Bishop writes this to Lowell in 1960 after corresponding with him for over a dozen years and declares the value of their resolute letter-writing to one another. It also reveals Bishop’s vulnerability, the kind we are all predisposed to have to varying degrees, appearing and disappearing throughout our lives. Vulnerable in the sense of questioning who we are, what our purpose is, our worth, the caliber of our work, and so on. So hoping that we do, indeed, possess a higher self, and that there is someone out there somewhere who trusts in this notion. There is urgency in her words. Please never stop writing me letters…
Bishop was no stranger to the fine art of self-deprecation, and in a post I wrote about her a few years ago, I highlighted this skill in an excerpt from a letter written to another friend. In reference to her paintings, she says, “They are Not Art, NOT AT ALL.” Of course many of her friends who were recipients of her “NOT ART” had different ideas about her paintings. As do many others.
Lowell, too, was no stranger to this practice and had his own style of self-reproach. In one of his first letters to Bishop he writes from Yaddo in August of 1947:
“P.S. Thanks for all the pleasant undeserved things you said in your letter.”
In reading many of her letters to Lowell, you witness a person who very easily slides into self-negating commentary, but also a poet and thinker who engages quite vigorously with another poet and thinker. The act of writing and exchanging these letters was an affirming one—for both parties. Lowell may have had more conventional success in comparison to Bishop (including a Pulitzer the same year they met) but he had his very own set of vulnerabilities, and during his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder it is hard to imagine that the constancy of their friendship sustained by their words in air did not serve to ballast him during his more troubled and tenuous times. After a particular manic episode in late April of 1959 Lowell was hospitalized and finally writes to Bishop in July saying:
I feel rather creepy and paltry writing now to announce that I am all healed and stable again. So it is. Five attacks in ten years make you feel rather a basket-case and it’s excruciating having Brazil snatched out of my gloating jaws…
The sun comes in the window. We are really very happy and companionable. I still click but can’t believe it…Let me get this scrappy, whistling little letter into the afternoon mail. I want to write you something with a little thought soon, but this is just to relieve your mind, and cheer your mind towards thoughts of that long-promised return trip to North America.
All our love,
These lines introduce something of consequence that these two were able to accomplish, however unknowingly—something psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow calls emotional dwelling and explains in these words, “In dwelling, one does not merely seek to understand the other’s emotional pain from the other’s perspective. One does that, but much more. In dwelling, one leans into the other’s emotional pain and participates in it, perhaps with the aid of one’s own analogous experience of pain.”
As Lowell writes apologetically (as he often would) after a protracted absence due to his illness, he reveals, however briefly, his pain despite his declaration of being “healed and stable again.” Part of emotional dwelling requires the willingness to say the unsayable. Or to write it. There are other letters in which Lowell goes into far more detail about his episodes and subsequent hospitalizations. What does Bishop do in return? She continues to write, embracing Lowell, the good, the bad, and what he likely felt to be ugly. In that same letter Lowell writes “but this is just to relieve your mind…”
He knows that when he suffers, she suffers and he is quick to put her at ease. And what is more, to “cheer” her mind, as he knows very well that she suffers her own troubles, quite independent of his.
Their communion was a long and uncommon one—but it doesn’t take 30 years of letters to locate affirmation, or even emotional dwelling. One solid note, even one sentence from someone can do the trick. I have a drawer filled with notes and letters saying (not in so many words) yes, you exist. Yes, you have every right to put those lines down on a page and send them out into the world.
Saying, as Lou Reed does in the 1967 Velvet Underground song “I’ll be your mirror”, I see you.
One of my own greatly prized notes of this ilk lives inside a book on a shelf in my library. The book’s author signed his name and wrote these eight words on the title page:
For Amy…so convinced of your fine future.
You can certainly go through this collection of letters with a scholar’s fine-tooth comb placing them individually and in aggregate into an intriguing historical and literary context. But you can also elect to view them as a fellow human being and see what was at the heart of the heart of this three-decade exchange.
They saw each other, liked each other, dwelled with one another despite often residing on different continents. Flaws, talents, foibles, awards, missteps, disasters, achievements, hospitalizations, publications et al.
Lowell writes to Bishop in 1959, 12 years into their unconventional friendship, demonstrating how very imperative it was to him that their alliance would be sustained indefinitely:
Oh we won’t ever fall out, God help us!