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In Rio, Tracing Elizabeth Bishop’s Footsteps…

Aerial view of Rio.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)

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The Rio I entered this summer differs enormously from the one Elizabeth Bishop — the mid twentieth century American poet whose footsteps I began to haltingly trace through a week-long trip to the city — entered in 1951 on a cruise circumnavigating the South American continent via the port of Santos. Whereas hers was on the brink of modernization, today’s Brazil has the sixth highest GDP, with the fifth expected by the end of the year. Whereas hers was a site of political assassinations and Cold War intrigues, today’s is a model of stability: 2002 witnessed the peaceful transition of the presidency to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, as he is popularly known, not only marked a similar transition when he exited power in 2011, but achieved near universal acclaim for being, in the words of Time magazine, “the most successful politician of his time.” Under the tenure of his successor, Dilma Rousseff—the first female president in Brazil—it should be little surprise, then, that the largest country in South America has become a model in the region. Securing the World Cup in 2014—the first time the event has been held in South America since 1978—and the Olympics in 2016, beating out Chicago, Tokyo, and Madrid, to become the first South American country to host the event, period, it has become a major player on the world stage.

Lapa Steps, Rio.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)

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But despite this emergence I found that there is much Bishop would recognize in the capital city: the scaffolding of the favelas, the scant remnants of Portugal in civic and religious buildings, the dull, ash grey modernism of Nieymeyer, the riotous samba spilling out into the streets of Lapa, a bohemian district with pale pastel facades and the famed Lapa Steps, encrusted with multicolored tiles, that bridge the neighborhood to Santa Teresa. And more, there are personal markers Bishop would surely return to and which I sought out through my peregrinations: the apartment in Leme she and her partner Lota De Mercedo Soares took when Lota was supervising the construction of Flamengo Park, itself still a major part of the cityspace; the primary home of Saambia the couple shared an hour outside of Rio in Petropolis, untouched in the private hands of a Bishop admirer. Even the growth, although headily outpacing any from the post-Vargas era, would not be totally alien, having been something Bishop observed in the construction of Brasilia.

Nor would the police presence I observed surveilling in the shadow of such progress, with police officers seemingly on the corner of every city block and even more pronounced in the favelas, surprise her. (“Burglar of Babylon,” a poem exploring the life of one fugitive’s subjection to the panopticon of the state, figured this all out long ago, I couldn’t help remark to myself. ) Nor would the folk art, arrayed in the stalls of the Feira Hippie de Ipanema, fail to attract her magpie eye for such artifacts. Nor could the demographics of what, in her own time, Gilberto Freyre sentimentally called a “multiracial democracy,” allow her to avoid thinking about race relations in her own country and more generally.

Like the Key West of my larger project, and where Bishop also spent a considerable amount of time, Rio and the larger Brazil she explored over the course of twenty years was a mess in precisely the way her aesthetic needed. Profuse and tropical in its energies, it unsettled her famed restraint. Teeming with contradictory social forces that the political order only flimsily papered over, it forced her to think through questions or race, class, history, and gender in ways even her friend Robert Lowell, a self-appointed poet of history, scarcely imagined. And with its spirit of tolerance toward sexual difference, even greater now, Brazil allowed her not only to write, but to love. As Bishop herself said, Lota gave her the first stable home she ever really knew.

In turn, even after Bishop left all her homes there in the late sixties and died in Boston at the end of the seventies, Brazil has taken up the poet in various ways, even if she herself rarely ventured into Brazilian public life. Most recently, 2011 witnessed the translation of her poems into Portuguese by noted scholar and poet, Paulo Henriques Britto, who I had a chance to discuss Bishop with, while 2013 will witness the release of a film entitled “The Art of Losing” on Bishop and Lota’s relationship. William Logan, a poet and critic, once rhetorically asked if we could imagine Bishop without Brazil. It seems, in some measure, Brazil can’t imagine itself without her either.

The author, Marvin Campbell, and the Rio skyline.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)

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Lapa steps, detail. (All text and photos by Marvin Campbell.)

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