Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (cloth)
When I learned several years ago that an edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished poems, fragments, and drafts was in the works, I thought of the light bulb that appears in her poem “Faustina, or Rock Roses.” “Meanwhile the eighty-watt bulb / betrays us all, // discovering the concern / within our stupefaction,” Bishop writes, describing the dingy appearance of a nameless old woman who has attempted, and failed, to conceal the wrinkles and blots of aging. I wondered what the publication of work that Bishop had kept in the drawer—false starts, dead ends, abandoned drafts, and finished but unpublished, or unpublishable, poems—would betray about a poet whose fascination with the grotesque suggests the flip side of her own perfectionism. “Can you please forgive me and believe that it is really because I want to do something well that I don’t do it at all?” Bishop explained to Marianne Moore in 1937.
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box does shine a bright light on Bishop’s unpublished work, but it is not a harsh one. It reveals a poet often concerned with dramatizing the unfolding of a sense of stupefaction—of astonishment as well as bewilderment. The book contains 108 poems in various stages of composition and spans the same half century as Bishop’s Complete Poems: 1927–1979: the first poems were written in the late 1920s, when Bishop was a student at Walnut Hill School, and the last poem, a droll sketch of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, was written in 1978. The appendix includes 11 critical and autobiographical prose pieces and facsimiles of the 16 drafts of Bishop’s great meditation on loss, “One Art,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1976, three years before Bishop’s death. Rounding out the book are Alice Quinn’s voluminous annotations, which fill 120 pages. Although it effectively doubles the number of Bishop’s poems in print, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box is hardly exhaustive. The principal repository of Bishop’s papers, the special collections of the Vassar College library, contains 3,500 pages of material, and Quinn says she has gleaned from that mass of paper only those unpublished poems and fragments that have biographical significance or indicate something of Bishop’s artistic ambitions.
There are several fully realized, good poems to be found among Bishop’s unpublished writings from the ’50s and ’60s, when she lived mostly in Brazil, and from the ’70s, when she lived in San Francisco and Boston. “Dear, my compass” and “Breakfast Song” are tender love poems. “My love, my saving grace, / your eyes are awfully blue. / I kiss your funny face, / your coffee-flavored mouth. / Last night I slept with you,” “Breakfast Song” begins, with Bishop making the kind of frank declaration about love that is simply not found in her published work. “A Drunkard,” which replays a traumatic scene from Bishop’s childhood, recalls “In the Waiting Room” and its portrayal of a child’s awareness of the terrifying upheavals of subjectivity.
In general, the drafts and fragments from the ’30s and ’40s, when Bishop was working on the poems that would constitute North & South (1946) and a portion of A Cold Spring (1955), are the most fascinating. The gap between the unpublished and published work can be narrow, or when wide, alive with strong crosscurrents and the occasional flash of lightning. During the ’30s and ’40s Bishop lived first in Paris and then in Key West, where she owned a house with her lover Louise Crane, and in the unpublished poems inspired by both places Bishop writes often about scenes of rundown glamour. Like the well-known poems “Florida” and “The Fish,” the unpublished “Key West,” “Baby’s Grave, Key West,” and “The Salesman’s Evening” depict landscapes where ornament and pageantry succumb to change and decay. Yet it is clear why these three poems never left Bishop’s notebook. Despite their bursts of vivid writing, they lack the imaginative drama of “Florida” and “The Fish.” Instead of dynamic panoramas, they offer overly staged snapshots.
The other subject to which Bishop returned repeatedly during her years in Paris and Key West is love. In the early published work, there are just a few poems about love—“Casabianca,” “Love Lies Sleeping,” and “Three Valentines.” Like them, the unpublished poems address their subject through abstract personification and are focused almost exclusively on love’s techniques of torment. In “Under such heavy clouds of love,” Bishop directs herself to “choose again without remorse / Your Dictator. For while in love / There is so much to lose, of course, / But more, still, to discover.” The mood of “In a cheap hotel . . .” is sinister: “the ice clinks, the fan whirs. / He chains me & berates me— / He chains me to that bed & he berates me.” These images owe much to George Herbert, whose work Bishop studied closely throughout her life. The poems themselves, however, don’t click, and the reason, to borrow an idea from “The Mechanics of Pretense,” an unpublished essay on W.H. Auden that Bishop wrote in 1937, is that instead of forcing into being a language that pretends to be appropriate to a subject, the poems force a fully realized language onto a subject.
The exception is the three-stanza poem “It is marvellous to wake up together . . .” Here, love is not personified, the bed not an implement of torment, although the atmosphere remains charged with potential menace:
If lightning struck the house now, it
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-
cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than
When placed alongside the scenes of betrayal, degradation, and self-recrimination that recur in the early unpublished poems, the rendering of intimacy and eroticism in “It is marvellous to wake up together . . .” is all the more exceptional and earned. The poem is stunning: it is one that, along with “Dear, My Compass . . .” and “Breakfast Song,” deserves to be read alongside Bishop’s published poems.
The existence of “It is marvelous to wake up together . . .,” “In a cheap hotel,” and many other poems from the ’30s and ’40s that form the nucleus of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box was until recently unknown. In 1986 the scholar Lorrie Goldensohn made a trip to Ouro Prêto, Brazil, one of several towns where Bishop had lived with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares. There Goldensohn discovered an amazing cache of papers, including two notebooks Bishop had used from 1936 to 1948. She had entrusted these notebooks (which Quinn calls “the KeyWest notebooks”) to a close friend in Ouro Prêto when she quit Brazil after Lota’s suicide in 1967. Goldensohn explained the significance of her find in Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, which appeared in 1991, just as Bishop’s reputation was starting to rise. At that time a number of scholars were discussing Bishop’s lesbianism and her portrayals of sexuality and femininity, singling out for attention “In The Waiting Room” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” Goldensohn’s book refined that conversation by discussing for the first time the poems about love from the two Key West notebooks.
The notebooks contain poems that require us to sharpen our understanding of another crucial subject: Bishop’s fascination with the limits of knowledge and perception. In several unpublished poems, Bishop uses blue flame as a metaphor for flawed vision. “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box” contains the lines “blue as gas, / blue as the pupil / of a blind man’s eye,” which conjures up the veiled eye of the old man in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while in “Stoves & Clocks” Bishop compares a burner’s gas florets to “blue eyes with cataracts.” In “The Bight,” included in A Cold Spring, the Key West harbor is the color of blue gas: “Absorbing, rather than being absorbed, / the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything, / the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.” Similarly, in “At the Fishhouses” and “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” also in A Cold Spring, Bishop depicts both the sea and the nativity as flame-like: “your hand would burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire” and “—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light, / an undisturbed, unbreathing flame.” In these three poems, flame is a metaphor for a kind of knowledge or vision so intense that it promises both torment and salvation. Like “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box” and “Stoves & Clocks,” these three poems date from the late 1940s, and the correspondences between them leave us with something to contemplate: how could the poet entranced by the blind man’s eye, “blue as gas” and singularly terrifying, become mesmerized by the complex waters of “The Bight,” blue as gas and “awful but cheerful”?
That shift in emphasis—from a terrifying experience to one that is awful but cheerful—is characteristic of Bishop’s work. It is a subtle but startling adjustment in perspective, and were it not for Quinn’s subtle annotations, an intriguing aspect of “The Bight” might have remained hidden in plain sight. In assembling these annotations, which draw liberally on Bishop’s published and unpublished correspondence, her unpublished journals and notebooks, and a small selection of scholarship about Bishop, Quinn has set herself two tasks: to establish, when possible, the history of an unpublished poem’s composition and to promote the reappraisal of Bishop’s published work. A few annotations establish invaluable facts, among them the curious circumstances underlying the existence of the only surviving copy of “Breakfast Song.” Quinn quotes from a letter she received from Bishop’s friend Lloyd Schwartz, who explains how he noticed the poem among the papers in a notebook that Bishop had asked him to bring to her when she was convalescing in an infirmary in 1974. Overwhelmed by the eroticism of “Breakfast Song,” Schwartz photocopied the poem—without telling Bishop—and returned it to the notebook, which has never surfaced. Quinn’s general resourcefulness makes the occasional creaky note all the more noticeable. Annotations to several early and late poems, for instance, draw on a chapter about Bishop in a recently completed doctoral dissertation, yet this material—glosses of poems and speculations about their provenance and influences—is so tenuous and confusing that one wonders why it was included at all.
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box offers a rich though incomplete portrait of Bishop’s working methods and is therefore absorbing and startling. But is its publication, as Helen Vendler claims in a recent issue of The New Republic, a betrayal? “Students eagerly wanting to buy ‘the new book by Elizabeth Bishop’ should be told to go back and buy the old one, where the poet represents herself as she wished to be known,” Vendler instructs. “Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified ‘No.’ ”
How can Vendler be so sure? After all, Bishop herself didn’t recoil from reading works never intended for publication. “Read a lot of poetry—all the time—and not 20th-century poetry,” she urged an aspiring poet seeking guidance in 1975. “Then the great poets of our own century—Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens—and not just two or three poems each, in anthologies—read all of somebody. Then read his or her life, and letters, and so on. (And by all means read Keats’s Letters.)” Bishop gave the same advice to her students at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966, as Quinn explains in an annotation. If Bishop, the supposed patron saint of decorum, found nothing indelicate about reading a dead writer’s letters (or literary biographies, a genre not known for portraying writers as they “wished to be known”), how can anyone be certain that the publication of this book would have offended Bishop? To my mind, the most fitting response to these poems is the same kind of enthusiasm and scrutiny that Bishop brought to Keats’s letters.
Publishing these works isn’t wrong. But it is weird, since their very persistence seems to defy one of Bishop’s key insights: “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” These lines fall at the end of the first stanza of “One Art,” but the sentiment they express—the relinquishment of the desire for mastery in the face of change and loss—recurs throughout Bishop’s poetry and prose. That sentiment imbues Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box too. After all, had Lorrie Goldensohn not traveled to Brazil and happened upon the Key West notebooks, and had Lloyd Schwartz not been impelled by his admiration of Bishop’s poetry to undertake a brazen act, almost one quarter of the included poems might have fulfilled their intent to remain lost. Yet it is those poems, and others, that Alice Quinn has carefully edited, and several are good enough to make one wonder whether it would have been a disaster not to have them. Those poems are valuable in themselves, of course, but their value also lies in the chancy circumstances of their survival, and recognizing that helps one grasp anew the agonizing concession Bishop makes at the end of “One Art”: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”