Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer that surprise is the one quality every poem should have. I have been chronicling Bishop’s life and art for more than 40 years, and she has never lost the power to surprise me. Soon after I began conducting research for Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, I was astonished to discover a cache of nearly 50 intimate, brilliant letters that Bishop began writing at the age of 14 to a talented fellow summer camper and aspiring poet named Louise Bradley—letters that had been carefully preserved and were now tucked away in a little-known archive. I had already read thousands of Bishop’s letters and served as principal editor of Words in Air, her acclaimed complete correspondence with fellow poet Robert Lowell. But here was something entirely new: an unexpected window onto Bishop’s development both as a woman and an artist, from adolescence into youthful maturity.
The Artist as a Young Woman
The outlines of Bishop’s traumatic childhood are already well known. Her father died when she was eight months old; her mother suffered a permanent mental breakdown when Bishop was five. More recently we learned that, after the loss of both parents, Bishop was repeatedly abused by a maternal uncle. To Bradley, a young Bishop wrote, “I haven’t any family whatever—excepting a few aunts and uncles who are all trying to bring me up a different way.” And, she added, “I think I lead a double life—school and camp—and the in between times are only the periods of interment while I await the latest resurrection.” She also confessed, “I would give everything I own for one hour of complete—understanding.”
“I think I lead a double life,” wrote Bishop.
Still, her letters to Bradley reveal that even in adolescence Bishop was quietly fighting back, by refusing to be anything but herself. She reveals this commitment through her intense artistic purpose, her keenly sardonic sense of humor, and the early glimmerings of her lifelong quest for adventure. Bishop repeatedly tried to lure Bradley into sharing a romantic life, perhaps on a South Sea island, where, “with a piano and stacks of books—and the sea and sun—and stars … we’ll play together—not just music.”
When I read these letters, I was startled to discover that although Bishop never won Louise Bradley’s consent to a life together in the South Seas, she did fulfill variations on that dream more than once—first on the island of Key West, where she lived in her late 20s with her college friend and lover, Louise Crane, and later in Brazil, at Samambaia, the mountain retreat she shared for 16 years with her wealthy and multi-talented lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. There they built a home together, in a secluded, ultra-modern house perched high above the old imperial city of Petropolis. They also shared a penthouse apartment in Rio overlooking the sea. These early letters to Bradley helped me to see that the “art of losing” Bishop ruefully celebrated with such poignant irony in her poem “One Art” was linked to an art of finding—an art that demanded the sort of encounter, appraisal, and understated epiphany that were the driving force of both her life and work.
Thomas Travisano’s Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop is out now from Viking