Dispatches from the Sickhouse

After a remarkably healthy winter our luck ran out: last week Vincent came down with the flu — and believe me when I tell you that this skinny skinny boy really should not do without food for any length of time — and then, as I suppose was inevitable, on Saturday night, Aidan woke up crying:  as soon as I picked him up the generous boy shared the entire contents of his stomach with me.

All of which is to  say that I will continue to be behind and neglectful of my reading & writing on the interwebs for the time being.

Quick list (which is all I have time for): Not-Necessarily-New Books I’m looking forward to reading:

  • Just when I thought I’d reached the end of my Lowell/Bishop jag, I discovered Helen Vendler’s newly released book of essays from Princeton University Press, Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill.
  • Pulleys & Locomotion, by Rachel Galvin (Black Lawrence Press).
  • Black Leapt In, by Chris Forhan (Barrow Street Press).
  • Tulips, Water, Ash, by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet (Northeastern University Press). I’ve been wanting to read this since I read Emma Bolden‘s terrific review in the fall 2009 issue of Poets’ Quarterly. This collection was the 2009 Morse Poetry Prize winner. I tend to really like the winners of this prize: Chris Forhan’s The Actual Moon, The Actual Stars, the 2003 winner, is one of my favorite books. I was disappointed when I heard they’d suspended the contest.
  • Garnet Lanterns, by Sally Rosen Kindred (2005 Winner Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest). I love the cover of this. Don’t hate me because I’m shallow. I’ve read her poems in various places, so I’m sure I’m going to love the poems, too.
  • Flood Year, by Sara Tracey (Dancing Girl Press).
  • The Traffic in Women, by Kristina Marie Darling (Dancing Girl Press).
  • A Classic Game of Murder, by Katie Cappella (Dancing Girl Press).
  • How to Study Birds, by Sarah Gardner (Dancing Girl Press). Yes, someone took advantage of DGP’s awesome winter sale. Great stuff! And great covers here, too.

Cal & Elizabeth

On [what was] this day [when I began this post but is now yesterday] in 1917, Robert Lowell was born. I’m about a third of the way through Paul Mariani’s biography of Lowell, Lost Puritan, and I’m liking it more than the Hamilton so far — Mariani, while just as blunt about the wreckage Lowell’s breakdowns wrought, seems more compassionate on the whole, and less judgmental. I have the sense that Mariani actually likes Cal Lowell, for all his flaws, which makes Lost Puritan a much more full-blooded read.

Just one aspect of havoc his mental illness inflicted on his life, an aspect that gets forgotten, I think, amidst the stories of his infidelities (manic episodes were inevitably accompanied by an affair — they were practically symptoms in themselves) and outrageous behavior, is the bald fact of time lost. Nearly once a year for, what, a decade? more? Cal suffered a breakdown followed by months, months, of recovery in various clinics or institutions.

Elizabeth Bishop suffered from depression, and was a serious alcoholic. I had no idea. Characterizations of her tend to be in the reticent & self-deprecating vein. But she was in her own way just as screwed up as Cal. In her later years she seemed to be constantly recovering from some broken bone or another due to drunken spills. She hated to be alone, solitude paralyzed her — she would find it impossible to write and would be sucked into another cycle of drinking and subsequent stints somewhere to dry out. Again, all the time lost.

All appearances to the contrary (the size of his Collected!), Cal was not constantly writing new poems. There are poems he worked and worked on, only to discard either in their entirety or in huge part. And while Elizabeth is the one portrayed as a perfectionist, he also revised endlessly. But Elizabeth certainly wrote more than she included in her Complete Poems, as evidenced by the much-debated Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox, edited by Alice Quinn.

Comparatively speaking, they both led pretty privileged lives: lots of travel, summer homes, often free of the responsibility to work outside of writing. This is especially true of Elizabeth, though her nomadic life was a source of strain and a corollary to her larger sense of homelessness and aloneness.

But they sacrificed so much of themselves and their writing life to their illnesses. In this respect alone, the poetry they did manage to write is truly a triumph, written in spite of their sufferings, not because of. That so much of it is outstanding is a literary wonder.

But it seems to me that Cal was able to write, to find solace in writing, in a way that Elizabeth, stymied by self-doubt and insecurity, could not.  And whatever its cause (her status as a woman poet? as a lesbian woman poet?), this, in a her lifeful of grief, is what saddens me most.

Reading Tonight!

I’m reading, along with Kevin Barents and Chloe Garcia-Roberts, at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge tonight as part of their New Voices: Emerging Writers evening. I admit that I’m feeling intimidated by the prospect of reading in this series, at this historical house that has heard the voices of so many major & minor poets. From their website:

Founded in 1973, The Blacksmith House Poetry Series features both established and emerging writers of poetry and fiction. The series is sponsored by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and holds readings at the Blacksmith House, site of the village smithy and spreading chestnut tree of Longfellow’s 1839 poem “The Village Blacksmith.”

This will the first time I’m reading with poets I don’t know, whose work I’m unfamiliar with, though I of course Googled them to get a taste — because I’m a do-my-homework kind of girl — but it sure adds an extra element of excitement to choosing my set list. Which I still have to do.

In addition to the poems and Words in Air, I’ve finished the Ian Hamilton biography of Lowell and Brett C. Millier’s biography of Bishop, and I’m about to start on Paul Mariani’s biography of Lowell — because yes, as it turns out, one is not enough — I’m also looking for what else I can read on Bishop. Both lives strike different chords in me, make me sad in different ways, and I want to talk about that, but I have too much to do today before we leave — it’s a bit of a drive for us to get to Cambridge — so it will have to wait. And I’m far too nervous to be able to contruct an articulate thought anyway! With any luck, I’ll be able to post a favorable report of my evening tomorrow.

Draft of the Week, #14: Part III

NEW YORKER illustration from review of WORDS IN AIR.

Writing this last cento using poems by both Lowell and Bishop was the most gratifying of work. Putting their voices, these two poets who were such good friends, in direct dialogue with each other gradually took on more and more significance for me. It feels like a Valentine of sorts.

Thanks again to Carolee and Jill over at ReadWritePoem for the cento education!

This’ll come down in a couple days. Hope your Valentine brings you chocolate.


The Tortoise & the Hare Redux: Lowell & Bishop

Having finished the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, I feel greatly affectionate towards them both. I can imagine how the plotline would get sexed up, but I’m stating here for the record that I think a future biopic should without question cast Robert Downey, Jr. as RL, and for EB, perhaps Meryl Streep: I think she’s more petite than her outsized talent makes her seem, and, well, Meryl Streep = Awesome.  Someone should definitely get to work on this.

I’ve begun on the poems now. What a striking contrast it is to hold RL’s Collected Poems in one hand, and EB’s Complete Poems in the other! As a result, yes, I do think RL’s output is more uneven, but I’m still finding much I love, particularly his book of sonnets, For Lizzie & Harriet (1973). Maybe I can appreciate them more now because of my own growing family, but his poems from the stance of fatherhood really move me.

Yes, reading the letters first was putting the cart before the horse, but it’s reading the letters that gave me a new appreciation for RL & EB as poets, strange as that may sound, and compelled me to go back to the poems.

Because there’s a lot of poem-talk between them, with drafts going back & forth.  Real discussion ensued RL’s troubling inclusion of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in some poems, and my thoughts about this action, which always seemed patently mean, has evolved.

Not that it would be, or is, any of my business, generally, but this was/is an issue of ethics in poetry (as EB said in a letter, “…art just isn’t worth that much.”). Reading Words in Air, I could see how RL grappled with his choices, as a poet/husband/father, how his decisions vis-à-vis Elizabeth H.’s letters becoming grist for his poetic mill were not made lightly or in spite. And that changes a lot for me, as a reader. He did what he thought the poems required, but not coldly or without heartfelt debate.

I know it should be all about the poems, and when I read a poem, I do try to leave biography out of it. However, intentions matter. If a poet holds certain prejudicial beliefs, I might be able appreciate his/her work, but I’d never admire it in a meaningful way. I’d never be able to carry such a poet’s poems in my heart.

Re: Draft of the Week, #11.

I’ve read various poems by both Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and I have a copy of Lowell’s Complete Prose that, although I haven’t finished it, I’ve read a fair amount of. (I got it for $1 in 2008, what a steal!) But somehow I never realized what true friends they were to each other until last year, when I read all the brouhaha that accompanied the publication of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

I at last borrowed a copy from the library last week and am slowly making my way through it, but first and foremost I am moved by the great affection they have for each other on display in every letter.  For example, I’ve read up to 1961, and Lowell is about to publish Imitations, his book of translations.  He sent the MS to Bishop for her opinion, as he did many of his poems. However, Bishop was more than a little ambivalent about this book:

I’ve at last made up my mind to attempt something very difficult. You said “Let me know things you question,” and I’m going to and I pray you will please not be proud and sensitive. I am very much worried by the French translations, particularly the Rimbaud ones. Your English, your force and meter, are very over-riding and of course the meter of the Racine is a tour de force, I think….But once in a while I think you have made changes that sound like mistakes, and are open to misinterpretation. … I don’t want to sound scared, over-cautious, afraid of criticism, but I do want you to keep your reputation for solid, severe, painstaking workmanship. Your star is so very high right now.

Bishop is so manifestly worried for her friend, she writes two letters in this vein, detailing her concerns.  I found it very moving, the care with which she clearly chose her words, how much she seemed to agonize over it all.

I’m about halfway done, and absolutely need to read much more: I requested a biography of Bishop, and of course the poems of each, from the library, with Lowell’s biography next on the list. Does anyone have a recommendation for a good one? It looks like the two to choose from are the Paul Mariani and the Ian Hamilton, and I’m leaning towards the Hamilton at the moment.

It would be lovely to begin the New Year with a brand new draft, but the poem I’m working on right now is, wonder of wonders, a bit long, for me, a poem in four parts, and not yet finished. I could post part one, but the sections really are integral to each other, so I’ve decided that you’ll have to take my word for it: I am indeed writing & being ever so industrious. Thanks for visiting me here and keeping me honest. Thank you for reading, whether you comment or not, and thanks to the legion of other writers in the blogosphere who have immeasurably enriched my life through their posts and friendship. Here’s to another poetry-filled year!