A SECRET REVEALED
‘Love Unknown’ Explores
Traumatized Poet’s Struggle
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Tom Travisano is the top expert on Elizabeth Bishop, ever since falling in love with her work while taking a Contemporary Poetry course at the University of Virginia in 1975. “She was the poet who really jumped out to me,” he remembers.
Several of his nine books dealt with her, from “Midcentury Quartet” (1999), exploring Bishop along with Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, to “Words on Air” (2008), the complete Bishop-Lowell correspondence, reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
So, when the founder and president of the national Elizabeth Bishop Society began THE definitive biography – three years research, three writing, it turned out – Travisano expected few surprises.
Instead, “Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop,” which will be published next Tuesday, Nov. 5, has a brand new take.
The biography – you can preorder it on Amazon – became “the story of the human development of a trauma survivor,” he recounted in an interview the other day at his State Street home: Elizabeth Bishop had been sexually molested for a decade.
Alice Methfessel, the last love of Bishop’s life – the poet died in 1979 – sold the poet’s papers in 1981 to Vassar College, Bishop’s alma mater. “But Alice had withheld the more personal and intimate ones,” Travisano said.
As he moved toward retirement from Hartwick College’s English Department, which he chaired for five years, he learned Vassar was finally indexing the documents, preparing to make them public. When it did, in 2013, “I was the first one to see them,” Travisano said.
He had long recognized Elizabeth Bishop faced challenges, long suffering from asthma – many people outgrow it – and eczema, binge drinking and depression.
He credited the chronic challenges to the absence of a father – William, a successful businessman, died when she was 8 months old – and her mother’s nervous breakdown when the daughter was 8 – Gertrude spent the rest of her life in an asylum.
But there it was, a 22-page, single-spaced typewritten letter Bishop wrote to her psychologist in 1947 when she was 36: After her mother’s death, the girl was sexually abused by her uncle, George Shepherdson, in Massachusetts, where she was molested from ages 8 to 18.
“She was alive in only two places – school and camp,” said Travisano. “The rest was interment, while she awaited the next resurrection.”
This sent the biographer in a whole new direction – “there’s something very visceral going on here” – seeking to understand Bishop’s struggles anew. A great discovery, he said, was Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” – Bishop, it turns out, was a textbook case.
This is a new layer, on top of the richness of the poems and the poet’s world travels and friendships.
In the interview, along with his wife Elsa, an independent Apple Computer consultant and champion of her husband’s research, Travisano quoted poet James Merrill: Bishop “has more talent for life and poetry of anyone I knew,” and he sought to reflect that in the new book.
“I wanted people to read a good story about a very interesting person,” the biographer said.
He was assisted in this by the Creative Non-Fiction class he taught at Hartwick for years, showing seniors the New Journalism’s use of fictional techniques – story arcs, dialogue and description – in non-fiction writing.
He particularly admired John McPhee, and actually visited the New Yorker’s cornerstone essayist once at his Princeton office.
The result is rich detail and description, as he assesses “The Toucan,” “The Fish” and other textured poems. Bishop arrives home to find a painting by an artist neighbor on her front porch – homeowners will want to recruit a local artist to try to duplicate the poet’s pleasure at the image.
“Each chapter is supposed to begin with a bang!” the writer said, and they do, from page one, “When Elizabeth Bishop was 3 years old, she witnesses the Great Salem Fire … The fire raged in the darkness, sweeping through nearly 250 acres of the historic harbor town and reducing to charred ruins the homes of more than 20,000 inhabitants.”
Then, an excerpt, “the sky was bright red; everything was red:/ out on the lawn, my mother’s white dress looked/rose red; my white enameled crib was red.”
Travisano builds fact on fact, image on image, description on description, allowing readers to reach their own conclusions.
His publisher, Viking Penguin, already intends to nominate “Love Unknown” for a Pulitzer. (Earlier, Travisano also received a Guggenheim.)
The writer – he and Elsa have two grown children, Michael, a docent at The Fenimore and Farmers’, and Emily, who lives in Massachusetts and is writing her first novel – will launched his publicity tour locally at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, a Roots Brewery, an appearance sponsored by the Green Toad Bookstore.
He will speak at Vassar on the 12th, the Worcester, Mass., Historical Museum on the 13th. Programs are also planned at the two most prestigious venues: The Harvard Book Store and, in Washington D.C., Politics & Prose, near Dupont Circle.
Bishop’s life on the move provided another benefit to the researcher: Travisano traveled to locales to see and experience what she had – Europe, Boston, up the Amazon on a mail boat. He spent time at Great Village, on the Bay of Fundy with its 43-foot tides; the worldwide average for tides is 3.3 feet.
Bishop stopped in Santos, Brazil, on a trip around the continent, was presented with toucan, fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, who designed Flamengo Park, Rio’s equivalent of Central Park, and stayed for 15 years.
A conservative military regime took over Brazil after Soares’ death and, because she was gay, largely erased her legacy, which is now being revived through Travisano’s research and lecturing there.
Once, he ran into a colleague at Albany airport who was heading off to dreary wintertime Ukraine on a research trip.
I’m off on a winter research trip, too, Travisano said: Key West.
He sensed some skepticism.