Sappho in America

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

We are gripped by gossip. Curiosity is a tenacious emotion. In her essay on Push Comes to Shove, the autobiography of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, Joan Acocella acknowledges this in an untroubled way. If you want to know what Baryshnikov was like in bed, she advises, look at p. 208 in a bookshop: ‘Tharp gives him better marks than [Gelsey] Kirkland’ in her 1986 autobiography Dancing on my Grave.

On the other hand, we have our settled idea about Elizabeth Bishop, a famously unconfessional poet, marked out from Lowell, Sexton and Berryman by her continence, her wry tone, her meticulous descriptive accuracy and her beautiful containment. Lowell might announce in verse that he was tired of his turmoil — indeed, that everyone was tired of his turmoil — but Bishop’s poetry is unlikely to embarrass any reader, yet isn’t remotely genteel. Cool perfection: the yacht ‘stepped and side-stepped like Fred Astaire’; ‘mildew’s ignorant map’; ‘rooms of falling rain’. The slim, silent perfection of a Swiss watch.

It is no surprise that Iris Murdoch should write in 1948, ‘One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone.’ It is surprising to learn that Elizabeth Bishop boasted to Lowell that she’d ‘never met a woman I couldn’t make’. The boast is even more surprising given that in 1947 Bishop told her psychiatrist, Ruth Foster, ‘I have no clitoris at all.’ (You can find this disclosure on p. 319 of Megan Marshall’s biography, discreetly among the endnotes. Two lovers, Loren MacIver and Marjorie Stevens, had commented on this. Another former lover, Roxanne Cumming, laughs it off: ‘She must have been having a bad day.’)

Bishop’s ravishing poem, ‘Under the Window: Ouro Prêto’, is a collage of conversation overheard as people come to drink at the cold rope of water from an iron pipe. The pipe is under the window, we now learn, of the bedroom where Elizabeth Bishop made clandestine love to Lilli Correia de Araújo, while Bishop’s regular lesbian partner Lota (Dona Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares) was occupied with designing a park in Rio.

Megan Marshall’s biography is really a sexual supplement to Brett C. Hillier’s more detailed 1993 biography. It is based, she finally explains on p. 303, on a trove of letters in the Vassar Bishop Archive. These were locked away until the death (lung complications) of Alice Methfessel, Bishop’s last partner, in 2009. They consist of letters to her psychiatrist Ruth Foster, who asked for, and got, a detailed sexual history of her patient — including bath-time molestation by an uncle, who later tried to fondle her breasts when they appeared. The other previously unavailable letters are exchanges between Bishop and Lota, Bishop and Alice Methfessel, Bishop and Lilli. Without prurience, they definitely enrich the sex life of the ‘life’.

Elizabeth Bishop had quite a few sexual partners. Or so it now seems, by contrast with her unsleeping discretion in her lifetime. But I wonder if the total is so very great, were hypocrisy and concealment more generally set aside in favour of frankness — and intimacies calibrated across a lifetime. At Camp Chequesset, she was targeted by Mike, the summer camp’s female swimming instructor, ten years her elder, who got into her bunk, ‘kissing her, exciting her’. At Walnut Hill School, she fell for Judy Flynn, a fellow pupil. At Vassar, she was in love with Margaret Miller and also had a flirtation with Louise Crane. Margaret Miller didn’t respond to overtures, but there was a fully-fledged affair with Louise Crane — terminated when Bishop discovered her in their bed with Billie Holiday. Their affair lasted two years, ending in 1940. They shared a house in Key West, Florida. Crane was replaced by Marjorie Stevens, in Key West to recover from TB, ‘leaving behind a husband in Boston who preferred an open marriage’. In 1942, they parted. In 1946, Marjorie discouraged Bishop: there was, she wrote, no point ‘trying to make something work that doesn’t’.

Before Marjorie, there had been Loren MacIver, wife of the artist Lloyd Frankenberg, who briefly became her lover after the break-up with Louise Crane. (Chronology is a problem in Marshall’s biography, as it backtracks to ‘previous’ history. In 1958, we learn that Bishop, after breaking up with Marjorie Stevens, had a consolatory affair with Jinny Pfeiffer, the sister of Hemingway’s second wife.) Bishop seems to have fallen for her shrink, writing in February 1947: ‘I really do love you very much… all transference aside.’ A profound attachment but without a sexual outcome. She stopped seeing Dr Foster in 1947. Foster died, aged 57, of pancreatic cancer in 1950.

Bishop was clearly impulsive and also an intermittent drunk, which encouraged her amorous outbursts. In 1947, she met the couple Mary Morse and Lota de Macedo Soares — and phoned Mary to declare her love. In the event, it was Lota she paired up with in Brazil. (Mary Morse wanted a child and for that she turned to men, finally resorting to adoption.)

Lota never discovered the affair between Bishop and Lilli Correia de Araújo up in Ouro Prêto. But she went nuts when she read a letter from Lilli’s replacement, Roxanne Cumming (Suzanne Bowen in Brett Hillier’s biography), whom Bishop had met in Seattle where she was teaching: ‘a pixyish blonde, blue-eyed 23-year-old, the newly pregnant wife of a 48-year-old Seattle artist’. The subsequent wreck of Bishop’s relationship with Lota is charted more fully and persuasively here than in Hillier’s necessarily sparer account. For example, Hillier mentions a doctor. Marshall is able to name him. He is Dr Decio de Sousa, a Kleinian shrink whom Lota and Bishop shared.

In this account, he is a disaster, a tyrant and a quack, dispensing medication and inhuman advice. They try sonoterapia —sound therapy, which aggravates Bishop’s asthma but effects some improvement in Lota’s disposition. He insists they separate absolutely. He ‘forbids’. He banishes. He relents, he permits. After Lota’s accidental or deliberate suicide in New York — a conjugal visit countenanced by Dr Decio — Mary Morse refuses to speak to Bishop, steals her photographs of Lota, and destroys her correspondence. Lota’s sister Marietta disputes the will on the grounds of insanity (and loses). Lilli also quarrels with Bishop for reasons given more fully in Hillier’s exhaustive biography (Bishop thought Lilli was misappropriating funds for a house-build she was supervising for Bishop).

Roxanne Cumming proved to be too hot to handle, taking Bishop’s medication, creating scenes. Bishop begins an affair with Alice Methfessel in Boston. Roxanne is dumped, but shows up in Harvard, and is ‘firmly rebuffed’. (Hillier’s account is the fuller, including Bishop’s financial provision for her ex.) Alice Methfessel’s and Bishop’s relationship, thoroughly documented here thanks to the correspondence, survives the interruption of a male suitor. Her villanelle ‘One Art’ arises out of this serious threat of displacement.

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast has new information, but it is mistakenly interleaved with Megan Marshall’s own boring and otiose autobiography. The narrative is semi-novelised and often tangled. The endnotes are maddeningly inconvenient. The poems are frequently misread. (She thinks Bishop’s moose might be Marianne Moore.) But given the sensational sexual disclosures, Marshall’s tone is commendably calm, level and factual.

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