: Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil Letters and Poems :

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an excerpt by Joelle Biele

Appropriately, a letter-poem to friend Linda Nemer is the beginning of Bishop’s goodbye to Brazil. It would be the first in a series of poems that includes “Crusoe in England,” “Santarém,” and “Pink Dog,” revisions of her original fascination with travel and South America. With the opportunity afforded by time and space, Bishop altered the clear-eyed wonder of her first poems with an ironic, questioning view. In a gesture back to her former self, Bishop typed a letter-poem about her arrival at Harvard’s Kirkland House for Nemer. Written in Portuguese because Nemer did not speak much English, it may be one of the only poems she set down in that language. Dated Wednesday, March 24th, 1970, the poem, in my translation, reads:

In the bathroom
hot water drips from the tap.
But the tiles, on the wall and floor,
“decorated” in a careful green,
are better laid
than in Brazil.
In fact, they don’t look real.

The water is so hot
I burned my hand.
All the lights work.
The bed is a dock; the pillows
give me asthma.

Tonight there is something
called “a mixer”.
Students, males and females,
are mixing, mixing,
in the large, dead halls.

Of the orchestra,
I hear
tump – tump – brrump…
many times, then
two final tumps.

Re-reading your letter,
I was in-mixturedly

Ambivalence swells under the poem’s muffled sounds and shuffling feet. The image of the student room is spare and direct in its dry humor. Bishop’s typical understatement is on the surface with the word play of “in-mixturedly.” The poem is a self-conscious statement about her method not unlike the urgent, punning exclamation “(Write it!)” at the end of “One Art.” Not only is it a goodbye to Brazil, but it is also a goodbye to a process. Memory began to outweigh geography as her subject, and her poems fill with a concentrated sense of loss and wit. When Bishop stopped using letters as a way into her poems, she wrote the most openly expressive poems of her career.