Poet drawn out of the shad­ows

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

What is the draw of read­ing writ­ers on other writ­ers? It is per­haps the last re­ally alive type of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. Be­cause the learned-critic-atan-ob­jec­tive-re­move mostly bores, right? A reader merely ex­pe­ri­ences the flavours of the text but a writer has a chance at guess­ing the recipe. So know-how, then, but also sym­pa­thy — books are hard to write, af­ter all. Bet­ter com­men­tary that comes out of un­der­stand­ing rather than other mo­ti­va­tions, such as the de­sire to com­part­men­talise or judge.

In this new book Ir­ish nov­el­ist Colm Toibin re­turns to Amer­i­can poet El­iz­a­beth Bishop for the fourth time in 22 years: two long-form re­views of re­cent col­lec­tions of her let­ters ap­peared in the Lon­don Re­view of Books in 1994 and 2009 re­spec­tively, and a chap­ter is de­voted to her in Love in a Dark Time, his 2002 sur­vey of nine 20th-cen­tury gay writ­ers.

“Re­peat, re­peat, re­peat; re­vise, re­vise, re­vise” is how Bishop summed up the writ­ing life in her el­egy to Robert Low­ell, North Haven. Each of Toibin’s pieces is a rep­e­ti­tion and a re­vi­sion of the ones be­fore it. Para­graphs at a time in On El­iz­a­beth Bishop — see the chap­ters Na­ture Greets Our Eyes and The Es­cape from His­tory — du­pli­cate the 1994 re­view with barely a nip or tuck. On other oc­ca­sions an idea fleet­ingly at­tended to pre­vi­ously is treated to length­ier ex­po­si­tion via an anal­y­sis of a spe­cific Bishop poem (more than 50 are re­ferred to in the book) or a com­par­i­son with a fel­low writer (James Joyce, quite sur­pris­ingly, and also Thom Gunn, more per­sua­sively).

One rea­son we re­peat and re­vise things, of course, is to un­der­stand them bet­ter. Re­sid­ing be­hind Toibin’s pe­ri­odic mov­ing of his own lit­er­ary-crit­i­cal fur­ni­ture is cu­rios­ity, even puz­zle­ment. It’s pos­si­ble to boil down this cu­rios­ity or puz­zle­ment to a ques­tion, though Toibin never ut­ters it di­rectly, per­haps fit­tingly: how ex­actly is it that Bishop says so lit­tle in her po­ems yet sug­gests so much, that in their shad­ows lurk help­less­ness, des­per­a­tion, anx­i­ety, hurt — heavy emo­tional stuff, in essence — but that is never di­rect, easy or ob­vi­ous? And this at a time when it was all the rage for po­ets to ex­pose ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing about them­selves.

Bishop was aware she had the equip­ment — “I think I had a prize ‘ un­happy child­hood’, al­most good enough for the text­books,” she once said — but about con­fes­sional po­etry she com­plained, “The ten­dency is to overdo the mor­bid­ity. You just wished they kept some of th­ese things to them­selves.”

It was the res­o­nant un­said, Toibin re­calls, that hit him with con­sid­er­able force when he first read Bishop’s po­ems. That he can pin­point the date (“the Easter break of 1975, when I was nine­teen”), the place (“the Com­pen­dium Book­shop on Cam­den High Street in Lon­don”) and the edi­tion (“her Se­lected Po­ems, pub­lished by Chatto and Win­dus”) at­tests to it: “I found some­thing in the space be­tween the words, in the hov­er­ing be­tween tones at the end of stan­zas, at the end of po­ems them­selves, in the el­e­gance, in the watch­ful­ness and use of the soli­tary fig­ure ei­ther speak­ing or be­ing de­scribed, which made me sit up and re­alise that some­thing im­por­tant was be­ing hid­den.”

Toibin no­tices dif­fer­ent ways Bishop man­ages to smug­gle in­tense per­sonal cargo into po­ems os­ten­si­bly about other peo­ple, places, an­i­mals and things — a black ser­vant called Cootchie, Cape Bre­ton, a moose, a paint­ing by a great-un­cle she has never met. Th­ese in­clude a ca­su­al­ness of tone, a “fierce sim­plic­ity” in word choice, a habit of qual­i­fy­ing or cor­rect­ing her- self and a re­sis­tance to metaphor and sym­bol.

Par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing to Toibin is the strange alchemy that makes her strict stick­ing to the ma­te­rial or his­tor­i­cal facts — her “pure ac­cu­racy” — meta­mor­phose into philo­soph­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion: “She be­gan with the idea that lit­tle is known and that much is puz­zling. The ef­fort, then, to make a true state­ment in po­etry — to claim that some­thing is some­thing, or does some­thing — re­quired a hushed, soli­tary con­cen­tra­tion … This great mod­esty was also, in its way, se­ri­ous am­bi­tion.”

The fo­cus on the “how” makes this a writer’s in­quiry; an­other reader might have been more in­ter­ested in the “why” — in lo­cat­ing the re­al­life sto­ries be­hind the “calm pain” of the po­ems. On El­iz­a­beth Bishop does not deny the re­ver­ber­a­tions of cer­tain life events in the po­ems, or in­deed their al­lure for read­ers: the death of Bishop’s fa­ther when she was a baby, the in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion of her mother and her own re­moval from Bos­ton to Nova Sco­tia to live with grand­par­ents as a five-year-old, her les­bian­ism, the sui­cide of her Brazil­ian lover Lota de Macedo Soares.

In Love in Dark Times Toibin sub­mits the rea­son he read Bishop “with con­sid­er­able in-

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