PARIS, 7 A.M. by Liza Wieland. Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $26.99
“You have to trust in the chaos of things,” Elizabeth Bishop tells a professor early in “Paris, 7 a.m.”
Bishop would know about chaos. She spent her youth reeling from her father’s death, her mother’s mental illness and years being passed among relatives. Somehow she harnessed all that to become one of America’s most influential poets.
In this historical novel, Liza Wieland distills Bishop’s formative years into an artful blend of biography and imagination. Her challenge is to echo Bishop’s poetic voice without losing her own, and she manages beautifully. She delivers an impressionistic novel, with individual scenes coalescing to form a luscious whole.
In the 1930s, Bishop is a Vassar College student “walking along the edge of a very high precipice,” contemplating the perilous options before her. Will she become a doctor or a poet? Settle down with Robert or pursue Louise?
Bishop comes off as a dreamy character, drifting through major moments in her life on the East Coast of the United States and the west coast of Europe. The heart of the novel explores a period curiously absent from Bishop’s real-life journals, during her sojourn in France in 1937. At first, the young poet seems oblivious to the rising tensions preceding World War II as the Nazis make their presence felt outside Germany. She drinks and writes. She meets Shakespeare & Co. bookstore owner Sylvia Beach and the American comtesse de Chambrun. She falls for Sigrid, a German embassy worker.
Somehow, before she knows it, she’s smuggling Jewish babies to Paris. The experience awakens her. “This baby could be me. Or I could be her. Which is it?” Bishop thinks. She summons a line from one of her poems: “I grow but to divide your heart again.”
Readers unfamiliar with Bishop’s poetry will not get a tutorial here. But there are many glimpses — “Paris, 7 a.m.” is the title of a poem. These, in addition to the adventures Wieland creates for Bishop, give readers an appreciation for the woman who set a new direction in American poetry.