A Quick Kid In A Caper
Elizabeth Bishop met Lota de Macedo Soares in Mexico in 1942. Lota was traveling with her girlfriend at the time, the American dancer Mary Stearns Morse. When she visited Lota in Brazil, she fell victim to a violent allergic reaction to cashews. Nursing Bishop back to health in 1951 led to the two falling in love and spending the next 15 years together. A talented architect, Lota built a studio for Bishop on her property in Rio.
In the late sixties, Lota suffered a nervous breakdown brought on in party by political circumstances in Brazil. Eventually, Bishop couldn’t take it anymore and returned to New York. Lota followed her there in 1967 after a year of threatening suicide. Upon her arrival in New York, she took an overdose of valium and went into a coma before passing away. The following excerpts from Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell as well as her therapist and various amateur biographers detail the years following Lota’s suicide.
I’m afraid you thought I was drunk when I called you, but I really wasn’t — just closer to hysteria, or more hysterical, than I have ever been in my life, and although I realized there wasn’t much you could do or say all those thousands of miles away it helped some just to hear you. I am afraid by now you are pretty bored with me and my neurotic friends, etc. — but I thought you liked and admired Lota when you were here and I sort of wanted you to know, maybe, that I wasn’t entirely wrong in my complaints from Seattle. I felt at the time that you thought I was being loyal and unsympathetic about her work, etc. — but as you can surely see now, it is all much worse than I thought, even.
I suppose the person closest is the last to realize how terribly sick someone is — but things have been getting worse and worse for several years now.
I only wish to God I knew if they are doing the right thing. Her nurse comes here to see me once in a while and yesterday said she is staying awake more now, and eating more — but talks of me constantly, etc.
She has had violent fights with all our friends except two — and it seems they all thought she was “mad” several years before I did. But of course I got it all the time and almost all the night, poor dear. I do know my own faults, you know. But this is really not because of me, although now all her obsessions have fixed on me — 1st love, then hate, etc. I finally refused to stay alone with her nights any longer — she threatened to throw herself off the terrace.
I have almost decided to try the US thing. I don’t know what is right really, and wish God would lean down and tell me. I hate to leave Lota like this, but it seems almost as if it were a question of saving my own life or sanity, too, now.
Have you ever gone through caves? I did once, in Mexico, and hated it so I’ve never gone through the famous ones right near here. Finally, after hours stumbling along, one sees daylight ahead — faint blue glimmer — and it never looked so wonderful before. That’s what I feel as thought I were waiting for now — just the faintest glimmer that I’m going to get out of this, somehow, alive.
One phrase I can’t abide — it may be what everyone says at present, but it always offends me — is “to have sex.” (Even Isherwood has used it.) If it isn’t “making love” — what other way can it be put? (I first heard about it years ago when the famous fan dancers was talking about her pet snake — maybe that prejudiced me.) It seems like such an ugly, generalized sort of expression for something — love, lust, or what have you — always unique, and so much more complex than “having sex.”
I’ve never studied “Imagism” or “Transcendentalism” or any isms consciously. I just read all the poetry that came my way, old and new. At 15 I loved Whitman; at 16 someone gave me the book of Hopkins that had just been re-issued. I never really liked Emily Dickinson much, except a few nature poems, until that complete edition came out a few years ago and I read it all more carefully. I still hate the oh-the-pain-of-it-all poems, but I admire many others, and mostly, phrases more than whole poems. I particularly admire her having dared to do it, all alone — a bit like Hopkins in that. (I have a poem about them comparing them two self-caged birds, but it’s unfinished.) This is snobbery — but I don’t like the humorless, Martha-Graham kind of person who does like Emily Dickinson.
In fact I think snobbery governs a great deal of my taste. I have been very lucky in having had, most of my life, some witty friends, and I mean real wit, quickness, wild fancies, remarks that make one cry with laughing. (I seem to notice a tendency in literary people at present to think that any unkind or heavily ironical criticism is “wit,” and any old “ambiguity” is now considered “wit,” too, but that’s not what I mean.) The aunt I liked best was a very funny woman: most of my close friends have been funny people; Lota de Macedo Soares is funny. Pauline Hemingway a good friend until her death in 1951 was the wittiest person, man or woman, that I’ve ever known. Marianne was very funny — Cummings, too, of course.
Perhaps I need some people to cheer me up. They are usually stoical, unsentimental, and physically courageous.
I have a vague theory that one learns most — I have learned most – from having someone suddenly make fun of something one has taken seriously up until then. I mean about life, the world, and so on. This is again a form of snobbery. I dislike extremely bookish people (I do happen to love some, but I think they’d be better off if they weren’t so bookish), and I don’t enjoy writers who talk literary anecdotes all the time or are preoccupied in putting other writers in the proper pecking order. Criticism is important, “weeding out has to be done,” (R. Lowell), but I don’t want to do it. I feel that art would probably struggle along without it in very much the same way, probably. I trust my own taste and usually don’t want to explain it — at the same time I occasionally wish I could explain it better.
I had meant to remark that I have been seeing some poems around by an Anne Sexton that reminded me quite a bit of you and also were quite good, at least some of them — and the same day your last letter came Houghton Mifflin sent me her book, with your blurb on the jacket and that sad photograph of her on the other side of it. She is good, in spots, but there is all the difference in the world, I’m afraid, between her kind of simplicity and that of Life Studies, her kind of egocentricity that is simply that, and yours that has been —what would be the reverse of sublimated I wonder — anyway, made intensely interesting, and painfully applicable to every reader. I feel I know too much about her, whereas, although I know much more about you, I’d like to know a great deal more, etc, — oh well it is fairly obvious, isn’t it?
I like some of her really mad ones best; those that sound as thought she’d written them all at once.
I liked Roethke when I saw him — huge people like that often have that lightning quickness. I went to Grand Central with him in cab; he was almost missing his train to the west and I suggested my doing something while he did something else — I forget what, but to help him catch the train, and his last words to me were, “You’re a quick kid in a caper.”
The biographical note in Who’s Who is correct — or was, the last time I saw it. I never lived in Worcester, however — I left before I was a year old and spent only a few months there when I was 6-7, with my father’s parents. The rest of my childhood I spent with my mother’s parents in Nova Scotia – mostly long summers, although I started school there — and with a devoted aunt, in or near Boston, until I went away to school at 16. I also went to summer camp on Cape Cod for 6 summers. I’ve never lived in Newfoundland — I took a walking trip there one summer when I was at Vassar. Since Vassar I’ve lived in New York, Paris, Key West, Mexico, etc — mostly New York, and Key West until about 1948. Then since late 1951 Brazil — with several trips back, of course, one of 8 months or so.
Robert Lowell compressed my life even more, recently, into a very short poem that was in the Kenyon Review, called “The Scream.”
A scream, the echo of a scream,
now only a thinning echo . . .
As a child in Nova Scotia,
I used to watch the sky,
Swiss sky, too blue, too dark.
A cow drooled green grass strings.
made cow flop, smack, smack, smack!
and tried to brush off its flies
on a lilac bush—all,
forever, at one fell swoop!
In the blacksmith’s shop, the horseshoes sailed through the dark,
like bloody little moons,
red-hot, hissing, protesting,
as they drowned in the pan.
Back and away and back!
Mother kept coming and going—
with me, without me!
Mother’s dresses were black
or white, or black-and-white.
One day she changed to purple,
and left her mourning. At the fitting,
the dressmaker crawled on the floor,
eating pins, like Nebuchadnezzar
on his knees eating grass.
Drummers sometimes came
selling gilded red
and green books, unlovely books!
The people in the pictures
wore clothes like the purple dress.
Later, she gave the scream,
not even loud at first . . .
when she went away I thought
“But you don’t have to love
your heart won’t let you!”
A scream! But they are all gone,
those aunts and aunts, a grandfather,
a grandmother, my mother—
even her scream—too frail
for us to hear their voices long.
The trouble is — excuse my clichés — as people grow older, non-artists, that is, they do have to steel themselves so much, forget so much and try to pretend everything’s all right so much. They are afraid, probably rightly, that poetry — any art — if they take it hard, might upset them — so they pretend they like it at the same time they resist it absolutely — Nao e?
I’m feeling so much better these days.
You can find the first part of this series here.