In this original contribution to Elizabeth Bishop studies, Marilyn May Lombardi uses previously unpublished materials (letters, diaries, notebooks, and unfinished poems) to shed new light on the poet’s published work. She explores the ways Bishop’s lesbianism, alcoholism, allergic illnesses, and fear of mental instability affected her poetry—the ways she translated her bodily experiences into poetic form.
A cornerstone of The Body and the Song is the poet’s thirty-year correspondence with her physician, Dr. Anny Baumann, who was both friend and surrogate mother to Bishop. The letters reveal Bishop’s struggles to understand the relation between her physical and creative drives. "Dr. Anny" also helped Bishop unravel the connections in her life between psychosomatic illness and early maternal deprivation—her mother was declared incurably insane and institutionalized in 1916, when Bishop was five years old. Effectively an orphan, she spent the rest of her childhood with relatives.
In addition to these letters, Lombardi uses Bishop’s unpublished notebooks to demonstrate the poet’s resolve to "face the facts"—to confront her own emotional, intellectual, and physical frailties—and translate them into poetry that is clear-eyed and economical in its form.
Lombardi argues that in her subtle way, Bishop explores the same issues that preoccupy the current generation of women writers. A deeply private artist, Bishop never directly refers to her homosexuality in her published work, but the metaphors she draws from her carnal desires and aversions confront stifling cultural prescriptions for personal and erotic expression. In choosing restraint over confession, Bishop parted company with her friend Robert Lowell, but Lombardi shows that her reticence becomes a powerful artistic strategy resulting in poetry remarkable for its hermeneutic potential.
Informed by recent gender criticism, Lombardi’s lucid argument advances our understanding of the ways the material circumstances of life can be transformed into art.