ELIZABETH BISHOP (1911-1979)
Bishop’s losses started when she was still very young. Born on February 8th1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S., her father died when she was only six months old and sometime after that, Bishop’s mother was sent to an asylum for people with mental problems and the girl never saw her again. She would live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, Great Village, Canada, until 1917. At age six, Bishop was taken by her wealthy paternal grandparents to their house in Worcester but as she didn’t feel at ease with them, she was raised by an aunt. In fact, she never felt at home in Worcester and missed Great Village, her Canadian grandparents and even the farm animals of her childhood that she had left behind.
Bishop was sixteen when she made her application for Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1927, where she graduated the same year that her mother died. Although New York was Bishop’s home from 1939 to 1948, it was in Key West, Florida that she bought her first house. There Bishop would live in a tropical weather similar to the one she had in Cuba and that she would face in Brazil, the country where she arrived in 1951 and lived intermittently for almost twenty years.
Elizabeth Bishop was 40 when she arrived in Brazil and there she met a young woman from a wealthy family in Rio de Janeiro, Carlota Macedo Soares, whose nickname was Lota. That woman took care of Bishop when she stayed in hospital, as soon as she arrived in Rio, due to a crisis of allergy, and they fell in love with each other. Finally, Lota convinced Bishop to stay in Brazil and live with her in Petrópolis, a place on a hill near Rio de Janeiro city, in a place called Samambaia. They lived together for a decade there until Lota decided they should move to her apartment in Rio de Janeiro city in order to work with Governor Carlos Lacerda who was her friend. Lota was responsible for the construction of Flamengo embankment in Rio de Janeiro and she was always so busy that she hardly had time for Bishop. More and more depressed and lonely, Bishop started drinking again, one of the most important problems she had to fight during her lifetime, since she was addicted to alcohol.
Travelling would also do as a fantastic balm for her depression and she would visit many states in Brazil in the sixties. She traveled to Amazonas to see its famous river; to Pará where she was absolutely fascinated by the beauties of Santarem city; to Minas Gerais where she was seduced by the colonial buildings and the baroque sculptures she saw there, being especially attracted by the historical city of Ouro Preto. In Ouro Preto neighborhood, Mariana, Bishop bought an old house that she refurbished with the intention of living there. She named the house “Casa Mariana” or House Mariana, not only because it was located in a place with the same name but also to pay homage to the American poet Marianne More, her intellectual mentor and friend. As the money she received from the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1956 would not be enough to pay for the house restoration, she accepted the invitation to give speeches in Seattle University, Washington, so as to raise more founds for that enterprise. She traveled in December 1964 and only came back in December 1965, one year next.
At that moment, Lota’s health was very poor, especially when she decided to visit Bishop in New York, in September 1967. Disobeying her doctor, Lota traveled to the New York but wasn’t welcome by Elizabeth as she had expected. Frustrated and very ill, Lota took an overdose of tranquilizers and died five days later at St. Vincent’s Hospital, on September 25, 1967. Afraid of the reaction of Lota’s family, only at the end of November, 1967, Bishop gathered courage to go back to Brazil and soon returned to the United States on Christmas Eve of the same year. For the next few years, she would still keep coming and going from Brazil to the U.S.A. in order to settle some private affairs in this country, but Bishop definitely moved to the U.S.A. in 1970 to work as a professor in Harvard.
Bishop spent her last years with her friend Alice Methfessel in Boston and died of a brain aneurysm on October 6th 1979. Methfessel was Bishop’s secretary in Harvard and became her heiress in U.S.A. Among the author’s most important documents are her poetic drafts and numerous letters. Most of these documents are in Vassar College and a vast part of her correspondence with her friend the American poet Robert Lowell is in Harvard Library.
Those 15 years she lived in Brazil were the most prolific of her life. She published in 1946 North and South (before living in Brazil); Poems (1955), Brazil (1962); Questions of Travel (1965); An Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry (1972); and some more published poems in Geography III (1976). Geography III, Bishop’s final book of poems, contains some of her masterpieces, as One Art, the focus of this essay.