`bishop sweet and sensi        Bishop child

Volume 4, No.4 opens with a strange and satisfying short story by Elizabeth Bishop, better known to many as one of the great poets of the ‘middle generation’ of Modernism – along with Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell, with Delmore Schwartz as a sometime harbinger and sometime participant. Bishop was one who ‘ran with the boys’, as it were, and won recognition as a ‘poet’s poet’ as well as public popularity. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1950s, and the winner of a National Book Award in 1970, and received lots of other honours and Fellowships.

Bishop was close friends with Eleanor Clark (to read more about Eleanor, go to my post on this blog’s archive for 12 January, 2017) at Vassar and a bit later, with Marianne Moore. She wrote this gorgeous poem, “An Invitation to Marianne Moore” that gives us Bishop in her most open and generous voice:

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbour.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying. @Estate of Elizabeth Bishop

Lota   bishop young and sweet

She remained a quite isolated person-poet, and her life-long lover and partner Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares, “Lota,” was both a trial and a joy to Bishop, but Lota was always hidden from public view. Only in a very late villanelle after Lota’s death did Bishop write out her grief and sorrow about Lota and Bishop’s life of losses, as Claudia Roth Pierpoint discusses in her recent New Yorker review of Megan Marshall’s new biography of Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. @Estate of Elizabeth Bishop

So with that introduction for those who don’t yet know her work, let’s return to the stuff of Partisan Review, Vol, 4, No. 4. We have met with Elizabeth Bishop before: she was one of the Vassar Intellectuals, a year in back of Mary McCarthy, (see my post on this blog’s archive, December 11, 2016). When McCarthy published The Group, Elizabeth Bishop was considered by some of the Vassar Girls to have been portrayed by McCarthy as Lakey and Lota as Lakey’s lover, the Baroness. McCarthy protested that this wasn’t the case in a lettern to Bishop, but couldn’t entirely exculpate herself from the charge. This was late in the 1970s and I expect that neither of them was overly engaged in this quarrel at this point. (Unlike Lillian Hellman, who cared very much about how her quarrel with McCarthy would end, even after McCarthy had died.)

SO… The story that opens Partisan Review,Volume 4, Issue 4, 1937 “In Prison,” was probably written by Bishop in her early 20s, and it makes a strong opening within the journal’s interest in many kinds of Modernism. Bishop was living in Key West, where she went in the 1930s and stayed through the mid 1940s. The story is more like one of Kafka’s than it is like Atlantic Modernism, and while it is chilling and distressing, it also creates an atmosphere of uncanny cosiness. No crime is mentioned, but the oppressive inevitability of imprisonment is always with the narrator and with the reader. It becomes clear that the narrator is always in prospect of prison, now while living in a ‘hotel-existence,’ but later ‘in’ the prison; that is the primary condition.’

Since the narrator quotes Hawthorne, and then damns the ‘prison literature’ of ee cummings, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, preferring to read Dostoyevsky, we are led to read the narratorial tone less like madness than intellectual specialism. In her notebook from the 1930s, Bishop quotes a style of the baroque, which was ‘to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.’ Much like Wordsworth’s admonition to poets that poetry must ‘follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated when agitated by the great and simple affections of the our nature,’ Bishop takes on, as Poe (one of her revered influences) had done, a persona who might be mad — in our present terms of art in psychology — autistic and compulsive. In a letter to Marianne Moore, in 1938, she writes that “In Prison” is ‘another of these horrible ‘fable’ ideas, that seem to obsess me.’  The question of oddity immediately arises when the voice of the piece says that they would like to be given a dull book on arrival in prison —  “Then I shall be able to experience with a free conscience the pleasure, perverse, I suppose, of interpreting it not at all according to its intent.”   The result will be that by “posting fragments of it against the surroundings and conversations of my prison, I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art.” She goes on to add other ways of using language in her writing, for example using the partially erased inscriptions on the prison walls…and she will write as well, leaving scraps of writing for later prisoners to make sense of.  But as we understand that the ‘mad’ person isn’t really that at all, but the unconventional and avant-garde writer, we begin to see how her presentation of her ‘fluxes and refluxes’ changes the entire mood of the piece from unease to celebration of Modernism as a way of not only formal changes to writing, but to the kinds of worlds that it may create.

And in its place as the first item of Partisan Review,  Vol. 4, No. 4, it confirms as well the Editors’ desire to extend the term of revolutionary to writings not explicitly political, and to extend modernist collage to subversive ends.  And a reader of PR would be a bit shaky after that start to the issue. Very Clever.

Read “In Prison.”

If you want to read a critical essay about this story, there is a piece by Zhou Xiaojing ,TSLL — Texas Studies in Literature and Language,  Vol. 39, No.1, Spring, 1977 — which gives a good critical history of the academic responses to the piec, and includes some quotations from Bishop’s letters that I have quoted in this blog post.