Sunday, February 13, 2011

Queer Cupids of All Persons

Another centenary I should have brought up was the poet Elizabeth Bishop's, born 8 February 1911. In fact I only took notice of it because of Colm Toibin's essay (partly available online) on Bishop, collected in Love in a Dark Time, a book of essays on homosexuality and art, politics, history; which is shameful of me, because Band of Thebes had already mentioned it.

Bishop is a poet I respect, but I've never really been able to warm to her. Still, whenever someone gooses my memory and I look at her work again, I'm impressed all over again by her craft. has a bunch of her poems online, so check some of them out if you're curious. "Love Lies Sleeping", for example, which seems to me to have come out of her experience living in Brazil:
Earliest morning, switching all the tracks
that cross the sky from cinder star to star,
coupling the ends of streets
to trains of light.

now draw us into daylight in our beds;
and clear away what presses on the brain:
put out the neon shapes
that float and swell and glare

down the gray avenue between the eyes
in pinks and yellows, letters and twitching signs.
Hang-over moons, wane, wane!
From the window I see

an immense city, carefully revealed,
made delicate by over-workmanship,
detail upon detail,
cornice upon facade,

reaching up so languidly up into
a weak white sky, it seems to waver there.
She alludes glancingly here to her long relationship with Lota de Maceto Soares, but of course Bishop wasn't openly gay in her lifetime, though her lesbianism was another one of those open secrets. (Or, as Toibin put it about James Baldwin in a fine essay in the same collection, "clearly (as opposed to openly) gay." The first part of the essay on Baldwin is here. And in 2008 Toibin published an essay comparing Baldwin and Barack Obama, which I haven't read but am linking to anyway so I can find it easily when I'm ready.)

But that reminds me of something I need to track down, an article from Christopher Street in the late 1970s, when Bishop was still alive. I think I still have the issue around here somewhere, and I've been meaning for years to find it and reread the piece. It was a review of David Kalstone's Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (Oxford University Press, 1977), and the reviewer, whose name I don't remember now, pointed out that, like Kalstone himself, four of the five poets the book discusses are gay, a fact that according to the reviewer is never mentioned in the book. (Lowell was odd man out.) An issue or two later there appeared a furious letter to the editor, attacking the reviewer, and declaring that to the letter writer's certain knowledge Miss Bishop was not gay, and that he hoped she would consider libel charges against the reviewer. Not too surprisingly, nothing came of that threat as far as I know.

The letter writer had a point, since when Five Temperaments appeared, only Adrienne Rich had made a public acknowledgment of her lesbianism; given the glacial slowness of scholarly writing and publication, it's possible that she hadn't yet come out when the book went to press. In years to come, Merrill became more open about his own homosexuality, and though Ashbery lagged behind, he now seems to have followed suit. But the letter writer's anger was strange, since he was a well-known openly gay writer himself, and as the reviewer pointed out with amusement in his reply, it seemed odd at best for an out-and-proud gay man to say that it was libelous to declare in a gay periodical that someone was gay, when the intent was obviously not to defame Bishop or the other writers. I suppose that the letter writer was speaking on behalf of Miss Bishop.

Times have changed since then, but homosexuality is still considered an accusation, and even scholarly venues too often try to degay queer artists and other public figures. (Band of Thebes regularly draws attention to these efforts, which is among the reasons I follow that blog.) Bishop died in 1979, soon after this small controversy, and it's interesting to speculate whether she would have stayed closeted or come out. And I know she was using "gay" in the old-fashioned sense in this 1979 "Sonnet", but it's still fun to read it in other senses:
Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!