Poet Elizabeth Bishop’s Armadillo Bobblehead — Or Not

How A Place Fires Your Imagination Matters More Than Any Facts About It

Have you had the ability to meet a person you’ve admired from afar? No, I don’t mean admire in that stalker-ish manner. I mean admiring someone you have no real contact with, perhaps a musician, artist, writer. Maybe a leader in your field, one you’d like to emulate. Maybe someone whose work or ethics you admire, or an historical figure.  For me, that person was Elizabeth Bishop, who of course I had never seen in person.

Maybe you weren’t able to meet your idol because he is no longer alive, or maybe she lived a long time before you were born. Hence our preoccupation with visiting places connected to the famous or infamous.  You go to Graceland if you like Elvis. You go to Mount Vernon and learn more about George Washington.

In the case of the poet, Elizabeth Bishop, I went to Samambaia House. Samambaia House, or Fazenda Samambaia, is one of the places Bishop lived in Brazil.  It is near Petrópolis, in the mountains.

Elizabeth Bishop has long been one of my favorite poets. I especially admire the way the words and lines feel right: not forced, not contrived. If playful, then playful without being showy. If disturbing, then disturbing in a quiet, understated, precise manner, the embodiment of let-me-elegantly-put-that-dagger-between-your-ribs.

Visiting Bishop’s Home in Brazil

Occasionally I’m able to make a business trip to Petrópolis; my employer has an office there. One year, my visit coincided with my birthday. When I was asked what I would like to do to celebrate my birthday, I’d said it would be great to visit the site of Bishop’s home in Samambia.

Our manager in Petrópolis, a transplanted Dutchman, probably has a two or three degree connection with everyone around the globe. So of course he had a connection who had a connection with Fazenda Samambaia. The daughter of one of our suppliers had married into a family with a large shipping business. The family owned the house, and the daughter was living there at the time.

On our day off, my host took me to visit Fazenda Samambaia, designed by Sérgio Bernardes. Bishop shared this house and an apartment in Rio for about 15 years in the ’50s and early ’60s with the architect, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop wrote many of her most famous poems while living there–including those published in 1965’s Questions of Travel. In letters, she wrote of the difficulty of making the poems match her vision. She would leave gaps where she knew a word should go–and Robert Lowell and other poets commented on her extreme patience and need for precision. The gaps might persist for long periods of time–months, years.  She wrote of gazing out the huge windows at the tropical landscape, and considering, waiting, for the right word.

It’s hard for me to imagine following such a process. If I’m trying to find the right word, I can’t leave a space blank for long. I’ll put in a word that is close, maybe mark it in brackets or note it as not quite right, but I can’t just leave it blank. I grope and experiment my way to a solution.

If I’m not sure about that one word or phrase, probably I am not sure about the whole line. That Bishop was so certain about a part of the line, all except for one subset of the line —that’s an artistic process I can’t fathom.

I also can’t fathom how Lota de Macedo Soares managed to build such a modern house in what, at the time, must have seemed a very remote location.

I’ve a summer birthday — so that means it was winter in Brazil. Chilly and rainy in the mountains. The drive from my host’s home in the hills above Petropolis to Fazenda Samambaia seemed a short time. If it had been a sunny day, it might have seemed even shorter, because we would have had better visibility. We drove narrow roads through small villages, switchbacking our way up and down. Some roads were dirt, some paved in asphalt, or even lined in brick. It wasn’t pouring rain, just a steady drizzle. The mist settled into the mountains. We drove in and out of the arms of the clouds.

When we approached Bishop’s one-time home, I realized it was almost exactly as you see in pictures. It’s well known for its architectural value. You can see pictures of it here: Fazenda Samambaia

Of course, the pictures I took that day, before the availability of good digital cameras, were terrible. Fazenda Samambaia is a modern building full of glass and natural materials coaxed into sleek lines. There’s a large, long space where, through the tall windows, you could see shelves and shelves of books. Bookcases were arranged on an angle like you might see in a stylish library. There was nothing to stop us from parking as close as seemed practical, walking up to the house, and knocking.

We didn’t have an appointment, and our contacts were not at home. A housekeeper came to the door and let us in out of the rain. We stood just inside the door and my host discussed the situation with her, translating for me.

For a few moments I thought I was going to have to prove my poetic credentials by reciting a poem. I desperately tried to recall some of Bishop’s more famous lines. That’s what would be required, right? But I blanked. All I could come up with was the beginning to The Cars in Caracas:  “The cars in Caracas / create a ruckukus, / a four-wheeled fracacas, / taxaxis and truckes.” — which is from a John Updike poem originally published in The New Yorker. It wasn’t even a Bishop stanza! Great. I would sound like an idiot. The housekeeper might not understand me, but my host might think I’d lost my senses.

Thankfully the few questions about Bishop that I answered appeared to satisfy the housekeeper. It seems she knew the site was famous but didn’t know about the poetry. About the architecture, yes. People came to take photos, professional photographers. But she didn’t know about the poetry. And why would she? Bishop isn’t well-known except amongst literary circles—and sometimes not even then. Those circles are pretty small, as compared to society at large.

We saw a little bit of the house. My host and the housekeeper had a long conversation in Portuguese while I tried to imagine Bishop here in the rain inside what appeared to me to be a stark and cold building design, its sharp corners and harsh lines almost unforgiving. Yes, I realized I’ve probably just admitted to poor taste the equivalent of architectural heresy. It’s not that I don’t see a clean and strong appeal to the design. I just can’t imagine living in it. There’s stone, and lots of tile, and nothing but long panes of glass to separate the rain and tropical forest from the shelter inside. The lush surroundings appeared to cut the house off from the world, like a curtain of greenery enclosing the home. Bishop wrote masterpieces here, and all I was doing was dripping on the tiles.

Bishop commented in her letters that she would watch storms roll in through those huge windows. Storm watching I could imagine: the dense greenery eventually fading to gray as storms slowly shrouded the house in mist. Is it any wonder that Bishop’s poems each appear to be singular, similar to each other in some ways but self-contained, cut off from the rest of the world? The setting of Fazenda Samambaia is so self-contained, cut off, separate by site and design from everything around it. Just slightly foreign to the surroundings. If you had told me we had traveled through a magical portal to another world where everything was familiar and yet simply non-adjacent to our world, I wouldn’t have argued the point.

We turned to leave, and my host thanked the housekeeper. I pulled my jacket hood back up. We were just about out of the door when she asked us to wait. She went off into another part of the house and came back a few minutes later with a carved armadillo. It’s head and tail were both attached so that they could sway. It was a birthday gift, something to remember Elizabeth Bishop by, she said. I stammered my thanks in English, and poor Portuguese, and even some lousy Spanish for good measure. My host, who speaks seven languages, translated back and forth for us. (Side note: seven languages? No, I’m not kidding. No wonder the Dutch were masters of global trade for so long.)

Bishop’s Armadillo — Or Not

I think the housekeeper chose her words carefully. Something to remember the visit by, remember Bishop by. Not something that had belonged to Bishop.  Probably the housekeeper had no way to know if the little bobblehead had belonged to Bishop or not.

The amadillo was probably something that didn’t belong to the current residents and had been left behind by someone who’d lived there prior. That kind of thing happens. We still have an end table and a few other pieces scattered about our house that we call ‘roommate furniture’. Something that someone left behind when they moved out. Not trash, but not something they wanted, and not something we’d purposely accumulated. But useful, or at least not in the way. So it sticks around.

In any case, the housekeeper hadn’t felt right giving us an extensive tour, and I can’t blame her for that. For all my gregarious Dutchman’s efforts, we were still strangers. Likely the couple currently living in the house wasn’t attached to the trinket. Likely it never belonged to Bishop. But as a souvenir, it has purpose.

In the poem Questions of Travel, from the book of the same name, Bishop says:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

and at the end asks:

                                            Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

These questions put voice to the world of “what if?” Maybe we should have stayed, maybe we should have gone. Maybe we would have been different if we had not traveled. But having traveled, and being now who we have become, we cannot know if that other, potential version of ourselves, would have been better.  And like we (would not be happy returning to the state wherein we would be happy to have stayed home.  Or, As Bishop says:

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,

(That’s the thing about poems. If you can truly paraphrase a poem, you don’t need it.)

I took the armadillo home and put it on a shelf. It’s not fancy and not exactly cute. Every so often, I move it to a different shelf. It is hand-carved, not entirely symmetrically. I think it is made from the husk of a large tree nut that grows in Brazil, kind of like a coconut, not from a solid piece of wood. It’s charming and unique. It sits apart wherever I put it. If jostled, the head and tail bobble a bit. I have the feeling it is just fine with itself. It knows there isn’t really a way to improve upon it. It doesn’t wonder if it should have been a different version of itself. It is at ease with itself. It has been handcrafted, and it is clear that the maker knew it was finished.

Bishop wrote many of her famous poems while living at Fazenda Samambaia. Slowly perhaps. But more importantly, with deliberation. She perhaps gazed on occasion at this armadillo, or something similar. Something handmade. Something that wasn’t quite perfect but was complete regardless of its imperfections. She channeled her need for perfection and precision — of both word & image — into her poetry.

The things I’d been told, but couldn’t imagine before this visit, suddenly seemed possible to me: that Bishop’s poetry had not sprung fully-formed from her brow; that she sometimes waited long periods, leaving a space in a poem where she knew something was missing or not quite right, until the correct word or phrase came to her, perhaps as a storm crawled up the mountain, and the poem was suddenly finished.

I don’t know what I expected to get by visiting Bishop’s former home. Did I think some of her skill would rub off on me? That I would be able, by looking at the view she’d once seen, to suddenly see through her eyes? That it would somehow help me as a poet? Or was it just one of those curiosities, the way people want a piece of a rock star, want to see where their idol has lived, worked, fallen, gotten back up.

Regardless of my expectations, what I got was a renewed appreciation for patience. For separating myself from everything around me, just enough. Patience to wait for that storm to roll in. Confidence that it eventually will arrive. If need be, I can move forward and come back to the troublesome bit later.  The storm may wash the trouble from the very air.

When I am frustrated with my writing, I take a look at the armadillo. Move it to another spot. Shake it gently. Let it be a reminder. You can’t second-guess everything, and forward is always possible. The armadillo always agrees with me.

Later in the same book, in the poem The Armadillo, Bishop says:

Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and that is the only direct mention of the armadillo, despite the poem’s title.  Can you see that armadillo in this bobblehead?  I think, perhaps, I can.

Bobble-head Armadillo, supposedly once belonging to Elizabeth Bishop

Bobble-head Armadillo, supposedly once belonging to Elizabeth Bishop

Have you ever visited the former home of a literary (or other) idol? Did it match you expectations or change the way you saw your idol?