Leide Daiane de Almeida Oliveira
Mestranda em inglês: Estudos Linguísticos e Literários (UFSC)
ABSTRACT: This essay aims to analyze and compare the trajectory of two great Canadian writers: Elizabeth Bishop and PK Page. Both had the opportunity to live in Brazil and relate their experiences through their respective literary productions. The corpus of this essay consists of poems written by Bishop while living in Brazil, some describe the exuberant nature found in this country and others point to social inequalities; and the diary of PK Page, in which her strongest impressions on Brazil were registered.
KEYWORDS: Elizabeth Bishop, PK Page, poetry.
RESUMO: Este ensaio tem por objetivo analisar e comparar a trajetória de duas grandes escritoras canadenses: Elizabeth Bishop e P.K. Page. Ambas tiveram a oportunidade de morar no Brasil e relatar suas experiências através de suas respectivas produções literárias. O corpus deste ensaio é composto por poemas escrito por Bishop quando morava no Brasil, alguns descrevem a natureza exuberante encontrada neste país e outros apontam para as desigualdades sociais; e o diário de P.K Page, no qual suas mais fortes impressiones sobre o Brasil foram registradas.
PALAVRAS CHAVES: Elizabeth Bishop, P.K. Page, poesia.
It seems inevitable to get some familiarization with the work of Elizabeth Bishop and P.K Page without being tempted by the desire of comparison. For many reasons such desire is comprehensible: they were both Canadian writers, they were born in the same decade, and each one stayed during a long period in Brazil. Along their stay in Brazil some changes have taken place in their literary production. In Bishop’s poetry it can be perceived a kind of movement in relation to theme, once the first material for her poetry was mostly related to nature and its dazzling beauty. What seems to happen to her poetry, as she starts having experiences in Brazil is a more profound engagement with some social problems. P.K. Page, on the other hand, did not write poetry in Brazil, nevertheless, she wrote a journal about her experiences in the tropical country. It is interesting to perceive her fascination regarding nature and how she perceives the social life of this country. By means of this brief introduction commonalities between both poets’ trajectories can be perceived. Thus, the aim of this writing is to compare both writers’ trajectories focusing mainly on the period they lived in Brazil.
A Brief Analysis of Bishop’s Trajectory
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Massachusetts in 1911. She had a hard childhood. She lost her father when she was eleven months old and after such loss her mother suffered of a sort of mental illness and had to be isolated and treated in an asylum. After these events her grandparents took her to Nova Scotia and years later her paternal family won her custody and she returned to Massachusetts. She did not feel happy there, so she was sent to live with her mother’s sister. Just with this little portrait of her childhood it is possible to imagine how tough this period might have been for her. During her adulthood she was able to travel and live in many different places, including Brazil. When she decided to take a trip to South America she had the intention to stay just a couple of months in Brazil. However, she ended up living fifteen years in this country. It is precisely her literary production in Brazil that will be the basis for comparison with the trajectory of P.K Page’s production also in Brazil.
Bishop’s first poem about Brazil is “Arrival at Santos”. In this poem written in 1952, the reader is able to perceive her first impression about the country. The poem is quite descriptive in relation to the landscape but in a tone that demonstrates a little frustration, it seems that she expected more of such country; perhaps her expectation was based on what she had read about Brazil. She starts the poem like this: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor/ here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery.” Besides being descriptive, the repetition of the word “here” appears to convey the sense of disappointment with the landscape. In the sequence of the poem she reports some more details of her first day in Brazil and then she finishes it with these two last sentences: “We leave Santos at once/we are driving to the interior”. After such first impression, in the subsequent poems she seems touched by the beauty of nature in Brazil.
Bishop writes a couple of poems that demonstrates her delight at seeing so much natural beauty. Among those poems “January 1, 1502” and “Questions of Travel” deserve special highlight. In “January 1, 1502”, Bishop manages to rebuild what was seen by the Portuguese when they first arrived in Brazil: “Januaries, Nature greets our eyes/exactly as she must have greeted theirs”. Bishop envisions how nature must have been seen by the colonizer because she shares with the latter the fact of being a foreigner. In this poem she attempts to represent nature in a very colorful and vibrant way by using different combinations of colors: “blue, blue-green, and olive”, “in silver-gray relief”, “purple, yellow, two yellows, pink”, “rust red and greenish white”. This enchantment with nature can also be seen in “Questions of Travel”.
In “Question of Travel”, which is also to some extent related to nature, Bishop starts by pointing out what she has concluded based on observations: “There are too many waterfalls here/ the crowded streams hurry too rapidly down to the sea”, then she dedicates the rest of the long stanza to talk about such subject. In the second stanza, however, she brings an entirely different subject; she inquiries about the validity of traveling. She makes use of several questions such as: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”, “Where should we be today?”, “Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too?” In the following stanza she worships nature as a way to justify the importance of traveling and getting in touch with the diversity and exuberance of nature: “But surely it would have been a pity/ not to have seen the trees along this road/really exaggerated in their beauty/not to have seen them gesturing/like noble pantomimists, robed in pink”. And by using many other beautiful images extracted from nature, she justifies the importance of traveling.
After some acquaintance with the social reality of Brazil, Bishop cannot avoid talking about it. Thus, there is a change in the subject of her poetry about Brazil. It seems a sort of movement from the beauty of nature to the ugliness of social inequality. Among the poems that tackle such subject, “the Burglar of Babylon” and “Pink Dog” deserve special consideration because they go straight to the point regarding social issues. In “The Burglar of Babylon” she shows a cruel portrait of the poor people who live in the slums: “On the fair green hills of Rio/There grows a fearful stain:/The poor who come to Rio/And can't go home again”. Bishop became aware of a sad reality of Brazil in relation to migration. She probably heard about the number of people that, in an attempt to get away from a variety of problem in other regions of Brazil, migrated to cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. “The Burglar of Babylon” is a long poem that depicts the saga of Micuçu, a burglar that tries to escape from the persecution of the police. In this poem, Bishop contrasts the reality of the poor and the rich people. The latter seem not to be affected by the tragic reality; they seem amused with the persecution: “Rich people in apartments/Watched through binoculars/As long as the daylight lasted/And all night, under the stars.”
In “Pink Dog” Bishop talks about a dog she sees on the streets in Rio de Janeiro. She uses the image of the dog as a metaphor to introduce her criticism towards some social problems. After describing the bright day and talking about the dog, she brings a strong stanza to the poem: “Didn't you know? It's been in all the papers/to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars? /they take and throw them in the tidal rivers”. In this stanza Bishop brings a devastating image of social inequality in Brazil, the poor people, especially the beggars who, in most of the cases live on the streets, are treated like garbage. They were discarded as soon as some authorities get tired of seeing them. The way Bishop continues the poem shows that she seems bewildered by the manner in which certain things happened in Brazil. Maybe she was not able to understand how such things were possible and yet, people were ready to party. The change in the subject of her poetry after staying some time in Brazil demonstrates that she was an engaged poet and that much of her trajectory as a writer was forged when she was living in Brazil.
Considerations on P. K. Page’s trajectory
P. K. page was born in England but she moved to Canada when she was very young. Her parents moved a few times but that fact did not seem to disturb her. Apparently she had a happy childhood, with a lot of encouragement from her parents in relation to the importance of literature and arts as a whole. Along her carrier she has written a lot. Page has a prolific work with more than thirty books published about a variety of genres: poetry, fiction, essays, child’s book, among others. She was also a script writer and a visual artist. Her work as a visual artist is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
In 1956 P. K. Page moved to Brazil with her husband who was an ambassador at the time. During the two years she stayed in the country, she did not write poetry. Nevertheless, she wrote a diary in which she was able to depict her impressions about Brazil. Page, as well as Bishop, also wrote about the enchantment of nature. On February 18th she wrote:
In the garden one tree has four great sprays of tree orchids growing from it —white with purple centres. Another, a yellow orchid with a rust centre; still another, an indescribable flower of bright cerise with cerulean blue tips on its large heather-shaped flowers. I wish I knew how to describe the vegetation, or indeed, how to paint it. It is so excessive. Every tree puts forth some flower in clumps or sprays or showers of yellow, purple, pink, white or red — and almost every trunk bears orchids. Nature doesn't seem to know how to control itself! (PAGE, 1987, p.42)
She seems overwhelmed by so many colors and shapes that she says she wishes she could be able to represent that in the most accurate manner. It was the exuberance of nature in Brazil that inspired her to make her career take off as a visual artist. Maybe she thought that words were not enough to describe such beauty. Nature seems to greet Page’s eyes, exactly as she must have greeted Bishop’s. Nature is present throughout the journal, even when she is talking about other subjects; there is always a note or a detail about nature that Page thought it was important to mention. Here is another example of her determination to describe the beauty of nature.
Trees: in the garden there are varieties of what the Australians would call Rain Trees — with composite finely fretted leaves and clusters of flowers — pink, red, white or yellow. There are numerous palms — one with a pointed blade-like leaf and a massive tower of white blossoms; one like a feather duster which throws its old leaves down — feathers shed from a giant bird ((PAGE, 1987, p. 45).
Page also tacked subjects that involved social issues. Perhaps not as an intentional way of denouncing them by that time, but at least she gave her impression on a variety of matters. Her foreign eyes were able to see and report what, at times, she considered peculiar. On March 6th, she writes about Carnival in her Brazilian Journal. The way she starts talking about it makes it less appealing: “All of Rio is sleeping off the orgy of Carnaval. Nothing now but hangovers, fatigue and hospitals and prisons bulging” (44). The outcome of the party seems to call her attention more than the party itself. She also discusses about the differences between the ways the rich and the poor people enjoy that party. “For the rich there were a series of balls, all fancy dress — a ball a night, we are told” (44).She also adds that: “Many thousands of cruzeiros are spent on costumes and the dancing goes on all night” (44). It is hard not to perceive a certain irony when she remarks the amount of money that the rich people spend in such party. She also talks about the poor people: “For the poor in the favelas this is the event of their year. Months in advance they join 'samba schools' and practise night after night” (44). Page was aware of many details related to the organization of that popular party and in her journal she describes what she sees during the days of the party.
In another date of the journal, in April 1st she writes about some assumptions she had about the Brazilian people. She writes: “In a country which, to us, seems to place small value on life, there is a difference of only one letter between to live — morrar, and to die — morrer. So far I have been unable to find any expression for how funny — perhaps because the Brazilian finds everything funny” (47). When she says that Brazilian people seem to place small value on life, she probably drew that conclusion from a series of observations. A hypothesis that can be raised is that she must have read about many crimes for “trivial” reasons as well as heard about others nearer to her. When she says that Brazilian people find everything funny, it is probably due to the cheerfulness that is very characteristic of Brazil. It is interesting to perceive how a culture can be seen through the eyes of a foreigner. By the foreigner’s gaze, sociocultural issues, that may be taken for granted by native’s eyes, can become evident, enabling the building of more criticism about those issues.
Among the variety of things she reports in her journal the next one is curious and amusing. It is possible to perceive that by that time, the stereotype of the “malandro” had already been constructed.
I am reading Yeats's letters. He complains that George Eliot had morals but no religion and that if she only had had a bit more religion she would have had less morality. He writes too of his dislike of reasonable people whose brains suck all the blood from their hearts. And how he disliked moralists with neither spirit nor imagination enough for a good lie. How he would have loved Brazilians and how, indeed, do I! (PAGE, 1987, p.51)
In this excerpt, besides one more assumption about the Brazilian people, she also shows her affection. P. K. Page was touched by the cheerfulness and by the “Brazilian way” to face and see life. Of course she was also critic in relation to a number of things. The reports about violence that she constantly heard and the issues related to social inequalities were probably a sort of cultural shock she had to learn how to deal with and about which she constantly referred in her journal.
After a brief description of both Elisabeth Bishop and P.K. Page’s trajectory, it was possible to notice some similarities with regard to the way they saw Brazil. Both wrote a lot about the enchantments of nature and both seemed, to some extent, affected by the social problems in Brazil. Bishop dedicated many of her poems to discuss such issues. P. K. Page also wrote about such matters, nevertheless, she tended to see many things in Brazil as exotic; consequently, regarding some topics P.K. Page was mainly in the position of an observer.
Cynthia Messenger in her article about Bishop and Page comes out with a good conclusion in relation to the inevitable desire to compare both poets. She says that even if they are very different poets “(Page's "ceruleans" are fundamentally incompatible with Bishop's "two yellows"), they surely have this much in common: Brazil confronted them with the inadequacies of language, requiring them both to respond by re-visioning their art” (Messenger, p.115). The changes that took place in their art during the period they stayed in Brazil, resulted in their legacy, a sort of gift to Brazil for its hospitality.
ALMEIDA, Sandra Regina Goulart. The Politics and Poetics of Travel: The Brazil of Elizabeth Bishop and P. K. Page. Ilha do Desterro 40 (2009):105-116.
BISHOP, Elizabeth. Poems. Classic poetry series. PoemHanter.com. 2004.
MESSENGER, Cynthia. But How Do You Write A Chagall?' Ekphrasis and the Brazilian Poetry of P.K. Page and Elizabeth Bishop. [s.a.]
PAGE, P. K. Brazilian Journal. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987.