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02mydafsoup-01

Described as 'the writer's writer's writer', Elizabeth Bishop was one of the great 20th-century poets. William Boyd visits the house in Brazil she shared with her lover Lota, where she spent the happiest years of her turbulent life and wrote many of her best poems

Apartamento 1011, 5 Rua Antonio Vieira, Leme, Rio de Janeiro – this was Elizabeth Bishop's first address in Brazil. A few weeks ago I stood on the wavy black and white mosaic sidewalk of Copacabana beach gazing up at the 1940s building opposite. Eleventh floor, penthouse corner apartment. I tried to imagine Bishop looking out over the view. Not that much has changed here in Leme (apart from the odd skyscraper) – most of the apartment blocks fronting the ocean are from the 40s and 50s. Bishop's building is at the eastern end of the beach. West, a few blocks away, is the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel. On the hill behind the apartment I could see the vertically clustered shacks of the Favela Chapéu Mangueira on Babilônia Hill. From the apartment Bishop could see both Copacabana beach, with its kids playing football and its stalls selling coconuts, and, behind her, the lawless favela with its swarming poor. She wrote a ballad called "The Burglar of Babylon" about a young man she saw being chased by the police through the favela's noisome alleyways.

Bishop came to Brazil in 1951. She was 40 years old and had published one book of poetry, North and South, that had made her reputation in the small pool that was the American poetry world. She'd been living for some years in Key West, Florida, but, frustrated artistically and emotionally, had moved back to New York. Unhappy there, she decided that her salvation lay in travelling. Her aim was vague – to "travel round the world" – so she booked a cabin on a freighter called the SS Bowplate and headed south. The ship docked first in Santos near São Paulo (celebrated in her poem "Arrival at Santos"). She knew some people in Brazil, an American former ballet dancer called Mary Morse and her Brazilian lover, Lota Soares. It was at Lota's apartment in Leme that Bishop first stayed. Stay as long as you like, Lota said.

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William Boyd on Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil | Books | The Guardian

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