Elizabeth Bishop centennary: Dana Gioia, Thom Gunn, and my long-ago trip to Samambaia

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The young Bishop

Feb. 8 marks the centennial of Elizabeth Bishop‘s birth, and her publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux, has put out a triple-hitter: a compilation of her letters to and from The New Yorker and a pair of companion volumes called simply Poems and Prose.

Dana Gioia reviews the trio in the Wall Street Journal, here.  He is too modest to say, except in passing, that he studied with Bishop at Harvard, but he’s wrote about it years ago for the New Yorker — an excerpt is here, and it’s definitely worth the read.  As always with Dana, it’s a good general introduction to Bishop and her oeuvre.

But on one point I must quibble:

In 1952, having embarked on a trip around the world, Bishop took ill in Rio de Janeiro. There she met Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect, who became her lover. Bishop quickly settled in Brazil, and the two women lived together for 15 years—the one extended period of domestic stability in Bishop’s life. Then in 1967 the Brazilian idyll was terminated by Soares’s suicide.

Some years ago, I made the trip to Samambaia — outside Petropolis, which is outside Rio — and wrote about it for the Times Literary Supplement on February 8, 2002:

Brazilians use the expression “toda vida” — for all life — where we would say, “continue to the end of the road”. On the narrow, bumpy brick roads around Petropolis, about sixty miles outside Rio de Janeiro, you may indeed feel you will reach life’s end before you reach your destination: Sitio Alcobacinha, the long-time home of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in the outlying village of Samambaia. You have to stop every few minutes to question a resident, typically one of the ubiquitous men, shirtless and enervated by the Brazilian summer, drinking beer in the street-side cafes of this trendy, if slightly threadbare, former imperial capital. Continue down the left fork, they will tell you, “toda vida”.

Outside Petropolis ... Bishop's home for years

Bishop didn’t quite end her days here. But certainly a crucial era of her life concluded in Samambaia in 1967, when she left Brazil after a sixteen-year stay that began as a lark, endured as a deep and difficult love affair, and ended with a death. She was to return to Brazil, more particularly to the home she bought and refurbished in Ouro Preto, another 150 miles or so due north, but she never stayed long, and visited more and more sporadically, until she finally left Brazil for good in 1974.

Bishop occupied a marginal, even ostracized, place in Brazilian society at the time, and has done since; how odd, then, the current clamour about her life here. An acclaimed play, a spicy fictionalized “biography” and an excellent set of translations of her poems into Portuguese have all appeared in Brazil in the past few years, and a major film is planned. The poet who once described herself as “the loneliest person who ever lived” is hot.

The reasons for this enthusiastic reclamation, and for the original banishment, are many. The obvious one is that Bishop wrote in English, not Portuguese. Yet perhaps two dozen of Bishop’s small output of poems are about Brazil, and she was a cheerleader for Brazilian poetry, publishing her own translations in an influential anthology in 1972. Her feelings about Brazil were perplexed, puritanical, and patronizing. (“As a country I feel it’s hopeless not in the horrible way Mexico is, but just plain lethargic, self-seeking, half-smug, half-crazy, hopeless”, she wrote in a letter.) Brazilians also resent the fact that she never took the trouble to learn Portuguese properly. (“I must take Brazil more seriously and really learn the damned language”, she moaned.) Other reasons are interwoven with the explosive history of Brazil during the period of Bishop’s stay, and with the mercurial temperament of her aristocratic lover, Carlota de Macedo Soares, a self-trained architect and civic planner universally known as Lota. Lota dabbled, however peripherally, in politics, and another cause of Bishop’s banishment was her lover’s controversial friendship (and by association Bishop’s) with Rio de Janeiro’s Governor, Carlos Lacerda, the anti-Communist politician, orator, and sometime journalist.

Aterro: The park Lota designed in Rio

The story was a sad one, ending with Bishop’s affair with a younger woman (the woman she was to spend the rest of her life with, who would remain unnamed for many years) and Lota’s death:

The more active Lota became in civic affairs, as Lacerda appointed her to create Rio’s equivalent of Central Park, the less time she had for her beloved “Cookie”. The more Elizabeth drank, the more overwrought Lota became.

Lota had a breakdown — from the stress of her civic work as well as her fraying relationship — and turned to tranquillizers. … Lota, rejoining Bishop in New York in 1967, took an overdose of valium the morning after her arrival.

When I interviewed Thom Gunn in August 2003 (the interview was published in the Spring 2005 Georgia Review), he described her as an “extremely nice woman, delightful to know.”

TG: The only time I ever saw her drunk was the first time I met her. This was a meeting set up by a friend of hers in San Francisco. I think it was news to me that she’d moved to San Francisco. She wanted to meet me, which was flattering. So I spent an evening with her, and her friend, whose name I have forgotten. The woman she was living with. I guess I shouldn’t say her real name, because everybody calls her “X” or something.

CH: I think it’s come out.

TG: Roxanne. Anyway, whatever it was. She was out of it, she was out of it. I mean, she was so out of it she was not following the conversation, just making strange remarks that had nothing to do with anything. So I received a message—whether it was from this guy, or whether Roxanne phoned me. It said, “Let’s try over,” which was very nice to say. So we did try over and we got on excellently.  She gave the one good party for poets that I’ve ever been at.  Most of those can be obnoxious or boring or pretentious. She knew all these poets—like Robert Duncan—who were just poets. I think it was a Christmas party. We had a great time together.

Dana notes: “She published only five volumes of verse and a short illustrated book on Brazil.”  I have the work-for-hire that she wrote for Life’s “World Library” series on my bookshelf — not her best work, admittedly, but a dutiful tribute to the country she came to love.


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