Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil
She was supposed to stay for two weeks – that became 15 years. After moving to an apartment overseeing Copacabana beach, Bishop fell in love with carioca socialite Lota de Macedo Soares, the architect responsible for the design of Parque do Flamengo. There, Elizabeth wrote some of her best poems and translated books by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and João Cabral de Melo Neto. About Drummond, she said: “I didn’t know him at all. He’s supposed to be very shy. I’m supposed to be very shy. We’ve met once — on the sidewalk at night. We had just come out of the same restaurant, and he kissed my hand politely when we were introduced.”
In 1956, during her Rio phase, she won the Pullitzer prize for a collection of her poetry. Later, she moved to Petrópolis (once the royal retreat and, more recently, one of the cities in the state of Rio affected by heavy floods) and also to historic Ouro Preto, in Minas Gerais. Finally, in the late sixties, she decided to return to the US (and was followed by Lota, who committed suicide a few days later). Back home, Elizabeth Bishop became a Harvard and MIT professor.
Always analytic, not always kind, Bishop comments on Brazilian ethnicity and racial relations at the time:
The widespread poverty, backwardness, ignorance, and suffering in Brazil are tragic; for millions, life is hungry and dirty, short and cruel. And yet—to a South African or a North American or anyone who has lived in a colonial country,—to be able to hear a black cook call her small, elderly, white mistress minha negrinha (my little nigger) as a term of affection, comes as a revelation,—a breath of fresh air at last.
It was not planned; it just happened. But Brazil now realizes that her racial situation is one of her greatest assets. Racial mixtures can be seen all over the country. In the north, in the Amazon region, Portugese and Indian have produced the caboclo, small, well-built, straight noses, bright eyes—a very attractive physical type. The northeast, after generations of poor diet, has produced the cabeça-chata, or “flat-head,” who is also apt to be small, somewhat rickety, with thin arms and legs and a large head, but quick, and certainly prolific. In the south under better living conditions and with little or no Negro admixture, the type is more Portuguese, sometimes with German blood, bigger, fairer, with clear skin, calmer—but pugnacious, even inclined to violence. It is in and around the big cities of Rio and São Paulo that one gets every racial type mixed together, types that have lost their racial clarity along with their former agricultural skills and beautiful backlands manners. A man in Goiás will know the name and habits of every beast and bird around him; but the people of regions that have fallen into agricultural decay are sickly-looking bad farmers, to whom every insect is only a bicho, or every tree is the “five-leaf,” and all are subject to destruction. The importance of nutrition in Brazil is shown by the fact that the richer and older the family, the taller and bigger-boned they are apt to be. Sometimes their servants from the “north” or the “interior” appear almost like dwarfs beside them. (Source)
Here are three poems that she wrote inspired by the country (from the book “Questions of Travel”, published in 1965), found by PoemHunter:
Tags: Expatriates, Health, Literature
Questions of Travel
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
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?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
–Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
–A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
–Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
–Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
–And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
Half squatter, half tenant (no rent)—
a sort of inheritance; white,
in your thirties now, and supposed
to supply me with vegetables,
but you don’t; or you won’t; or you can’t
get the idea through your brain—
the world’s worst gardener since Cain.
Titled above me, your gardens
ravish my eyes. You edge
the beds of silver cabbages
with red carnations, and lettuces
mix with alyssum. And then
umbrella ants arrive,
or it rains for a solid week
and the whole thing’s ruined again
and I buy you more pounds of seeds,
and eventually you bring me
a mystic thee-legged carrot,
or a pumpkin “bigger than the baby.”
I watch you through the rain,
trotting, light, on bare feet,
up the steep paths you have made—
or your father and grandfather made—
all over my property,
with your head and back inside
a sodden burlap bag,
and feel I can’t endure it
another minute; then,
indoors, beside the stove,
keep on reading a book.
You steal my telephone wires,
or someone does. You starve
your horse and yourself
and your dogs and family.
among endless variety,
you eat boiled cabbage stalks.
And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you’d been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word “potatoes”
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.
The strangest things happen to you.
Your cows eats a “poison grass”
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else’s does.
And then your father dies,
a superior old man
with a black plush hat, and a moustache
like a white spread-eagled sea gull.
The family gathers, but you,
no, you “don’t think he’s dead!
I look at him. He’s cold.
They’re burying him today.
But you know, I don’t think he’s dead.”
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night!
And then you come again,
sniffing and shivering,
hat in hand, with that wistful
face, like a child’s fistful
of bluets or white violets,
improvident as the dawn,
and once more I provide
for a shot of penicillin
down at the pharmacy, or
one more bottle of
Electrical Baby Syrup.
Or, briskly, you come to settle
what we call our “accounts,”
with two old copybooks,
one with flowers on the cover,
the other with a camel.
You’ve left out decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.
in the kitchen we dream together
how the meek shall inherit the earth—
or several acres of mine.
With blue sugar bags on their heads,
carrying your lunch,
your children scuttle by me
like little moles aboveground,
or even crouch behind bushes
as if I were out to shoot them!
—Impossible to make friends,
though each will grab at once
for an orange or a piece of candy.
Twined in wisps of fog,
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
—All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Or coming down at night,
in silence, except for hoofs,
in dim moonlight, the horse
or Formoso stumbling after.
Between us float a few
big, soft, pale-blue,
the jellyfish of the air…
Patch upon patch upon patch,
your wife keeps all of you covered.
She has gone over and over
(forearmed is forewarned)
your pair of bright-blue pants
with white thread, and these days
your limbs are draped in blueprints.
You paint—heaven knows why—
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, “Manuelzinho,
one thing; be sure you always
paint your straw hat.”
One was gold for a while,
but the gold wore off, like plate.
One was bright green. Unkindly,
I called you Klorophyll Kid.
My visitors thought it was funny.
I apologize here and now.
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or I do?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.
Arrival at Santos
Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and–who knows?–self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,
with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?
Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,
but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,
descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beaus.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s
skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall
s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,
but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps–
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.