“The House We Live In”: Elizabeth Bishop on the Big Screen
November 7, 2013 | by Magdalena Edwards
When I first traveled to Rio de Janeiro to research all things Elizabeth Bishop, in 2002, I did not understand how or why everyone—from university professors to taxi drivers, artisans, artists, and entrepreneurs—had something to say about a poeta norteamericana. I quickly learned that I had to spend less time explaining why I was in Brazil and more time listening to stories and parsing through advice on how to find the things I might be looking for, new clues to understanding Bishop’s creative period in the country with “too many waterfalls.” And when I went to Petrópolis to look for the house, a Fazenda Samambaia, that Bishop shared with her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares, the architect of aristocratic means who envisioned and built Rio de Janeiro’s Parque do Flamengo after New York’s Central Park, I am proud to say I made it as far as the front gate. I knocked and the housekeeper cracked it open and said that the lady of the house was not at home, she was traveling abroad and there was no way to allow me inside, not even for a quick look at the garden.
It turns out that Bruno Barreto has a story, too, of what led him to make Reaching for the Moon (2013), a film about Bishop and Lota inspired by a bestselling book that was first published in Brazil in 1995. Bruno’s mother, Lucy Barreto, one of the film’s producers, has long loved Bishop’s poetry and once met Bishop and Lota at a lunch in Samambaia, years ago; she, Barreto’s mother, was the one who bought the rights to Carmen L. Oliveira’s bestseller Flores raras e banalíssimas: A história de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop, a novelistic account composed with details from personal interviews and much archival research. At first, Bruno Barreto was not interested in telling Bishop and Lota’s love story, and then something clicked. He wanted to make a film about loss.
In Reaching for the Moon, the natural splendor of Samambaia adds to the intensity of the drama. In addition to writing poems and being the loneliest person who ever lived, Bishop beds her lover, gets drunk, and behaves badly, over and over again. Barreto wanted to call the film The Art of Losing, but the distributors refused; no one would go see it with such a downer for a title. In Portuguese the film is titled Flores Raras, or “strange flowers,” taken from Oliveira’s book. The English title calls to mind the Irving Berlin song, included on the film’s soundtrack as performed by Ella Fitzgerald. The phrase “reaching for the moon” refers to the towering lampposts Lota designed to illuminate the Parque do Flamengo at night while creating the effect of moonlight. The moon lights up the opening stanzas of Bishop’s Rio de Janeiro poem “Going to the Bakery,” not least because she offsets the dimness of “our rationed electricity”:
Instead of gazing at the sea / the way she does on other nights,
the moon looks down the Avenida
Copacabana at the sights,
new to her but ordinary.
Both Lota’s and Bishop’s moons provide vital light. In this way, the film’s English title underscores the narrative about two artists daring to fall in love.
Reaching for the Moon is set in 1950s and sixties Brazil, mostly at Lota’s tropical estate in Samambaia, with key scenes in glittering Rio steeped in all her politics, a lovers’ rift in Ouro Prêto, and opening and closing chapters set in New York, where Bishop and Robert Lowell discuss her poem “One Art” while sitting on a bench facing Central Park’s boat pond, a visual metaphor that reappears throughout the film and points to the possibility of freedom and companionship found through travel, both geographic and interpersonal. By the closing scene, the villanelle “One Art” has earned all its lines and Bishop recites them to Lowell. “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love)…”
Bruno Barreto’s version of Lota and Bishop’s love story is a film-poem with a tight formal arc and symmetry that falls apart. In so many ways, Reaching for the Moon—or Flores Raras or The Art of Losing, the title Barreto originally wanted—is, in fact, a translation into film of Bishop’s villanelle “One Art.”
I emerged from my first viewing of Reaching for the Moon, at the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles in July, with the conviction that Bishop’s steady gaze on Brazil, the country where she lived for more than fifteen years, is undoubtedly reciprocal. That is, Brazil’s artists and writers gaze in return at Bishop with curiosity, passion, and wonder. It is a productive and pleasurable exchange.
Bishop published many poems set in Brazil, including the first half of her book Questions of Travel (1965). She translated poets such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Manuel Bandeira, she wrote the text for the Life World Library’s edition of Brazil (1962), and she co-edited the bilingual collection An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry with Emanuel Brasil (sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and published by Wesleyan University Press in 1972). Her engagement with local writers while she lived in Brazil bears study, and one hopes for more chapters like the one titled “Better than Borges” in Benjamin Moser’s Why This World (OUP 2009), the biography of the Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector, who was Bishop’s neighbor in Rio and whose trio of stories as translated by Bishop appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1964.
Where do we see the reciprocal gaze at work, trained on the North American poet by the artists of her adoptive country? The Rio-based poet Paulo Henriques Britto has translated a substantive selection of Bishop’s poems into Portuguese, published in 1999 and 2001 in two bilingual books by Companhia das Letras. The 2001 play Um porto para Elizabeth Bishop by Marta Góes is an award-winning dramatic monologue delivered by the character Elizabeth Bishop in Portuguese, and has been staged numerous times in Brazil, as well as on Broadway in 2006 with Amy Irving playing the poet. The English title is A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, and Amy Irving, who translated the play into English with Marta Góes and Julia Beirao, is the ex-wife of Bruno Barreto. Carmen Oliveira’s bestselling book Flores raras e banalíssimas, which inspired Barreto’s film, was translated into English by Neil K. Besner and published in 2001 by Rugters University Press with a foreword by the poet Lloyd Schwartz.
Actress Miranda Otto’s Bishop is beautiful, severe, anxious, and electric. Reviewers have described her as translucent. How Otto manages to give us a Bishop who is sensual, shy, and completely self-possessed as the poet nicknamed “the famous eye” by Robert Lowell is a testament to her performance. Glória Pires as Lota is a force, seductive and full throated. Her hair, which Bishop washes while Lota soaks in the perfect white bathtub set against Samambaia’s lush foliage, has Samson-like qualities. I wouldn’t have minded if Bishop had washed it another few times, with the poem “The Shampoo” as accompaniment.
There is a third woman I must mention: Mary Morse, Bishop’s friend from Boston who is Lota’s lover before Bishop arrives on the scene, is played to a plaintive tune by Tracy Middendorf. The love triangle persists throughout the movie, because despite Lota's rather cruelly courting Bishop with Mary underfoot, Mary continues to live at Samambaia at Lota’s urging, and Lota helps her adopt a baby. As Mary puts it, “I have no other option than to love you.” Mary has her chance to steer the ship towards the end of the film, a sinking ship driven by her unflinching loyalty to Lota and her distrust-turned-disdain for Bishop.
The scene that I find most striking is in the very middle of the film and Bishop is not even in it. This is when Lota, Mary, and the housekeeper Joana go to pick up a baby from a poor family that has at least eight young children, another on the way, and no father in sight. Lota takes out her red leather wallet and extracts some bills for the baby’s mother. The gesture is damning. Mary is unsure about the transaction, but Lota and Joana insist that this is the best option for the child, who will be given to someone else or go hungry or worse if Mary does not take her. The trio returns home with the child in Mary’s arms, and meanwhile Bishop is holed up in her room. We see her put a pillow over her head when the baby’s cries ensue, and she emerges only when it’s clear that it has not occurred to anyone else to poke a larger hole in the baby bottle’s nipple so the child can drink. Bishop, it is clear, does not like babies in general and is displeased and jealous about the arrival of this particular child. The love triangle takes a turn with Lota as the grandmother figure, Mary as the mother, and Bishop as the auntie who gets too tipsy too often. In fact, Bruno Barreto relied on Mary Morse’s adopted daughter Monica for details about the lives of her mother, Bishop, and Lota. The gaze is reciprocal, in every direction. And yet.
In Bishop’s letters to Lowell, the question of children and having a child of her own is not straightforward at all. In a letter Bishop sent from Samambaia on December 5, 1953 (two years into her stay in Brazil), she writes, “The idea of a child overwhelms me a little—but then, people do have them. Here I’m getting rather against them, since everyone has at least eight, rich or poor, sick or healthy, kill the mother or not, with complete abandon.” And then on April 1, 1958: “Lota is magnificent with child-problems. I suspect it’s because she’s had so much practice with me.” Bishop’s description of the mother-child dynamic between her and Lota is understood, but the pair also had a regular stream of children staying with them for this or that reason, children they cared for and doted on. On February 2, 1959, she writes:
We have the three oldest “grandchildren” here now—one reason I haven’t written, I suppose, although I do stay up in the estudio quite a bit. They are angel children, really, but with the cook’s two it makes five, and quite a lot of time is consumed in getting milk, giving baths, etc. I am even teaching the oldest one her letters. Since my Portuguese rather baffles her our lessons are very strange and exhausting on both sides. Lota is a wonderful grandma, I must say.
Bishop writes specifically about enjoying her participation in Mary’s motherhood project in her March 1, 1961, letter to Lowell:
Then our Bostonian friend, Mary Morse, went and adopted a 2-month old baby—now 4-months. She has been living with us until her new house, near here, is ready, so we’ve had a small baby in the house all this time, too—which is very occupying, since we all (including the maid, cook, and cook’s husband) behave rather foolishly about this nice little orphan bastard—who is a happy, healthy, laughing baby, thank God. I met Albertinho, the cook’s husband, this morning, carrying booties in one hand and a diaper in the other—perfectly happy. Brazilians all do like babies—like Italians—and every proletário for miles around has been to call. Mary took her and registered her, paying a bribe of about $2.50, “Monica Stearns Morse—father unknown, mother spinster”—this will look fine on her US passport.
And in a letter written two years later in March 1963, Bishop describes how much they miss the little girl Monica after watching her during Mary’s travels: “Mary finally got back to claim her child—away a month—and now we miss Monica dreadfully.”
Bishop’s 1965 collection Questions of Travel, which she dedicated to Lota, has children everywhere: poems with children from the first section “Brazil” include “Squatter’s Children,” “Electrical Storm,” “The Riverman,” and “The Burglar of Babylon” (which was made into a picture book published by FSG in 1968); and “Manners,” “Sestina,” “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and “Filling Station” comprise those from the second section “Elsewhere.” Bishop introduces the children who populate her poems with naturalness, with careful attention, with love, which is not to say that they avoid the awful things in the world. How could it be otherwise when she and Lota lived in the magical house described in “Song for the Rainy Season”:
Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
Magdalena Edwards is working on a book about poet-translators across the Americas. She is the co-editor of "Around the World," a new section at the Los Angeles Review of Books.