Elizabeth

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!
I wonder why, in my sixty plus years, I had never encountered her. I thought I was across all the great poets, particularly those of the last century. But her name had never entered my orbit. Despite her literary prominence she had remained invisible to me all this time – that is, until the movie. Then I had to move from screen to page – and with the wonders of the digital age, her stunning verse has opened up to me. Of course the movie gave what I discovered in the ether some added lustre, but it only concentrated on one of her two great love affairs. Here’s what I found out of this gem of a composer of words.
Poet Elizabeth Bishop was gay – lesbian at a time when it was shrouded off to the sidelines. Perhaps not regarded as being as prurient as its male counterpart, participants were still either shunned or treated with overheated curiosity. Born in 1911, Elizabeth had a fraught childhood that left her somewhat scarred and wary of the world. Her father had a premature demise when she was small, also causing her mother’s already fragile mental state to collapse and become as dead to the child, as a parent, as her spouse. Elizabeth had physical ailments to contend with, as well, all her life – asthma, a nut allergy and eczema. Despite her semi-orphan status she was a gifted student at school, discovering at an early age to use written words to their advantage. With them she could see her way forward in the world.

elizabeth-bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

 
Early on she formed relationships with Mary McCarthy and fellow poet Marianne Moore. Her collection of verse, ‘North and South’, was picked up for publication, eventually coming to the attention of Robert Lowell. They met; he liked what he saw and read, so paved the way for her into the upper echelons of the American authorly establishment.
In 1951, at the age of forty, her life veered off in another direction. She fell in love twice over. She had an urge to see the Amazon and travelled to South America to do so. Here she became enamoured of Brazil – its culture and people. Simultaneously she became deeply enthralled by one of its leading citizens. Her heart was stolen by the prominent architect Lota de Macedo Soares. With this duo of addiction providing her first true happiness in life, her poetry soared, so much so that her signature collection, ‘North and South – A Cold Spring’, featuring poems old and new, won the 1956 Pulitzer.

lota

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

 
It is this period of the wordsmith’s life that the Bruno Barreto directed movie, ‘Reaching for the Moon’, focuses on. Delicate rose Elizabeth meets the swarthily feisty Lota and her world is turned on its axis. They fall intensely in love and into bed – although the film’s handling of the latter is almost chastely realised. As Elizabeth’s health and mental state improve, if not her alcoholism – so Lota’s does the opposite. She has been caught up in Rio’s toxic politics, whilst trying to complete her dream, the Parque do Flamengo – a beach-side swathe of parkland – now one of the world heritage listed city’s prime attractions. The relationship between the two women disintegrates into a fug of booze, depression, adultery and ultimately, for Lota, suicide – after fifteen years with her poetess.

reach
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 
The movie is based on a Brazilian best-seller, ‘Rare and Commonplace Flowers’. With this film their story will now reach a wider audience, for reportedly the book, with its convoluted machinations of the ruling class of the city of Ipanema and Copacabana, is impenetrable to anyone other than that nation’s readers. Aussie actress Miranda Otto and local fellow thespian Gloria Pires shine in this cinematic offering, but the narrative itself is largely paint by numbers. The fecund surroundings of the lovers does cast a spell. Of course, Rio cannot be otherwise than a star turn in the piece. In this place the two women’s love is perhaps more readily accepted than in northern climes, although they still have to be on their guard.
Times change – and despite the worst efforts of our unfortunate Prime Minster, the world is now more comfortable with non-hetero activities. ‘Reaching the Moon’ is of another time and place. Not a great movie by any stretch, but well worth time spent on it for its tale of two remarkable women.
After Soares’ passing Bishop gave up on Brazil and returned permanently to the US in 1970. She took up painting. By now she had met Alice Methfessel and loved her for the remainder of her life – the following poem is dedicated to Alice. The poet also took up painting and left us the worse for her passing in 1979.

 
Breakfast Song

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavoured mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

‘Reaching for the Moon’ trailer = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=654X8V2bwA0

bishop4

Bishop’s art work

 

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