This is the first in a two-part series.
Nothing At All Certain
As Alice said of Henry James: "His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches."
The letters of Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore at first reflected a close kinship. The two were always placed in the same sentence despite the vast differences between their oeuvres. Bishop and Moore both eventually chafed at this rotten incorporation, and something of that must have filtered into their relationship. Over time, they found themselves less in unanimity than before. When Bishop moved to South America, she encouraged her friend to come visit her — not this summer, but next.
Bishop's letters, whether to Moore or her friend Robert Lowell, were always excessively detailed. Reading them in full they seem a cataloguing of her various thoughts and feelings, usually ones she could not fully come to terms with until she wrote them down. Miraculous moments occur when you least expect them, and the collection of Bishop vignettes that follows includes excerpts from letters to Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell as well as her friend the lesbian poet May Swenson.
I am so sorry we were late last evening — sorry both to have interrupted you and to have missed that much of your talk. We thought we had timed the subway carefully, but I'm afraid we hadn't. You looked so nice down there on the platform: the black velvet is overwhelmingly becoming, and you should not have apologized for the shoes — they looked extremely, small, shiny and elegant, to me. I enjoyed everything you said and blamed the IRT to being so slow and the audience for not laughing more — as I thought they should have — at your many excellent jokes. And were really quite baffled with admiration when you had to make those impromptu answers.
I enjoyed every moment except the one in which my own name struck me like a bullet, and I felt myself swelling like a balloon to fill the auditorium.
Dr. Williams is even nicer than I had imagined.
The page of reports of my useless, unclean and bad-tempered pet delighted my heart. She had never had a bed before. I have always found that starvation was the best method of inducing her to drink milk. And I know she has a deplorable tendency to eat string - also lick glue from envelopes, etc. Perhaps I should have written to you immediately to reassure you about the constipation — but I noticed that always seems to happen when she is taken from one place to another and rights itself — which is so much worse — in a day or two. I have been haunted by so many of my past unpleasant scenes with her.
In Cuba & Mexico they have special two-pronged forks for mangos, but you can use a kitchen fork. You stick it in the stem end & if you do it right the fork will go in the soft end of the seed & hold the mango firm. Then you peel it down from the top and eat it off the fork like a lollipop, being very careful not to get the juice on your clothes because it stains badly.
You speak of being "handicapped by solitude", but to me you seem the very height of society. It is terribly lonely here & I feel myself growing stupider & stupider & more like a hermit every day. I'm going to try to stay in New York all winter.
I wish you could have seen the beautiful sight I saw from the bus going to Miami — nine tall white herons in a group, each on one leg, standing in shallow water where mangroves are just beginning to spring up — just an arch here & there with a few leaves on it. The bus was stopped for almost ten minutes — only one moved all that time, took one slow step & looked from the bus down into the water.
This is too long, but I want to talk.
Maybe I've felt a little too much the way women did at certain more hysterical moments — people who haven't experienced absolute loneliness for long stretches of time can never sympathize with it at all.
I really feel that you should struggle against your feeling about children...but I suppose it's better than drooling over them like Swinburne. But I've always loved the stories about Shelley going around Oxford peering into baby carriages, and how he once said to a woman carrying a baby, "Madame, can your baby tell us anything of pre-existence?"
The missionary is dictating a letter to his wife at the next table. They are so sad, and the worst aspect of the trip has been the two Sundays we've spent at sea on which he held a "small interdenominational service." There are so few of us we all had to attend and sing "Nearer My God To Thee" (after he told the story of how the people on Titanic sang it as they went down). The three tiny boys sang "Jesus loves me this I know" in Spanish, and a song, with gestures, about how the house built on the sand went splash. I'd always wondered how it did go, but I had never thought of it as splash somehow.
I am puzzled by what you mean by my poems not appealing to the emotions. (I'm sorry to be so full of myself but your letter has brought it on.) What poetry does, or doesn't? And doesn't it always, in one way or another? A poem like "Never until the mankind making" etc. one feels immediately, before one starts to think. A poem like "The Frigate Pelican", one thinks before one starts to feel. But the sequence, and the amount of either depends as much on the reader as the poem, I think. And poetry is a way of thinking with one's feelings, anyways. But maybe that's not what you mean by "emotion." I think myself that my best poems seem rather distant, and sometimes I wish I could be as objective about everything else as I seem to be in and about them. I don't think I'm very successful when I get personal — rather, sound personal — one always is, of course, one way or another.
I bought Pablo Neruda's poetry (he & his wife have been very nice to us) & am reading it, with the dictionary, but I'm afraid it is not the kind I — nor you — like — very, very loose, surrealist imagery etc. I may be misjudging it; it is so hard to tell about foreign poetry, but I feel I recognize the type only too well. His chief interest in life (or did I tell you about all this) besides communism seems to be shells, & he has a beautiful collection most of them laid in the top of a sort of large, heavy, specially built coffee-table, with glass over them.
Sammy, the toucan, is fine — a neighbor built him a very large cage in which he seems quite happy, and I give him baths with the garden hose. Someone also brought him a big pair of gold earring from the Petropolis "Lojas Americana" (5 & 10) and he loves them. He has two noises - one a sort of low rattle in his throat, quite gentle, if he is pleased with you, or cranky, if he isn't, and the other, I'm afraid, a shriek. He also has the shortest intestinal tract ever known I think, and has to eat constantly, and is far from neat.
Just a few minutes ago I found a hummingbird in the pantry — quite a big one, yellow and black. I got it out with an umbrella. There are such varieties of them — and now the butterflies have come for summer - some enormous, pale blue iridescent ones, in pairs. I gave Loren one in a box once — maybe you've seen it at her house. And I've never seen such moths — I wish I had my equipment with me & I'm going to try to get some in Rio. The house is all unfinished and we're using oil lamps so of course we get thousands and mice, and large black crabs like patent leather, and the biggest walking-stick bugs I've ever seen — well it is all wonderful to me and my ideas of "travel" recede pleasantly every day.
The first time I met Dylan Thomas, when he spent a day with me doing these recordings in Washington, he and Joe Frank and I had lunch together, and even after knowing him for three or four hours I felt frightened for him and depressed and yet I found him so tremendously sympathetic at the same time. I said to Joe later something trite about "why he'll kill himself if he goes on like this" etc, etc — and Joe said promptly, "Don't be silly. Can't you see a man like that doesn't want to live? I give him another two or three years..." And I suppose everyone felt that way, but I don't know enough about him really to understand why. Why do some poets manage to get by and live to be malicious old bores like Frost or — probably — pompous old ones, like Yeats, or crazy old ones like Pound — and some just don't?
"Why I Had To Go" - Bishop Allen (mp3)
"Good Talk" - Bishop Allen (mp3)