Volume Five, December 2004

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I intend to focus on some nearly completely ignored material related to, and produced during, Elizabeth Bishop’s life, and by herself as well as by those common people that she in some way or another dealt with. Bishop is usually associated with modernist poetry, especially with Marianne Moore, her mentor, whom she invokes in the celebrated “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (Cold Spring, 1955). There she imagines Moore in a descending flight over Brooklyn Bridge very much like a witch with pointed black shoes and a never missing pointed black hat, somehow the oxymoronically hieratic pose in which the older poet has remained on the retina of our inner eye. The outer eye can’t help being struck by Marianne Moore appearing as the one person occupying the space of honour in a family picture taken of the Sitwells’ guests, at a reception, among whom Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal, W.H. Auden, and, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.
In the following lines statements will be made and suppositions formulated on the basis of documents not published to this day that originate in Bishop’s stay at Harvard as lecturer of English between 1970 and 1973. As a resident of Kirkland House between September 1993 and June 1994, in my capacity as Fulbright Professor doing a postdoctoral research, I came to investigate some of the circumstances under which Elizabeth Bishop became resident of the same house. With the help of Mrs. Diane Barrios’s, the then Assistant to the Masters of Kirkland House, I was able to bring to light notes, bills, proofs and other hand-written, as well as typed or printed material bearing Bishop’s direct print or having to do with her in various ways. Needless to say, when I presented the English Department of Harvard University with what I had discovered, Professor Helen Vendler, the immediate recipient of those freshly ‘unearthed’ documents, nearly fainted with excitement.
The sensational quality of the situation was enhanced by my finding out that my family and myself nearly ended up in the very flat that had been occupied by the famous poet in the early 70’s, that is, I-27. A last-minute change moved us on to the top-floor I-41, but I could visit Bishop’s rooms and spend some time there at one point, after my feat of archaeological success. I was further prompted into looking into the case and identified Auden works bearing Bishop’s hand-written reading remarks on page margins in the Houghton Collection of rare books and manuscripts. For the judgements below to assume more relevant contours some preliminary remarks may not be useless.
Elizabeth Bishop was physically rather frail, much of an introverted person, and one with not few odd reactions. Repeated long treatments in hospitals shed special light on various references to traumatic moments from quite early in her orphan childhood deep into her mature life: a terrifying tooth extraction experienced by her aunt, while the little girl peruses the National Geographic in the waiting room (“In the Waiting Room,” Geography III), having to bend over her cousin’s dead body in his tiny coffin (“First Death in Nova Scotia,” Questions of Travel), or calling at St. Elizabeth’s to see Ezra Pound in his lunacy (“Visits to St. Elizabeth’s, Questions of Travel).
She was a particularly sensitive person, whose artistic inclinations point to thorough interest in fine arts, especially in painting. This seems to have been unconvincingly analysed, as has her passion for Brazilian architecture. Her translations from the Portuguese, as well as her own writing on Brazilian life remain rather dimly represented in literature. The other side of her intellectual personality, ‘the philosophic mind,’ also lies somewhat dormant in the critical sources available so far, though Bishop’s making friends with John Dewey and his daughter Jane appears to have left obvious traces in her poetic career. Her L.L.D. is simply overlooked in the monographic studies published to the date.
Even her traveller’s passage through and out of this world can be fathomed with still unused instruments. A translator in whatever sense of the word, Elizabeth Bishop has left us English renditions of selections from other literatures, poetic impressions of her peripatetic existence – translations from one culture to another, from one region to another, from one territory to another – and transpositions from one art to another. To testify to this are such volumes of verse as North and South (1946), Brazil (1962) Questions of Travel (1965), Geography III (1969). Constantly on the move, at home and yet always freshly a stranger everywhere, always elsewhere as she chooses to call a later volume, she decides to live in Brazil permanently in 1951. Previously acquainted with Newfoundland (1932), Belgium, France, England, North Africa, Spain (1936-1937), Ireland, London, Paris (1937-1938), Provence, Italy (1935-1938) Florida (1939), and Mexico (1943), Bishop temporarily returns to New York City in 1958. She develops a long-lasting love for the Brazilian ‘interior’ in the early 60’s and spends various amounts of time in the United States mainly as visiting professor (University of Washington, 1966, then 1973) and as lecturer in English (Harvard, 1970-73), only to eventually take steps to return to America. It is this last academic interlude that will be touched on in this paper.
Letters sent by Bishop to, and received from, Harvard officials in view of her imminent teaching stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time of her decision to leave Brazil, bring to the fore information little capitalised on as yet. Interlarded with strenuous correspondence between the poet and then one Alice Methfessel, on the one hand, and a Californian transfer company, they bring the case home in a more satisfactory manner. Also, letters issued by the law offices of Howard, Prim, Smith, Rice & Downs based in San Francisco, as well as Bishop’s responses to them give supplementary content to the poet’s Harvard years. They have the saving grace of fleshing out persons reduced to the abstract quality of ficelle characters in our notion of Bishop’s biography. Most relevant are the personalities of two women acting somewhat blurred yet telling roles in the postmortem scenario that I have tried to draw up. These are Alice Methfessel, Assistant to the Master of Kirkland House in 1970, and one Roxanne Cumming, who appears to be moving location from the West to the East Coast at the same time as the poet. A Mr. Gerald A. Wright signs letters containing the legal aspects of the move and one Florence Corkum is the transfer company staff member responsible for the goods to be shipped across America before Elizabeth Bishop starts her fall term at Harvard.
Let us try to narrate this apparently boring story. September 30, 1970: Arthur Smithies, Master of Kirkland House, writes a warm letter of invitation to the “Lecturer on English” that “the boys” have already met and have felt impressed by. October 23: the Assistant to the Master sends a letter to Mrs. Ruth H. Morrison, 20 University Hall to ask that the three long-distance calls made by Miss Bishop, “inhabitant of the (I-27) suite for this term only,” be charged on the latter instead of on her, though they were made from her extension. We thus learn that Bishop’s phone has been out of order for some time, which explains why the note left in the door by the telephone company man, who has not found the occupant of I-27 in, is meticulously precise about the technicalities of the matter.
October 27: Mr. Wright confirms to Bishop that her things, including three McIver paintings have been sent to Massachusetts. Other personal property, such as the automobile, the fridge and some tables entrusted to his hands for sale will have to wait before he finds a relatively acceptable bargain for her. The name Roxanne occurs here for the first time in connection with a typewriter whose shipment, the owner seems to have implied, should be paid by Bishop. Mr. Wright begs to differ and makes this quite clear to his client. A hospital bill, he also says, has been submitted to Blue Cross hoping that they will pay for the poet’s recent treatment. A typewritten note signed Elizabeth Bishop and addressed to her students asks them not to come to classes on November 10, because their teacher is ill. To this I have, I hope correctly, attached a note in Bishop’s hand comprising the readings they are supposed to do in the meantime. Also attached I have found it logical to place a note in Alice’s hand saying “Miss Bishop is still sick and will not be in her office today. It is still unclear when her breathing & voice will be functioning normally.”
November 13: Mr. Wright confirms that he has found a good buyer for Bishop’s car and that he will see to it that the money received from the moving company is properly deposited in her account. November 20: The Law Offices of Howard, Prim, Smith, Rice & Downs send Bishop a list of costs advanced including long-distance telephone calls May through October, previous to her moving to Kirkland House. December 15: City Transfer & Storage Co. announce the Law Offices above that Roxanne’s typewriter has been sent to Tacoma, Washington. December 21: Mr. Wright writes a rather angry letter to City Transfer asking how big the fees they are charging can, after all, be. December 21: The same gentleman, in a missive to the poet, makes a point of stating that Roxanne’s stuff, the by now legendary typewriter, should be paid for by Roxanne herself. There is some bad news in this message just a few days before Christmas, i.e. Blue Cross are not paying for Elizabeth Bishop’s hospitalization, because she appears not to have held a policy from them at the time of her illness.
1971 starts off with a rather vexed and tongue-in-the-cheek answer by Roxanne to Mr. Wright who, as she ironically remarks, has not got it and her right! Yes. Miss Bishop is expected to pay for the famous typewriter to be removed; she, Roxanne Cumming, will be arriving in Massachusetts with only her son, her typewriter, and her brown coat; she will start her teaching at Wellesley (a college for girls, as it still is, while Harvard has long stopped admitting only males students) and wants her stuff in place in due course, failing which, nothing will ever dissuade her from considering Mr. Wright “a hard man.” To this letter of January 4 the answer sent on January 7 suggests with the same quantity as well as quality of irony that a cheap Greyhound transport could be a solution for poor Roxanne! February 4: A US $ 450.00 cheque received by Roxanne at Wellesley College from Elizabeth Bishop suggests that the account has been settled. There will be no further replies from the vocal typewriter owner.
A new series of letters is inaugurated by Alice Methfessel’s investigations on Miss Bishop’s behalf regarding a more settled habitation. March 24: Alice approaches one Mrs. Berger to inquire if 60 Brattle Street in Cambridge could host the poet-teacher who is staying on at Harvard. To pave her and the poet’s way to this new abode Alice describes Miss Bishop as “a distinguished poet,” winner of the 1970 National Book Award for Poetry, after the Pulitzer Prize in the 50’s, a “very talented painter” and a “gracious, charming, amusing lady.” Mention is expressly made of Bishop’s decision to sell off her property in Brazil and settled won in the States. This is confirmed by a small add item in the Saturday Review (New York) of May 28, in which the poet’s house features for sale.
A set of letters cover Miss Bishop’s preparations and Miss Methfessel’s assiduous assistance aiming at a secure, smooth, and peaceful move to 60 Brattle Street # 205. The keys to the flat are with Alice. Elizabeth is due back on September 2 or 3. A letter of June 29 from one Mr. Clapp, a Rockport oculist, informs “dear Mrs. Bishop” that the left lens in her spectacles will have to be replaced and that she can collect her glasses when she returns, but could she please, via her “daughter,” send him word about whether she wants her lens replaced immediately or whether it is OK for her to collect her glasses herself in early September. Alice mistaken for Bishop’s daughter gives some indication of the age difference between the two women – Bishop was 60 in 1971 – as it does in terms of their most likely being seen in each other’s company on some kind of regular basis.
Meanwhile City Transfer fail to meet their customers’ requirements or even commonsensical expectations, as we are led to understand from a letter sent them in a fit of fury by Alice, on July 14, complaining about the delay in shipping miss Bishop’s things. The following day City Transfer are happy to report that their client’s stuff has been shipped to 60 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. Jul 17: A cable from Belo Horizonte addressed to Alice ends with “loved Elizabeth.” Two days later Alice loses her temper at City Transfer asking for Roxanne’s stuff to be paid by Elizabeth. Jealousy? The typewriter she uses seems to skip spaces at times. Fate? August 16: City Transfer confirm the last details of the whole shipment.
Bishop’s new fall term at Harvard is recorded in the Kirkland House record. There she features as a 1934 A.B. graduate from Vassar and a 1969 L.L.D. from Smith that is, from one of the lawyers whose offices have dealt with her moving. Her presence on campus seems very successful and on November 15 Martin Peretz, on behalf of the Signet Society in Cambridge, takes pleasure in inviting her at the 101st Annual Dinner, where she is expected to read a poem, and where the speaker will be none else but Sir Isaiah Berlin! December 21: Milton Katz, Director of International Legal Studies thanks her for having accepted to participate in the yearly ceremony to be crowned by a luncheon hosted by the celebrated Fogg Museum.
January 3, 1972: Bishop apologises to Mr. Conrad W. Oberdorfer from Boston for having asked a second time to be sent the Robert Peterson manuscript as part of her recommendation for the winner of the Amy Lowell Travelling Fellowship. She has certainly opted for this poet to whom travelling will definitely do good! January 72: Bishop complains to Michael Schmitt about her condition after more hospital days and proudly reports that she has stopped smoking cigars! She wants to see a translation from Pessoa and acknowledges having finished the Brazilian poetry anthology that she has been working on for some time. Also she congratulates Schmitt on his recently founded Carcanet Press. January 7: Elizabeth Bishop is sorry to have delayed answering the invitation sent by Peretz for the Annual Dinner at Harvard. Reason: she has recently been in hospital again.
Two recent studies dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop refer to Alice Methfessel. Brett Covendish Millier’s Ph.D. dissertation entitled Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Stanford University, 1986) notices that at Harvard the poet had made friends with an energetic young lady, administrative assistant at Kirkland, that the two of them took trips to the Galapagos Islands Sweden, Norway, and the Soviet Union, to Greece, and American university towns, and that when Elizabeth moved to Boston this young lady also moved and managed her affairs and correspondence. George Monteiro (ed.), Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1996) takes a note of one Mildred J. Nashe presenting Alice Methfessel as a dear person to the poet, in fact, “her friend.” Nashe, apparently, had given Bishop a hand with cleaning and setting her library in order, feeling very happy indeed to be presented by the local and national celebrity with old books, a can-opener, and other odds and ends! Among other things, she had been offered two cans of grapefruit juice which Elizabeth Bishop and Alice Methfessel had bought in view of a trip to Maine in the summer!
In the Kirkland House box containing the Bishop stuff that I have tried to decrypt there were successive hand- and typewritten versions of “Breath,” one of the “Four Poems” included in Cold Spring (1955). Not little of the charm, wisdom, and irony of this short poem resides in the odd spacing achieved with the help of the poet’s typewriter. From the correspondence we have decoded we learn that she had acquired works by Loren McIver, the painter who, together with her husband, the writer Lloyd Frankenberg, had introduced her to John Dewey. We can also conclude more emphatically on Bishop’s health problems, some caused by heavy drinking and cigar smoking. As for the type of writers she favoured, other than the canonicals she had venerated (Wordsworth, Hopkins, Shakespeare, Poe, Shelley, Whitman, and, more recently, Stevens, Jarrell, and Lowell, and, of course, Marianne Moore (the other possibly gay connection)), she seems to have favoured people in love with travelling and the beauties of varying geography. For one thing, her Geography III volume of 1971 – full Harvard and Kirkland House years – is dedicated to Alice Methfessel. The latter’s love-and-hate relation to typewriters, a special human type, and writers may be clad in a mantle of radiant light now, and shine the more lucidly sour, for that matter.

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