Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil
By Eva P. Bueno
Elizabeth Bishop was one of America’s best known poets. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States, as well as the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 1951, Bishop came to Brazil. She was on vacation and intending to stay just a week or two. Instead, she fell in love with Brazil and stayed here for 15 years. A film depicting her life in Brazil is currently playing in theaters in Curitiba entitled “Rare Flowers” (Flores Raras).
CIE contributor Eva Bueno was fortunate enough to visit the house where Bishop once lived in Ouro Preto. Here is her story.
By Eva P. Bueno
When Sandra Augusta and I arrived at the house in June 2008, initially I did not want to go in. We had not called anybody to announce our arrival, and to just show up would mean we would be invading somebody’s privacy. As soon as we arrived, we considered leaving. “Let’s at least knock,” Sandra said after we took a picture of the front of the house.
Two women answered the door, and Sandra Augusta told them I was visiting the city and would like to take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s house. Aparecida opened the house and welcomed us in, while Loló simply smiled and returned to her work dusting some furniture. They were both maids who cared for the house, while the owner, simply called Lili, lived in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state, located two hours away.
The house was lovely, perched on one of the many hills of the city. But it was far from the famous historic downtown of the colonial Ouro Preto. We figured it would take about one hour walking uphill to reach this house, coming from the central part of the city. One cannot help wonder why Bishop decided to move to Ouro Preto in the first place, and then to buy a house — this house, which she named “Casa Mariana”, maybe as a combination of an homage to her friend and mentor poet Marianne Moore and to the fact that this was the old road to the town of Mariana, another one of the historic sites of Minas Gerais. From the perspective of somebody who does not know much about Bishop’s life, it might seem strange that a poet born in Massachusetts, raised in Nova Scotia and Boston, and who traveled far and wide, would one day choose to live in such an isolated place. However, once you know more about Bishop, her choice for Ouro Preto makes perfect sense.
When Bishop first arrived in Brazil in 1951, she did not plan to stay. At first, she was detained by a violent allergic reaction to a fruit she’d eaten. Later, she stayed to be with Maria Carlota Costellat Macedo Soares, or Lota, a Brazilian architect Bishop had met in New York, who lived in Rio de Janeiro.
Elizabeth and Lota had a happy home life, living in a house in the mountains they called Samambaia (Fern). During those years Bishop wrote poetry and met many of the Brazilian poets and intellectuals of the time. She developed a great appreciation for Brazilian poets, and she translated some of their work into English. She translated João Cabral de Melo Neto, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Vinícius de Morais. How much her relationship with Brazilian poets affected her own poetry is hard to say, but some say her poem “The Hills of Babylon” resembles the cadence of Melo Neto’s poems. Once Ashley Brown asked her whether she had been able to get anything from Brazil except its vistas. Bishop replied:
Living in the way I have happened to live here, knowing Brazilians, has made a great difference. The general life I have known here has of course had an impact on me. I think I’ve leaned a great deal. Most New York intellectuals’ ideas about “underdeveloped” countries are partly mistaken, and living among people of a completely different culture has changed a lot of my old stereotyped ideas. (p. 228)
The house where Bishop and Lota lived together was located in the mountainous region close to Rio. It’s possible to say Bishop lived the best of all worlds: she had a lovely home in the country, but could go to the big city of Rio anytime she wanted. Besides, she had the company of Lota, and the immense knowledge of the country translated for her by Lota, with whom she spoke in English. However, their world changed with the beginning of the Brazilian dictatorship in 1964 — the political life of Brazil began to take most of Lota’s energy and attention. Their relationship grew cold. Bishop bought the Ouro Preto house in 1965. It is probable that this house, away from the complicated space represented by the political turmoil of Rio where she and Lota were increasingly criticized, and seemingly away from the time of the twentieth century with all its problems, was a haven for Bishop. She did not come to Ouro Preto by chance, however.
Bishop’s first interest in the state of Minas Gerais, where Ouro Preto is located, came with her translation of Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant’s Meu diário de menina — The Diary of Helena Morley. This book, published in 1942, is the diary of a young girl who lived in the Minas Gerais town of Diamantina.  From Diamantina to Ouro Preto it would be just a matter of time, as Ouro Preto is considered the jewel of colonial Brazil with its well-preserved architecture, its monuments and sculptures, and the romantic aura of the place where poets and adventurers tried for the first time to free Brazil from Portugal in 1789. Ouro Preto, seemingly separated from the world and the travails of the twentieth century, must have appealed to Bishop almost as a place out of time. A more permanent residence in such a place seemed ideal.
Regina Przybycien writes that Bishop bought a house in a state of ruins in 1965 and “put her friend Lili Correa de Araújo in charge of restoring it” (p. 195). The location is perfect. With its almost ethereal position on the side of a hill, the house seems to illustrate something important for Bishop: while anchored into the ground, she still had access to a vista that enabled her to feel separate from everything while still able to see everything clearly.
The most spectacular views from the house are those one can see from the back porch: the whole city of Ouro Preto, in all its colonial glory, greets the visitor. One can view the famous downtown with its centuries old buildings and the traffic laboring up and down the steep and narrow streets.
On the right side of the house, there is a garden. It is not clear how it appeared at the time Bishop lived there, but Aparecida and Loló assured us that Bishop was responsible for a renovation that made the garden possible. Today, the garden is a mixture of different flowers, but one can see that it could once have been a vegetable or at least an herb garden.
Looked at from the street level, the house seems to be a simple, squat, low building. Once inside, however, the house reveals different levels and many depths. When one enters the rooms to the left of the main corridor, the windows open to a waterfall. It is a beautiful and soothing sound in itself, and with the vegetation surrounding the place, the water that comes out of the mountain is evocative. One of the rooms has an inscription left there by a poet saying that his son Jesse Dunford Wood was born in that room on the 22nd of October of 1977. He etched the inscription in the glass of one of the windows. Since he forgot to put the name of his son’s mother in the inscription, I forget to put his name here too. This irony, I think, would not be missed by Bishop.
Was Bishop happy in Ouro Preto? It seems that as soon as she moved to the house on the Road to Mariana, she immediately had to contend with an army of workers in order to make the house livable. She was only finally able to live in the half-finished house in 1969, but much had changed in her life since the purchase. The most important change was Lota’s death, in 1967, of an overdose, in New York. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point that Bishop was spending more time away, and Lota went to New York to see her. During the night she got up and took an overdose of valium. Many who write about this say that Elizabeth Bishop was consumed by guilt and pain. To make things worse, when she returned to Brazil, she had to face their common Brazilian friends who felt that she was guilty of Lota’s death. The house in Ouro Preto must have seemed a perfect refuge. As a person who felt homeless all her life, the loss of Lota and of the circle of people they knew together drew her to Ouro Preto and led her to be involved more with people who were not connected only to her life in Rio.
However, there was a serious downside to Ouro Preto. Przybycien writes that Bishop’s life in Ouro Preto, without Lota’s protection and mediation, forced her to live with people whose way of thinking and of acting was different:Nos seus piores momentos, a amargura a fazia voltar-se contra a população ouropretana, repetindo chavões sobre o mau caráter dos mineiros, sua astúcia e falta de honestidade e acusando as empregadas e os operário de roubarem descaradamente. (p. 215). In her worse moments, bitterness made her turn against the Ouro Preto population, and she repeated clichés about the bad character of the people from the state, their cunning and dishonesty, and she accused the maids and the laborers of robbing her openly.
And yet, life in this house in Ouro Preto must have had its pleasant moments. In an article published in The New York Review of Books in 1979, James Merrill describes his visit to Bishop’s house in Ouro Preto and says that he was “her first compatriot to visit in several months,” and that “she found it uncanny to be speaking English again” (p. 261). Still, Bishop had many other visitors, “often a matter of poets from other parts of Brazil”, who “would arrive, two or three a week during the ‘season,’ to present her with their pamphlets, receiving in turn an inscribed Complete Poems from a stack on the floor beside her” (Merrill, p. 260).
Still, these occasional literary and artistic visits did not seem to shield her from the pressing problems of daily life in a small town. Przybycien, again, writes that “com o passar do tempo, o seu ressentimento aumentou … Assim, a fascinação pelo passado de Ouro Preto, representado nos monumentos que a atraíam, não foi suficiente para conciliá-la com o presente, com a cultura local, cuja alteridade não conseguia penetrar” (p. 216) — As time went by, her resentment increased … Thus, the fascination with the past of Ouro Preto, represented in the monuments that attracted her, was not enough to help her reconcile with the present, with the local culture whose otherness she could not penetrate.” The rejection of the life she found in Ouro Preto might be responsible for her small poetic output while she lived there. Two years later, she left.
The house she rescued from ruins still stands in Ouro Preto. Now owned by a woman who only comes to Ouro Preto a few times a year, the Casa Mariana attracts a few visitors. In 1999, when the local Federal University hosted a special conference on Elizabeth Bishop, a sign was placed in front of the house, and quite a few academics visited the building, marveled at its beauty and sturdiness. 
Unless the current owner changes her mind and no longer allows visitors, you can still go there and walk slowly through the cool corridors, look at the bed where Bishop supposedly slept, examine the glassed-in wall rectangle in the living-room where the plaster has been removed to show the method of construction of the house. You can chat with the maids, who will talk about “Elizabeth” with such a tenderness you might think they knew her personally. And, if you have enough money and are in the mood, you can contact the owner and buy the house. The last time I checked, half a million dollars bought it. The price might have changed. Elizabeth Bishop has not.
1) The work done by Gizelia Maria Abreu Machado, analyzing both the diary and Bishop’s reading of the diary is of great importance to anyone who is interested in Bishop’s work and in matters of translation and identity.
2) The conference was organized by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Federal University of Ouro Preto and took place from May 19-21 in 1999.
Brown, Ashley. “Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil”. Elizabeth Bishop and her Art. Donald Hall, Ed. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 223-240.
Machado, Gizelia Maria Abreu. O bruto e o lapidado; Uma leitura dos processos de formação e de representação de identidade. M.A. Thesis, Federal University of Ouro Preto, Mariana, 1999.
Merrill, James. “Elizabeth Bishop. 1911- 1979.” Elizabeth Bishop and her Art. Donald Hall, Ed. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 259-262.
Przybycien, Regina. “A geografia poética brasileira de Elizabeth Bishop.” Quando o tio Sam pegou no tamborim: uma perspectiva transcultural do Brasil. Brasília: Editora Plano, 2000. 193-222.
Eva Bueno is from Paraná and currently lives and teaches in San Antonio, Texas. She occasionally writes books and essays on Latin American and Brazilian literature, popular culture, women writers, politics, and the meaning of life.