- Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil by Bethany Hicok
A laurel rescued Daphne, an oak sheltered Bilbo Baggins, and a cashew tree united the literature of two continents when Elizabeth Bishop suffered an allergic reaction to its fruit while sojourning in Brazil in 1951. The aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares nursed her back to health and into love, inviting her to move into her renowned modernist house above a resort town near Rio de Janeiro. Bishop did not quit the country finally until 1971, the year the Brazilian government inducted her into the Ordem de Rio Branco.
In addition to her diverse works on South American subjects—from celebrated poems to travelogues and a Life World Library volume on Brazil—the award recognized her promotion of the nation's artists, architects, musicians, and especially writers, many of whose texts she translated. "Oh, tourist," she wrote, early in her Brazilian period, 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, and complete comprehension / of both at last"?1 As Bethany Hicok's discerning and sympathetic book reveals, Brazil went a long way toward answering Bishop's immodest demands while also showing her that complete comprehension had to be surrendered as a tourist's chimera and an impediment to her poetry.
The New Englander who defined herself as "3/4ths Canadian" and who spent the better part of twenty years in Brazil has rarely been acknowledged as one of the few laureates of the Americas.2 This, despite the fact that she spoke all four of the continent's official colonial languages and translated French and Spanish as well as Portuguese texts. The peregrine poet lived in Key West, the Pacific Northwest, Nova Scotia, and Mexico. Bishop's extensive South American travels found their place in a number of her works, including the celebrated poems "Questions of Travel" and "Crusoe in England," and the overlooked excursus "A Trip to Vigia" (which Hicok believes was not published until the Library of America omnibus in 2008, whereas it appeared 24 years [End Page 405] earlier in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux Collected Prose). Published before she had yet settled in Brazil, the providential title of her first book, North and South (1946), anticipates Bishop's determination to live and write at the convergence of the Americas.
Hicok examines the poet's life and work under the Southern Cross during a period of covert as well as overt American interventionism and attendant capitalist incursions. Like George Manteiro in Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (2012), she reveals the overlooked political dimensions of such poems as "Filling Station," Bishop's sardonic glimpse at "so—so—so" imperious Standard Oil (Bishop, Complete Poems, 128). Hicok writes that "the final lines, ending with 'Somebody loves us all,' are sinister, suggesting the corporate takeover of the family and the country, poor and dirty and working for the Man … the gentle effect of the repeated Esso—so—so—so serves to re-create the stupefying effect of paternalistic companies that lull their workers into compliance" (49). And their consumers only more so.
Bishop's status in Brazil was privileged but precarious, and more than once she got out with little more than the contents of a suitcase. Hicok details how, while Soares's patrician rank afforded Bishop entrée into elite political as well as cultural circles, this also exposed her to Cold War machinations like the ones that had already troubled her 1949–50 stint as the Library of Congress Consultant in Poetry (now Poet Laureate). Soares's coordination of the huge landfill project along Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro brought Bishop into closer proximity with the project's mercurial patron, the fiercely anti-Communist Governor Carlos Lacerda, and thus into proximity with the depredations of reactionary politics in which the United States was complicit. So, by extension, was Bishop, whose pro-American stance, Hicok demonstrates, clouded the very sensitivity to the country's...