Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia in Brazil

By Axelrod, Steven Gould | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia in Brazil


Axelrod, Steven Gould, Papers on Language & Literature


Elizabeth Bishop lived in Brazil more or less continuously from 1951 to 1966 and then intermittently to 1971. The country functioned as a necessary escape from the deprived and anxious world of her early childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Yet her new life was haunted by her past. Although Brazil permitted her to think, to feel, and to experience in ways that were novel for her, that very difference impelled her to reapproach the old, to release from repression some of the memories that had seemed too painful to face in North America. Moreover, Brazil represented a restoration of the comfort she had experienced only fleetingly as a child. The country therefore assumed a complex symbiotic relationship in Bishop's imagination with its climatic, cultural, and psychological opposite, the North Atlantic. In Brazil, Bishop began to construct, for virtually the first time, literary texts that evoked scenes from her Nova Scotian past. Her physical journey south initiated a parallel aesthetic journey north.

Although Bishop had alluded to Nova Scotia in a handful of texts written prior to her arrival in Rio de Janeiro on November 30, 1951,[1] she recurrently and at times obsessively reconstructed Nova Scotian landscape and memory in texts written over the next twenty years in Brazil. These include some of her most intense stories and poems. In tropical Rio Bishop found that the summer "mildew" magically transformed itself into the "mildew" of "old books and old papers" and old memories, and that in such an atmosphere her long-lost "Uncle Neddy" might suddenly be "here" ("Memories of Uncle Neddy," Collected Prose 228-29). From places like Petropolis and Ouro Preto she could assert of Nova Scotia so convincingly that we feel it too: "Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it" ("Poem," Complete Poems 176). Freud argued that the homelike and the unhomelike have an eerie tendency to include each other ("The 'Uncanny'" 224-26). In Bishop's texts the far and the near similarly intertwine in what Thomas Travisano has aptly termed "the homely exoticism of childhood" (168). For the childhood home was never closer, never more familiar, and never more strange than in Brazil.

If Bishop's stay in Brazil was colored by her Nova Scotian memories, the memories were equally informed by the ambiguities of her Brazilian experience. Just as she was somewhat remote as a visitor in Brazil, reluctant to speak Portuguese and to mingle with others (Fountain and Brazeau 178-79), so she was remote as a traveler to her Nova Scotian past, skittish about people, events, motives, and emotions. She wished to conduct her journey back into her psychic landscape as though behind a thick transparent pane, so that she might not see too much or feel too intensely. Renee Curry has suggested that Bishop wished to be "in" but not "of" Brazil,[2] and in a similar way Bishop wished to visit the past only on certain conditions of mastery and safety. She maintained an almost Hemingwayesque reserve. She wanted to protect her present self--gifted, fragile, and egotistical--against the encroachment of all environments, geographical or recollected. Although it might be argued that Bishop's lack of intimacy with Brazil and its people reflected a late colonial strategy, it must be noted that she withheld herself from her own personal past in a very similar way.

Homi Bhabha has stated that the object of colonial discourse is "at once an object of desire and derision," arising in part out of both "phobia and fetish" (67, 72). Bishop in effect colonized her past, much as she attempted to colonize and to control her present. Her colonizing urge had less to do with nationality than with opportunity; it was her acquired and habitual method to secure a self that was perpetually threatening to unravel. Although we can easily see that she made remembered people, places, and events into objects of desire, phobia, and fetish, we may find it more difficult to detect derision.

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