Saturday, 18 May 2013

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop decided in 1951 to go around the world.  But when her ship docked in Brazil she visited two friends she had met in New York, Mary Morse and rich Brazilian aristocrat, Maria Carlota (‘Lota’) Costallat de Macedo Soares.  Up in the mountains at Petr√≥polis, Lota was building a modernist house.  It was there that she asked Bishop to give up her world tour and stay on.  The relationship thrived in the splendid isolation of their home, but suffered when Lota became officially involved in work for the state government of Rio de Janeiro, designing a large waterfront park, the Aterro.  Lota’s consequent absences, both physical and mental, nurtured Bishop’s recidividist alcoholism.  At the end of 1965, Bishop flew to Seattle to take up a teaching appointment at the University of Washington.  While she was there she hated the teaching and wrote no poetry; but she began an affair with a younger woman.  Not long after Bishop’s return to Brazil, Lota found out about the affair.  Although they managed to patch up their relationship temporarily, it was irretrievably damaged.  When Bishop went to New York in 1967, against doctors’ orders Lota followed her there.  She killed herself on 25 September and Bishop sent her body home to Brazil for burial.
Bishop’s use of the first person plural in the poems about Brazil reads, at times, as if it were meant as a general statement of human response: we see or do such-and-such.  More often, though, the seeing and doing are more intimately readable as being engaged in by a couple, with whom the reader can sometimes identify as though she were herself the poet’s partner but at other times must be read only as the expression of a lived love of Bishop’s.  ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’ begins with the lines ‘Januaries, Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs’, linking not only the physical conditions of the present with those of history, but also a degree of the emotional experience of the Brazilian landscape.  Her gaze and her lover’s, hers and her reader’s, are identified with those of humanity’s past, in particular with those of the prelapsarian conditions Bishop is getting a taste of in the Brazilian forest, the glimpse of a time before industrialisation.  In ‘Questions of Travel’ she speaks of streams which go over cliffs, ‘turning to waterfalls under our very eyes’.  She questions both the motives for and pleasures of travel, expressing herself throughout in the same first person plural:

            What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
            in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
            The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
            To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
            inexplicable and impenetrable,
            at any view,
            instantly seen, and always, always delightful?
            Oh, must we dream our dreams
            and have them, too?

Here the ‘we’ is both general, relating to the curious habits of humanity, and particular to her own experience as half of a couple.  However, the latter aspect of her reflections is more distinctly stated in poems which invoke simple details of domestic life.  In ‘Electrical Storm’ she reports that ‘We got up to find the wiring fused, / no lights, the smell of saltpetre, / and the telephone dead’.  Her ‘Song for the Rainy Season’ is likewise located in ‘the house we live in’, on the roof of which, at night, the hooting of an owl ‘gives us proof / he can count’ (since he invariably hoots in fives).  With her usual light touch, Bishop suggests intimacy merely by evoking nature’s routine interruptions of nocturnal silence.  ‘The Armadillo’ is another poem of shared night-watching, in which Bishop’s easy ‘we’ suggests not only a mutual wakefulness and watchfulness—the descent of illegal but enchanting fire balloons has to be watched in case they set light to the house—but also, by implication, a shared moment of retirement to bed once the danger and its beauty have passed.  In all these poems aesthetic appreciation is expressed as a capability shared.
Frank O’Hara thought Bishop ‘the sweetest person in the world’.

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