excerpt from Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil

from Bethany Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil (University of Virginia Press, 2016), pp. 1-4


When Elizabeth Bishop first came to Brazil in 1951, she hadn’t planned to stay. But when the Brazilian aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares offered her a home in Brazil, Bishop opened herself up to a person and a place in a way that she had never done before. She was forty years old. As Bishop committed herself to the country, Brazil began to inform the deep structure of the poet’s materials—in terms of not only the writing content but also the rhythm and meter. Brazilian samba informs “Pink Dog,” Brazilian folk balladry suffuses “The Burglar of Babylon,” and the rhythm and pace of life in the Southern Hemisphere provides a significant undercurrent to much of Bishop’s writing in Brazil. In short, Bishop reshaped and redefined her entire career around Brazil from the moment of her arrival in 1951, so much so that her mature work is inconceivable without Brazil. Bishop’s decision to stay quite literally transformed her career. Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil tells the story of that transformation.


Bishop’s life and work intersected with Brazil for more than two decades from 1951 to 1979. She lived permanently in the country from 1951 to 1966, and then continued to return to Brazil for extended visits until she sold her house in Ouro Prêto in 1974. But Brazil remained part of the poet’s imaginary, as it were, until the end of her life in 1979. Not only did Brazilian experience provide a further impetus for the exploration of a Nova Scotian childhood, a familiar enough story in Bishop Studies, but it did much more. Bishop played an important role as a public intellectual in the dialogue between America and Brazil at mid-century: she wrote a book on Brazil for Life World Library that made its way onto the coffee tables of millions of American households; Bishop’s translations of Brazilian writers from the Portuguese introduced a new American audience to a rich and important literary tradition; half the poems in Bishop’s 1965 poetry collection Questions of Travel focus on Brazilian themes; and, now, with the publications since 2006 of no less than six new volumes of Bishop’s poetry, prose, and correspondence,1 the general public enjoys access to an even larger body of Bishop’s Brazilian writing, including poems, fragments, letters, and finished travel writing.


Here, I explore more thoroughly and in more detail than any previous study these cross-cultural “contact zones” of Bishop’s Brazilian life and writing in order to tell a new, more globally informed story of Bishop’s Brazil and how it transformed her writing, her career, and her life.2 At the center of this new story is the economically polarized world of Brazil that Bishop wrote about—its extremes of wealth and poverty; its ambitious building and development projects; its spectacular topography; its people, literature, language, culture, and politics. Because of her relationship with Macedo Soares, Bishop was uniquely placed to write about Brazilian life, culture, politics, and social issues. Macedo Soares was not just “the love of Bishop’s life,” as she has so often been called, but a member of Brazil’s elite class and so had ties through friendship and kinship to Brazil’s intellectual, political, and cultural power brokers. She owned an apartment on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most expensive tracts of real estate in the world, and a family farm forty miles north of Rio outside the winter resort town of Petrópolis where she was building one of Brazil’s celebrated modernist houses in its spectacular wild setting of granite rock and rainforest.


This modern house became a focal point not only for Bishop’s private lived experience in Brazil, which she explored in many poems, but also for the blending of the public and private spheres of Bishop’s Brazilian life. The modern house that became Bishop’s home in Samambaia was a mecca for visiting dignitaries and architects. Bishop and Macedo Soares had servants— cooks, gardeners, and maids—to attend to their needs. Their busy household often included the children of many of these servants, as well as visitors from around the world. Here Bishop explored the dimensions of a shared life with her Brazilian partner—its intimacies but also its class conflicts, which were made ever more apparent through the shared intimacy of this domestic arrangement. She named this blended life “Foreign-Domestic” in one of her unpublished poems.


Bishop’s relationship with Macedo Soares has inspired a number of creative projects as further testament to the intense interest in Bishop’s time in Brazil and her love affair with a Brazilian. These include a play, A Safe Harbour for Elizabeth Bishop, by the Brazilian playwright Marta Goés (translated by Daniel Hahn); a 2010 novel, The More I Owe You, by Michael Sledge; a 1995 hybrid novelized “dual biography” by another Brazilian, Carmen Oliveira, Flores raras e banalíssimas (translated as Rare and Commonplace Flowers by Neil Besner in 2002); and a 2014 film based on Oliveira’s book, Reaching for the Moon (Flores raras), by the well-known Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto, which is particularly interesting culturally because of the way it has been marketed as a film of interest to the LGBT community. Wolfe Video, this country’s major distributor of lesbian and gay films, features the DVD of this film in its 2015 catalogue as one of their staff picks. Not since that other mid-century transcontinental relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes has a writer’s love affair generated so much fascination and artistic energy. But in this book I maintain that this relationship is best understood in the larger context of Brazil’s class structure and how it influenced Bishop’s writing about Brazil.


It was, after all, due to Macedo Soares’s connections and influence that the painfully shy Bishop became a public intellectual and an exporter of Brazilian culture into North America. Her book on Brazil for the Life World Library series is an important example of this role. Founded in 1961, these books, which drew on the resources of both Time and Life magazines, were marketed using direct mail and arrived in millions of American households in monthly installments. Bishop was commissioned to write the Brazil book and paid a large sum of money—$10,000—and travel expenses. As one would expect, given Time-Life’s status in the post–World War II period as an American culture machine, Bishop was unhappy with the results of this collaboration. To Lowell, she quoted Allen Ginsberg’s “America” (“Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?”) to indicate just what she thought of the whole enterprise, but she also allowed that “Brazil is very glad of any well-meant publicity at this point,” and that Rio’s governor “has ordered dozens of copies to give away” (WIA 399, 397). Her comments indicate the import-export nature of Bishop’s Brazil project. She exported Brazilian culture into North America (as long as it adhered to the anti-Communist This content downloaded from on Wed, 28 Nov 2018 17:35:49 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 4 Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil political stance of the United States), and that message was then imported back into Brazil by politicians like Carlos Lacerda, then governor of greater Rio, who wanted to promote good relations with the United States. Whatever its particular slant, Bishop’s book on Brazil introduced a broad spectrum of American readers to Brazilian culture, politics, and economics. Moreover, the extensive research she conducted for the book informed the subject matter and historical perspectives of her subsequent poetry in significant ways.