Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop
by Thomas Travisano
Viking. 432 pages, $32.
THIS BIOGRAPHY opens with the inviting claim that “Elizabeth Bishop’s life is a great story,” and Thomas Travisano supports it with a neatly woven tapestry of circumstances, human relationships, and art that defined the poet’s days from 1911 to 1979. Travisano is president and founder of the international Elizabeth Bishop Society and principal editor of Words in Air, the collected correspondence between Bishop and Robert Lowell.
Love Unknown considers Bishop’s poetry and prose, letters (including to her physician and psychotherapist), archival material, and prior scholarship. Among Bishop biographies, Travisano’s stands out as comprehensive and up-to-date, incorporating recent interviews with Bishop’s protégé Frank Bidart, with her onetime lover Roxanne Cumming, and with Monica Stearns Morse, adoptive daughter of Mary Morse, a neighbor and friend in Brazil. More importantly, without ignoring Bishop’s suffering, Travisano puts refreshing emphasis on her success in building a whole life. He highlights what kept Bishop going. Using George Herbert’s poem “Love Unknown” (a Bishop favorite) as framework, he describes how facing and surmounting harsh challenges spurred Bishop’s insights, creativity, and connections with others.
Rosemary Booth is a writer and photographer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.