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Rare and Commonplace Flowers, a Brazilian bestseller, tells the story of two women. Elizabeth Bishop, the Pulitzer Prize–winning American poet, sought artistic inspiration in Brazil. There she met and fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-trained Brazilian architect. This dual biography, brilliantly researched, and written in a lively, novelistic style, follows their relationship from 1951 to 1967, the time when the two lived together in Brazil. The fact that these two women had an intimate ...
Rare and Commonplace Flowers, a Brazilian bestseller, tells the story of two women. Elizabeth Bishop, the Pulitzer Prize–winning American poet, sought artistic inspiration in Brazil. There she met and fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-trained Brazilian architect. This dual biography, brilliantly researched, and written in a lively, novelistic style, follows their relationship from 1951 to 1967, the time when the two lived together in Brazil. The fact that these two women had an intimate relationship caused an uproar when it first came to public notice.
The relationship started out happily, yet ended tragically. In 1961, Soares became increasingly obsessed with building and administering Flamengo Park, Rio de Janeiro’s equivalent to New York City’s Central Park. Though she had been the driving force behind the park’s inception, the ultimate credit that was due her was stripped away because of petty politics and chicanery. As Soares’s career declined and Bishop’s flourished, their relationship crumbled.
Rare and Commonplace Flowers is a tale of two artists and two cultures, offering unique perspectives on both women and their work. Carmen L. Oliveira provides an unparalleled level of detail and insight, due to both her familiarity with Brazil as well as her access to the country’s artistic elite, many of whom had a direct connection with Bishop and Soares. Rare pictures of the two artists and their home bring this unique story to life.
2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, Biography.
Copyright © 2002 Carmen L. Oliveira.
Translation copyright © 2002 Neil K. Besner.
All rights reserved.
A WHITE-HAIRED WOMAN WITH SAD EYES rereads the first two lines of a poem that she has been trying, interminably, to finish:
Of course I may be remembering it all wrong
after, after—how many years?
After how many years, in fact?
She looks out the window at a beautiful view of the port. There's little movement on the docks. On one of the walls of the room, the scowling face with blue eyes and horns bares its teeth. In every corner, piles of books.
It was in 1951. November, 1951. Twenty-seven years ago!
She'd been going through a bad time in her life.
She'd hated her job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her stay at Yaddo, to write, had been a disaster. Since North and South had been published to good reviews in 1946, she hadn't been able to write enough poems for a second book. She was frustrated. She'd spent her life roaming the world—Paris, Casablanca, London, Mexico City, Florence, Port-au-Prince, Key West. Lately she'd been in New York, moving from hotel to hotel. She couldn't produce. She was drinking herself into abjectness.
Not knowing what to do with herself, she decided to take a ship and simply go to sea. Alone, since she was, in fact, alone.
She was forty.
She wanted to write. She wanted to make money. She wanted friends. She wanted to believe that love could return in her life.
The ship's first stop was at Santos. The port was a letdown: feeble pink warehouses, bags of coffee, some uncertain palms, and oppressive heat.
But Santos wasn't her destination; Rio de Janeiro was.
She knew two American women who lived there—Pearl Kazin, the sister of Bishop's friend Alfred, and Mary Morse, whom Bishop had met in New York in 1942, in the company of a Brazilian woman with many names and surnames.
Dear friend, sit down. The tale is long, and sad.
ON NOVEMBER 30, 1951, Mary Morse took Elizabeth Bishop to the apartment in Leme that she was sharing with Lota de Macedo Soares, on the eleventh floor, looking out onto the beach side, Avenida Atlantica.
With no sense of the eventual implications for her life of the gesture, Mary made a friendly offer: "The apartment is yours for as long as you'd like to stay in Rio."
Bishop thanked her tersely. She didn't want Morse to sense how at sea she felt.
The inevitable occurred between two shy people: neither was able to find a subject to open a conversation.
Mary opened the window so that Bishop could look out on the view. Bishop liked ocean views. She said this one was especially lovely. Then she looked around the room, admiring the exceptionally good taste. She liked the spare decor; she liked the paintings. She liked the Alexander Calder mobile. She particularly liked the two modern chairs.
"Lota designed those."
"And where is Lota?" asked Bishop.
"She's in Samambaia. She couldn't come because of the house."
Bishop took mental note of a lovely word, samambaia, and turned her gaze to Mary's pleasant face.
"Because of the house."
"We're building a house in the mountains, in Petrópolis."
Bishop wanted to know more about Lota.
Mary explained that she'd met her by chance, in 1941, shortly before meeting Bishop herself. Near the end of her dancing career, Mary had been going back to New York. On the ship she'd met Lota, who was part of Portinari's entourage; he had been selected to paint the murals in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Lota loved art. In New York, she immersed herself in the Museum of Modern Art, going through it arm in arm with Florence Horn, a journalist with the magazine Fortune who, as Lota saw it, embraced Brazil almost too ardently. Inspired by the scope of the museum's cultural programs, Lota was determined to create the same system in Brazil. When Mary came to Brazil the following year, 1942, she was amazed to see how Lota had already formed an association of Brazilian artists and intellectuals to spread the national culture—with statutes, an advisory board, and all the rest. With the same determination, Lota invited Mary to live with her in the Leme apartment. Mary accepted. That had been ten years ago. Now Bishop must excuse her, but Mary had to leave before dark because of the road. She'd call later to schedule the day they'd bring Bishop to see Samambaia. She wished her a good stay in Rio de Janeiro.
BISHOP WAS DEFINITELY not enjoying Rio de Janeiro.
The panorama seen from the window was lovely. But the city was terribly hot and—how to put it?—slovenly.
From early on the beach would turn into a wasps' nest of people. Dark men in bathing suits played soccer all day in the middle of the street.
Instead of soothing her, the mass of people ambling along the streets of Leme produced the opposite effect. And the middle of Copacabana was another wasps' nest, adding to her sense of aimlessness. She felt paralyzed.
Sweating in only her slip, she worked at a poem in the apartment on Antônio Vieira Street:
... Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world
She was happy when the day arrived that Mary and Lota were supposed to take her to their house in the mountains.
At the time arranged, a red Jaguar with the top down pulled up to the curb. A short woman got out gracefully and smiled at Bishop. As she approached, Bishop saw that she was a good deal darker than Bishop had remembered. With her right hand, Lota shook Bishop's vigorously; with her left she caressed her shoulder. She looked into Bishop's eyes.
"Shall we go?"
Not used to this kind of contact, Bishop didn't know what to do next. Lota opened the car door, motioning Bishop to get in and sit down. Then she pulled away and they were in flight. Soon Lota had extricated herself from the buses and other cars and they were climbing a mountain, in the midst of dazzling scenery. On the left, the mountains followed each other under massed banks of clouds; to the right, the road was alive with stretches of brightly colored flowers.
"Maria-sem-vergonha—shameless Mary," Lota explained.
Bishop was delighted, wanted to stop and jump out of the car, but she was too shy to ask.
When she came to again, she saw that they were passing through an enchanting little town, its streets lined by solemn mansions, with well-kept gardens adorned with hydrangeas.
Lota explained that the emperor had chosen this town to build the holiday residence of the royal family. The last thing that would have occurred to Bishop in Rio as she dodged a soccer game in the street was that this country also had kings, princes, and princesses. She reminded herself to ask more about this subject later.
Suddenly, everything changed. They were pointed down a narrow and potholed road. While she deftly maneuvered around rocks and holes, Lota kept on talking casually:
"This stretch will get better." —Zoom— "I inherited the grounds of Samambaia from my mother ten years ago. First came the partition, after long delays; I had to divide everything with my sister into sections equal to the millimeter. Then I decided to divide it up into first-class lots. This process is also never ending; it involves a mountain of paperwork. I've only just been able to begin building the house. Later I'm going to take care of this road."—Zoom.
Bishop wasn't worried about the bouncing. The road was lovely! It had been cut through the middle of the forest, the most exuberant thing she'd seen this close up. Large trees gestured at each other, brandishing pendants. High up in the branches, the bright red of the bromeliads stood out.
As they rounded a curve, something ungainly and afflicted suddenly decided to cross the road. Bishop opened her mouth for the first time.
"A lizard!" she cried, with childlike joy.
However, they carried on as if this were nothing unusual, and Lota announced that they were almost there.
Bishop glanced casually to one side and tensed up. Oh dear: she could have sworn that she'd seen a camel. It was a camel beside a hedge, beyond a shadow of doubt.
The driver saw Bishop's surprise and said playfully: "Don't panic. My neighbor buys animals for the zoo. They stay here until they get sent there."
The only thing missing now was for a rabbit in a hurry to appear, checking its watch.
The Jaguar was parked.
"We've arrived," Lota proclaimed.
Bishop got out and was greeted by a capering dog.
She looked around: what an incredible place! In the distance, the bluish mountains. All around, the forest. In front, powerful, an enormous slab of granite.
"This is my house," Lota's voice came from farther ahead.
"Good morning. Did you have a good trip?"
Mary appeared from somewhere and took Bishop to the house that was being built.
Two half-naked men were perched on top of a wall.
Guided by Lota, Bishop traversed the site from top to bottom, stepping on cement that had been abundantly decorated by dog prints. This will be here, that will be there, Lota pointed out enthusiastically. A gentle touch on the arm indicated that it was time for Bishop to keep moving. Lota explained how she had planned the house, with someone whose name Bishop did not grasp. In a daze, the American woman dimly understood that a house without walls was to be erected there; or else it was a corridor, around which there was to be a house. She was arrested by the sight of Lota's lovely hands, which she used generously as she spoke.
"Here in Brazil, things are a bit—empirical. But in the end, everything turns out right," she was assured by the owner of the hands.
"LET'S HAVE a little walk," Lota said.
Bishop was about to mention that her suitcase was still in the car, but Lota was already on her way. Bishop and Mary followed.
A trail led to the waterfall. Bishop regretted not bringing her diary. She listed to herself the variety of colors: dark green, bluish green, olive, purple, rust, yellow, another yellow, blood red, white dappled with green. She heard the hidden tremor of the waterfall. Lota guided them. "Careful—thorns? She...
Excerpted from Rare and Commonplace Flowers by Carmen L. Oliveira. Copyright © 2002 by Carmen L. Oliveira. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.