Wearing tan slacks and a plain shirt, the poet Elizabeth Bishop entered the crowded Brazilian port of Santos on a damp, drizzly morning in November 1951, glimpsing warehouses painted in fading colors of pink, yellow and blue. Marianne Moore had seen her off in New York with the gift of a pot of white chrysanthemums. It wouldn’t be a long visit, or so the two friends assumed, never suspecting that Bishop would make a home in Brazil for the next 17 years, mostly with the charismatic architect Lota de Macedo Soares, whom she had met in 1942 in New York.
A current covet soon to make its way to my bookshelf is the just released first novel of memoirist Michael Sledge, The More I Owe You. The book, which is garnering significant praise, imagines the relationship between the poet Elizabeth Bishop and her lover, socialite and architect Lota de Macedo Soares during their time together in Brazil in the 1950’s. Both women struggle with their demons as, from a remote mountain compound in Samambaia (where Lota has designed and built a glass house), Elizabeth wins the Pulitzer Prize and Lota rises to power in the turbulent political sphere of Rio de Janeiro.
“A novel of extraordinary beauty,
intimacy, and such consummate tenderness
for its complex Elizabeth
that one wonders how Sledge managed
to slide so close to her soul.
A gorgeous meditation
on enduring love, damage,
and what it can be to be happy,
for however brief a moment.”
“Racked by too little writing, too much drinking and unhealthy doses of self-recrimination, Bishop needed a change of air. Her recent stay at Yaddo, the artists’ community in upstate New York, had been a disaster of alcohol and procrastination, and in Manhattan she had struck one of Soares’s friends as a “bird that had flown into the house and was dashing itself against the windows.”
as the prism
all of life
“Once in Rio de Janeiro, Bishop is soon whisked off to Soares’s home near Petrópolis, about 40 miles distant. She eats the yellow-orange fruit of the cashew, falls ill from a severe allergic reaction and is nursed back to health and poetic productivity by Soares, now her lover, who invites her to share the enormous glass house she has been building on the side of a cliff.”
“Sledge’s cinematic novel
is as lush and fecund as the jungle itself,
with its innumerable fruits, ferns, and hidden dangers,
leaving readers with the indelible image
of a brilliant, tormented woman
writing tirelessly through the tropic night
by the light of a kerosene lamp . . .
Strong and intoxicating.”
I feel a real pull for this book and its emblematic prominence of white flowers, flowers that easily bruise and discolor as do the fragility of precious alliances. How hopeful, the presence of white chrysanthemums, a gift heralding new beginnings, joyous in their meaning for Bishop as she embarks on her voyage to New York. Then again, white blooms appear toward the end of the novel, not as a gift, but as the element of ritual and reminder.
“On New Year’s Day in 1968, Sledge’s Elizabeth Bishop, now living in San Francisco, buys as many white flowers as her arms can hold and wades into the Pacific Ocean, dropping the blossoms, one at a time, into the water. They disappear, caught up by the current that pulls at her feet.”
White Chrysanthemums Via Wildlife Ranger