The book is an experiment: Megan Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize winner, at times teases us by yanking us away from her main subject a troubled Nova Scotian poet with an appetite for women and drink—in favor of herself, by turns a depressed Bennington College dropout, secretary at Harvard, and poetry student of Bishop in the flesh, thus blurring the boundaries between “biography” and “memoir.” The device adds suspense (we know how the biography must end, not so the memoir). Marshall’s predominant subject is the famous late-modernist poet Elizabeth [End Page 886] Bishop: “archaically new,” Marianne Moore said of Bishop’s poetry (60). Critics tend to agree it was Bishop’s “rhetorical simplicity” that made her poems “new”; certainly the forms themselves were old.1 Yet Bishop’s keen sense of observation—and her ability to write about what she saw—make her modern, for accurate, acute observations always read as new, always feel new.
Early on, the book provides guideposts for understanding the author’s project: George Saintsbury’s 1910 epigraph defining the “sestine, sestina” as “a very elaborate measure invented by the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, imitated by Dante and other Italians, tried inexactly by Spenser, and sometimes recently attempted in English,” cues the reader to watch for a theme of old forms informing new. Lewis Turco’s 1968 quote from The Book of Forms, identifying the sestina as a “popular one,” hints at Bishop’s role in reviving the form and suggests that Marshall’s book itself will be a book of forms; and a mention of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web—Bishop’s last lover, Alice Methfessel, quoted the book’s final lines at Bishop’s Radcliffe Yard funeral—implies that a “web” of sorts will emerge. It is not too long before the reader realizes the web in question is one of women.
Indeed, a theme of women helping women is apparent early on: in the second chapter, “Crumb,” Bishop awakens in her Greenwich Village apartment and, since she apparently has forgotten to buy fresh bread, discovers only a “dry crust” available for breakfast. A ringing of the doorbell alerts her to a “weary-looking woman” representing Wonder Bread. “I don’t want to sell you anything—I want to give you something,” the woman says, tellingly; soon after, Bishop is breakfasting on “manna” (55; emphasis in original). Chapter three, “Coffee,” leads us to Brazil, where “small, impulsive and imperious Lota” (one of Bishop’s early but most influential partners) “astounds” Bishop with her “love” (103). Sheltered in “Lota’s unfinished house open to the elements, amid heaps of construction materials,” Bishop enters an unprecedented period of productivity (103). A flurry of poems Bishop sends to the New Yorker find “swift acceptance” (115). The (albeit unfinished) poem “Judy” “revive[s]” Bishop’s “passion” for a childhood crush (121).
The memoirist Mary Casal is quoted in the book. Her sentiment, “I still believe the love between two women to be the highest type now known. At the same time, I believe that it may lead to the most intense suffering known to woman” foreshadows that, where women cause joy, they also cause pain (50). In the ironically-titled chapter “Miracle” (each chapter claims for its title an end word in a “Miracle for Breakfast” stanza), Bishop “rage[s]” that she would have written “better poems” had she not “wasted” a decade and a half with Lota (197). Lota dies, leaving Bishop to write, mournfully, “No coffee can wake you . . . / No coffee” (223). Later, and on another continent, Bishop falls in love with Methfessel, only to lose Methfessel, for a time at least, to a man (274).
Yet men have just as much potential to do harm as women, it would seem. In May 1933, Bishop interviews T. S. Eliot for Vassar’s Miscellany News. Temporarily and rather mysteriously “emboldened” (perhaps it is the loosening of Eliot’s tie which allowed her to relax), Bishop “tease[s]” Eliot, referring to his verse play, Sweeney Agonistes, in which appear...