issue 23 > nonfiction > bishop > levin
Elizabeth Bishop and a Late Rescued Poem, “Breakfast Song”by Lynn Levin
Presented as part of the Elizabeth Bishop Seminar, David Yezzi
moderator, at Exploring Form and Narrative, West Chester
University of Pennsylvania, June 9-11, 2011.
I came across Elizabeth Bishop’s love poem “Breakfast Song” the very first time it was published, some twenty-three years after the poet’s death, in a December 2002 issue of The New Yorker. I was so taken with this newly discovered and unusually intimate Bishop poem that I cut it out of the magazine. I would turn to it often, enchanted by its candor and its “bedroom-ness.”
“Breakfast Song” would have been lost had not Bishop scholar and Bishop friend Lloyd Schwartz rescued it. At an AWP panel in Chicago in 2004, Schwartz revealed that he hand-copied “Breakfast Song” from one of Bishop’s notebooks, a notebook that was later lost. He sent the poem to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, some other publishers, and to The New Yorker. There are hundreds of reasons to thank Lloyd Schwartz for his contributions to literature, criticism, and our understanding of Elizabeth Bishop; finding and saving this beautiful poem is one them.
In the poem’s twenty-two lines, Bishop describes waking up with a person who seems to be a younger lover, a person whom the poet adores and depends on. The poem combines whimsy—the speaker kisses her lover's "funny face" and tastes her "coffee-flavored mouth"—with Sapphic sexiness—Bishop writes of "nightlong, limblong warmth." She then adds a stab of horror as she contemplates her own death and thus the loss of this dear person: “how can I bear to go/(as soon I must, I know)/to bed with ugly death.”
“Breakfast Song” is written in a lilting iambic trimeter. Bishop opens the poem with two lines, “My love, my saving grace,/your eyes are awfully blue,” which she repeats at the end of the poem with a striking coda: “My love, my saving grace,/your eyes are awfully blue/early and instant blue.”
In his essay “One Art,” Lloyd Schwartz observes that the poet had ambivalent feelings about the morning. He cites “Love Lies Sleeping,” “Roosters,” and the later “Five Flights Up” as morning poems inhabited by troubling images and uncertain feelings of dread (147-148). Anxiety and fear of death also invade “Breakfast Song,” for here the approximately sixty-two-year-old Bishop foresees that death will one day wrench her from her lover. Bishop predicts that she will soon go “to bed with ugly death/…/ to sleep there without you.” A few lines later she cries out “—Nobody wants to die;/tell me it is a lie!/But no, I know it’s true.” Morbid dread comes with the new day, while “nightlong, limblong warmth” belongs to the darkness and sleep. Bishop spends ten of the poem’s twenty-two lines talking about death, and twelve lines describing her beloved and bedtime cuddling. Love wins by two lines. Schwartz has also observed that this is the only poem in which Bishop talks about her own death (qtd. in Marquard).
Who is the young lover in the poem? She is Alice Methfessel, Bishop’s devoted love of later life, the person to whom Bishop dedicated Geography III, and the person who would become Bishop’s literary executor. Methfessel died in 2009 at the age of sixty-six, and a lengthy obituary by Bryan Marquard in the Boston Globe clarifies that Methfessel was the lover addressed in “Breakfast Song.”
The two met when Bishop first came to teach at Harvard in the fall of 1970. At the time Methfessel was 26, and Bishop was 59. Methfessel was an administrative assistant at Kirkland House, a student residence where Bishop had an apartment. When they met, Bishop was settling in Cambridge following a period of living in Brazil. She was also in the process of clearing out her apartment in San Francisco and trying to evade an ex-girlfriend from California, Suzanne Bowen, who had come East and was basically stalking Bishop. This would be a complicated and stressful situation for anyone, but especially for Bishop. In letters to May Swenson and Dorothy Bowee written during the fall of 1970, she begins to refer to Alice Methfessel as “a nice friendly girl” (Bishop, One Art 532-537). From there, it appears that the relationship between the two blossomed, except for a brief temporary split early on when Methfessel became engaged to be married. Methfessel broke off the engagement, and the two remained a couple until Bishop’s death in 1979 at the age of sixty-eight.
In her biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Brett C. Millier describes Alice Methfessel as “a warm, generous, active, and energetic person” much loved by the students who lived in Kirkland House (436). Dana Gioia who was in Bishop’s Studies in Modern Poetry in the spring of 1975 at Harvard recalls Methfessel as a “handsome (rather than beautiful)” woman, who was very professional, “always well-dressed and well-groomed…practical and not at all artsy…and very buttoned up.” In other words, Alice was not a hippie.
Millier writes that “Elizabeth depended on Alice for support of many kinds, and Alice became Elizabeth’s main source of secretarial help and tax advice, her chauffeur, her traveling companion, her nurse, her rescuer from the consequences of alcoholism, her ‘saving grace’” (435). Methfessel was both Bishop’s lover and gal Friday, as the help-wanted ads of the 1970s might have put it, and I use the term calling to mind the last lines of “Crusoe in England” in which Crusoe sorrowfully speaks of the death of “my dear Friday.” In Methfessel’s Boston Globe obituary, Lloyd Schwartz says that “Methfessel was the person who really facilitated everything for Bishop.” From all accounts the love they shared allowed Bishop to write and publish the more personal and open poems in Geography III, especially “One Art,” but the candor and eroticism of “Breakfast Song” prevented Bishop from publishing this aubade during her lifetime. Alice Methfessel was alive when the poem appeared in The New Yorker, and as she was Bishop’s literary executor I surmise that she approved the publication and thus allowed us to relish the poem’s warmth and joy. I wonder how many other intimate – yes, confessional – poems Elizabeth Bishop finished and polished but then suppressed or destroyed.
Alice Methfessel died at the age of sixty-six in 2009. At the time of her death, she was living in California and had found new love and companionship with another woman.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Breakfast Song.” The New Yorker. 23 & 30 Dec. 2002: 142. Print.
---. One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1994. 532-537. Print.
---. Poems: Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. References
to various poems.
Gioia, Dana. Message to author. 12 May 2011. E-mail.
Marquard, Bryan. “Alice Methfessel, 66, noted poet’s muse.” Boston Globe. 10 July
2009. Boston.com. Web. 4 May 2011.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: U California,
1993. 435-6. Print.
Schwartz, Lloyd. “One Art: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, 1971-1976.” Elizabeth
Bishop and Her Art. Eds. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: U
Michigan, 1983. 133-153. Print.
---. “Studies with Miss Bishop.” AWP Conference. Chicago. 28 March 2004. Panel