Last Friday night my daughter Zoe and I went to see Dear Elizabeth—a play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again—at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. The play depicts a lifetime of friendship in letters between the two poets, both brilliant and troubled, throughout the years between 1944 and 1977. The playwright, Sarah Ruhl, had to work under the strict constraints given by the poets’ estates, to use their verbatim words and their words only to create the play, so she could add no invented dialogue to fill in the parts of the story that happened outside the letters. Instead, she did so beautifully, using stage magic and visual cues to paint a vivid picture of this extraordinary relationship.
The letters are at turns exuberant, witty, acerbic, affectionate, and compassionate. They take on each other’s work, each other’s lives, offering both praise and criticism, sympathy and advice. They share new work and give each other honest and at times, harsh feedback.
Elizabeth Bishop was a very private person; most of what the public knows about her is through her poems and letters. She moved throughout her lifetime; New York, Cambridge, Florida, Seattle, Europe, Brazil. She drank a lot and had a number of tumultuous relationships. In one of her letters in 1948 to Lowell, she told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say that I was the loneliest person who ever lived. “
Robert Lowell was known for his brazen and evocative poetry, his clever quips, his heavy drinking, manic behavior and multiple marriages. Anne Sexton called him “gracefully insane.” He was arrested and hospitalized after holding his former mentor, poet Allen Tate, out a two story window in Chicago while reciting Tate’s poetry.
Both won Pulitzer Prizes; Bishop in 1956 for her second book, Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring and Lowell, three times, the last for The Dolphin in 1977 six months before he died.
As writers, we learn that the best way to reveal a character is through what they say and what they do. If you have any doubt, go see Dear Elizabeth or read Elizabeth Bishop’s and Robert Lowell’s poems and letters; the glimpses you’ll get into the inner regions of their souls will make you a true believer.
Take Good Care,
Here is a poem Elizabeth Bishop wrote for Robert Lowell:
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!