“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”
by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
For Robert Lowell
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,
or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.
Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.
The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s friendship spanned from 1947 until the end of Lowell’s life in 1977. They met when Lowell, as part of his appointment with the Library of Congress, was tasked with expanding its collection from just manuscripts and books to include recordings of poets reading their work. He immediately reached out to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Randell Jarrell along with many others, and included an invitation to Elizabeth Bishop who had recently published North and South, which Lowell had written a positive review. They soon became fast friends.
In the summer of 1948, with fresh divorce decree in hand, Lowell went with his girl friend at the time, Carly Dawson to spend the summer in Maine to visit Elizabeth Bishop. Dawson, already twice divorced, soon faded on Lowell’s odd behavior and intensity and dumped him early on in the visit when Lowell immediately set his fascination upon Bishop shortly after their arrival. Lowell’s and Bishop’s fascination with each other would continue for the next three decades. It didn’t take long that summer for Lowell to profess his love for her and told his friends and even his family he was going to marry her. Bishop never took his exclamations of matrimony seriously and claims the two of them never slept together, though there was an intimacy in their intellectual connection that lasted far beyond what a likely physical romance would have lasted, given Lowell’s history in that regard.
By fall of 1948, with his position completed at the Library of Congress, Lowell headed to Yaddo, an arts commune near Saratoga, New York that still exists today. It is an eclectic place, then and now, that gives artists in residence a place to work and interact with other artists across a wide range of disciplines. Upon arrival he reconnected with Elizabeth Hardwick whom he had met before, a novelist and book reviewer, who was a sharp and thorny critic, and also apparently a font of juicy rumors about Alan Tate’s private life. In short, Hardwick was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge Lowell admired and it took no time for him to switch his gaze from one Elizabeth to another, Bishop to Hardwick.
Bishop is quoted as saying, “I never wanted to marry Robert Lowell, but I would have loved to have his baby.” I think it was a way of keeping her sexual history private. Bishop was a lesbian at a time that it was not easy to be out and open about being a lesbian. Bishop, in contrast to Berryman and Lowell who were celebrated for evolving confessional poetry, was very deliberate in her writing to separate her personal life from her poetry in all but its metaphors. Bishop traveled the world, enjoyed the freedom that a single life affords a woman of financial means; writing, painting and enjoying her journey.
I find it intriguing that Bishop’s final published poem, published 3 weeks after her death in the New Yorker is titled Sonnet. She had published another Sonnet in 1928 that I have shared in an earlier Fourteenlines, but to my knowledge sonnets were not her forte. Is the title and its 14 lines a way to reach out to the past to departed friends, Lowell in particular, who had embraced 14 lines as sufficient space to encompass a lifetime? The poem is remarkable in its simplicity and imagery. I too have often been fascinated by the rainbows that live in the edges of beveled mirrors and the tiny bubble that exists in all of our spirit levels, fragile, yet permanent, resetting us on the level if we choose to course correct.
by Elizabeth Bishop
Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed — the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
One thought on “In The Spirit Level”
Wow, what an interesting article throughout! I was hooked.