STARRED REVIEW
December 2019

Well Read: December 2019

STARRED REVIEW

Well Read: December 2019

December 2019
STARRED REVIEW
December 2019

Well Read: December 2019

December 2019
STARRED REVIEW
December 2019

Well Read: December 2019

STARRED REVIEW
December 2019

Well Read: December 2019

December 2019

Well Read: December 2019

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An admiring new biography enshrines the great American poet’s formidable work and complex life.


When Elizabeth Bishop died 40 years ago, she was a respected poet with a small core of devotees, says Thomas Travisano, author of the new biography Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop. In the ensuing years, Bishop has come to be recognized as a significant American writer of the 20th century, whose precise, sometimes elusive work is built on technical mastery and filled with lyrical, singular observations. Travisano, founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, is an unabashed fan of the poet, but his study, while admiring, is hardly a blind-eyed hagiography. An impressive blend of erudition and enthusiasm, Love Unknown offers an insightful, engaging look into this complex woman’s life and work.

Travisano suggests that much of what came to define Bishop—including her shyness, her chronic health problems, her drinking and, one would surmise, her poetic talent—grew out of two defining events from early childhood: her father’s death when she was only 8 months old and her mother’s subsequent mental breakdown, which essentially rendered young Elizabeth an orphan at age 5. Her upbringing was placed in the hands of both her paternal family in Massachusetts and maternal relatives in Nova Scotia, and this rootless shuttling back and forth most likely played a role in her lifelong wanderlust. As a child, Bishop was chiefly a loner, yet despite the emotional remove of those early years, she became an engaging, if retiring, adult. 

The portrait Travisano paints is one of a likable woman in control of her own destiny, good to her friends, comfortable in her own skin and certainly not apologetic about her eccentricities. Love Unknown is not a juicy tell-all, for Bishop’s life was not scandalous or scabrous. Even her lesbian identity in a less-accepting age seems to have been a fact she accepted and absorbed with little turmoil.

Travisano has spent decades immersed in Bishop’s work, and he beautifully incorporates her poetry and other writings throughout the narrative, finding both its sources and significance. Exploring Bishop’s seminal relationships with other poets, including Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, Travisano considers their reciprocal influences and places Bishop squarely in the context of her time, solidifying her place in the midcentury literary canon. Another friend and poet, James Merrill, famously remarked that Bishop “gave herself no airs. If there was anything the least bit artificial about her character and her behavior, it was the wonderful way in which she impersonated an ordinary woman.”

Bishop was anything but ordinary, as Love Unknown reminds us. And like the poet herself, the peerless poetry she left behind is also anything but ordinary.

Get the Book

Love Unknown

Love Unknown

Viking
ISBN 9780525428817

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