Elizabeth Bishop At Home
- Peter Sanger (Editor), Sandra Barry (Editor), and Gwendolyn Davies (Editor)
Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Carmen L. Oliveira (Author) and Neil K Besner (Translator)
Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Rutgers University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sara Jamieson
These two new books on the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop are very different in form, but share a focus on the orphaned poet’s sensitivity to place and her yearning for a sense of home that is, occasionally, fulfilled. Rare and Commonplace Flowers is Neil K. Besner’s translation from Portuguese of Carmen L. Oliveira’s biographical account of the relationship between Bishop and the aristocratic Brazilian, Lota de Macedo Soares. Their story exemplifies the strength and the vulnerability of love in the face of change; Oliveira traces the trajectory, from harmony to disintegration, of a partnership between two people who are temperamentally very different, but who share a passionate commitment to their work. It is this passion, however, which ultimately drives them apart. When they meet upon Bishop’s arrival in Brazil in 1951, Macedo Soares, an accomplished architecture enthusiast, is supervising the building of an ultra-modern house in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro. The two women soon move into the house together, and the next ten years are the among the happiest and most productive in Bishop’s life. In 1961, however, Macedo Soares, hungry for a new project, commits herself to overseeing the conversion of an area of landfill in Rio into the largest city park in the world. With Macedo Soares increasingly preoccupied with the political wrangling that constantly threatens to compromise her vision of the park, Bishop drinks heavily to escape her feeling of abandonment, and the intimacy between the two women begins to unravel.
In supplying a Brazilian perspective on Bishop’s connection to that country, the book frequently foregrounds problems of translation and the misunderstanding and pain that can arise from cultural differences. Besner, in his preface, acknowledges a gulf between languages that makes it difficult to "conserve, let alone render, the Brazilian world in English." This difficulty notwithstanding, his translation is lucid and breezy, but not without occasional moments of awkwardness. The repeated use of the expletive "Heck" is especially jarring. Though it may be intended to convey a specific Portuguese expression, the effect in English is creaky. Oliveira’s book was a bestseller in Brazil, where readers are presumably familiar with the intricacies of Brazilian politics during the 1960s. In the parts of the book that deal with Macedo Soares’s work on the park, many figures are introduced into the story, sometimes rather abruptly, and I found myself wishing for some annotation or perhaps a glossary supplying more information on these people. While Macedo Soares is a captivating figure, the lengthy accounts of her clashes with state bureaucracy eventually become tedious. Oliveira’s incorporation of Macedo Soares’s letters and memos to various politicians is evidence of meticulous research, but this does not always make for compelling reading. Then again, it is Macedo Soares’s obsession with the park that is partly responsible for the erosion of her relationship with Bishop, and in these sections of the book it is easy to appreciate Bishop’s alienation, her desperate desire for her relationship with Lota to revert to the way it was in their mountain home.
At its height, Bishop’s relationship with Macedo Soares assuaged the poet’s abiding sense of homelessness, the roots of which are explored in Divisions of the Heart, a collection of twenty-four papers presented at a symposium held at Acadia University in 1998. In keeping with the conference venue and its stated focus on Bishop’s "art of memory and place," many of the essays in the collection examine how the poet’s memories of her childhood in Great Village, NS, resonate throughout her work. Others explore her connections to places she subsequently inhabited: Worcester, Mass., Washington, DC, and, of course, Brazil. Bishop’s attraction to seascapes, her keen interest in maps and geography, and her divided sense of national identity are themes running through the book as a whole. As might be expected from a book of conference proceedings, the essays are relatively short (most are in the ten- to twelve-page range) and offer brief discussions of one or two works, a particular image, or biographical incident. Gathered from a wide range of contributors, including graduate students, college and university teachers, writers, and members of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, the essays in this collection vary widely in quality. Highlights include Peter Sanger’s informative discussion of how Bishop’s childhood reading constituted an important imaginative matrix for much of her mature writing. In this essay, the longest in the collection, Sanger looks at five of Bishop’s well-thumbed childhood books, part of the Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds, archival materials deposited at Acadia University in 1996. Sandra Barry’s photographic essay also draws upon this important new source in presenting a selection of family pictures, mostly of Bishop’s Nova Scotia relatives and forebears, that enlivens the book. Camille Roman offers a fascinating reading of how Bishop’s poetry contains coded responses to the homophobia and cold-war paranoia rampant in Washington during the Eisenhower administration. Also worth noting is Andre Furlani’s allusive close reading of Bishop’s prose memoir "In the Village" in which he traces how the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer that reverberates throughout the text also contains echoes of other such hammers throughout literary history and myth. Lorrie Goldensohn’s suggestive descriptions of Bishop’s subtle use of colour in her landscape painting is accompanied by disappointingly small black-and-white illustrations. Similarly, Lilian Falk’s well-researched piece on Bishop’s great uncle George Hutchinson, who achieved a modest reputation as an illustrator in London in the 1890s, left me wishing that the drawings Falk describes in the essay could have been included.
Divisions of the Heart seems destined to appeal mainly to Elizabeth Bishop scholars, but Rare and Commonplace Flowers has a lively, novelistic style and a breadth of focus which should interest a wider audience.
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MLA: Jamieson, Sara. Elizabeth Bishop At Home. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 176 - 178)
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