How to Lose Things: Elizabeth Bishop’s Child Mourning

Born on February 8, 1911 to a father who dies suddenly of Bright's disease when she is eight months old and a mother who vanishes into an asylum when she is five years old, Elizabeth Bishop spends her early childhood surrounded by grief and mourning. Yet the young Elizabeth sheds no tears when, in the summer of 1916, her mother Gertrude Bulmer Bishop admits herself voluntarily to the Nova Scotia Hospital, never to see or communicate with her daughter again. Declared permanently insane, Gertrude Bishop eventually dies in the asylum just weeks before her only child's graduation from Vassar.

There is no reading that I know of Elizabeth Bishop's elegiac literature, both her fiction and her poetry, which does not attribute this writer's signature themes of love and loss to unresolved child mourning for a suddenly absent mother. Gertrude's disappearance "left memories so painful that Bishop struggled for years ... to sort out just what was her mother," Victoria Harrison writes in Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. 1 In a book devoted entirely to Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, Susan McCabe concludes that the "early loss of her father to death and her mother to madness initiated for her a lifetime of uprootedness and a poetics shaped by an awareness of instability and homelessness." 2 To Marilyn May Lombardi, in The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics, Bishop's elegiac poems and stories possess "the uncanny power to evoke the absent mother and the inexpressible pain of her loss." 3 Bishop's biographer especially, Brett C. Miller, emphasizes that, "even more than with ... other poets, Bishop's precocious familiarity with loss determined the way she saw her world." 4 Among the best scholarly studies written on Bishop, all of these books, published in the mid-1990s at the height of literary critical interest in the problem of trauma, attribute the young Elizabeth's apparent indifference over her mother's incarceration to a grief too devastating to be properly assimilated or fully articulated.

Yet, as I will argue here, the now standard reading of Elizabeth Bishop's enduring child mourning may be more critical assumption than biographical fact. Reading Bishop's literary representation of her early childhood years alongside her mother's actual medical case file paints a rather different portrait of a child who felt little or no grief at all when her emotionally unstable, sometimes violent, frequently absent mother disappeared from her life for good. An autobiographical story like "In the Village," on the events surrounding Gertrude Bulmer Bishop's breakdown, show that to Elizabeth Bishop's own best recollection her child mourning was actually no mourning. 5 Later Bishop works like the poem "Sestina," which recounts the aftermath of her mother's hospitalization, and the villanelle "One Art," which remains her best known poem and one of the most famous elegies in modern literature, go even farther, seeking to redress a much deeper and more disturbing deprivation: the loss of loss itself. 6


The figure of the traumatized bereaved child enters modern consciousness early in the twentieth century largely through demographic, economic, and cultural shifts, including the rise of mandatory schooling that separated children from parents, the reduction in family size that strengthened the bonds of family affection, the proliferation of orphanages and experiments in foster care that uprooted and relocated children, and the coincidence of world war and global pandemic that left large numbers of children parentless. But it is the rise of psychoanalysis that perhaps does the most to install the grieving child at the heart of modern identity. Whatever else it may be, psychoanalysis, stripped down to its core philosophy, is also an extended theory of child bereavement; psychoanalysis turns us all into child mourners, subjects profoundly shaped by early losses and the lifelong attempt to repair those losses. The grieving or orphaned child, already a subject of growing concern in the nineteenth century, becomes a figure of even greater cultural import in the twentieth century, the period in which traditional notions of both mourning and childhood are under considerable duress. 7 There have always been orphaned, abandoned, or bereft children, but, with the popularization of psychoanalysis, the meaning assigned to child mourning changes markedly in the modern period, assuming tremendous explanatory power.

In the history of modern grief there may be no more accomplished mourner than eighteen-month old Ernst Wolfgang Halberstadt. Born on March 11, 1914 to a father who will return alive from the war and a mother who will eventually die of influenza in his place, Ernst teaches his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, the technique of mastering loss before it has even happened. In Freud's account of his grandson's game of fort-da, little Ernst learns to master his mother Sophie's daily absences by starring in his own theater of mourning, "himself staging the disappearance and return of the objects within his reach." 8 The action at the heart of this performance centers on a game played with a wooden reel and a piece of stringa kind of play within the play, and more specifically a revenge drama. Throwing away the spool, Ernst "revenge[s] himself on his mother for going away from him"; reeling the spoon back, he makes himself "master of the situation." 9 By repeatedly rehearsing the moment of his mother's disappearancemaking Sophie vanish as if she had never existedlittle Ernst succeeds in nothing less than making grief itself disappear. The game of fort-da is fundamentally a story of premature mourning: a young boy invents a way to compensate for a lost love object before this object is "gone" for good, thereby offering the new science of psychoanalysis its first model for proactive and proleptic mourning.

Ernst and Elizabeth are, in many ways, the perfect pair. Both are children of World War I, both are five years old when their mothers disappear from their lives, and both, at the moment of maternal abandonment, shed no tears over their loss. The boy Ernst and the girl Elizabeth introduce into the canon of modern elegiac literature a new type of mourner and a new subject of study for poets, psychologists, and educators alike: the bereaved boy or girl who shows no sorrowthe tearless child. Yet the similarity between these two child mourners ends here, for Ernst and Elizabeth experience loss in markedly different ways. If psychoanalysis depicts Ernst as modernity's most precocious mourner, literary criticism portrays Elizabeth Bishop as it's least. If Ernst mourns too soon, Elizabeth mourns too late. If Ernst's response to maternal loss is confident and definitive, Elizabeth's response is tentative and inconclusive. If Ernst emerges in psychoanalytic criticism as the very model of economical and successful mourning, Elizabeth emerges in literary criticism as a textbook case of uncompleted and undirected mourning.

Bishop's finest short story, "In the Village," is the touchstone text for theories about the poet's unresolved mourning, yet it is not the young Elizabeth's grief that provides the story's dramatic conflict. Published in the Christmas edition of The New Yorker on December 19, 1953, Bishop's self-proclaimed "prose poem" opens with a scream:

A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over the Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever .... The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memoryin the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forevernot loud, just alive, forever (251). 10

The disembodied scream comes from Bishop's grief-stricken mother, as she is fitted by the village dressmaker for a new purple dress, marking the end of a nearly five-year mourning period. Bishop never refers to her mother directly by name, or even indirectly by the possessive pronoun "my"; Gertrude Bishop remains an impersonal "she." 11 The text enacts its own game of fort-da, repeatedly distancing the figure of the mother before bringing her back into view, miming the precise dynamic of disappearance and return that the adult Bishop seeks to control through the very telling of the tale:

First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister, and now she was home again (252).

The story narrates the mother's final homecoming and final departure, as her daughter recalls a woman whose intense grief possessed a lethal power:

The dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes (253).

"In the Village" depicts maternal presence as not nurturing but annihilating. Here it is the mother's grief that makes the child disappear. Gertrude's scream eclipses Elizabeth, cancels her; Elizabeth "vanishes," as if it were the child and not the mother who had never existed. At the sound of the maternal scream, Bishop herself vanishes into the third person, reclaiming her first person voice only when her mother recedes from narrative view.

Unlike Ernst, who devises the game of spool and string to compensate for his mother's sudden vanishings, Elizabeth struggles not with the problem of her mother's disappearance but with the threat of her return. It is the possibility of Gertrude's sudden reappearance that disturbs the young Elizabeth, as she concocts a trick of her own to keep her mother at bay. While Elizabeth's grandmother and aunts carefully unpack Gertrude's trunk in advance of her return to a child who has long managed without her, Elizabeth steals and buries one of her mother's "little embroidery tools": "I abscond with a little ivory stick with a sharp point. To keep it forever I bury it under the bleeding heart by the crab-apple tree, but it is never found again" (257). 12 Another substitute object for an absent but soon to return mother, the embroidery stick functions much like Ernst's cotton spool, but without the string. Here the mother is made to disappear but not reappear; ostensibly burying the ivory stick "to keep it forever," in fact "it is never found again" (by Elizabeth or anyone else, the passive voice suggests). In this alternative modernist narrative of a young child declaring a mother gone, the object of vanishing is not retrieved, and loss itself is made to go missing.

Presence, not absence, provokes Elizabeth's real anxiety, and prohibits true mourning. By story's end, the mother's scream has not been dispelled. Bishop, shifting into an adult voice, pronounces it gone ("now there is no scream"), but not even the reassuring "clang" of Nate's blacksmith shop can completely erase its echo, as the story's final lines attest:

All those other thingsclothes, crumbling postcards, broken china; things damaged and lost, sickened or destroyed; even the frail almost-lost screamare they too frail for us to hear their voices long, too mortal?


O, beautiful sound, strike again! (274)

The scream which begins and ends Bishop's story is not lost but "almost-lost"; it hovers over the narrative, supplemented but not substituted by the "beautiful sound" of Nate's hammer, the story's symbol of artistic labor. Significantly, Bishop's questionare the sights and sounds of childhood too "frail" to be heard forevergoes unanswered, as the poet attempts to summon "the pure note" (253) of art to counter the impure note of grief, a sound "not loud, just alive forever."

A scream that hangs in memory, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop remains a distant and disturbing presence for her daughter. The problem for Bishop is not that, at a young age, she loses her mother, but precisely that she does not. Her mother might have gone missing, but she was not in fact dead, a point brought home to the young Bishop every time she delivers a care package for her mother to the village post office, or to the adult Bishop every time she passes her mother's hospital on her train ride to Vassar. Poststructuralist theory tends to read all forms of absence as death, insisting that any response to loss is a form of mourning. But the problem with reducing every literal absence to a type of figurative death is that we lose the opportunity to understand fully the importance and meaning of losses that are not bemoaned, or of absences that are not irreversible. Traditional accounts of mourning cannot sufficiently explain a child's response to the ambiguity of a mother who is absent but not dead. Gertrude Bishop is never entirely "gone," and her daughter shows no signs of grief or mourning, either after her mother's incarceration on June 20, 1916 or after her death on May 24, 1934. 13 Because Bishop first begins jotting in her notebooks about her mother at the time of Gertrude's death, one could assume that writing itself is for Bishop a form of elegya way to incorporate a beloved lost object. But as the autobiographical story "In the Village" suggests, Bishop's mother is, for the poet, neither much loved nor much lost. Indeed, the terrifying sound that embodies her mother, the scream that is "not loud, just alive, forever," refuses to be lost. Until the scream lands, Bishop remains herself suspended, unable to mourn a distant mother who was never, in truth, either fully present or entirely absent. Bishop's challenge is not how to hold on to her mother but how to lose her.

But why would a young child not shed tears over the disappearance of her only living parent? Even as a young child, Bishop may well have registered that her mother was a threat to her. Bishop scholars are of one mind in their conclusion that it is grief that first drives Gertrude Bishop mad, an account that in large part simply re-circulates the family's public story that Gertrude never got over the death of her husband. While the romanticized picture of a young widow's perpetual mourning for a husband who died too young may well be true, it is not less significant that Gertrude Bishop's psychological troubles began well before she even met William Thomas Bishop. A Great Village neighbor Elsee Layton recalls a mysterious incident during Gertrude's nursing training that resulted in her temporary leave from the program, while Bishop's cousin Kay Orr Sargent remembers her father saying that "there was a tendency toward mental illness in Gertrude's character and that William's death just pushed her over." 14 Bishop's own unpublished poem "Homesickness" hints at family stories of a severe depression when Gertrude first left home at age sixteen: "sleeping/not even realizing she was weeping/her face [her] nightgown drenched." 15 A later draft of this same poem shows Bishop wondering if Gertrude's nocturnal tears marked the beginning of her mother's slide into madness ("And this was how it all began?"). In yet another version of the same event Bishop goes even farther, labeling her mother's homesickness "tragically repressed hysteria." 16

The single most revealing extant document on the nature of Gertrude's illness, a hospital admittance form filled out by Gertrude's sister Grace after the events described in Bishop's story "In the Village," suggests that Gertrude's troubles were far more serious, and more life-threatening, than a case of melancholia might suggest. This detailed document recounts Gertrude's two previous incarcerations in 1914, the first in the Deaconess Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she "jumped out a 2nd story window," and the second in a private sanatorium in Norwood, Massachusetts, where, in contrast, she "was not suicidal or homicidal, but morbid and depressed." Both the hospital admittance form and the hospital clinical record also refer to an incident when Gertrude Bulmer was fifteen or sixteen years old (before she left home for her first teaching job) and "her father found her making for the river, having become very nervous and depressed over failing in her examination at school." The clinical record clarifies that Gertrude was "running to the river to drown herself," revealing that her first suicide attempt took place more than a decade before she met her husband.

Grace recounts to Gertrude's new doctors her sister's hypochondria ("imagined she had kidney, heart, and specific diseases"), her hysteria ("[imagined] being hung, burnt as a witch or electrocuted"), and her paranoia ("imagined she saw people she knew, & that she was watched as a criminal"). It is specifically Gertrude's paranoia and the return of her "suicidal and homicidal" tendencies that compel her final, and permanent, incarceration: "Now she imagines she is being given electricity or is being mesmerized and hypnotized, and that all medicines given her contain poisons." A female Schreber, Gertrude outdoes her male predecessor in the sheer level of violence she is capable of inflicting. After receiving an upsetting "business paper," the hospital records note, Gertrude tried to strangle her mother and hang herself with a sheet. 17

These are the unnamed events transpiring in the Bulmer household during the time of "In the Village." Reclaiming the point of view of her own observant child self, Bishop succeeds in this story in representing an event whose oppressive violence, though shrouded in mysterious acts and overheard whispers, can still be dramatically restaged over thirty-five years later:

"Hurry. For heaven's sake, shut the door!"


"Oh, we can't go on like this, we ..."

"It's too dangerous. Remember that ..."

"Sh! Don't let her ..."

A door slams.

A door opens. The voices begin again.

I am struggling to free myself.

Wait. Wait. No one is going to scream (270). 18

A memoir thinly disguised as fiction, "In the Village" is perhaps most striking for its sympathetic portrayal of everyone but Bishop's mother. Bishop recalls a mother who "seeks me in a mirror and turns on me" 'Stop sucking your thumb!'" (267), or, more ominously, a mother whose "hands are on my head, pushing me down" (261). The mother's threatening hands find their corrective in the grandmother's protective hands holding Elizabeth against her knees during Gertrude's disastrous dress fitting, or in the aunt's equally watchful embrace as she gets into bed with Elizabeth on the night Gertrude turns violent.

It is not clear whether Bishop ever knew the degree of danger she faced as a child. Years later she requested that her close friend Robert Lowell remove from a draft poem he had written for Bishop a very particular line about her mother:

If you ever do anything with the poem about mewould you change the remark my mother was supposed to have made? She never did make it; in fact, I don't remember any direct threats, except the usual maternal ones. Her danger for me was just implied in the things I over-heard the grown-ups say before and after her disappearance. Poor thing, I don't want to have it any worse than it was.

The remark Bishop's mother "was supposed to have made" to her daughter, a remark Bishop shared with Lowell apparently in confidence, was "All I want/to do is kill you!" 19 Backpedaling on her earlier revelation, Bishop seeks to protect the "poor thing" who was her mother, not wishing "to have it any worse than it was." Yet whether "implied" or "direct," the danger Gertrude Bishop posed to those around her is never in fact denied.

The "business paper" that provoked Gertrude to try to kill herself, her mother, and perhaps her child as well may have been a suit filed by Bishop's paternal grandparents seeking legal custody of a child they believed to be in imminent danger. Such speculation becomes more credible in light of Grace's disclosure on the hospital forms that her sister "has always been afraid someone was going to take her child away from her," and in light of Bishop's claim that Gertrude once held a knife as Elizabeth slept beside her. 20 There is no evidence that Gertrude did harm her daughteronly her mother and herself. But Bishop's memory of an implied threat, gleaned from overheard adult conversations still remembered decades after the event, suggest that child murder rather than child mourning may have been the true fear hovering over the Bulmer and Bishop families, anxious to prevent an unstable young mother from loving her child to death. 21

Why then have scholars and teachers of Bishop (myself included) long ignored or minimized the darker side of Bishop's family history, simultaneously insisting on Elizabeth's life-long child bereavement? The real question may be not why does Elizabeth shed no tears over her mother's disappearance, but rather why are we unable to imagine a child who does not mourn an absent mother? Bishop's indifference to the memory or fate of her mother leaves some readers incredulous. Speaking of Bishop's reaction to seeing, after many years, childhood portraits of her mother and her uncle, in which Bishop writes that "she can't stop thinking about [her uncle]," Patricia Wallace protests: "Am I to believe she can stop thinking about her mother, whose portrait she has also unpacked from the crate?" Wallace surmises that Bishop turns her focus immediately to her Uncle Neddy because "the memory of the mother is too powerful, too disruptive. Or is it that the memory of her mother, even when packed away, remains a constant part of her world, whereas she is surprised to find herself remembering Uncle Neddy?" 22 It is worth bearing in mind that the focus and title of this autobiographical Bishop story is in fact "Memories of Uncle Neddy." Determined to find in Bishop traces of unresolved mourning for her mother, Wallace ultimately reaches outside Bishop's writings to Adrienne Rich's poem "Transcendental Etude" in order to ground her theory of "poetry as sound connected to the maternal": "that woman's heartbeat/heard ever after from a distance,/the loss of that ground note echoing." 23

Wallace is by no means alone in the practice of invoking more universalizing theories when the particularities of Bishop's own archive fail to support the conventional view of the poet as melancholic motherless daughter, writing poetry to assuage her childhood grief. Susan McCabe bases her theory of Bishop's "poetics of loss" on both John Bowlby's 1979 paper "Childhood Mourning and its Implications" and Nancy Chodorow's 1978 study The Reproduction of Mothering. McCabe uses Bowlby, who maintains that "the process of mourning for children is most likely to take a course that for adults is deemed pathological," to suggest that Bishop's grieving process is "short-circuited" and that her apparent acceptance of her mother's loss "is really numb detachment." And she invokes Chodorow to argue that "any separation from the mother at an early age 'threatens not only anxiety at possible loss, but the infant's very sense of existence.'" Insisting that young children who lose their mothers "suffer severely and carry the trauma of their loss into their adult lives," McCabe clarifies that "mourning, specifically childhood mourning, is relevant here not to construct a pathology out of Bishop's life, but to connect her process of writing with the process of confession and grieving." 24 Critics, in short, labor hard to see signs of mourning in Bishop where they may be none, often identifying the poet's very absence of grief over her mother's disappearance as evidence that it must be deep and abiding.

I am suggesting here that, like the psychoanalytic readings of little Ernst as ideal mourner, feminist portrayals of the young Elizabeth as pathological mourner are more projection than reality. 25 Both critical approaches make a serious, lasting, and valuable contribution to literary criticism, in significant part by recuperating the salience of biography for scholarly interpretation. In this particular case, however, their combined efforts to recuperate the lost mother as the "ground-note" of Bishop's poetry describe more a collective critical endeavor than Bishop's own personal quest. So what do literary critics have to gain in positing unresolved child mourning as the key to all things Bishopher famously reserved tone and formal diction, her love of travel and fear of homelessness, even her sexuality and addictions? What's at stake, finally, in the critical emphasis on child mourning?

The explosion of Bishop criticism in the 1980s and 1990s coincides with the rise of trauma theory but also with the florescence of feminist and psychoanalytic literary criticism. Bishop emerges as an exemplar for both schools of thought in their shared project to resurrect mothers lost to history and to posit primal mourning for this lost maternal presence as the motive force of twentieth-century psychic life. Critical studies of Bishop come of age at the precise historical juncture when the political and cultural recuperation of the maternal becomes a dominant theme in academic discourse. In a preface to their edited collection The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature (written the year of Elizabeth Bishop's death in 1979), Cathy Davidson and E. M. Broner identify this "embracing of the maternal past" as a "new trend" in literary criticism. 26 Acknowledgment of maternal love and sacrifice played an important role in the new matrilineage, itself represented as a form of mourning seeking to retrieve and revalue the lost or forgotten mother figure as a vital source of women's creative power.

But the need to see Bishop as a grieving daughter, struggling through her art to get back to her mother, may say more about a particular critical moment, understandably concerned with giving the maternal its due, than about Bishop's actual feelings for a mother she barely remembered. Ignoring or sanitizing Gertrude Bishop's medical history in effect romanticizes the young Elizabeth's relation to her mother and, in turn, attributes the motivating force behind her entire poetics to a mother-love and mother-loss. The almost obsessive insistence that Bishop's entire life and artistic production is the product of unresolved mourning also has the unfortunate effect of turning Bishop into her mother, the woman whose melancholia never ends.

Bishop's own correspondences and interviews depict not an eternal mourner but a temporary observer, a woman relatively untouched by her mother's disappearance. The only known report Bishop makes of her mother's death comes in a brief aside in a letter to schoolmate Frani Blough: "I guess I should tell you that Mother died a week ago today. After eighteen years, of course, it is the happiest thing that could have happened." 27 Bishop's lack of affect when privately confiding news of her mother's death to a friend later reappears in the standard family origin narrative she chose to share publicly with interviewers. To Elizabeth Spires the poet casually announces, "My father died, my mother went crazy when I was four or five years old," and to Beatriz Schiller she no less matter-of-factly states, "My father died when I was eight months old. When I was four years old my mother went mad." 28 When Bishop talks about a mother's love at all, she is unapologetically critical. To Frani Blough again, after witnessing the intense maternal care lavished upon an injured friend, Bishop observes, "'Mother-love'isn't it awful. I long for an Arctic climate where no emotions of any sort can possibly grow." 29 And to Harvard student Mildred Nash she confides that "from all she had seen and heard of her friends' mothers, she was probably just as well off without one." 30

None of this is to say that Bishop was completely without feeling where her mother was concerned. "In the Village" paints a portrait not of a grieving child but of an embarrassed one. Carefully avoiding the neighbors on her weekly walks to the post-office to deliver her grandmother's care package, Elizabeth's efforts at "hiding the address of the sanatorium with my arm and other hand" (273) reveal a child's mortificationan emotion far more formative of Bishop's later reserved poetics than grief ("there's nothing more embarrassing than being a poet," Bishop lamented. 31) Towards the end of her life, Bishop entertained the thought that perhaps guilt, not embarrassment, was the dominant emotion she felt towards her mother: "My life has been darkened always by guilt feelings, I think, about my mothersomehow children get the idea it's their faultor I did. And I could do nothing about that, and she lived on for twenty years more and it has been a nightmare to me always." 32 The incarcerated Gertrude was literally a subject of nightmares for Bishopnightmares that, though infrequent, were nonetheless powerful. In a notebook entry from November 14, 1950, Bishop records "a ghastly nightmare about my motheroutside the closed door, 'they,' beating, etc.1st time in about 15 yrs., I think, & wonder why." 33 Presumably Bishop dreams of her mother being beaten in the asylum by a faceless "they," though we might note here that the syntax makes it entirely ambiguous who is beating whom.

Tragically, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop never recovered enough to leave Nova Scotia Hospital. The periodic updates on her condition contained in hospital records, recorded from the month of her admission (June 1916) to the month of her death (May 1934), are startling in their brevity, demonstrated by this typical entry for the middle year of Gertrude's eighteen-year hospitalization:


January 13th.          No change.

March 4th.               No change.

May 9th.                   No change.

June 26th.                No change.

August 7th.              No change.

September 21st.      No change.

November 10th.      No change.

The hospital notes on Gertrude's lengthy incarceration read almost like an Elizabeth Bishop poem ("no coffee, no coffee, no coffee"), chilling in their bleak refrain. 34 Despite the clinical record's lack of diagnostic detail, letters between the Bulmer family and the hospital superintendent, together with historical records on Nova Scotia Hospital's preferred treatment methods at the time, suggest that Gertrude was not maltreated. Admitted as "a person of unsound mind," Gertrude, though eager at first to be released, was neither drugged nor physically restrained. Only in her most violent and self-destructive periods was she kept off the wards to prevent her from ripping the clothes off other patients or eating the wall plaster. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Nova Scotia Hospital, which grew most of its own food, still hewed closely to the therapeutic benefits of daily activity, physical exercise, and healthy eating, though Gertrude seems to have benefited little from the hospital's philosophy of custodial care. 35

What emerges from the surviving family correspondence is a portrait of a concerned and loving family, anxious about Gertrude's health, uncertain about how to proceed as her condition failed to improve, and willing to consider relocating her to another hospital. In the end, Gertrude remained where she was, with her parents sending her regular care packages of food, clothing, toothbrushes, and even Christmas trees, her brother Arthur ("Neddy") monitoring Gertrude's condition in person and keeping the family informed, and her sisters Grace and Maud sending requests to the superintendent that Gertrude be allowed to have scissors for sewing (a request that was denied) or be permitted to take a sleigh ride (a hospital tradition). There is no documentation in the hospital case file that Gertrude Bishop ever asked after her daughter or that Elizabeth Bishop ever inquired about her mother, although an adult Bishop did have in her possession snapshots of Gertrude, "in very chic clothes of around 1917," taking a walk on the hospital grounds. 36 According to Bishop's friend Frank Bidart, "Elizabeth never saw her mother in the hospital because her family didn't want her to, and by the time she was old enough, Elizabeth was afraid to." 37

Bishop shed many tears in her lifetime, but never over the absence of her mother. "Sestina," the only Bishop poem to address the immediate aftermath of her mother's institutionalization, is positively awash in tears (the grandmother's "equinoctial tears," the teakettle's "small hard tears," the grandmother's "teacup full of dark brown tears," the almanac's "little moons that fall like tears"), but not the tears of five-year-old Elizabeth, who famously "draws another inscrutable house" (123-24). In this poem, which describes a rainy September day in the Bulmer kitchen three months after Gertrude's commitment to the asylum, Bishop paints her own inscrutable portrait of a grieving grandmother and an industrious child, the one "laughing and talking to hide her tears" and the other carefully drawing a house of tears:

With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother (123).

Victoria Harrison contends that "the child proudly captures her mother by circumscribing her within a series of idealistically domestic houses," but there is no mother in the child's crayon drawing, and for that matter no childonly "a man with buttons like tears." 38 The child's drawing does not reclaim the mother; it removes all traces of her.

Most commentators read the many forms of liquid condensation that flow through "Sestina" (tears, rain, stream, tea) as displacements of Elizabeth's own grief. Thus Harrison reads the tear-buttons of Elizabeth's crayon-mana figure she identifies with Bishop's maternal grandfatheras "signifiers of her emotions (they are her own tears, of course, transposed" 39 Signifiers of emotions to be sure, the "buttons like tears" Elizabeth draws onto her crayoned man are precisely not her own. Much like readings of "In the Village," which work hard to find signs of child mourning in Bishop that may not exist, critical interpretations of "Sestina" strive mightily to read the poem's depictions of the grandmother's and perhaps the grandfather's sorrow as really Bishop's in disguise. But is it not possible that what the adult Bishop recalls so vividly in this poem is not her own child grief but the mourning of the adults around her? Bishop quickly abandoned the poem's sentimental working title, "Early Sorrow," in favor of naming it after its strict verse form, "Sestina," reproducing the child's own creative attempt to give rigid form to the adult emotions spilling out around her. "Sestina" offers a picture not of childhood trauma but childhood imagination, as Bishop draws a portrait of a young artist who may not shed tears but has already learned how to represent them.

In making her mother vanish, Elizabeth's artistic play with paper and crayon recalls Ernst's theatrical game with spool and string. Both acts operate as revenge dramas, a child's attempt to master disaster. These two young impresarios, the artist and the thespian, appear in the end to be not so much child mourners as child murderers, using their creative imaginations to willfully make the mother disappear. Even more strikingly, the games they play provide lessons in symbolization: the "revenging" child becomes a "re-presenting" child. 40 In order for loss to be turned into gain, the game of maternal disappearance must not just be represented but repeated: Ernst continually and "untiringly" throws out his reel, while Elizabeth "draws another inscrutable house." What Freud and Bishop each seek to retrieve them in their projected representations of child mourning (their own acts of fort-da) is nothing less than the origin of artistic sublimation, the moment we first discover how to lose things.

"How to Lose Things" is one of two original titles Bishop first entertains for her great poem "One Art," the only villanelle in Bishop's corpus, and the only poem other than "Sestina" to allude to her mother's death. 41 Tellingly, the sestina and the villanelle, the two standardized verse forms Bishop selects for her maternal elegies, employ in their modern incarnations the least flexible of poetic rhyme schemes. The sounds that repeat in the villanelle (master/disaster) must be the same sounds, and in the sestina the exact same words (house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears). In their structure, rhythm, and rhyme, the sestina and the villanelle comprise poetry's version of the fort-da, the compulsion to repeat.

A lyric meditation on the art of losing, "One Art" enumerates a whole series of losses the poet experiences. Bishop sequences her losses carefully, ratcheting up the poem's level of intensity by first recalling the insignificant losses (door key, hour, place, name, and destination) before building up to the more serious losses (houses, cities, lost river, continent). In the middle of her tally Bishop inserts a maternal token:

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

"My mother's watch" serves as a tonal switch-point, immediately turning the poem from the trivial to the painful, and from the general to the autobiographical. The sixteen surviving drafts of "One Art" show Bishop considering and rejecting a variety of different objects as privileged signifiers of loss: fountain pens, car-keys, reading-glasses, mortgages, packages, money. 42 "My mother's watch" does not first appear until the ninth draft of "One Art." Aside from the "joking voice" and "gesture I love" that metonymically represent the poet's present loss, Gertrude's watch is in fact the very last object Bishop thinks to include in the poem as a symbol of past losses that prove hardest to retrieve. 43

Located in the exact center of this six-stanza villanelle, "I lost my mother's watch" signifies both the literal loss of her mother's watch, which Bishop apparently had in her possession since childhood, and the figurative loss of time with her mother. 44 It also intimates something more, Bishop's own belated recognition that perhaps the first significant loss in her young life was in fact her mother's care, a maternal watching over. The pun on "watch" captures not the grief but the guilt the adult Bishop later admits she felt over her mother's vanishings: "I lost my mother's watch." Operating on all three levels at oncethe material (lost object), the metaphysical (lost time), and the emotional (lost care)"my mother's watch," with its strong introduction of the possessive pronoun, is the first of the poem's losses Bishop owns directly. Yet she insists that the loss of the mother's watch, like all life's other losses, ultimately proves "not too hard to master." Only losing the beloveda privation that, significantly, may not have even happened yet ("I shan't have lied")poses for Bishop a loss that may prove to be truly hard to master, a loss that may in fact be "disaster."

Typically, Bishop critics read "One Art" as pure bluster, Bishop's attempt to convince both herself and her readers that "the art of losing isn't hard to master," before her voice, and her confidence, finally break down under the sheer weight of losses she enumerates. Bishop emerges in virtually all readings of "One Art" as a traumatized, grief stricken speaker whose attempt to gain mastery over her emotions comes completely undone in the poet's final parenthetical injunction "Write it!" While I find this standard interpretation both eloquent and compelling, I also wonder if there is not an alternate interpretation of the poem, one that does not contradict this dominant reading so much as deepen and extend it.

Is it possible that "One Art" articulates not a lament over loss but a desire for it? Could Bishop be seeking, through her arresting villanelle, not to put loss behind her but to access a loss that is hard to master? Bishop's notebooks reveal that the poem's initial title "How to Lose Things?" was in fact not a statement but a question. What if Bishop is not telling us how to lose things but asking us? For Bishop, the loss of the mother was never actually experienced as a definitive loss; the ambiguity of an absent but not dead parent left Bishop in a state of affective limbo. In subsequent drafts of "One Art" the poet appears to be seeking not compensation for loss but loss itself. Put another way, the loss of loss leaves Bishop curious about how to lose things, intent on properly gaining loss so that she might finally learn to master it. In this reading, to master loss is not to annul it but to access it, not to overcome it but to accomplish it. Bishop's trouble all along has been not with the art of losing but with the act of losing, not with representation but reality. It is only as art, "one art," that Bishop feels she knows how to lose; outside the realm of representation, loss itself escapes her, which may be why the poet also considered titling her villanelle "The Gift of Losing Things."

In short, what if we were finally to take seriously Bishop's repeated assertions that "the art of losing's not too hard to master"? Or believe her claim that she "shan't have lied" when she says that even the possible loss of the beloved only looks like disaster? One senses in Bishop's poetry a striving to feel loss, to make it real; even the representation of loss, this poem acknowledges, is not real loss. Representation merely marks the site of loss, plants a marker over the grave, but it does not retrieve the original loss. If anything, the sublimating power of art distances loss even farther, replacing the original lost object with an impoverished substitute. What I have proposed in this essay is the simple proposition that, in a manner we have perhaps not yet fully appreciated, Bishop is the child in "Sestina," drawing a picture of a loss she senses but cannot quite comprehend. As the world weeps around her, Elizabeth Bishop writes another inscrutable poem.

I would like to thank Nova Scotia Hospital, Nova Scotia, for permission to quote from the "Case File of Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, Nova Scotia Hospital, Dartmouth, N.S., 1916-1934.


  1. #1 Victoria Harrison, Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 107.[]
  2. #2 Susan McCabe, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2003), 2-3.[]
  3. #3 Marilyn May Lombardi, The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 13.[]
  4. #4 Brett C. Miller, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), xii.[]
  5. #5 Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Village" in The Collected Prose (New York: Macmillan, 1984), 251-74.[]
  6. #6 Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 123-24, 178.[]
  7. #7 While there have been historical studies of both modern childhood and modern death, there have been none of child bereavement. Histories of death focus exclusively on older children or adults, while histories of childhood fall completely silent on the subject of early child mourning. This critical silence surrounding child bereavement is itself significant, for it points to an unresolved question that begins in earnest with the rise of the child study movement in the late nineteenth century and comes to a head with the ambitious Harvard Child Bereavement Study in the late twentieth century: do children mourn?[]
  8. #8 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol 18, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955), 15.[]
  9. #9 Freud, 16-17.[]
  10. #10 In a 1978 interview, Bishop cites "In the Village" as more prose poem than short story. See Elizabeth Spires, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, ed. George Monteiro (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996), 125.[]
  11. #11 Marjorie Perloff puts it best, in an essay published two years before Bishop's death: "Gertrude is present in this story "not as a person with a specific identity, but as a set of gestures, of isolated words, of objects in her possession." Marjorie Perloff, "Elizabeth Bishop: The Course of a Particular," Modern Poetry Studies 8.3 (1977), 179.[]
  12. #12 During Gertrude's early incarcerations, the young Elizabeth was cared for by her mother's parents and sisters (the Bulmers) whom she later recalls with great fondness. After her mother's permanent hospitalization, and a brief unhappy stay with her wealthier and stricter Bishop grandparents, the Bulmer grandparents and especially Gertrude's older sister Maud again assumed primary responsibility for Bishop's upbringing.[]
  13. #13 Psychologists and psychiatrists now draw sharp distinctions between "grief" (a feeling of acute loss that is temporary) and "mourning" (a working through of that loss that is protracted). In my mind, this distinction, while no doubt clinically useful, is more specious than substantive (is grief not a vital part of mourning, and can mourning really be said to resolve grief?). Regardless, Bishop shows no signs of either grief or mourning when her mother disappears into the asylum.[]
  14. #14 Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 3.[]
  15. #15 Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, ed. Alice Quinn (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 87.[]
  16. #16 Edgar Allan Poe, 294-95 .[]
  17. #17 Gertrude Bulmer Bishop's other symptoms at the time of her admission read like a checklist of early twentieth century diagnostic categories: excitability, loss of appetite, insomnia, talkativeness, obtrusiveness, irritability, deafness, nervous chills, weak spells, and menstrual distress. Hospital case notes reveal Gertrude was also convinced that she was the cause of World War I and that she would die for her country. Later reports on her "pronounced neuraesthenia" describe her foul language, personal untidiness, auditory hallucinations, general destructiveness, and continued delusions of persecution. Correspondences in the hospital case file make it clear that Gertrude's lengthy hospitalization was paid for by her wealthy father-in-law, John W. Bishop Sr., and after his death by his son, John W. Bishop Jr.[]
  18. #18 Passages like this one from "In the Village" provoked strong objections from the editorial staff at The New Yorker. But as Joelle Biele notes in a discussion of the editors' difficult with Bishop's unconventional paragraphing, unattributed dialogue, and shifting viewpoints, the poet saw herself recreating experiences from a child's point of view. In Bishop's words, "I wanted to give the effect of nervous voices, exchanging often ambiguous remarks, floating in the air over a child's head." See "Elizabeth Bishop at the Crossroads of Poetry and Prose," New England Review 30.3 (2009): 75. For more on Bishop's relations with The New Yorker over the years, see Biele's Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).[]
  19. #19 Letter to Robert Lowell, December 11, 1957. Lowell wrote the lines "All I want/to do is kill you!" in Bishop's voice and had included them in an early draft of his poem "For Elizabeth Bishop 2. Castine Maine." Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, eds. Words in the Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 243.[]
  20. #20 Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 3.[]
  21. #21 Murderous parental love is also the theme of Bishop's memorable short story, "Gwendolyn," published in The New Yorker on June 27, 1953, the same year as "In the Village." Another autobiographical tale set in Great Village, Bishop recalls a diabetic playmate, the symbolically named Gwendolyn Appletree, herself so sweet "her parents almost ate her up as if she really were made of sugar." "They'll kiss that child to death if they're not careful," Bishop's grandmother warns, just days before Gwendolyn's indulgent parents fulfill the prophecy by putting sugar in their daughter's tea. Collected Prose, 217.[]
  22. #22 Patricia Wallace, "Erasing the Maternal: Rereading Elizabeth Bishop," The Iowa Review 22.2 (Spring/Summer 1992), 94. On viewing these family portraits, Bishop finds her own reflection not in her mother's image but in her Uncle Neddy's: "He looks very much like me." See Bishop's letter to Robert Lowell, December 11, 1957 (One Art, 244).[]
  23. #23 "Erasing the Maternal," 91-2. Wallace's identification in Bishop of a "maternal erotic" in the language of "ripples, hidden interiors, wetness, warmth, and fire" is a far more accurate description of Rich's aesthetic interests than Bishop's.[]
  24. #24 Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, 8-9. Critics who insist on the traumatic origins of Bishop's poetry often hedge their bets, reading both the mother's presence and her absence as traumatic. Victoria Harrison for example seeks to have it both ways when she speaks of "the specter of her mother, whose presence and whose horribly absent existence in the sanatorium were traumatic" (Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy, 110).[]
  25. #25 In the case of little Ernst, the projection is all Freud's, who sees in his grandson an ideal of the kind of mourner he himself aspires (but fails) to become after his beloved Sophie dies for real on January 25, 1920 as Freud is completing his writing on child mourning. Ernst emerges in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a ready surrogate for a father determined not to shed tears after the tragic loss of his daughter. Perhaps not surprisingly, the famous tale of a child's enlightened mourning was in fact Freud's all along.[]
  26. #26 Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner, eds., The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980), xiii. In addition to Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), especially influential texts in second wave feminism's project to recuperate the mother were Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" (Ms. Magazine, 1974), Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976), and Nancy Friday's My Mother/My Self: The Daughter's Search for Identity (New York: Delacorte, 1977). In the literature of maternal legacies, the mother who is reclaimed is not always, or unambivalently, a loving mother. See, for example, Carolyn Steedman's memorable portrait of an unloving mother in her Landscape for a Good Woman (London: Virago Press, 1986).[]
  27. #27 Letter to Frani Blough, June 4, 1934. (One Art 24).[]
  28. #28 Conversations, 126, 75.[]
  29. #29 Letter to Dorothee Bowie, June 14, 1970. Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries.[]
  30. #30 Conversations, 136.[]
  31. #31 Conversations, 129.[]
  32. #32 Letter to Dorothee Bowie, June 14, 1970. Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries.[]
  33. #33 Edgar Allan Poe, 301.[]
  34. #34 I allude here to the powerful refrain from Bishop's unpublished elegy for Lota de Macedo Soares, "Aubade and Elegy" (Edgar Allan Poe 149). For more on this poem, and on its difficulties articulating loss, see my Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy (103-06). After the first five or six years of Gertrude's hospitalization, doctors seem to have simply given up on their "permanently insane" patient.[]
  35. #35 For more detailed histories of Nova Scotia Hospital, see Susan McNulty's Nova Scotia Hospital: 125th Anniversary, 1858-1983 (Dartmouth: The Nova Scotia Hospital, 1983) and A.H. MacDonald's Mount Hope Then and Now: A History of Nova Scotia Hospital (Dartmouth: The Nova Scotia Hospital, 1996).[]
  36. #36 Letter to Robert Lowell, April 1, 1958 (One Art, 254). Bishop appears confused about where and when these snapshots of her mother were taken, telling Lowell they were probably taken at McLean Hospital (in Belmont, Massachusetts) where Lowell himself was frequently treated. However, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop never left Nova Scotia Hospital after June 20, 1916, and though Gertrude was hospitalized twice before in Boston area hospitals, there is no evidence she was ever a patient at McLean.[]
  37. #37 Bidart goes on to note that "Elizabeth told me that each time she went to Vassar, the train passed the hospital her mother was in she shuddered when she said this" (Oral Biography, 5).[]
  38. #38 Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy, 129.[]
  39. #39 Ibid.[]
  40. #40 For more on this transformation from revenge to representation in Freud's account of the fort-da, see "The Lady Vanishes," chapter two of Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992), 15-38. Siobhan Phillips also sees the representation of loss in Bishop's "Sestina" as "permitting a life of creative making rather than requiring a life of melancholic routine." See The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 138.[]
  41. #41 Bishop writes of her mother in other poems ("First Death in Nova Scotia," "Homesickness," "A Mother Made of Dress Goods," Swan-Boat Ride"), but she writes of a living mother not a dead one.[]
  42. #42 Bishop also considered including places like 'beach' and 'bay,' as well as abstractions like 'fame' and 'intent.' For the sixteen drafts of "One Art" (which may or may not be sequenced correctly) see Edgar Allan Poe, 225-40. On Bishop's attraction to small everyday objects as emblems of larger themes, see Susan Rosenbaum's "Elizabeth Bishop and the Miniature Museum," Journal of Modern Literature 28.2 (2005), 61-99.[]
  43. #43 Bishop's villanelle is most likely an attempt to come to terms with a rift in her relationship with Alice Methfessel, identified in the draft poems by her "blue eyes," "eyes of Azure Aster," and "small wild aster." Methfessel was a young Harvard administrator whom Bishop's biographer describes as "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'" (Life, 435).[]
  44. #44 To her Aunt Grace, Bishop writes on September 18, 1966: "I have had my mother's fob watch all these yearshad it repaired in N Y only once, I think." Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries.[]