Among the many tasks I’ve set for myself in this new year to help me reclaim my writing life (I certainly lost track of it in 2010, especially the second half) is to read more. So far, I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m up to date on my New Yorkers, I’m almost caught up to the January issue of Poetry and I’ve read three books since Christmas. The third book I just finished not three minutes ago and I think it’s worth a few words. The book in question is called The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge and I believe I heard about it on NPR several months ago. The book is a fictional account (rooted in real life events) of the life of Elizabeth Bishop and her lover Lota de Macedo Soares.
Elizabeth Bishop was the first poet that I really heard and she is a large part of the reason that I started to write and that I still write. Whenever I feel like my poets have lost the ability to see, I go back to Bishop. I love her and I will greedily consume her in any way that I can.
Reading this novel brought out the poetry nerd in me first. I loved how Sledge started weaving Bishop’s work into her travel narrative almost immediately. For a reader that is intimate with her poetry, it is like a poetic treasure hunt to go through this book and pick up on the allusions and references that eventually became some of Bishop’s most famous poems. At points the prose is achingly beautiful and exact, just like Bishop’s own verse. I was expecting this precision in language, because honestly, I don’t know how you write a book about Elizabeth Bishop without laboring painfully over each word.
What I was not expecting was the exquisite sadness that I encountered in the pages. While I admired and obsessed over Bishop’s poems, I also read her personal letters and interviews. I knew she struggled with family trauma and alcoholism. I knew she wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want her to be. I didn’t need her to be. However, this book puts a spotlight on her loneliness and then amplifies that loneliness by pairing her with a woman, Lota, who is even more lonely and even more desperate for validation then she is.
This is not to undermine their relationship. There is much joy and beauty in this novel as well, but it is always boiling with tension just below the surface. When I read the final scene when Lota overdoses, I felt my heart tighten. These women struggled and clawed and fought to find each other in the world, only to lose sight of what was most important at the very end.
This book also offers glimpses of other relationships that serve as foils for Lota and Elizabeth. The most famous seems to be Robert Lowell who makes one disastrous appearance after another until he leaves Elizabeth once again alone on a street corner in Rio.
It is a love story and a beautiful one at that. There are missteps and betrayal and rage on the part of both women, but they are also brilliant and vibrant and creative. This book makes me long to know them and go walking with them along the beach in Brazil or sit in Lota’s beautiful Samambaia and drink coffee. This will never happen of course, but in his pages, Sledge is able to give a very personal, very beautiful portrayal of a woman who some accused of being closed off or removed. This novel proves that she was anything but.