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Traveling Proprieties: the Disorienting Language & Landscapes of Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil

  • Author(s): Dodson, Katrina Kim
  • Advisor(s): François, Anne-Lise
  • Passos, José Luiz
  • et al.

This dissertation locates in the work of twentieth-century North American poet Elizabeth Bishop a collision between questions of propriety and questions of travel that emerge from the poet’s unintended exile in Brazil. Drawing on a much more comparative, intertextual archive of Brazilian and travel literature than existing Bishop scholarship, I explore how the poet’s experience of traveling to Brazil and residing there for nearly two decades, from 1951 to 1971, produces the disorienting effect of the “contact zone,” as Mary Louise Pratt characterizes these spaces of cross-cultural, cross-temporal negotiation. These contact zones arise in Bishop’s work as not only geographical-cultural spaces, but also as lyric and linguistic sites of contestation between norms. I argue that the key tension that inflects Bishop’s writing is one between a poetics of “proper” restraint and formal control versus a poetics of exposure marked as “improperly disproportionate.” This dialectic also marks the ways she judges Brazilian landscapes and expression as improper in their excess and overstatement. I argue that questions of propriety and proportion—What is proper behavior on the part of host and of visitor? How should the Euro-American traveler navigate the pleasures and improprieties of its all being out of scale or “too much”?—resonate throughout Bishop’s representations of Brazil in her poetry, essays, journalism, and letters, and inflect her approach to translations of works by Brazilian writers. I also trace how Bishop’s idea of the “proper lyric,” by which she denigrates the confessional and free-verse poetry prevalent among her American contemporaries in the 1960s and ’70s, begins to transform under this counter-poetics of release and exposure as she matures during her Brazil period and beyond, a debate that continues through the afterlife of her archive.

Bishop’s keenly observational and reflective work also forms an important nexus in which to consider how the history of travel to Brazil, especially in the greater context of New World exploration, has produced a disorienting effect on European and North American judgments of proper social relations, expression, and scale amid startlingly new landscapes and cultures. Thus, I examine how Bishop’s particular mapping of propriety and proportion in relation to Brazil intersects with a composite geographical-historical-cultural vision of the country formed through accounts by travelers from the 16th century onward, while also causing the poet to redefine her own relationship to North American poetry. As Bishop goes deeper into Brazilian landscapes, language, and culture than most other twentieth-century Euro-American travelers, perhaps with the exception of Lévi-Strauss, she variously adopts the roles of a Darwin, Robinson Crusoe, and Wordsworth, offering a mix of eyewitness observation, exotic fantasy, and pastoral translations.

Chapter One, “The Shock of Encounter,” explores the shock of encounter in Bishop’s early impressions of Brazil as a disorienting site of improper disproportions, both in landscape and expression, as she opens a dialogue with similar accounts by previous European and North American travelers to the country. I show how Bishop is uniquely positioned as a poet-historian of travel to Brazil to articulate a twentieth-century critique of tourism and its imperial undercurrents that nevertheless gives in to the seductive pleasures of this tropical new world. Chapter Two, “Lyric Mutation,” traces the effects of Bishop’s experience in Brazil on her poetics, which I argue undergoes an affective loosening up and takes a more autobiographical turn that challenges Bishop’s self-identification as a “northern” poet of cool restraint, as well as her ideas of what constitutes a proper lyric poem. I read the prose poem series “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” as Bishop’s fullest manifestation of her poetic self in Brazil, which becomes the fittingly “southern,” watery site for the release of feelings and desires elsewhere deemed inappropriately excessive. Chapter Three, “Pastoral Translations,” follows a divergent mode of adjudication in Bishop’s relationship to Brazil as she recognizes in the Minas Gerais region, and in the rural and folk-themed Brazilian works she chooses to translate, a pastoral ethos that recalls her Nova Scotia childhood and British Romantic influences on her writing. Here, I identify three kinds of pastoral translation: 1) the pastoral mode itself as a translation of the rural periphery for the metropolis; 2) the translation of British and classical pastoral into the Brazilian context of Minas Gerais, with miners in place of shepherds; and 3) the pastoralizing tendencies of Bishop’s translations of Brazilian works into English. These versions of pastoral act as a counterpoint to the impropriety and excess that Bishop and other travelers more commonly associate with Brazil and the tropics.

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