Travisano crafts a masterly biography that explores the enduring tension between the 'mannerly correctness' and passion characteristic of the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop ... unfolds the many layered interconnections between Bishop’s poetry and close relationships with fellow writers, artists, friends, and lovers, with sympathy, subtlety, and acute attention to detail, especially when revealing Bishop’s quests for meaning in her extensive travels, illuminated through her words—always alongside what she had lost or feared to lose. Focusing on literary influences such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, as well as the Brazilian writers who captivated Bishop later in her career, Travisano securely positions his subject in conversation with major literary figures without losing sight of her more intimate, quieter relationships ... This definitive account of Bishop’s contributions to American letters will attract both casual readers of her poetry as well as academics with more specialized knowledge of her work.
Her life was good, at least viewed from this side of her biography ... Bishop has never lacked good biographers, but Travisano has written a readable, appreciative book that does not analyze Bishop’s poems so much as read them out loud, admiring each line and beat. In fact, reading it is almost as enjoyable as reading one of Bishop’s strange and marvelous poems—or encountering her moose on a dark road late at night.
Modern literary biographers don’t always indulge in muckraking, but they do tend to focus on earthy as well as ethereal matters ... Still, one of the many strengths of Thomas Travisano’s absorbing new biography of the poet is its tact ... Travisano finds in Bishop’s poetry, fiction, and letters, and his own research, a writer who became, as he puts it, 'the archaeologist of her own history' ... Travisano quotes well, and everywhere you sense his sympathetic relish for what Bishop termed 'the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life' ... [Bishop's] life may be, in part, a story about the art of losing, but Bishop had more than one art ... and Travisano vividly portrays the highs as well as the lows of her relationships with the women in her life ... Travisano draws on many sources, but he gives primacy to Bishop’s correspondence, and he’s right to call her one of the most enthralling letter writers of her age.
While Thomas Travisano’s new biography doesn’t focus exclusively on the writer’s experience as a lesbian, it does make clear just how much pain she was shielding herself from—and how quickly she had to master her lifelong tactics of self-preservation ... The contents of this first section are so dreary that it’s a testament to Travisano’s tonal control that the book never reads like a gratuitous display of scar tissue or a facile chronicle of healing and triumph ... crystallizes the importance of Bishop’s story, particularly for today’s LGBTQ readers. No matter how much Bishop would have abhorred life lessons and cultural arguments being spun out of her biography, it’s hard to read this book without finding in it a refutation of a certain liberal presumption: that to be closeted is to be in a state of self-ignorance and negation, to in fact be only partially alive ... one of Love Unknown’s most obvious virtues is the leisurely way it guides us through a seemingly bottomless archive of letters ... Though it’s sure to be a pleasure for most Bishop fans, Love Unknown reveals the limits of portraying historical queer subjects whose lives were shrouded in a certain amount of secrecy. To encounter her through this form is to look for a self that ensured its concealment, that even arguably made a fetish of it. The lukewarm descriptions of Bishop’s romances, and the general lack of curiosity about the discrimination and rejection one imagines she must have faced for being as minimally out as she was, must partly stem from a scarcity of material to draw on ... The reader is forced to meet her relative closetedness on its own terms—not as a vantage of deprivation, but as a singular worldview unto itself. If Travisano’s book leaves us feeling our own remove from this great artist, it doesn’t leave us wanting more either, and that’s a tribute to how Bishop designed her life—to how assiduously she protected it.
As founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, it is not surprising that Travisano has an intimate grasp of Bishop’s life and poetry. What is surprising is how utterly captivating his biography is, let alone his illuminating, interwoven analysis of her work ... Just as a young Bishop’s reading of a book about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley inspired her to seek simultaneous immersion in his writing, so too, will Travisano’s biography spark desire to engage with Bishop’s extraordinary poems. Though not prolific, Bishop perfected her craft and left the powerful body of work so well explored here, assuring her place among the best of twentieth-century poets.
Mr. Travisano’s portrayal of the fear and volatility that characterized Bishop’s childhood lends depth to our understanding...of Bishop’s poetry more generally. The author suggests, compellingly, that Bishop’s inclination toward her art may stem from the baffling silences of her early life ... Bishop’s reluctance to publish clearly personal poems no doubt relates, in part, to her lesbianism—an element of Bishop’s life about which Mr. Travisano is himself puzzlingly reticent. While he gives Bishop’s many relationships their due, he neglects their social context, raising questions about how Bishop related to her sexuality. What were the prevailing attitudes toward lesbianism in the times and countries where Bishop lived? How open was Bishop with her friends, fellow writers, and employers? That Bishop was understated on the topic...no doubt explains some of Mr. Travisano’s vagueness. Still, the reader would benefit from more knowledge of what we don’t know ... Love Unknown points movingly to the many relationships that moored Bishop, keeping her together even as life—and her own self-destructive tendencies—threatened to split her apart.
The life story of the poet Elizabeth Bishop would be enthralling even without her poetry. For anyone seeking an introduction to her work, this insightful new biography is a great place to start ... In addition to narrating Bishop’s wrenching, ultimately victorious life, Travisano performs an even greater service for the general reader with little knowledge of how poetry is made or the power it can wield. As someone who has immersed himself in Bishop studies over the four decades since her death, Travisano is an ideal guide to her major poems, all of which he places in the context of her life at the moment of their creation ... Travisano’s narrative of the death of Bishop’s lover illustrates one of the book’s great strengths. In cases where the surviving evidence fails to establish an irrefutable reading of events, Travisano resists the temptation to draw his own conclusions...Indeed his scrupulous reticence on such matters can lend his prose a slightly bloodless quality when set against the work of other literary biographers who veer into fictionalized imaginings of their subjects’ inner lives ... This biography bears witness to Bishop’s genius for friendship and a life full of adventure and daring.
Travisano...founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, draws judiciously on Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters—including those to her psychoanalyst, many lovers, and close friends—to create an authoritative and sensitive biography ... Although not groundbreaking, Travisano’s sympathetic perspective, thorough research, and perceptive close readings lucidly portray the complexities of a writer noted for her 'reserve, calm, meticulous accuracy, and humorous detachment' ... A finely textured portrait of an acclaimed poet.
Drawing on an extraordinary level of archival access, Travisano...offers a definitive biography–cum–literary study of Elizabeth Bishop ... Explaining how a writer who published barely a hundred poems during her lifetime left a lasting imprint on later generations of poets, Travisano’s essential volume illuminates Bishop’s life and, most valuably, her work.