What Bishop was doing in Brazil all those years. (Books).
by Carmen L. Oliveira
Translated by Neil K. Besner
Rutgers University Press
192 pages, $26.
KNOWN as a "poet's poet' Elizabeth Bishop amassed almost all of the available literary prizes, and in the early 1950's was named to the post now known as the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her output of poetry, including her translations of Brazilian poems, fill just a few small volumes, but she also wrote essays, book reviews, and letters--to people like Robert Lowell, May Swenson, and James Merrill--and she translated an important Brazilian autobiography by a young Brazilian girl written in the late 1800's known as The Diary of "Helena Morley." Bishop never wanted to be considered a "lesbian poet" or even a "woman poet," and thus permission has never been granted for her works to appear in any women-only anthology. Her famous poem, "The Shampoo," though heavily encoded, is about her relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares and would certainly qualify for any collection of lesbian poetry.
In Rare and Commonplace Flowers, Carmen Oliveira brings to light some new information from Brazilian sources that document Bishop and Soares's lives together, and she deploys many primary sources, including interviews with Brazilian friends of both women. Unfortunately, she tells Bishop's story with recourse to invented dialogue and internal monologues the authenticity of which cannot possibly be verified. What's more, the writing style is often mannered and includes some rather forced slang, but this could be an artifact of the translation from the Portuguese.
Much has been written about Bishop, with virtually every line of poetry and every aspect of her life coming under scrutiny. Her father died when she was an infant and her mother endured a long psychiatric hospitalization, causing the young Bishop to live with relatives in rural Nova Scotia and Worcester, Massachusetts. As an adult she loved to travel and was happiest when in transit: her sojourn to Brazil provides both the starting and ending points of Rare and Commonplace Flowers. Bedeviled by alcoholism since her college days at Vassar, where Marianne Moore was her mentor, she would occasionally retreat for "rest cures." Bishop met Lota de Macedo Soares in New York at a gathering of a literary and artistic group that included Alfred Kazin's sister Pearl. While on an around-the-world tour late in 1951, she decided to stop in Brazil and call on Soares. During her stay Bishop developed a severe allergic reaction to cashew fruit and was nursed backed to health by Soares; and the two fell in love. In her own ver sion of The Man Who Came To Dinner, Bishop ended up staying in Brazil for almost twenty years, the first ten years of which were certainly the happiest of her life.
On first contact, Lota de Macedo Soares's circle of friends regarded Bishop as "sickly and insipid," but they tried to be nice to her for Soares's sake. Bishop was, after all, suffering from a severe allergic reaction, a condition that she discussed retrospectively in One Art (1994), where she indicates that she was temporarily blinded and lost the use of her hands for a time. In these letters she had nothing but wholehearted praise for Soares's friends for their kindness during this ordeal. Still, Soares was known to have read Bishop's correspondence on occasion, so one might wonder if Bishop felt the need to hide something. Oliveira says that "everyone was appalled when Lota announced that Bishop was moving lock stock and barrel to Samambaia [the Brazilian town where Soares was building a house.] At that point, no one could guess what Lota saw in the sickly American."
Lota de Macedo Soares was a sophisticated, European-educated woman who fully appreciated Bishop's genius, her close friendship with famous writers, and her literary honors (as well as her culinary talents). Bishop was fascinated by Soares's exoticism, elegance, depth of cultural knowledge, and outgoing personality. Both women were fairly well-off thanks to their fathers' wealth. That there was a physical relationship between the two women seems beyond doubt, but Oliveira chooses only to allude to it. Soares gave Bishop an inscribed ring shortly after they met. Over the years she tried a number of tricks to limit Bishop's drinking, such as hiring a housekeeper to keep an eye on things and empty hidden bottles of alcohol, and getting a prescription for Antabuse, which she sometimes persuaded Bishop to ingest.
Soares's knowledge of architecture was extensive and she was a friend to most of the noted Brazilian architects of the day. The book's title is derived from her love of botany and her literary salons, which were commemorated by flower drawings done by an artist friend. In 1961, she became deeply involved in building Rio's version of Central Park--a hugely demanding unpaid job, made unbearable by the Byzantine politics surrounding it. Oliveira expends rather too much space on extensive discussion of this project. Soares's overwork resulted in clinical depression, admission to a psychiatric hospital, electroshock treatment, and ultimately to the disintegration of her relationship with Bishop. In late December 1965, Bishop accepted a half-year professorship in Seattle and, apparently succumbing to loneliness and despair, had an affair with a sympathetic graduate student. Oliveira recounts this episode as dialogue, as if she were a fly on the wall who was privy to the women's actual words. Bishop returned to Braz il, Soares found out about the affair, and the end of their relationship was only a matter of time. Its tragic finale came in 1967 when Soares committed suicide while visiting Bishop in New York. Bishop tried to live in Brazil again, where she was in the midst of having a house built, but nothing was the same, and she was "treated like a convict" by everyone she'd known. She eventually moved to Boston, where she died in 1979.
Elizabeth Bishop's life in Brazil was professionally fruitful, and Oliveira nicely integrates many lines of poetry into Rare and Commonplace Flowers, leading the reader to seek out the writer's original poetry and prose. As for this biography, Flowers strives after but does not quite meet the challenge posed by this complex and extraordinary woman.
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|Title Annotation:||Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares|
|Author:||Stone, Martha E.|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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