A new biography of one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century reveals just how she learned to marry her talent for life with her talent for writing in order to create a brilliant array of poems, prose, and letters.
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.
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.