Volume 19, Number 1
Findings from the Brasilian Basement
Elizabeth Neely, University of North Texas
As Bishop researchers well know, The Elizabeth Bishop Papers of Vassar College have been the source of research on her work throughout the recent past. While this collection has been the attic for Bishop studies, there is also a basement full of fresh though somewhat dusty material which, for the most part, researchers have only recently delved into: Brasil itself. Though the sources are not corralled into one place, Bishop’s presence, even 34 years after her death, is on the upswing here for not only Brasilian Bishop scholars but also within popular culture. I’m spending nine months based in Belo Horizonte on a Fulbright Grant for Dissertation Research exploring some of these sources for my dissertation, “Elizabeth Bishop in Brasil: an Ongoing Acculturation.” Though most of my work examines Bishop’s increasing use of Brasilian history, culture, and language as her Brasil poetry unfolds chronologically, one chapter examines the traces of Bishop in Brasil today. I hope to not only show who Bishop was in the eyes of Brasil, but also to facilitate communication between American and Brasilian Bishop researchers and admirers (Bishopólatras). Bishop’s community is wider and richer than we all might have imagined.
I began my search here in the humanities library of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) with an extended look at a foundational document: the 1993 dissertation of Regina Przybycien, entitled “Feijão Preto e Diamantes: O Brasil na obra de Elizabeth Bishop” (“Black Beans and Diamonds: Brasil in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop”), titled after Bishop’s book on Brasil that she never published. Przybycien seeks to answer the question: “How does a foreigner, who has long been a resident of another country, define herself, existing between two cultures, in an entry-place that is ambiguous and always somewhat precarious?” (11). She shared that her book has been at the publisher’s for the past two years, but that it should finally be published next year. Brasilian Bishop scholars have long awaited its arrival. After I found the battered paperback among the hardbound dissertations, with half its front cover missing, I brought some tape with me on a subsequent visit.
Przybycien makes several keen observations about both Bishop’s Brasil output and her biography. Like many Brasilian Bishop researchers, she notes Bishop’s shortcomings in her adopted language. She addresses this honestly and eloquently:
Bishop had a good passive knowledge of Portuguese, which means that she read fluently and was capable of translating quite complex expressions, but she did not speak correctly and wrote very poorly (which is natural, since she never learned the language formally and only utilized English as a mode of written expression). She lamented frequently with friends that she was not in control of Portuguese as she would have liked, but she attributed at least part of the problem to the inherent difficulties of the language itself. (81–82)
Bishop’s long-time translator, Paulo Britto, who I interviewed at Pontifícia Universidade Católica Rio (PUC Rio), has also shown concern about Bishop’s Portuguese:
She lived in an environment where everyone spoke English or French. The only time when she actually came out of that cocoon was when she moved to Rio because of the Aterro. At the time she was living in Petrópolis, she moved mostly around Lota’s people and whenever she had a chance to use Portuguese, it was with the maid, the cook, so she didn’t really have a chance to actually speak the language [extensively] until it was a bit late in the game, when she was living alone in Leme and then in Ouro Prêto. And then she had Roxanne who spoke English. (personal communication)
We agreed, however, that Linda and José Nemer, Bishop’s friends in Ouro Prêto, are the only living Brasilians who heard her speak. Despite my love of Portuguese this third time living in Brasil, I can empathize with Bishop’s language struggles. The other day in my university language class, I attempted to sort through a detailed set of rules that determine when syllables of words receive an acento agudo ( ʹ ), which influences both oral pronunciation and written expression. The more Portuguese I learn, the more variables exist to cause confusion.
Britto did highlight Bishop’s literacy in other areas of Brasilian culture, such as Brasilian music. He describes how during the first international Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto in 1999, Carmen Oliveira (author of Rare and Commonplace Flowers) shared a program that Bishop gave to a class at Harvard which incorporated Brasilian music. She began the program with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s, “No día em que eu vim embora” a good song but not a hit, and she collected records of other Brasilian music extending beyond the top hits of the time (personal communication).
Bishop was probably more literate in both Brasilian pop culture and history than she spelled out in her Brasil poems. Przybycien gives a particularly revealing historical background for “Pink Dog” that illuminates Bishop’s understanding of the events of the early 1960s. Many American readers are horrified to read in the fifth stanza, “Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers, / to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars? / They take and throw them in the tidal rivers,” but they don’t know the identity of the perpetrators. Przybycien explains the source:
One of the scandals of Governor Lacerda (in 1962) was the discovery that the Beggar Recovery Service was “recovering” in a style that was not orthodox: drowning them in the Rio da Guarda—one of the many episodes of summary execution common until today in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Except in this case there appeared to be an official sanction to this practice of “sanitation” in the problem of begging. The international repercussion of the scandal motivated investigations on the part of the government and the punishment of some of the guilty. The event, however, gave ammunition to Lacerda’s enemies who began to refer to him as the “governor [who] kills beggars.” (153-4)
The fact that Lacerda’s government was responsible is a curve ball for both the poem and Bishop herself. Initially she and Lota had supported their neighbor’s rise to power. Once he achieved it, she began to doubt his intents.
Both Przybycien and Britto affirm “Pink Dog” as Bishop’s closest embodiment of Brasilian culture of all her Brasil poems. Przybycien refers to the poem’s cultural elements, “striking yet subtle, ” that “only an artist of great sensibility and experience of Brasilian things would be capable of capturing” (155) while Britto notes, “‘Pink Dog’ is a poem that shows how she had really become much more into Brasil than anybody thinks. She had to capture the spirit of Brasil at that moment in order to write [it]” (personal communication).
The publication of Bishop’s poems in Brasil has included four volumes of translations, the last three translated by Paulo Britto. The first volume, Elizabeth Bishop: Poemas, translated by Horátio Costa in 1990 and published by Editora Schwarcz Ltda, suffered many unfavorable reviews, and the literary community agreed that the translation was of poor quality. As a result, Britto was asked to do a different translation by Companhia das Letras in 1999. Entitled Poemas do Brasil, it featured all but two of Bishop’s Brasil poems and was timed to accompany the large international Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto in 1999. Though currently out of print, its introduction, “Elizabeth Bishop in Brasil” has been resurrected in Britto’s recently published Poemas Escolhidos de Elizabeth Bishop (2012) which includes the translations of the 1999 volume plus eighteen additional poems. In between these two volumes, Britto published O Iceberg Imaginário (The Imaginary Iceberg), a larger anthology than the 1999 collection. His 2012 collection was strategically timed by Companhia das Letras to whet interest in the new movie by director Bruno Barreto about the relationship between Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, Flores Raras (Reaching for the Moon, in English). The film ran in August in most Brasilian cities. Bishopólatras in Brasil have high hopes for the sales of this new volume. A footnote on the term Bishopólatra: it refers to a person who likes Bishop, in the manner of idólatra (one who likes idols) or alcoólatra (one who likes alcohol). The term is not universal; in São Paulo it’s bishopiano. That Bishop is important enough to earn more than one term for her admirers here is remarkable.
On Barreto’s invitation I viewed the preview of Flores Raras in Rio de Janeiro in late April. On one level I wanted to glide along with the love story, loosely based on the book Rare and Commonplace Flowers by Brasilian writer Carmen Oliveira (1995 in Portuguese; 2002 in English translation by Neil Besner) which, as portrayed by Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires as Bishop and Lota, was utterly convincing, especially the acting of Pires. On another level, I found myself questioning why, other than the magnificent natural setting of Samambaia (Bishop and Lota’s home along the steep slopes of a mountain, a substantial drive from Petrópolis, the historic city above Rio), hardly any everyday Brasil entered the film. More importantly, with the Brasil themes of the twelve poems of Questions of Travel and five later uncollected poems, why did the film only include “The Shampoo” and a snatch of “Questions of Travel?” Bishop recited a few lines of the latter at a fictitious National Book Award acceptance speech, as if she were herself the newly arrived tourist critiquing the country, though she was in reality many years into her stay.
Two Brasilian friends gave additional reactions. Laurinda Maciel, a historian/researcher with the Casa de Oswaldo Cruz in Rio, who accompanied me to the preview, noted the importance of the film’s timing for Brasil: “I think that this was a positive moment in Brasilian history to show the human and feminine aspects of the relationship between the two women. If it were a few years back, I don’t know if it would have been tolerated because Brasilian society is very biased” (personal communication). Armando Olivetti, an editor in São Paulo who wrote his Master’s thesis on Bishop’s “Brasil” letters and his doctoral dissertation on her Brazil volume and other prose works, confirmed that Brasil itself was absent, noting, “It is true that in the first years (1951–1960), Lota and Bishop passed a major part of the time in Samambaia. But since the beginning Bishop affirmed (in letters) that they never felt isolated, since Brasil dominated the house and the life of the two in the form of friends (from Rio and Petrópolis), employees (with their families and problems), and occasional visitors (Brasilian and foreign)” (personal communication). He added that if, through the film, “Bishop had been established as a foreigner in the country in multiple living situations, geographic displacements, and the intention to ‘have a house that was only hers’ it might have weakened the focus of the film—a love story—, but it certainly would have enriched [her] character . . .” (personal communication).
Other views of Bishop and Lota exist in Brasil, such as the portraits from Rio’s 1950s–1960s newspapers. An article in the Correio de Manhã 1955 aptly describes Bishop’s poetry: “There is a lucidity that gives the poet X-ray vision to learn that which is hidden below common appearances along with a certain candor that permits her to see with new eyes that which habit has worn colorless for us” (Pacheco 14). It sketches Bishop as a homebody in the midst of a utopian existence:
The privileged friends of Lota de Macedo Soares, on [entering] her house in the surroundings of Petrópolis encounter a woman with a young face that belies the premature white of her hair, [who] upon seeing her in the kitchen preparing a “soufflé” or seasoning sauces with specially imported herbs, don’t imagine that this creature of pleasant conversation, interested in the minimal details of everyday life, of a ready and jovial laugh, is the illustrious carrier of so many honors. Taking care of the cat and the toucan, playing with the young daughter of the cook, talking with dedicated friends, retiring into the middle of her books in the study that was built on the height of the mountain, Elizabeth lives secluded in her personal world, only from time to time sending the United States a poem or story that is anxiously awaited there. (Pacheco 14)
Bishop’s poetry itself sounds incidental, sandwiched in between her domestic and social life.
As Lota was the impetus for Bishop’s continuing stay in Brasil, it is fitting to add her portrait. Few U.S. sources give a holistic view of her, and this 1967 obituary provides a vision of whom Bishop lost:
She spent the day working in the Foundation Parque Flamengo of which she was president during the time of Governor Lacerda and insisted in giving orders personally. She was accustomed to talking with the press [. . . ] and liked to “tell everything plainly.” Daughter of the journalist José Eduardo Macedo Soares, founder of the Diário Carioca, she grew up accustomed to “confronting the facts objectively.” Cultured and extremely personable in all that she did, educated in the exterior in art criticism and urban studies, intimate friend of the English [sic] poet Elizabeth Bishop, she was called “authoritarian,”— since she didn’t use sweet words when she criticized—and “strange”: she was a woman with white hair who drove her own Volkswagen and appeared in long pants, smoking one Lucky Strike after another, to give orders to the workers of the Atêrro. (Departamento de Pesquisa 17)
Meanwhile, back in the present, I recently made a trip to Florianópolis to speak with Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins, Bishop scholar and author of Duas Artes on the poetry of Bishop and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Some of our conversation centered on Bishop’s internationalization. She took me back to Worcester, MA in 1997 (since I only discovered Bishop in 2001), “a turning point, because we had not only American scholars . . . but scholars from Brasil, Europe, and Japan. I think this was an event for American Bishop scholars to listen to what others were doing” (personal communication). In considering the 1999 Ouro Preto conference she challenged me to think of all the post-1999 publications in which Bishop’s connection to Brasil has grown. And still the trend continues.
Yet outside academia, Bishop occasionally appears in unlikely places. A few days earlier I had gone to a snack bar a few blocks down from my pousada, located near a somewhat remote beach on the northern part of the island. I ordered a pastel com frango e catupiri, “feito na hora,” one of those puffed pastries, filled with chicken and cheese, made right then. It arrived, delicious and larger than the norm. When I complimented the woman who made it, she wanted to know why I was there at low season. She stopped me when I got to the Bishop part and said, “Oh, Elizabeth, the one in that film that came out who was with Lota, the landscape artist for the Aterro in Rio.” She had known of Lota for a long time, but Bishop was new to her. She hadn’t seen the film, but she was curious: what were her poems like?
Britto, Paulo Henriques. Personal interview. 10 April 2013.
Departamento de Pesquisa, “Dona Lota, a dona do Atêrro.” Jornal do Brasil, 28 September 1967: 17. Print.
Jordão, Vera Pacheco. “Aos Amigos da Poesia.” Correio de Manhã. 16 December 1955: 14. Print.
Maciel, Laurinda. “Conversa sobre Elizabeth Bishop.” Message to Elizabeth Neely. 22 April 2013. E-mail.
Martins, Maria Lúcia Milléo. Personal interview. 21 October 2013.
Olivetti, Armando. “Um parágrafo sobre o filme de Barreto.” Message to Elizabeth Neely. 27 May 2013. E-mail.
Przybycien, Regina Maria. “Feijão Preto e Diamantes: O Brasil na obra de Elizabeth Bishop.” Diss. Faculdade de Letras da UFMG, 1993. Print.
Reaching for the Moon
Neil Besner, University of Winnipeg
On April 22, 2013, a sunny but cool spring Monday in New York City, at the invitation of Lucy Barreto and her son Bruno (director of the film), several Bishop scholars and enthusiasts attended a screening of Reaching for the Moon. The 118-minute film had been long awaited; over a decade ago, Lucy Barreto purchased the rights to Carmen Oliveira’s Brazilian biography, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas: a História de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop, and the project had suffered through several starts and stops before this incarnation came into being. It was well worth the wait.
I confess to an inevitable bias: as the translator of Carmen’s biography into English, Rare and Commonplace Flowers, I am guilty of an overzealous, if not misguided interest in the representation of the book in the film. Having said that – and despite the film’s many (justified) departures from the book – I was deeply impressed and moved by the film’s emotional and psychological integrity and by its coherence in tone, mood, and feeling.
The film – like the book – is about Lota and Bishop and not the other way around, and Gloria Pires as Lota is simply superb. Uncannily, Pires even looks strikingly like Lota, an effect that I understand to be a direct result of how well Pires understands Lota and lives the role. The Australian actor Miranda Otto plays Bishop, by far the harder role; and yet Otto renders Bishop’s impassioned restraint, her only apparently stiff demeanor, with admirable subtlety. However, those looking for a nuanced and exact recreation of either Carmen’s book or of Bishop’s and Lota’s lives will, I suspect, be disappointed. Instead, the film’s rendition of Lota’s and Bishop’s relationship — what Bruno Barreto aptly described in a discussion following the screening as the “arc” of the relationship’s beginning, its flowering, and its decline – is beautifully and powerfully rendered, and very sad. That is what the film aims for, and it succeeds admirably.
A few caveats: Samambaia is sumptuously represented, but Brazil less so. Mary Morse is a larger presence in the film than in Carmen’s book, or, indeed, in the real story of Lota and Bishop’s relationship. Bishop’s attitude towards Brazil is conveyed in a kind of shorthand that is not always successful. But the emotional truth of the relationship – which Bruno advised us was his aim to convey, rather than making a film about an artist – is everything.
I was in Rio de Janeiro in August; the film had just opened here and elsewhere in Brazil to glowing reviews. There was even an editorial in Rio’s O Globo (the country’s most prominent newspaper) pointing to Flores Raras (in Portuguese, the film take its title directly from Carmen’s book) as an exemplar of how Brazilian film can and does reach a wider international audience. The Brazilians I spoke with who had seen the film strongly concurred. I would see it again in a heartbeat, and I recommend it highly, not only to Bishop scholars, but to anyone interested in seeing a love story portrayed with intelligence and art, i.e., everyone.
Bethany Hicok, Westminster College
Monteiro, George. Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: MacFarland, 2012. 224 pages.
The title of George Monteiro’s book Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed promises a long overdue re-evaluation of Bishop’s almost two-decade-long sojourn in Brazil and its considerable influence on her poetic practice. The only previous full-length study of Bishop in Brazil, Lorrie Goldensohn’s Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, was published 20 years ago. Despite the enduring value of Goldensohn’s book as a critical analysis of Brazil’s influence on Bishop’s imagination, it is high time for an approach that recreates more of a cross-cultural dialogue between Bishop and Brazil. Monteiro would seem to be the person well-suited to take on such a task. Monteiro is professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown University. His fluency in Portuguese allows him to make insightful points about how Bishop uses her knowledge of the Portuguese language to “ring…intercultural changes on a single word” in her poetry of the Brazil years. There is much to admire, too, in the many Brazilian sources Monteiro assembles here that fueled Bishop’s poetic “imaginary,” as he puts it. But readers who expect a compelling argument to be made regarding Brazil’s influence on Bishop’s poetic development may find themselves disappointed with this new book, despite its strengths.
The strengths can be found in the first third of the book where Monteiro makes a closer connection between Bishop’s Brazilian sources and her poetry. In one of the book’s best chapters, Monteiro discusses Bishop’s poem “Brazil, January 1, 1502” alongside a multitude of possible influences, many of them Brazilian. These sources include the enormously influential study of Brazilian society, Gilberto Freyre’s Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), which Bishop had read, and which had been instrumental in propagating a myth of Brazil as a racial paradise. It also provided Brazilians, as Monteiro notes, with the “comforting view” that it was the Indian women who seduced the arriving Portuguese, not the other way around. Bishop may have encountered other Brazilian sources that influenced the writing of “Brazil, January 1, 1502” as early as 1944, Monteiro contends, when her own poem, then called “Jeronymo’s House, Key West,” was reprinted in New Road 1944: New Directions in European Arts and Letters along with an essay on “Brazilian Poetry” and a selection of Brazilian poets in translation. Monteiro argues convincingly that Bishop’s poem is in dialogue with Olavo Bilac’s poem, “Brazilian Land” (“O Brasil”), which is constructed around the idea of the “Brazilian land as dark virgin, awaiting her deflowerer.” Monteiro further broadens our sense of Bishop’s response to European conquest by placing the poem in conversation with many other sources, not yet tracked by criticism, that explore first contact between the Portuguese conquistadors and the indigenous peoples.
Monteiro’s reading of the rarely-discussed Bishop poem “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” is equally powerful. The poem is set in the resort town of Cabo Frio, where Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares vacationed nearly every Christmas. In this chapter, Monteiro also makes a convincing argument that Bishop’s “Sandpiper” poem, published in the “Elsewhere” section of Questions of Travel—rather than the “Brazil” section—is also set in Brazil. Also notable is Monteiro’s discussion of Bishop’s late Rio satiric poem, “Pink Dog,” which usefully places it in the tradition of “‘the spectator poem celebrating the passing woman,’” a line Monteiro traces back to Dante’s La Vida Nuova, but has its most relevant connection to Bishop in the enormously popular bossa nova song contemporary with Bishop’s time in Brazil, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Bishop was friends with the poet Vinícius de Moraes who wrote the lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music.
But these insights are often scattered about, and the reader must piece together an argument among the clutter of associational links. While these links can be dazzling at times, they can also be annoying and irrelevant, and, quite frankly, off-putting—more of a chance for the writer to show off his erudition than an opportunity to communicate with the reader. Monteiro moves from one to the next idea in a blizzard of literary, as well as pop cultural references, but often fails to land on an argument or spend enough time with his material to make the connections with Bishop’s work that most readers require. This method makes for some inexplicable, sometimes comical, transitions, as well, as when Monteiro jumps from Bishop’s “Moose” to Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s stone “in the middle of the road” in his poem of that name—the only apparent connection being that they are both in the middle of the road.
In the book’s opening pages, Monteiro makes the intriguing claim that Bishop’s 1965 volume Questions of Travel is “a lover’s book,” specifically aimed at Macedo Soares, and he goes some distance to support this point with a discussion of the epigraph Bishop chose for the volume from the 16th century Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, which has received scant critical attention. There is a good discussion of Bishop’s relationship with Lilli Correia de Araújo in Ouro Prêto and how that intertwines with her love for Lota. Monteiro offers an interesting reading of the previously unpublished poem, ostensibly addressed to Lilli, “Dear, my compass,” to connect these overlapping love affairs. Then, dotted throughout the next several chapters are little hints that could be gathered into an argument to further support this claim, but Monteiro’s free associational method does not allow him to stop long enough to pull these odds and ends together. This primary method is also reflected in the chapters. There are 24 of them in a 181-page book (some as short as two pages) in addition to a preface, an introduction, a prologue and an epilogue, each one structured around a single phrase, such as “The Unwritten Elegy” or “Driving to the Interior.” There is nothing wrong with this strategy, per se, but it tends to exacerbate the feeling of patchiness and incompleteness throughout. Furthermore, like the volume Questions of Travel, Monteiro divides his book into two parts, “Brazil” and “Elsewhere.” One would expect that since the primary title of Monteiro’s book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After that this “Elsewhere” part, making up about a third of the book, would be the “after” part of the experience—that is, after Bishop returns to the United States and continues to write about Brazil. But it is mostly about Bishop’s poetry before going to Brazil without a conceptual framework that would help us to see the transition or “transformation” that Bishop’s work underwent as a result of Brazil.
Monteiro’s Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After is as puzzling for what it leaves out of Bishop’s experience in Brazil as it is about its discussion of earlier work that is unconnected to Brazil. Why, given his facility with Portuguese, doesn’t Monteiro deal with Bishop’s translations, I wonder? He even announces in the preface that he is not going to discuss Bishop’s longest translation, the 300+-page memoir, The Diary of “Helena Morley”, on which Bishop labored for nearly five years. Monteiro admits this is an important book in terms of Bishop’s career and one “which deserves to be studied on its own as a translator’s odyssey through the intricacies of the Portuguese language as it expresses Brazilian culture.” Bishop’s translation of “Helena Morley” has been reissued several times since its first publication in 1957 and is still widely read and praised. Doesn’t Bishop’s translation of this Brazilian classic, as well as her important poetry translations, merit a discussion by such a knowledgeable critic fluent in Portuguese? Instead, Monteiro’s longest chapter is a tedious page-by-page comparison of the Brazil book that Bishop wrote for Life World Library without much discussion of why it is important to us or to Bishop.
Ultimately, one comes away after reading Monteiro’s book without an answer to the question raised by the book’s subtitle: how exactly is Bishop’s career “transformed” by her Brazilian experience and exposure to Brazilian literature, culture, politics, art, music, or the Portuguese language? The transformation is implied but not sufficiently argued. We find lots of intriguing detail in this book but not enough sustained meditation on what Brazil finally contributed to Bishop’s intellectual and poetic development and how it changed her poetics.
New Bishop Acquisitions at Vassar
Found in a storage closet after the death of Alice Methfessel, these abundantly interesting new materials include letters, diaries, date books, financial statements, house renovation reports, photographs, and so on. Scraps of poems, abortive or completed elsewhere, are suggestively strewn over or interleaved with diaries and travel journals. There is much here of equal interest for all varieties of scholarly approach. This brief attempt to sketch contents will be limited to a portion of the items. A detailed list of acquisitions since 2010 may be requested of the Vassar Library.
Among the most readable letters are those from Bishop to Lota de Macedo Soares from 1963-1964, while Bishop was traveling in London and then Portugal, finally en route by ship to Brazil. Peppered with acid or bemused asides on English manners–”YE GODS the gentility–” (June 24th, 1964), the letters occupy themselves with Bishop’s reception by contemporary English writers, and detail the reactions which concluded in Bishop’s fleeing the city back to her friends Ilse and Kit Barker’s more congenial country home. The spontaneous intimacy of the writing suggests the loving ease of the earlier relation between Bishop and Macedo Soares. Another and even more engrossing sequence from a crucially later date is comprised of letters from Lota to Elizabeth, starting in the summer of 1967. These haunting letters–by turns pleading, desperate, reproachful and disconsolate–were written by Lota in the months directly preceding her arrival and suicide in New York.
The letters conclude fairly abruptly, anticipating Macedo Soares’ joining Bishop. There is no indication as to whether or not other letters by Lota from this period may have been destroyed. Bishop wrote Alice Methfessel on April 15th, 1973, then reaffirmed this letter on May 25th, 1978: “I trust you to destroy all incriminating letters, if there are any–because I am old-fashioned and believe in descretion & privacy. Please be sure to destroy, if they are still extant when I die, Lota’s last letters to me – [indicates their whereabouts]. She was very sick when she wrote them and I think they should be destroyed – but I may have done it myself when you need this letter.” The Vassar Library now holds Lota de Macedo Soares’ extant and original letters from this period, plus translations of Lota’s Portuguese letters to Bishop by Carmen Oliveira, the primary scholar of this Brazilian-American relationship. A typed, annotated transcription of Lota’s letters has been meticulously prepared by David Hoak, giving her unaltered English spelling, and preserving the multi-lingual, learned, and polyglot flavor of her originals.
Additional letters from Bishop to Alice Methfessel date from 1971 to 1976, and include a deathbed letter (8th October 1975) containing a potent declaration of love for Alice: “knowing you has been one of the two greatest happinesses in my life[.]” Other letters to Methfessel date from 1971-1972 and concern Bishop’s vexed attempts to deal with her now jaundiced relationship to Brazil (29 June, 1972: “I’m sick of primitive personalities“), and her ownership of the house in Ouro Preto. The letters offer in saturnine detail Bishop’s adventures with Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater, as well as with locals turning up on her doorstep, and politely requesting permission to dig in her basement for a legendary treasure. Bishop extracts a great deal of exasperated comedy from her dealing with clumsy or larcenous servants–they chip crockery, dent knives, and disappear with household necessities–and bespeak her frustration with the rarely-competent workmen brought in to plumb and electrify a house dating from the 18th century. This struggle elicits a growing estrangement from a country which only Lota’s presence, “like yeast in a heavy bread,” had formerly made tolerable. Other letters to Methfessel detail a trip in March of 1973, when Bishop traveled across the country to Seattle to begin classes at the University of Washington. Several of the train letters, with their minute accounts of fellow passengers, and of the late night landscapes Bishop insisted on remaining awake to see, read like incipient poems.
Bishop wrote everywhere, and all the time, sometimes mocking her need to write: “I must stop telling you everything. Such as: now I’m going to the bathroom” (25 June 1972). She types on a seat in a Pullman compartment, placing her faithful Royal on the toilet-lid; she writes on shipboard, on planes, in cafes, and even from a hospital bed in a small Brazilian village where she has been confined by typhoid fever. On board a Varig flight in June 1971, she remarks with irritation that a young seatmate has just asked her to spell “cried”; the blank verso of this letter is preserved with the one word “cried” written out–doubtless for instant and outraged demonstration. The letter E drops off her typewriter; elsewhere, she can’t spell diarrhea. The letters often run to a half-dozen or more pages of single spaced typescript: strings of tiny inked, often typed sentences, trail down the sides, or turn up in reverse at the top; handwriting twists off a paragraph, or wreaths her signature. In the more elaborate descriptions, the letters poignantly sound the note of a writer surrounded day and night by another language, other tones and accents, who in the midst of this immersion obdurately preserves a sense of native self. “I can’t seem to face the day without talking to you a bit,“ she writes on April Fools’ Day in 1971. Love, affection, and a working tenderness suffuse these letters to Methfessel, even throughout a couple of veiled references to bitter quarrels. There is a mild lasciviousness in the closure of several letters; the writer dreams, or has “censored” glimpses of the absent beloved, especially in the morning.
Anything two-legged, four-legged, lame or halt–with wings, or with leaves or bark–has got a name. Nor does a dish of food or a meal escape pungent summary. Bishop was a picky eater, and was fastidious about smells. Clearly a fantastic cook, this is the Elizabeth Bishop of previously published letters, who relished tackling ingredients of ungainly size, like the two-foot loin of pork that stretched over several days, or the inexhaustible black bean stew with which she fed an ever-changing queue of diners.
In addition to these letters, the new acquisitions include another set of three letters, drafted in 1947, and addressed to Bishop’s psychoanalyst, Ruth Foster. These letters, written to a woman Bishop trusted deeply, are spontaneous, detailed, and fearless outpourings that cover all the anguishing concerns of Bishop’s life at that time. She writes about her sexual history in childhood and adolescence, speculates on the genesis of her alcoholism, and connects her poetry to these subjects. In the next newsletter, I will report briefly on these key letters and other features of this new assemblage.
Dialogues with Elizabeth Bishop: ALA Panel, Boston 2013
Angus Cleghorn, Seneca College
The Elizabeth Bishop Society panel at the 2013 ALA conference in Boston took place at the Westin Copley Place Hotel on May 25th at 9:30 am. The “Dialogues with Elizabeth Bishop” session featured Lloyd Schwartz from the University of Massachusetts in Boston presenting “‘A Mirror on Which to Dwell’: Musical Settings of Bishop Poems,” and Ola Madhour, doctoral student at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, whose ongoing dissertation focuses on Elizabeth Bishop and a selection of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Her talk was entitled “Constructing Madness: Bishop and the Power of Poe’s Curiosity.” Francesco Rognoni sent his regrets that he could not make the trip from Milan to present on the Bishop & Barkers’ correspondence.
The session was well attended by familiar and new Bishop scholars on a cool wet Boston morning. The two presenters had extra time and made good use of it. Both presentations were received with enthusiastic responses from the audience. Ola Madhour discussed affinities between Bishop’s poetics and early Ginsberg through the figure of Poe’s “curiosity,” a value Madhour reads as allowing us to understand Bishop’s turn from the limits of various of her mentors and elders — Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. A letter from Bishop expressed her admiration for Lowell and Ginsberg as the powerful poets of her time, especially when Bishop ventured away from Marianne Moore, who had instructed her to transcend what impairs us, and criticized Bishop’s “Insomnia” for its apparent debilitation.
As a mid-century poet struggling to find a manageable social role, Bishop was displeased with Moore’s prudent reserve and Pound’s superiority, as evident in the parody of “Visits to St. Elizabeths.” Bishop wrote that “nothing is more embarrassing than being a poet.” Ginsberg provided a new role with his direct, unapologetically alternative howl. Ginsberg and Lowell in the fifties turned Bishop away from Moore, Pound and Eliot; the latter had in 1948 dismissed “Poe’s curiosity” as adolescent – too sensual and romantic.
“Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” the previously unpublished draft poem from around this time, is a model of curiosity, Ola Madhour argues, and contrasts the earlier hard restrictions Bishop expressed in “The Unbeliever” and other poems in North & South. The liberations and libations of “Poe” extend from earlier poems such as “Pleasure Seas” to late published and unpublished poems like “Pink Dog” and “A Drunkard.” These late examples contain both repressive energies, whether personal or social — such as her mother’s reprimand or Brazilians castigating the dog an “eyesore,” — as well as the liberating energies of childlike curiosity and adult festivity. Bishop, like Ginsberg, saw Poe as a model for dealing with madness associated with mother figures.
Lloyd Schwartz had the good fortune to attend concerts by Ella Fitzgerald and Maria Callas with Elizabeth Bishop. Lloyd’s presentation of “‘A Mirror on Which to Dwell’: Musical Settings of Bishop Poems,” linked some of Bishop’s musical tastes with her poems as they’ve been interpreted by modern composers such as Eliot Carter, John Harbison and Luciana Souza. Lloyd was careful to note that “all three composers set poems as Bishop wrote them,” attentive to maintaining poetic lines precisely without alteration.
“A Mirror on Which to Dwell” is taken from “Insomnia” by Eliot Carter in 1976. Apparently, Bishop was disappointed with the piece, though Lloyd demonstrated through this and other pieces such as “Anaphora” that Carter used multiple noises to express Bishop’s vacillations between public presentations of the self and private expressions of separation in early love poems. Carter used inverted musical phrases and glassy surfaces of flute and marimba to reveal the mirroring that dominates Bishop’s “Insomnia.” In another piece, “O Breath,” Carter illustrates Bishop’s written spaces with the breaths taken by the singer.
John Harbison’s musical style is less modern and more romantic, perhaps more accessible. His North And South cycle includes “Ballads for Billie” based on the tribute to Holiday in “Songs for a Colored Singer,” as well as “Late Air” with its lovers on the grass in Key West listening to music. “Song,” “Breakfast Song,” and “Dear My Compass” intone the romantic and interpersonal Bishop poems. However, Lloyd’s emphatic reading of the poem “Dear My Compass” reached me with more power than did the musical settings. In panel discussion afterwards, Gillian White remarked that Bishop’s poetic emphasis of words on the page, coupled with her spoken rhetorical voice, make it difficult to appreciate a soprano’s expressive interpretation of Bishop’s text.
Lloyd’s final sample came from Luciana Souza, a Brazilian who studied at Berklee College of Music, and returned to Brazil for the 2000 recording of Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Lloyd suggested that Bishop might have liked the blues setting to “Insomnia,” as it was not academic or serious in the manner of the Carter setting. The audience seemed to unanimously agree that the lushness of Souza’s music amplified Bishop’s love lyric into resonate song.
Cleghorn, Angus and Jonathan Ellis, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, January 2014.
Neely, Elizabeth. “Beyond Lowell: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo,’ Fire Balloons, and the Threat to a Home in Brasil,” Revista Alpha, Centro Universitário de Patos de Minas Gerais, Brasil (December 2013).
Neely, Elizabeth. “Cadela Carioca: Bishop’s ‘Pink Dog’ in its Brasilian Cultural Context,” Johns Hopkins’ South Central Review (January 2014).