Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner

by Marian Janssen

reviewed by Jacquelyn Pope

The phrase “poor little rich girl” might almost have been coined for Belle Gardner. Born in 1915 into a patrician New England family (her mother a Grosvenor, her father a Peabody) and named for the aunt who bequeathed a museum to Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s wealth seems to have worked both for and against her. Although money bought her a certain amount of freedom in her early years, later on it caused people to flock to her for all the wrong reasons, with the result that her life was full of both material advantages and emotional burdens. In the midst of it all she wrote poems, producing a small but distinctive body of work that deserves a wider audience than it has had. (Fortunately, her Collected Poems has been kept in print by BOA Editions). Considered by many of her peers to be a “natural poet,” Gardner’s highly original verse is marked by complex rhythms and rhyme schemes, a vertiginous sense of time, deep sadness, and black humor. The poems are both honed and wild: not at all what one would expect from a Brahmin.

Though she began writing poetry as a child, theatre was the passion of Gardner’s young adult life. She was involved in productions in Boston and New York, and lived in London for a year to attend acting school. The theatre gave her lifelong friends and was where she met her first and second husbands. During her second marriage she rediscovered her interest in poetry and was encouraged by the poet Oscar Williams, the friend of a friend. Friends, and indeed friends of friends, were numerous and influential in Gardner’s life, and Gardner was a generous source of support, both emotional and financial, to many. Marian Janssen illustrates the tumult around her during even relatively stable periods, and shows Gardner’s loyalty (and patience) with friends like Edward Dahlberg, who extorted money from her through emotional harangues, alternating affection with harrowing rebukes. Gardner’s four marriages (particularly the last, to the poisonous Allen Tate) and many affairs took a toll on her, as did her fear and worry for her children, whose sad waywardness persisted into her old age and whose fates were genuinely terrible. Somehow, Gardner’s spirit remained intact, and her grief never gave way to self-pity in her work—on the contrary, her poems are demonstrably self-aware and often slyly humorous.

Given the emotional and social chaos of her life, it’s astonishing that Gardner got anything written. Unfortunately, in this biography we don’t really see her doing literary work, apart from her four years as a perceptive and open-hearted editor at Poetry. Though she was likely installed there as a way for Karl Shapiro to indulge the affluent woman he hoped would provide financial support for the magazine, he developed a genuine admiration and affection for Gardner. She, in turn, seemed to thrive on the routine and the contact with so many emerging and established writers. Her first collection, Birthdays from the Ocean, was published at the time she left the magazine. Gardner’s time at Poetry is one of the most vividly rendered parts of this book, and one of the few in which she emerges as confident, intellectually and emotionally engaged, and doing more than reacting to her personal circumstances.

Although Not at All What One Is Used To is clearly well-researched, it struggles under the weight of information. There is so much detail and background about other people that it is sometimes difficult to follow the main narrative. Granted Gardner’s life was often a mess, it is unfortunate that the life swamps the work in this book. There is frustratingly little sense of Gardner as an artist among peers. Relatively few lines of poems are reproduced, and though reviews of her work and comments by friends and colleagues are cited, there is a fleetingness to the way they are treated that makes her work as a poet recede almost immediately. Janssen acknowledges the gender constraints of the time, and there were certainly those in Gardner’s life who tried to constrain her, but she also held herself back. Beyond the fact of her alcoholism, beyond her often painful personal circumstances, what was it that caused her to be bold—on the page and in her life—and then pull back? There are no definitive answers here. Marian Janssen has done an admirable job of compiling a life, but it is one that still raises many questions. Perhaps this is inevitable given Gardner’s story, but one does hope that her poems will eventually be separated from their gossipy base and valued on their own.

Published on March 18, 2013