Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop: A Morning

It’s early, the sun couldn’t have been up for more than an hour, and Lota is already up. It is a relatively clear day; Elizabeth can see only a few clouds bobbing by her window. Sometimes, when it’s very cloudy, because the house is so far up in the mountains, the glass gets fogged with gray.

“Good morning,” Lota lays herself on the bed, by Elizabeth, over the sheets. She wears her bathrobe and smells of perfume and toothpaste. Awaking together is part of their joint morning ritual.

Lota runs her palm down Elizabeth’s hair in a motherly gesture. Elizabeth bats her eyes, adjusting to the light and shapes around her (Petrópolis is still a novelty) and smiles at Lota with some wordless sweet thought.

“Come down to breakfast when you’re ready. I’ll wait for you, but first I have to go check on Manuelzinho and the vegetables.” Manuelzinho has been helping with the gardening ever since the house was finished being built. Manuelzinho drives Lota crazy. He isn’t productive, and when he tries to be, something goes wrong.

Elizabeth likes to observe Manuelzinho, as she does now, while eating her breakfast. Elizabeth and Lota eat together outside in the garden. It is June and it is getting cooler. Elizabeth insists that Lota sit on the end of the table that looks to the house, and not to the garden (where she could obsessively oversee her workers). She knows that Lota wouldn’t eat her breakfast otherwise.

They eat jaboticaba jam and homemade butter on bread. Elizabeth made the jam herself after becoming acquainted with the purplish round fruit that has been growing on nearby trees. Elizabeth loves to cook and she is looking forward to preparing the lunch menu, which she and Lota try to write out on a day-to-day basis.

“What is he doing?” Lota asks nervously. She’s referring to Manuelzinho. She notices that Elizabeth has been watching him.

“Oh, nothing,” Elizabeth replies, which isn’t entirely a lie. Manuelzinho has been seemingly admiring a banana tree for the past good many minutes. The bananas are green still and hang tightly packed together. Manuelzinho has been stroking them, one by one, as if the warmth of his hands would help them to ripe. He inspects the bunch from all sides, carefully analyzing how it is attached to its tree. Elizabeth appreciates Manuelzinho’s curiosity towards natural beauty, and she likes his straw hat that he himself painted green.

Lota loses patience and turns around. “Manuelzinho! Você está fazendo exatamente o que?” Lota gets up from the table without finishing her breakfast. Manuelzinho isn’t as bad as the cook, Elizabeth thinks. Elizabeth does more cooking than she does, for the cook spends most of her time painting on the garden rocks. She is an artist (and talented enough, according to Elizabeth), and perhaps so is Manuelzinho, which explains why menial labor is unmanageably boring to them.

Elizabeth listens to Lota and Manuelzinho bicker. She understands Portuguese now but still struggles speaking. She is embarrassed by her accent and prefers Lota to do the talking.

Elizabeth’s hands are getting cold. Though none of the residents agree, Petrópolis can get quite cold, especially high up in the mountains. Lota had a fireplace built for the house. But when the fire was lit just last week the whole place was invaded with smoke. The builders didn’t understand the concept of a chimney and thought it better to cover the chimney hole to prevent rain from coming in. Lota was furious.

Elizabeth decides to go check for mail. She looks forward to this moment, of checking who has written her from home. Sometimes, when Elizabeth wants to distract her thoughts, she writes up imaginary letters in her head.

The mail hasn’t arrived. Elizabeth makes her way to her studio but pauses along the way to grab some bananas from the kitchen to feed Sammy. Uncle Sam is Elizabeth’s pet toucan, given to her by a mountain neighbor for her birthday. Sammy eats up to ten bananas a day. Elizabeth and Sammy are very fond of one another.

Lota has designed Elizabeth’s studio facing a small waterfall. She built in a pond so that the waterfall cascades into it, making loud and fat droplets. There are many new sounds that Elizabeth is becoming accustomed to in Brazil – the birds, the Portuguese, the thicker rain. The music, too. She finds that she prefers samba, though, to bossa nova.

Elizabeth likes living here, at the Samambaia house. Here she finds that provincial kind of lifestyle that she feels comfortable in. She takes the Selected Poems by Marianne Moore and begins to rub the pages between her fingers. Elizabeth admires Marianne and the good advice she gives, even if it does border on the preachy side at times. They are good friends now (it has been a few years since Marianne gave Elizabeth the permission to call her by her first name). Elizabeth will read one of Marianne’s poems to Lota tonight, though she is unsure which. Every night they read to one another, and take turns depending on the language. Reading in Portuguese isn’t the easiest task for Elizabeth, but it is still much easier than speaking.

Writing, for Elizabeth, can be slow. She has to take her time. She walks outside and sits by a coffee plant, by the waterfall. Later this afternoon Lota will be having visitors. The Samambaia house has become a destination, an object of curiosity. Elizabeth is not in the mood for having visitors. Sometimes she struggles socializing with Lota’s friends. Many people assume that because Elizabeth is a writer she would like to talk about literature all the time. But really she’d rather talk about the details in one’s day, what one saw and ate and wore. She’d even choose to talk about art over literature.

Elizabeth suggests, never dictates. She observes the world unassumingly. Lota has a louder personality. She makes the big statements. She commands over life.

As Elizabeth sits in the biting-green foliage beneath a cold-blue sky, she appears quite plain, even solitary. She is of a different shade, of another language. She does not participate, but she sees.

She looks around her, searching for inspiration. She talks to herself, as she sometimes does. She sees a beija-flor, a hummingbird, flickering above a flower, and asks:

“How do you put that creature into words? How do you put that head?”

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