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Alice Methfessel, 66, noted poet's muse

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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Always reticent about her personal life, Elizabeth Bishop chose not to publish in her lifetime a poem she wrote about Alice Methfessel, a much younger woman Bishop met when she arrived in 1970 to teach at Harvard College.

Composed a few years after they met, “Breakfast Song’’ begins:

My love, my saving grace, your eyes are awfully blue. I kiss your funny face, your coffee-flavored mouth.

The poem might have been lost if Bishop’s friend Lloyd Schwartz had not seen it in one of the poet’s notebooks that subsequently could not be located. He jotted down a copy for himself and decades later submitted it to The New Yorker, which published the poem in 2002, 23 years after Bishop’s death.

“It is an autumnal poem, a poem by an older person who is in love with a younger person, and the fact that the younger person can love the older person makes the love more powerful,’’ said Schwartz, who coedited the Library of America edition of Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters.

“It’s the only poem in which Bishop talks about dying, her own death,’’ he said. “She’s going to have to go ‘to bed with ugly death, in that cold, filthy place.’ And yet, here are these amazing blue eyes and youthful vitality that are helping to keep her alive.’’

A companion in Boston and on their far-flung travels, Ms. Methfessel “was the person who really facilitated everything’’ for Bishop, Schwartz said.

The literary executor of Bishop’s estate, Ms. Methfessel moved to California more than 20 years ago and died in her home in Carmel June 28 of complications of lung ailments. She was 66.

Exacting and precise, Bishop could spend years revising and published only about 80 poems while alive. Unlike her good friend Robert Lowell, whose poetry sometimes burned with confessional fervor, Bishop generally eschewed the personal.

But her work changed some during the years she spent with Ms. Methfessel, Schwartz said. Bishop dedicated her last book, “Geography III,’’ to Ms. Methfessel. The book was published in 1976 and went on to win the National Book Critics Circle award.

“All of the reviews of ‘Geography III’ mention a kind of opening up,’’ Schwartz said. “Bishop’s poems suddenly seemed a lot more personal, a lot more direct. And Alice had to have played some part in that opening up, in that opening out. It was ‘Geography III’ that gave Bishop a larger audience than she had ever had, and it made a huge difference in the shape of her career. Some of her greatest poems are in that book.’’

He added, “In some ways, I think Alice made it more possible for Bishop to write those poems.’’

One was “One Art,’’ which Bishop wrote in the challenging, strict structure of a villanelle. Many critics consider it her best poem, and it became one of the most popular poems written in the late 20th century. Bishop wrote it swiftly, during a period of estrangement from Ms. Methfessel, who pulled away for a time, in part because she was briefly engaged to marry a man she had met. In the last verse, Bishop appears to directly address the break with Ms. Methfessel:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master

“One Art’’ helped bring Ms. Methfessel and Bishop back together, said Schwartz, who was a friend during those years.

“I think working on the poem kind of saved her life, because she was so desperate,’’ he said of Bishop. “And then Alice broke off the engagement, and they lived sort of happily ever after. Alice was her partner and lover until Elizabeth died.’’

Born in New York City, Ms. Methfessel was a descendant of John Roebling, the engineer who designed the Brooklyn Bridge. She grew up in Summit, N.J., and graduated from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., with a degree in English.

“The only child of wealthy parents, Alice was just striking out for her independence when she met Elizabeth and in the years following worked on a master of business administration degree at Boston University and thought of pursuing a business career,’’ Brett C. Millier wrote in the biography “Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.’’

Ms. Methfessel was the administrative assistant at Harvard’s Kirkland House when Bishop arrived to teach.

The poet was 59 and “Alice was 26 years old in 1970, a warm, generous, active, and energetic person,’’ Millier wrote. “Elizabeth’s tangled affairs could not have fallen into more capable hands.’’

The two traveled extensively, including to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, and their circle of friends included some of the best poets alive.

“Alice was someone who was ferociously intelligent, very smart, but not academic in any way,’’ Schwartz said.

He added with a chuckle: “She wouldn’t have considered herself an intellectual. And, being in the thick of Harvard, she had her opinion of intellectuals.’’

When Bishop died in 1979, she left her Boston apartment on Lewis Wharf to Ms. Methfessel.

Several years later, Ms. Methfessel met Angela Leap when the two were waiting at an airport to travel to a computer camp both were attending. They became friends and traveling companions and moved west together.

“Both of us had bad romances that ended at the same time, and we both got fired at the same time,’’ Leap recalled. “We said, ‘This will never do,’ and we moved to California.’’

They lived in San Francisco before moving to Carmel, where Ms. Methfessel stayed in a house and Leap in a guest cottage on the same property.

“We had our privacy, and we had our togetherness,’’ Leap said. “And we dined together lunch and dinner and sometimes met up for breakfast. On Sundays we had brunch together; we called it the best meal of the week. We loved each other dearly, but we were like sisters. . . . I miss her so much.’’

Along with Leap, Ms. Methfessel leaves a niece and two nephews. A July 18 service will be private.

Ms. Methfessel was a skier and kayaker, and her ashes, encased in a basket weighted with rocks, will be slipped into the Pacific not far from Carmel.

“We’re putting rose petals in,’’ Leap said, “so the basket will go down and the rose petals will stay on the water.’’