- The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop ed. by Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis
The appearance of The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop announces, but was not necessary to ensure, the canonization of this Canadian-American poet. Her Complete Poems: 1927–1979 has built up a substantial body of scholarly criticism as well as a robust fan base. Yet Bishop scholars aim at a constantly moving target. “The verdict is still out,” write the editors, Angus Cleghorn and Jonathan Ellis, “on whether posthumous publication of drafts, fragments, juvenilia, letters, prose works, and other writings has proved Bishop’s initial refusal to publish correct. Has enlarging the canon of published material aided or hampered attempts to boost her reputation?” The verdict is not out on her reputation (which “has risen dramatically since her death, in part owing to the publication of new work,” according to the book’s abstract), but her ever-growing oeuvre makes it difficult to decide what her poems mean and in what context to understand them. The most recent volume of letters by Bishop appeared in 2011, just three years before this Companion. Its contributors faced the challenging task of presenting an overview of her work while also grappling with new material on which no consensus has been reached. The result is a collection of essays that are somewhat inconsistent in their approach and often overlap; yet, as a forum for the leading lights of Bishop criticism, the volume contains essays of interest and a useful review of existing scholarship.
The book consists of two parts: “Contexts and Issues” and “Major Works” (it also includes a chronology, introduction, and bibliography). The student wishing for an introduction to Bishop might begin with the first four chapters of Part Two, which tell the narrative of the poet’s life while describing the four volumes of poetry she published in her lifetime. Sandra Barry’s “In the Village: Bishop and Nova Scotia” is primarily concerned with Bishop’s early life and the influence of her mother; Bethany [End Page 394] Hicok’s “Becoming a Poet: From North to South” examines Bishop’s first two volumes in light of the travelling poet’s “encounters with the other.” Barbara Page’s “Home, Wherever That May Be” places Bishop’s poems and prose of Brazil in biographical and cultural context, usefully identifying some of the local referents that may puzzle readers of Questions of Travel. These core chapters culminate in Lloyd Schwartz’s fascinating personal account of Bishop in her later years, “Back to Boston: Geography III and Other Late Poems.”
The reader might now turn back to the beginning for “Contexts and Issues,” including “Bishop and Biography” by Thomas Travisano; “Bishop, History, and Politics” by Steven Gould Axelrod; and “Bishop: Race Class, and Gender” by Kirstin Hotelling Zona. Although Bishop’s reputation may be secure, these chapters reveal multiple critical conflicts over her work. Was she “confessional,” and to what extent? Did she have a colonialist sensibility, or did she protest war and injustice? Can we forgive her insensitivity toward issues of race because she understood the constructedness of identity? Apparently, a central issue in Bishop criticism is deciding whether her values fit well enough with ours that we can continue to make her our hero. Susan Rosenbaum’s “Bishop and the Natural World” starts out in the same vein (Bishop “does not present an idealized nature untouched by forms of human mediation”; “her poetic treatments of nature often comment … on gendered and sexual norms”), before turning to an excellent overview of Bishop’s surrealism, including extensive citations. Part One concludes with Bonnie Costello’s “Bishop and the Poetic Tradition,” perhaps the most informative essay in the volume, examining Bishop’s three “Best Friends” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, and Charles Baudelaire) as well as a host of lesser influences.
The last three chapters focus on Bishop’s correspondence (Siobhan Phillips), Bishop and visual art (Peggy Samuels), and, finally, her posthumous publications (Lorrie Goldensohn), which are also discussed throughout the volume. Goldensohn offers an interesting analysis of Bishop’s process...