Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil
The groundskeeper apologizes for the unglued bathroom tiles and half-scraped paint chips as he unlocks the door to Elizabeth Bishop’s studio. The unassuming white box juts above the main house of Samambaia, a hillside estate that Bishop described in a letter as “a very ‘modern’ house outside of Petrópolis.” In this bright, breezy room, the American poet spent around 15 years molding words and chipping away at stanzas.
Monica Morse, Bishop’s adopted daughter, tugs at my sleeve and whispers, “Exactly how I remember.” Though in the midst of renovation, the studio has an interrupted air, as if Bishop had pushed back her curvy Swedish chair and walked out mere moments before. In truth, she left 50 years ago.
Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and earning admiration from fellow poets, Bishop spent much of her life in purposeful obscurity; John Ashbery once called her “a writer’s writer’s writer.” At the time of her death, in 1979, she had published just 88 poems, choosing to rework her villanelles and sestinas over and over instead of pursuing a grand oeuvre.
Perhaps her long estrangement from the U.S. also hindered her fame. Calling on her college friend Mary Morse in 1951 was meant to be a quick stop on Bishop’s tour of the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, she fell in love with Mary’s aristocratic lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-taught architect who planned the ambitious Flamengo Park on Rio’s reclaimed land. But you can say that Bishop fell for Brazil, too. To New Yorker journalist Pearl Kazin, she wrote: “I only hope you don’t have to get to be forty-two before you feel so at home.”
On my first trip to Brazil, seven years ago, I too, had felt instantly at ease. With a fortuitous €250 ticket, I was escaping a dreary winter in Berlin, where I was underemployed as an adjunct instructor. I’d moved to Germany on a graduate scholarship and stuck around, having fallen into the trap of easy expat life. Unlike Bishop, who’d already published a volume of poetry by her arrival, I hadn’t accomplished much in life. Like her, I was quietly fighting a depression that kept me numb.
On that trip, I went to Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis, and Ouro Preto, a former mining town just over an hour southeast of Belo Horizonte. I hadn’t known that Bishop had lived in those three cities—in fact, hers was among the many names I read and forgot in college, her poetry too subtle and deceptively simple.
Then, a couple of years after that trip to Brazil, I found my old copy of her collected poems, the salmon cover wrinkled by the humidity of my parents’ garage. Having seen her Brazil, I suddenly connected with her work, as when she wrote, in “Arrival at Santos”:
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life,
The desire to become a new person abroad, and the acceptance of its impossibility—it perfectly summed up my reluctant crush on Brazil. I decided that someday I would return on a pilgrimage in her honor.
Earlier this year, an acquaintance put me in touch with Monica, who was adopted as a newborn, in 1960, by Morse, Soares, and Bishop. A few text messages later, we were passing through Samambaia’s sliding gate. Even though Monica lives in Petrópolis, 15 minutes away, she had not seen the house since she was seven.
With its overhanging eaves and glass facades, the house, designed by Soares and the well-known Rio architect Sérgio Bernardes, won a prize from Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at the 1954 São Paulo Biennial and encapsulates the optimism that swept Brazil in the ’50s, as the country became an economic power. It would blend right into Palm Springs, were it not for its open vistas of the mist-veiled mountains, thick with stout palms and graceful ipê trees.
As we walk through a series of light-filled rooms and corridors, Monica recalls scenes from her childhood: Here is the ramp she used to race down on her tricycle, much to Bishop’s annoyance; here, the master suite that used to be two separate rooms in which Bishop and Soares slept. In Bishop’s studio, my eyes suddenly well up. Her poem “Song for the Rainy Season” sings of the surrounding mountains’ effervescent waterfalls and brooks, but concludes with a wistful prediction:
the great rock will stare
no longer wearing
rainbows or rain,
the forgiving air
and the high fog gone
Indeed, the smooth slope outside the window is now dry.
Torrents and droughts, heat and cold, passion and indifference—for Bishop, life was cyclical and happiness only sporadic. After all, didn’t she teach us that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”? “One Art,” a villanelle published three years before her death, lists things small and large that ultimately eluded its speaker in life:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Underneath the feigned nonchalance is the deep hurt of a woman continuously losing, every new loss the sum of all things gone. As I stand in her studio—another thing she eventually lost—I’m overwhelmed, thinking about how people and places converge with our lives before going their separate ways.
After leaving Samambaia, Monica and I stroll through the center of Petrópolis, a time capsule of canals, cathedrals, and timbered houses built in the 19th century by German immigrants. Swaddled in the mountains, the easygoing city was once a summer retreat for Brazil’s ruling class, who longed to escape Rio de Janeiro’s sticky heat.
Monica is forthcoming with memories, many of them idyllic: baking biscuits with Bishop, painting Easter eggs with Soares, decorating Christmas trees with popcorn. But she also remembers Bishop’s alcohol-fueled temper and moodiness that could cast a shadow over the house for days. In any case, and despite her ordinary looks and dowdy clothes, Bishop maintained a certain magnetism—not unlike her quiet words. “People were drawn to her,” Monica says, toward the end of our afternoon together, “maybe because they thought they could be the ones to finally make her happy.”
In addition to Samambaia, Soares kept a penthouse in Rio’s Leme neighborhood, overlooking both Copacabana and the favela Morro da Babilônia, a lawless place when Bishop came to Brazil. After watching an all-night police chase from the beachfront apartment, Bishop wrote “The Burglar of Babylon,” a childlike rhyme about a criminal on the run doomed to be executed. Her portrayal of Babilônia is not kind:
On the fair green hills of Rio
There grows a fearful stain:
The poor who come to Rio
And can’t go home again.
When I arrive there, Babilônia is markedly safer, its gangs subdued by the police’s controversial 2009 “pacification.” The neighborhood’s residents prefer the term comunidade to favela, and, unlike some Rio slums that embody their menacing reputations, Babilônia feels like just that: a community of everyday people who happen to be living minutes uphill from Copacabana.
Motorcyclists ferry locals and visitors who don’t want to scale the steep hill. I have to take off my glasses to wear the helmet, and the colorful murals flash in a nearsighted blur as the driver charges up. Five minutes and 50 cents later, I’m at the foot of cement steps that bend around homes seemingly stacked on top of one another. Urban planners and architects around the world come to study these engineering marvels. Originally built with siphoned utilities and no permits, Brazil’s hilltop shacks prove that necessity fosters creativity. As Bishop writes, they rise “Out of nothing at all, or air.”
A young pastor in a white suit smiles and greets me as I pass by a packed hall booming with evangelical gospel. Through open windows, telenovelas emanate from living rooms; forgotten laundry flutters on clotheslines. Would Bishop compose the same ballad about Babilônia today? When I finally settle at my destination, the hilltop Bar do Alto, the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon that hug the Atlantic sparkle in bright city lights, near and out of reach at the same time.
I spend three days bumming around Rio, but it’s not until the evening before my return flight that I manage to find Soares and Bishop’s old apartment. That’s when I realize that I’ve walked by this Art Deco apartment tower several times already. I linger at its white gate before deciding against cajoling the security guard into letting me in. Instead I cross the busy Avenida Atlântica’s wavy black and white mosaic sidewalk and make my way to Copacabana Beach, slowly emptying as the sun nears the sea. A few hundred yards away, a huge rainbow flag snaps in the wind. As bronzed beachgoers dust off and pack their things, I take out my favorite book of Bishop’s, Questions of Travel, and open to the poem “Sandpiper,” about a tiny shorebird hopping along the beach, obsessed with the millions of grains of sand:
he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic
Bishop, too, flitted between worlds, pecking at the wonder of the universe one grain at a time, taking off time and again, migrating thousands of miles. Her love affair with Soares and Brazil didn’t have a happy ending. After their relationship soured, Soares went to New York, where she died of an overdose; Bishop made one last botched attempt at staying in her adopted homeland, in the baroque outpost of Ouro Preto, before giving up and returning to the U.S.
I, too, have crossed oceans and navigated the ever-changing littoral in a constant search. Upon returning to Berlin after my first trip to Rio, I began writing again, this time about travel, which eventually became my profession. Wandering the world hasn’t miraculously cured my depression, but it has allowed me to cope. And it’s made me realize, as the penultimate stanza of “The Sandpiper” begins:
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear.