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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

TOO COLD FOR US Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (Faber & Faber) £40

In March 1962, Robert Lowell sent Elizabeth Bishop a draft of ‘The Water’ along with a selection of other poems which were eventually published together in For the Union Dead (1964). This elegiac poem takes as its starting points the memory of a day spent with Bishop in Stonington, fourteen years earlier, and a letter from her during that same year, in which she describes a ‘nightmare of finding a gasping mermaid […] trying to tear the mussels off the piles for something to eat’. These are brought to cohere in eight profoundly melancholy stanzas which subtly play with and undermine the very processes of transformative memory that they enact, concluding: ‘…In the end,/ the water was too cold for us.’ Almost exactly halfway through the impressive thirty years of correspondence collected in Words In Air, we find Bishop’s reply, in a letter reflecting many of the strengths of this remarkably fertile friendship, as well as some of its tensions.

While the letters cover a wealth of subjects and events - from Brazilian coups and Vietnam protests to literary gossip and domestic anecdotes - the most consistent topic is Bishop and Lowell’s own poetry. Bishop’s response to ‘The Water’ is characteristic in its tact as she politely ignores the poem’s submerged though still discernible narrative of roads not taken. (Although he did not act on the impulse, for a period around the time which the poem revisits, Lowell had seriously considered proposing to Bishop. After one manic ...

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