The title is misleading. “A Miracle for Breakfast” is indeed one of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, though not one of her best. The only distinction it has, so far as I know, is that John Ashbery read it at the memorial for Bishop in Agassiz House, Radcliffe Yard, on October 21, 1979. He chose it because it was the first poem by Bishop to which he had paid attention. Ms. Marshall did not attend the memorial: she found a recording of it on the Internet. In fact, she did not know Bishop at all well. She saw her for the first time in one of Robert Lowell’s poetry classes at Harvard—“a small older woman with short, stiff white hair, clad in an elegant light-wool suit”—where she came as a visitor and read “Poem,” handing out copies of it to the students. Ms. Marshall gives a simple paraphrase of the poem, but does not indicate how it was received in class: did Professor Lowell say anything, did he ask Bishop a question, did any of the students?
The first thirty-seven pages take Elizabeth from birth in Worcester, MA, on February 8, 1911 to Vassar by way of Walnut Hill School and summers at Camp Chequesset. Then suddenly on page thirty-eight we have: “I was the worst kind of student poet,” but the “I” is not Bishop, it’s Megan Marshall in the first of several autobiographical chapters. She had a job as a secretary in one of Harvard’s offices. Her life thus far: escape from Pasadena, inexpensive room in Cambridge, her mother, her feckless father, their divorce.The next chapter shows us Bishop up to her worst year, 1950: the unrequited love of Margaret Miller, the crucial meeting with MarianneMoore, Louise Crane, the accident in France, Key West, Marjorie Stevens, Loren MacIver, New York City, drink, “in my cups—kegs.” Most of this is common knowledge, or common lore. On to more of Marshall’s autobiography: “I latched on to my roommate, a millionairess eight times over, with a desperate admiring love.” Anne Sexton’s “The Fury of Cocks.” Access to Bishop’s class in verse writing. “please don’t hand in poems that have already been handed in and discussed in other classes.” That was a problem. Marshall had written a poem in Catullan hendecasyllabics for Robert Fitzgerald’s class. Waiting for his response, she decided that she could submit the same poem to Bishop’s. At the end of the semester, Bishop took her aside to say that she had been compelled to lower her grade because she had submitted the same poem to another class. A proper decision, in my view, but Marshall has nursed the wound for forty years. Back to Bishop. Brazil. Lota de Macedo Soares—“a collector of Calders”—her home in Samambaia, and Lilli Correia de Araújo. Bishop had a trust fund that paid her basic expenses, and she started winning the prizes and getting travel grants from the foundations, mainly at the behest of Lowell, Marianne Moore, and Katharine White, her editor at The New Yorker. Besides, she had a flair for attracting lovers who were quite well off and willing to pay the bills for two. Louise Crane brought her car with her on the boat to France.
A book more appropriately called “Two Lives: Elizabeth Bishop and Megan Marshall.”
A new chapter on a familiar episode: Bishop accompanies Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura Archera on a trip to Brasilia and an Uialapiti village. I feel that I’ve already heard enough about this. Back to Marshall. A new boyfriend, a new poem, Fitzgerald “leaving his wife of twenty-five years for a young professor of English literature at Yale.” Bishop’s new lover, Roxanne Cumming, in San Francisco. Back to Marshall in a chapter called “June 14, 1977: Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall.” A shock on page 235, “when Red Warren stepped to the podium.” I think I knew Robert Penn Warren rather better than Megan Marshall did, but it never occurred to me to call him Red. In this book I’ve had to get used to Cal, Lizzie, Frank, Jimmie, and Adrienne. Back to Warren: “He was nearly spitting out the words of a poem called ‘Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,’ but his stretched and battered words were at first unintelligible.” Marshall must have consulted the poem between then and now because she quotes it generously before saying “How I wished for an end to Warren’s savage bluster.” No sign of Bishop.
Approaching the end. Alice Methfessel. Alice lost to Peter. Alice found again. Bishop writes “One Art,” which I didn’t know required seventeen drafts. I would prefer the eleventh, where she has “(Say it!)” instead of the definitive “(Write it!).” Bishop’s illnesses, the persistent asthma, anemia, and now a hiatal hernia. “Elizabeth once boasted to Cal that she’d ‘never met a woman I couldn’t make,’ ” a boast hard to reconcile with the painfully shy, withdrawn woman we’ve heard so much about. She died of a cerebral aneurysm.
“Envoy: Patou Thai, Belmont Center, January 23, 2014” has another of those preposterous outbursts of autobiography, like the rage against Warren’s reading. Marshall gets a job with the poetry editor of The Atlantic, Peter Davison. She is to read all the submitted poems and advise:
It was an important job, and it turned out I did it badly. I hadn’t recognized the work of my boss’s friends. Writers with three names and what I considered fussy poems, like John Frederick Nims and John Hall Wheelock, had been receiving D form letters. Peter Davison was outraged, and I was fired. I might write good poems someday, the burly blustering poet informed me in an exit interview in his book-lined corner office, but I’d never be an editor. There would be no second chance: I learned afterward from the fiction editor that Mary Updike, John Updike’s ex-wife, who had given up the job earlier that fall, wanted it back. Who could say no to a recently divorccd mother of four? Mary Updike was another of Peter Davison’s friends.
This strikes me as legally questionable, but I’m no lawyer. I am pleased to be reminded of Marianne Moore’s comment on “The Fish”: “one is not glad of the creature’s every perquisite.” The book would have been more acceptable to me if it had been called “Two Lives: Elizabeth Bishop and Megan Marshall.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 83
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