...[an] elegant, moving biography ... Taking up this biography, I sometimes felt that I could not possibly learn anything new. I was wrong. To begin with, Ms. Marshall was privy to letters kept by Bishop’s last lover, Alice Methfessel, and only made available on Alice’s death in 2009 ... But Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast has more to recommend it than these shocking revelations. It is a shapely experiment, mixing memoir with biography ... The difficulty of knowing another person becomes a theme of Ms. Marshall’s book. Each of her six major chapters takes for its title one of the six end words used in each stanza of A Miracle for Breakfast, and in turn each chapter is followed by a briefer memoir of Ms. Marshall’s life, her own family wreckage and conflicted relationship with her subject. The structure shouldn’t work, but it does, by involving us in recognition ... This new biography fuses sympathy with intelligence, sending us back to Bishop’s marvelous poems.
Maybe it’s fitting that a new biography of the brilliant and troubled poet Elizabeth Bishop is something of a beautiful mess ... Marshall employs a keen eye for nuance, drama and psychology to write about a life both depressing and in Technicolor ... Marshall vividly traces Bishop’s struggles: with grief, shyness, booze, broken romances and long periods when she produced no poetry at all. But her skill as biographer tends to break down when it comes to exegeses of individual poems ... Marshall ends the book abruptly, with very little material after Bishop’s death in 1979, a regrettable omission, since Bishop’s reputation has grown since then, with publication of her letters, biographies and works of criticism ... The author’s decision to include a half-dozen short, first-person chapters recounting a creative writing course she took from Bishop at Harvard in 1976 fizzles. Besides stopping the flow, these self-absorbed autobiographical digressions are antithetical to Bishop’s own healthy disregard for the confessional poetry of such peers as Lowell, Plath, Sexton and Berryman. A reader who skips these chapters is better able to savor a fascinating and courageous life, uninterrupted.
Marshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting. The author, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard in the mid- to late-1970s, has made the awkward decision to interlard the text at regular intervals with detailed stories from her own life: her youth, her depression, her attempts to study music and poetry ... Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest ... This book does not contain strong or especially perceptive readings of Bishop’s poems. Marshall fails to fully set the milieu of midcentury American poetry. She lacks seizing talons for detail ... As Bishop aged, she increasingly took on younger lovers, sometimes women less than half her age. After decades of reading about the late-life sexual exploits of male poets, this is tonic.
[Marshall] fluently captures Bishop. Still, despite new information from the Vassar archive, there is something that resists exposing. Perhaps that’s why Marshall chooses to frame her biography with autobiography ... Even so, as biographer she probes Bishop’s psychology, love life, and feelings about her contemporaries with surprising completeness ... Until now, our knowledge of Bishop’s personal life has largely been limited to her fractured relationship with the Brazilian Lota and her suicide — this is partly owing to the fact that interest in the perfectionist Bishop, whose lifetime output was modest, has grown considerably since her 1979 death. Marshall has unearthed more, some of it stunningly intimate.
The reader’s concern about the author constantly interrupting the narrative to discuss the effects this unfortunate incident had on her is remedied only on the last page. That’s a gift for the persevering reader. Marshall adds details about Bishop’s life she couldn’t possibly have gotten from Bishop’s correspondence and her interviews with many of Bishop’s living friends. Even more disturbing is the fact that she often quotes only parts of Bishop’s poems and resists analyzing them in any depth. This is not a normal literary biography. It slowly dawns on the reader what Marshall is really up to. She is writing a makeup exercise for the one she’d failed, a novel as much as it is a biography. Excellent Bishop biographies already exist. In the end it becomes an extraordinary book about how Elizabeth Bishop moved people in her life and her poetry.
What Marshall’s revisit offers is an attempt to connect more fully than ever Bishop’s poetics with the facts of her personal life — a synthesis of life and work that becomes a beguiling prospect when its subject is the famously private Bishop ...Marshall’s biography tells us about what the current market demands of women writers, and the origins of this impulse for more, more, more ...the power of the poetry fades inside Marshall’s chronicling, so concerned it is with finding autobiography in Bishop’s poems ... The narrative that Marshall is looking for in Bishop’s life is wholly too neat and sweet, and eclipses the real struggles of her subject: a writer who was not at home in the world, not comfortable with exposing herself, but who still created work of arresting beauty.
Marshall’s book makes use of some previously unavailable materials, including letters from Bishop to her psychiatrist and to three of her lovers, and as a result is able to offer a more detailed portrait than existed before of the romantic relationships about which she could not be fully open during her life. But its portrait of the poet still feels somewhat remote, mirroring the control, distance and reserve Bishop insisted on in her work ... As if to compensate, Marshall includes some autobiographical material centered on her own encounters with Bishop, with whom she studied poetry at Harvard in the 1970s. But these passages feel, for the most part, distracting and out of place, an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for the narrative’s inability to connect directly with its subject. Still, there are moments in the book where control is lost and reserve overcome, where the human vulnerability of this meticulous and austere artist is revealed.
Marshall is a skilled reader who points out telling echoes between Bishop’s published and private writing. Her account is enriched by a cache of revelatory, recently discovered documents. These include a sensational series of letters from Bishop to her psychoanalyst ... Marshall’s narrative is smooth and brisk: an impressive feat, given the mass of evidence she had to deal with. But Bishop’s life was hardly smooth, and the story is told too briskly. Key aspects of Bishop’s creativity — her work as a visual artist, her passion for music, her literary translations — Marshall treats swiftly or simply passes over ... we get little sense of Bishop’s idiosyncratic voice, with its anxious qualifications, dry wit and looping self-reference ... we don’t learn enough about Marshall for her life to take on independent interest, and the memoir ends up being mainly a distraction.
Despite the book’s often harrowing content, and Bishop’s lifelong drive toward alcoholic self-obliteration, Marshall’s account is lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy ... It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher ... Marshall makes a strenuous case for Bishop’s social enlightenment, and argues that, while Bishop indeed lived a life of privilege in Brazil, she was nevertheless 'an outsider, a dependent whose trust fund met only basic expenses'—a rationale that may make one queasier than anything in the poems.