished literary critic, described her as a poet of place, most specifically Nova Scotia (where she lived for a time as a child), and Brazil, in a journal article, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop,” for “Critical Inquiry.” Other compelling analyses of Bishop’s work include famous feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s article for “The Boston Review,” “The Eye of the Outsider,” where Rich argues that a central theme in Bishop’s work is outsider-hood and perspectives of the marginalized.

Marshall offers her own deft criticism of and illuminating biographical insights into Bishop’s poetry. While Bishop’s poetry is often not overtly personal (unlike her dear friend Lowell, she was decidedly not a Confessional poet), there are clearly threads of her life that inspired and are reflected in her work, for which Marshall has a keen eye. She offers a particularly interesting gloss on Bishop’s 1955 poem “At The Fishhouses” by accessing letters Bishop wrote to her analyst and using them to show that Bishop drew some of the imagery in the poem from dreams that she had and conversations with her analyst. The suggestion therefore that this poem, which is about the desire for and pain of gaining knowledge, is particularly about self-knowledge, is intriguing. Overall, Marshall’s key insight regarding Bishop’s poetry is that Bishop had “an undeniable and lifesaving need for expression in verse.”

Marshall clearly identifies with Bishop and sees commonalities between Bishop’s life and her own. While a biographer might traditionally maintain a more distanced stance from her subject, in choosing to be transparent regarding her relation to Bishop, Marshall made a decision that has advantages for her book. For example, her empathy with Bishop and relation with Bishop’s experiences helps her stay attuned to Bishop’s emotional life. Marshall’s obvious affinity with and student’s respect for her former teacher doesn't obscure a more nuanced vision of Bishop. Marshall clearly portrays Bishop’s faults, struggles, and complexities, from her struggle with alcoholism to her infidelity.

While Marshall’s formal experiment of blending biography with memoir largely pays off, she does stumble in her discussion of her grade in Bishop’s class. Marshall received a “B” from Bishop, likely for submitting a poem in the class that she had submitted to another class despite instruction not to do so. Marshall clearly feels shame about this, and discusses it rather a lot. Furthermore, the biography’s subtitle, taken from one of Bishop’s poems, is out of place. The poem in question is a piece on class disparity during the Great Depression. While an excellent poem, its ironic title does not make much sense as the subtitle of the book— “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle For Breakfast” mostly conjures up an image of Bishop as breakfast. Besides these two small missteps, however, Marshall’s text is a beautiful and powerful account of Bishop’s life and work.

—Staff writer Amy J. Cohn can be reached at amy.cohn@thecrimson.com.

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