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Not far from New York

Elizabeth Bishop wrote and rejected book about Brazil

reproduction It is necessary to have a poet?s soul to start a book about Brazil by telling the story of a newborn baby kidnapped from the maternity ward, and disregard the inflation, high cost of living, changes in government and even soccer game results, to narrate the saga of Conceiçãozinha, as the baby was named. Based on this humdrum story, which, by the way, has a happy ending, the author talks about the Brazilian family, the national devotion to children, the poor people, banana trees, corruption, history, culture, the “paulistas” (people  from the state of São Paulo) and the “cariocas” (people from the state of Rio de Janeiro), nicknames, the country’s emotions, etc.. In short, the author talks about Brazil, in the book Brazil, the original name of the book that Time-Life publishers had asked poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) to write as part of a collection of books on countries around the world. “Brazil, written in 1962, deserves special attention, because of its characteristics and the obstacles faced at the time of its publication. Several important aspects were at play: the intentions of the American publishers, at the peak of the Cold War, behind the production of a book series called Countries of the World; the invitation made to a renowned poet to write a semi-journalistic book on Brazil; the conflicts between the publishers and the author, which resulted in the final edition ultimately disowned by Bishop. The mere existence of Brazil leads us to discuss the possibility of capturing the entirety of the country in a work of this kind,” explains Armando Olivetti Ferreira, author of the doctorate thesis Recortes na paisagem: uma leitura de Brazil e outros textos de Elizabeth Bishop, recently presented at the University of São Paulo, under academic advisor Ivone Daré Rabello. The thesis includes essays written by the poet on Brazil, such as Uma viagem pelo Amazonas, referred to at the end of this article. This essay has never been published in English or Portuguese.

Brazil was a relief in the life of this American poetess, born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was eight months old, and, at the age of five, she witnessed her mother lose her mind. When she was a young woman, she became a poet and an alcoholic. In 1951, at the age of 35, she had already published a relatively successful book of poems, when she decided to circumnavigate South America. During the trip, she stopped in Brazil and traveled to Rio de Janeiro, to see her friend, Lota Macedo Soares, a socialite and a member of a prominent Rio de Janeiro family. Lota drove a Jaguar, wore jeans and had painting classes with Portinari. When Elizabeth had an allergic reaction after biting into a cashew fruit, Lota took care of her, and fell in love with Elizabeth. As a result, Elizabeth decided to move to Brazil, where she lived for 15 years in her first home. “Her best works were written during the years she lived in seclusion with Lota Soares, in the Casa da Samambaia, a house located in the mountain town of Petrópolis. There, she wrote Poems, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, leading to her international recognition. In Brazil, Bishop freed herself from a tragic past she had been an alcoholic and suffered because she did not have a family,” explains Nadia Nogueira, from the State University of Bahia, and author of Invenções de si em histórias de amor: Lota e Bishop. But Brazil, the country, was much more before it became Brazil, the book. Bishop’s early poems have the influence of high Anglo-American modernism, which implies strict formal control and a distancing from poetry. Bishop’s sojourn in Brazil opened her mind to explore more subjective topics, such as the ones linked to her childhood, spent in Nova Scotia, which she associated with the rustic air of the Casa da Samambaia. Later on, she became acquainted with the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, especially his poems on his childhood in Itabira, which she eventually translated. She found the tone she needed to write about subjective, painful topics in Drummond de Andrade’s poems. “The poems she wrote in Brazil became more personal, with a high degree of artistic detail,” explains Regina Przybycien, from the Federal University of Paraná, and author of Feijão-preto e diamantes, the first Brazilian thesis on Elizabeth Bishop.

Prior to the publication of Brazil, a chronological journey of Bishop’s prose written in Brazil necessarily begins with “Suicide of a moderate dictator”, written in 1954. This is a brief, two-page essay, based on a newsreel, in which the poet describes the funeral of former president Vargas. In the text, Bishop commented on the behavior of the president’s son, whom she described as a “cartoon character” and of the crowd attending the funeral. In 1958, she wrote another text, focusing on the country: “A new capital, Aldous Huxley and some Indians”. She wrote the text soon after coming back from a trip with a group of travelers which included the English author. The group had traveled to Brasília, still under construction, and to an Indian village in the State of Mato Grosso. This text, unlike her other works, had been rewritten and finalized by the author for publication in The New Yorker magazine, which refused to publish it. “Lota and her circle of friends were totally against the construction of the new capital, and Bishop shared this opinion. In this article, she emphasizes the sharp contrasts: on one side, this futuristic, planned city with fantastic shapes, and on the other side, the chaotic, open, city populated by the “candangos” (Brasilia’s construction workers): two Brazils. Bishop liked the architectural shapes, but found them impractical; she pointed out the uncomfortable interiors and the lack of the city’s integration with its inhabitants,” adds Regina. In 1960, Bishop wrote “A trip on the Amazon”, an unpublished text that describes a boat trip from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus. “Soon after this trip, Bishop began to write her longest article related to Brazil. The opportunity to draw on the knowledge she had gained appeared in the early 1960’s, when an invitation from the publishers of Life magazine was coupled with her desire to write a book about the country,” explains Ferreira. “I have a lot of material and I think Lota and I will have a lot of fun including our favorite jokes, the people we love, etc.,” Bishop wrote in a letter to her friend, the poet Robert Lowell, in 1961, adding that she considered this task “purely commercial and a kind of penance for my years of being a lay-about,” writing, in between parentheses, that “Anyway, probably nobody will ever read the text!”. This was a strange comment from someone who was so particular about every little detail of her work.

Rolando/AE View of Parque do Flamengo: the “rival” that took Lota away from Elizabeth at the time she was writing BrazilRolando/AE

“She seemed unaware of the reason that might have led Life to include a book on Brazil in the collection of Countries of the World at that time, or even unaware of the ideological interests involved in that editorial project,” Ferreira points out. “I don’t like the magazine and I don’t like the publishers. They are just like those sales people who keep putting pressure on us. But I want to make some money and at this point, whether I want to or not, I know a lot about Brazil,” Bishop wrote in a letter to her aunt. “She would spend more than 10 years writing and rewriting a poem until she found the exact tone, the right word; she refused to write a superficial book about Brazil.  She probably feared that she would be judged as being  mercenary by the readers who admired her poetry, or, even worse, that her readers would come to the conclusion that her poetic talent had petered out (a nightmare that would haunt her all her life) and this is why she decided to write this minor work,” Regina analyzes. Bishop wrote the book in the second half of 1961 and went to what she referred to as the battlefront, the Time-Life headquarters, for the revising of the book. When she arrived there, she realized that the editors had made some changes to her text. “According to her, the editors had modified her writing style to put it in line with the style of the publishing company. They filled the text with ‘but,’ ‘however,’ ‘almost,’ ‘probably,’ among other additions. The photographs also disappointed her. She lamented the absence of photos of nature and was very upset because the photo published on page 89, which supposedly portrayed a scene from Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, was actually a photo from the film Orfeu do Carnaval [translated into English as Black Orpheus].” Still according to Elizabeth, the editors had changed the titles of the chapters, among other changes. In short, “the editors had mutilated the text to a great extent,” Regina says. “However, there’s still a lot of Bishop in the book, as exemplified in the story on the little baby girl’s kidnapping. An unfinished poem on the poor people of Rio de Janeiro begins with an image of a newborn baby girl found in a garbage can. Therefore, needy little girls are a recurrent theme in her work. We have to remember that she had been a needy little girl, whose father died when she was a baby and whose mother went insane when Elizabeth was five years old,” adds the researcher.

The period when Bishop was working on Brazil was a time of turmoil in her life. After the first eight years in Brazil, during which she had lived in peace and quiet with her friend Lota, in a country home near Petrópolis, Lota was invited, at the end of 1960 by her friend Carlos Lacerda, the newly elected governor of the state of Guanabara, to coordinate the implementation of what would become the Parque do Flamengo, Flamingo Park. “That was the end of the quiet period and the two women moved to Rio de Janeiro, where Lota spent 12-hour days working on the Aterro project, destroying the old peace and confronting the two women with the country’s political reality,” says Ferreira. This was the situation when Elizabeth was invited to write Brazil. “And, in 1961,when Bishop’s name and work were associated with Life magazine, the invitation to write the book had come from the American publishers. She was eager to contribute in some way to the Administration of President Kennedy, who had announced that he wanted to have a productive relationship with artists,” explains the researcher. “Everybody seems to have found their true vocation lately,” the poet wrote. Lota was one of these people – she was working for free for Lacerda and Elizabeth’s list even included a friend who would adopt a little Brazilian girl. At the same time, Elizabeth had asked her friend Lowell to mention to someone – at the White House – that “she would like to do something for her country in Brazil.” “She was invited by Time Inc. in June to write the book on Brazil for the series on countries around the world and her positive answer was immediate,” says Ferreira. Nonetheless, problems soon arose between Elizabeth and the editors. “They’re asking me for a work schedule. They’re incredible. This is much more closely related to making whipped cream from sub products in a plastics factory than to literature or even to journalism.” “Elizabeth’s interest in flora and fauna put her against the editors, who were focusing on people and politics, specifically on circumstances related to the country’s potential to become a US-style democracy,” says the researcher. “My impression is that Bishop understood very little of the labyrinth of Brazilian politics and was not interested in politics in general. I think she repeated what she heard from friends. The fact that she was a liberal human rights activist in the United States and a fiercely conservative anti-Communist in Brazil is quite a paradox,” adds the researcher.

But the researcher points out that Brazil, the real country, and even Brazil the book, were based on the humor and art of its people. Thus, her book initially focuses on four centuries of history and refers to no more than six political figures (King João VI, Emperor Pedro I and Emperor Pedro II, Getúlio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek and Jânio Quadros.) The absence of Santos Dumont should be highlighted, whose airplane prowess had always been referred to ironically by the American poetess. Elizabeth then focused on Brazilian culture. “She disdained the so-called highbrow culture and often said that modern Brazilian literature was an imitation of European models, and that Brazilian poets, once they had become famous, were spoiled brats and found it unnecessary to exercise critical rigor in regard to their work (she said this about Manoel Bandeira). In terms of art, she really admired Brazilian architecture,” Regina explains. “She loved popular culture and manifested a feeling of loss in relation to the changes that modernity was bringing to the way of life in the small country towns and to Carnival. She loved to collect cheap little cord bound books , old-fashioned samba lyrics and even phrases written on the rear bumpers of trucks. She admired the humor of the poor Brazilians, always ready to laugh at their woes. She viewed Brazil through the eyes of a traveler-ethnographer. She sought an alterity that, in her opinion, was associated to a kind of romantic primitivism, a way of life that she would say had already disappeared in North America,” says the researcher.

ReproductionOrlando Villas-Boas in a photograph in BrazilReproduction

Nonetheless, the author insisted on disowning the book. In 1965, the editors proposed that the book be revised. But she refused. The book was re-published in 1970, with major changes in three chapters and substitution of photos, but the poet had no participation in this second edition, even though her name was still in the credits. A radically new edition of Brazil was launched in the USA in 1984, after her death, but this new edition no longer had her name. And in 2008, the first chapter of the book, “Um povo caloroso e sensato”, was included in the collection Elizabeth Bishop: poems, prose and letters, which faithfully reproduced the original text published in 1962, even though this text had been disowned by the author. She spent many years thinking about her project to write a second book, to substitute the disowned Brazil. “I’m planning to write a book whose title is Feijões-pretos e diamantes. It has to be a combination of travel book, memoirs and a book of photographs. I would like to make Brazil seem less remote and less the object of a picturesque fantasy. Brazil is actually not that far from New York”, she wrote. So why did she reject Brazil so strongly?

“I think it was based on three factors: the quality of the text, a reason always acknowledged by the author; her emotional instability; she always felt insecure waiting for criticisms, which took on an exagerated attitude at a time when Lota was no longer her protector and, in a certain sense, her mother figure, which had materialized in the form of uninterrupted presence and support; the fact that the publishers of Time-Life were not just any newspaper company, but one of the most important spokespeople of the North American ideology throughout the 20th century, especially during the Cold War,” Ferreira explains. In this respect, he adds, it is possible that the poet was naïve, that she became aware of this situation only after her confrontation with the editors in relation to her text. “Her criticisms do not question Time-Life’s ideology, even though they pointed to the publishers’ ignorance and their intention of presenting their pre-conceived ideas about a country without any interference.” Is naiveté also part of a poet’s soul?

A trip through the Amazon [1960]

“From the airport into Manaus – with Isaac. Manoel and I didn’t realize his importance at all and kept making horrible gaffes. First I exclaimed over the beauties of the slums. The road passes over several bridges over deep valleys. These gullies are filled with house-boats – at that time mostly sitting on the mud, every which-way. Thatched roofs, some very beautiful thatching, or tin – some square-doored like Noah’s arks – and hundreds of them stranded sadly in the mud and long grass. It was just beginning to get dark – the sun was setting – and up from these valleys of stranded boats came smoke. Smoke rose from these long deep valleys full of stranded boats – gasping boats – blueish fine smoke – perhaps everyone was cooking dinner. The light in the west was clear melon pink; the air full of high clear frog calls – a different kind of frog than in Petrópolis – Mr Sabbá asked Rosinha if she’d like to see the refinery – and I began to realize who he was when Rosinha replied with false enthusiasm that she’d love to.

A boy ran the plank and leaped up the bank, scrambling up holding onto vines and stones. It looked as if he might fall back and be swallowed up at any second. The captain appeared over our heads on his little gangway, in white pajamas, and threw what looked like a fat letter onto the bank – why he didn’t give it to the boy is a mystery. The boy, it then appeared had a flashlight, and scrambled dangerously along the top of the bank, tripping and falling and looking for the letter – like a strange game – the silent sleepy inhabitants and us watching, the river flowing madly and really backward. Finally he picked it up.  The capt. shouted: “Take it to the Post Office” and he ran off into the dark. Five minutes later he was back – down the bank, over the tiny plank, which was pulled in after him – the single line was untied from its domestic and we started backing away – and that was all we saw of URICURITUBA.”

* Originals at Vassar College, Special Collections; Box “Prose Unpublished”, Folder 55.4, 9p. Typed; undated (1960); title ms: “On the Lauro Sodré” (1960). Translated by Armando Olivetti Ferreira.