Elizabeth Bishop - Pink Dog - The Iconic Work Of One Of America's Favorite Poets!
Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. Today we are going to begin to explore the life and writing of one of America’s most beloved 20th century writers, Elizabeth Bishop. During her lifetime, even though her outpouring of work was small, it was widely admired and lauded. She was granted two Guggenheim Fellowships, was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, received the American Academy of Letters Award, the Pulitzer for her publication North and South, the National Book Award as well as the Order of Rio Branco by the Brazilian government- yet for a long time, even though widely respected in critical circles, her work wasn’t widely read or even widely anthologized. Today, however, years after her death, she is recognized as one of America’s greatest poets. Christy, what about Elizabeth Bishop is so great and why did it take so long for her work to be widely disseminated? Or maybe more basically, why do you enjoy her work personally?
Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that question. First, for those who may not be familiar with her, let’s situate her in history.
Okay, she was born in 1911 and died in 1979, so she lived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, all the way through to the Vietnam War, if we’re looking at in from a strictly American perspective which I would say is fair, since she’s American.
For sure, although, none of those things really show up in her writing, now that I think about it. Bishop wrote about nature, about the sea- and I know the way I just said that makes her sound really basic and boring, but she isn’t at all. I wouldn’t like her if she was and I hope I can show that. But let’s just think of her first in regard to all those accolades, why did the critics like her so much. Well, one reason is that Bishop is a technically excellent craftsman. That is undeniable. Every word is calculated. She has one poem, “The Moose” that took her 20 years to complete; she was so conscious of every individual word- no let me rephrase that- was conscious of words, but not just words, she was conscious of the sounds of the words and how they went together, of the rhymes, the patterns, every single detail even to the order of the letters is thoughtful- in the poem we’re reading today she split the word an as in the article a plus n into two lines putting the a on one line and the n on a different one because she wanted the effect it created. It’s that meticulous that is technically impressive. It’s also that sort of thing that keeps her body of work very small. She only published 101 poems. It’s hard to generate large quantities when you’re that obsessive about every technical detail. I’ve read every single one of them, and I cannot say that about almost any other poet, usually I read the greatest hits and move on. So, there’s that but obviously technique doesn’t make anyone necessarily enjoy a work or any body of work, it makes you admire it, but that’s different.
What I find enjoyable about her is that Bishop is a poet in the old sense of the word in that she sees the world differently. She portrays the world as she honestly understands it to be, not how she wishes it were. And often the way she sees things is different than how I would see them. Her perspective is fascinating. She was such an observer. She watched nature, people, how things fit together and her mind made these incredible analogies. She saw the world geographically. Her first poem was called “The Map” and she wrote it while sitting on the floor in her apartment in New York staring and thinking about this map on the wall. She wonders why we’re so fascinated with maps, what they mean to us, and she hypothesizes about that. She’s just very interesting. Lots of her poems are like that. She watches a Sandpiper in the sand and sees herself in this little bird and how it interacts with the world. She describes the moment when she was a little girl in another poem when she realizes she’s a separate person from her aunt while she was sitting and staring through a National Geographic magazine.
So, it’s her insights that you like?
I think so. Her life experiences were definitely unique. They were defined by a lot of travel, which I appreciate especially across the country of Brazil, but they were also defined by tragedy.
But I would not say that she’s a tragic person. She’s not, she was kind of detached, honestly and that’s how she writes. She saw tragedy, but she also saw beauty. She saw the tensions of life very clearly the tearful/comic side of the same thing the fragile/tough side tender/brutal sides- life has all of it all of the same time and somehow she artistically puts words to that. All three of those separate tensions we’re going to see in the poem we’re reading today. When I first started preping for this podcast, I had this idea that we would do my three favorite poems of hers, but I’ve since decided that’s not possible. It will take our entire episode just to do one, so I picked one about Brazil. Maybe one day we can circle back to her and do a different one, I know we’re not going to come close to doing justice to her body of work today, but the goaI is to introduce you to Bishop and. Maybe help you enjoy her work, especially if you’re not familiar with her and even if you’re not necessarily a poetry buff. I love her, so I hope I can help you love her too.
Okay, well, let’s get into a little of her bio. Like we said, she was born on Feb 8, 1911 in Worchester, Massachusetts, but she calls Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada home. She lived there until the death of her mother, but her father died when she was 8 months old from Bright’s disease.
What is that? I’ve never heard of it.
Well, we don’t use that term anymore; it’s a historical term that references what today is a collection of different kidney diseases. Today we call it nephritis. In this case it was fatal, and this event sent the Bishop family into turmoil. Eliizabeth’s life was altered and sent adrift; honestly, she would really settle and establish roots anywhere, not in her entire life.
Which is crazy when you think she was literally 8 months old when that happened.
True, beyond just the loss of a father, his death led her mother to spiral into cycles of mental illnesses. She was committed to a mental institution when Elizabeth was only five. Elizabeth never saw her mother again because at the time it was thought to be too traumatic for an institutionalized woman to see her child. By the time Elizabeth was really old enough to make the decision to visit her mother as an adult, her mother died.
Bishop expresses vivid memories of her mother screaming and draws from this entire experience in one of her few short stories called “In the Village”.
So, basically as an orphan child, Elizabeth bounced around from home to home eventually preferring to staying at boarding school. The original problem was that her father’s family was wealthy and prominent and didn’t want her raised in the little Canadian village her mom’s parents lived in so they moved her back to Boston. To put it in Bishop’s exact words, “I was brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in.” However, they were not a loving family, and she developed all kinds of illnesses in their home. She eventually settled in to live with her mom’s older sister, Aunt Maud, who also lived in the US. The paternal grandparents paid for Elizabeth to attend expensive private schools and expensive summer camps bringing her upbringing to their standards. She was a good student and ultimately was accepted into and attended the prestigious Vasser College.
You know your brief description makes it sound like it all worked out pretty well, but in fact, if you read what Bishop says about her growing up years, she describes them as lonely. In fact, she very famously told one of her closest friends, the celebrated confessional poet Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.
True, and in a real sense she was alone- even though she was around people all the time. For one thing, she was the consummate outsider, but another very important and defining reason was a dark secret she was living. George Sheperdson, her uncle specifically Maud’s husband, verbally, physically and sexually assaulted and abused her from the age of 8 to 19- those formative years while she lived with them. None of this was known at the time. The details and terror of which was detailed in a 22 single-spaced letter she wrote to her therapist years later and disclosed only after her death by researchers. One example being a time, he literally dangled her over a second-story balcony by her hair.
Yeah and the fact that we know about seems invasive for a person who was so incredibly private and shy her entire life.
True- I’m sure there’s a lot about her life that she would not have wanted to be disclosed to the level it is today. Her sexual orientation being the most obvious. Her most important relationships were romantic relationships with women, and although she didn’t really keep this a secret and all of her friends and acquaintances understood her sexuality, it wasn’t something she paraded, and it certainly wasn’t talked about.
No, of course not, especially in the days in which she lived. There’s a lot to say about her romantic relationships, actually there’s a lot to say about Bishop’s life in general. She wrote extensively about Nova Scotia, she lived in DC, she lived in Key West but the focus of this episode will be on her time and relationship with Brazil, the Brazilian people and the culture she fell in love with- a place where she found happiness.
Indeed- she visited there in 1951 when she was forty years old with no plans to stay. She had an old school friend from Vasser named Mary Morse who lived there with a woman she had actually met a few years before, Lota de Macedo Soares, but the purpose of her trip was just vacation. While there, she ate a cashew fruit, which is the orange fruit connected to what we think of as a cashew which is just the nut part. Except Bishop had a horrible reaction to it, and the reaction put her in the hospital. Lota and she got close while Elizabeth recovered and Lota invited her to stay, and she did. While living with Lota, Elizabeth would write some of her most celebrated poetry among which would be the work for which she received her Pulitzer.
You know Lota de Macedo Soares was a member of the ruling oligarchy of Brazil. Her family was wealthy, well-connected and important. She was also a self self-taught architect of note. Her most famous work is the prestigious Flamengo Park- the large and important landmark basically the Brazilian equivalent of Central Park. It’s right there on Guanabara Bay the famous water you see in pictures of Rio.
Many biographers call Lota “the love of Elizabeth’s life”, not necessarily because she was the only important romantic relationship in Elizabeth’s life because she wasn’t, but because of the strong influence she exerted on her in so many ways.
With Lota, Elizabeth found a home in Brazil and made personal connections in ways she hadn’t before, and she was happy there. She lived there permanently for 15 years but then she went back and forth from the US to a new home she owned and maintained in Ouro Preto (which by the way is near my home in Belo Horizonte). She did this until 1974 just five years before she died. Bishop’s most famous poem may be the villanelle “One Art”, which is a poem about losing things, but in that poem two of the three homes she references are in Brazil: one in Rio and the one in Ouro Preto. Of course, in that poem she also references losing two cities, two rivers and a continent- all Brazil. I know I’m biased, so take it for what it’s worth, but Brazil is one of the friendliest and most welcoming places on planet earth, and Brazil loved her back.
True, and of course lots of people feel that way about Brazil, but in Bishop’s case, she saw a Brazil that only the most privileged ever see. Lota’s family was a political family, and Bishop had a front row seat to the cultural, political and social movers and shakers of the Brazil of the 50s and 60s. This time period was an important one historically for Brazil for many reasons- not least of which of which was building a capital city, Brasilia, in middle of the country- a place that had almost no development at the time- and moving the seat of government from Rio to Brasilia- a huge and expensive ordeal.
Lota owned an apartment on the famous Copacabana beach- she and Elizabeth lived there.
Let me add that at the time, this was one of the most expensive tracts of real estate in the world.
Besides the apartment on Copacabana, Lota and Bishop lived most of the time at a family farm called “Samambaia” is the the Portuguese word for fern. This estate is privately owned to this day, although I’d love to visit it, and is about an hour outside of the city, near Petropolis.
Their home out from Rio was an amazing estate- I’m not sure I want to try pronouncing that, it is an architectural marvel of the period- a. modern house set in the wild rainforest. They had servants, garderners and cooks. They received dignitaries and hosted celebrities from all over the world. Lota built Bishop a studio with a glass window overlooking the beautiful lush tropical jungle landscape where she could go and write.
Yes, that does seem glamorous. And although Elizabeth never was a fluent Portuguese speaker, she did translate and co-edit Brazilian poetry into English and studied the culture, geography and history extensive. She traveled everywhere including down the Amazon river with Alduous Huxley to see the Indian tribes, I might add. She was very much an exporter of Brazilian culture all around the world, and not just through her poetry about Brazil. She wrote a book on Brazil for the Life World Library series that was marketed and sent to homes all across America as one of those coffee table books with pictures in it. So, even if people didn’t know Bishop for her poetry, they may have had exposure to her work on Brazil if they owned a coffee table book from Life.
The Poem I want to feature today is about Brazil, but she actually didn’t finish it until 1979 when she was living back in the US years later. It’s titled “Pink Dog” is actually the last poem Bishop completed before she died of a brain aneurism that same year.
I love this poem for many reasons- but I think it’s a great example of what Elizabeth Bishop is really great at. What Bishop does is she observers the world- so in this case, she is observing a dog that she sees walking up a major Brazilian thorough fare that takes people to that world famous Copacabana beach. So, in one sense you can read this poem to be about a dog- and that is exactly what it is. She observed a dog interact in the world. But what we see also are layers of analogies in the dog- we understand pretty quickly that this poem is about a social problem in Brazil. The dog is representing the homeless population an it’s exposing a terribly politically inconvenient atrocity that was happening and was exposed at that time Bishop was living in Rio. So there’s that layer of understanding- the historical side of it, but then- we can see there’s a personal side of it too. Maybe she saw herself in that pink dog. Maybe we can see ourselves in it- the dog is a metaphor at the individual level as well as at a societal one. It’s really something you can think a long time about and really not get tired. I know that sounds so nerdy, but if you’ll track with me, I think you’ll see that it’s true and makes the work very interesting.
So, let’s read it and then go through it. Is that the best way?
Yes- I think it is.
Read the poem
Let’s set the scene:
The Sun is blazing and the sky is blue, Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue; Naked, you trot across the avenue.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of Cobacabana beach in Rio- this is it. Umbrellas line the beaches. The beach in Rio in the summer (which by the way is December through February) is harsh and very hot; the skies are clear of clouds much of the time even though it’s raining season- the view with Sugar Loaf in the mountain and Jesus Christ the Redeemer overlooking from behind is spectacular. But notice the language here, and this is what I mean by how careful Bishop is with words- the umbrellas clothe the beach- this reference to clothes is important because it’s going to contrast with this poor dog. The dog is naked. And if you’re looking at this poem on the page, you’ll see that the word naked is capitalized and also set off by a comma on one side and a period on the other it’s isolated in the poem- the dog is isolated in its nakedness.
Of course I hate to bring this up- but aren’t Brazilian beaches known for the lack of clothing!!
Ha! Well- yes and no or mais or menos as they say down there, and there’s irony even in that too. Bishop knows that’s the reputation! But no one is actually naked. In Rio. These are not topless beaches- we’ve all seen the Brazilian bikinis, they may be nearly naked from an American perspective, but they are clothed even if they are as itsby bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikinis! Also notice the phrase every hue- that’s another thing, any North American might notice on a Brazilian beach. The skin tones- there is every hue. Brazil is a land of great diversity of hue much like the Creole people of New Orleans. We’ve talked about this before. The shades of skin tones are as diverse as any array of beach umbrellas and all beautiful- light brown to olive to mocha. And we may have seen a movie with people or even dogs strolling the famous sidewalk in front of Avenida Atlantica- that famous strip along Copacabana anf further down Ipanema beach.
Let’s talk about Copacabana beach for those who may not know. It’s one of the most famous beaches in the entire world. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced at the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Princess Dianna stayed there. On February 18, 2006, The Rolling Stones performed one of the largest free concerts in Rock and Roll history there- With an audience of 1.5 million people, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s legendary and yet, it’s a public beach. Brazil, although a very hierarchical country, as we see even in the life of Elizabeth Bishop, has a beach culture that is very democratic. Anyone can go to the world famous Brazilian beaches. The beach is a great equalizer in that way- this is different than Martha’s Vineyard or Malibu in the US which are very elite places with limited access to average people.
I also want to point out that if I were reading this poem in 1969 when it came out, I would likely immediately think of that world hit song “Girl from Ipanema”- Ipanema is the next beach over from Copacabana and the visual imagery is the same. That song, although a Brazilian bossa nova song originally recorded in Portguese also has an English version and won a Grammy in 1965. It also, by the way, is the second most recorded pop song in music history.
Well, that song would have been on the radio constantly at the same time Bishop is writing Pink Dog. And the first part of the poem can easily be interpreted as a big of a parody of that song, especially if you listen to the Brazilian lyrics. The words in the Portuguese version are “Olha que coisa mais linda mais cheia de graca e ela menina que vem e que passa num doce balanc0 a caminho do mar…
So is the Brazilian version different –
I think it is slightly in its focus- the Brazilian version heightens the focus of looking at the girl- let’s translate it-
look at the most beautiful thing so full of grace, it’s a girl who comes and who passes by with this sweet swing of her hip on her way to the sea. It goes on to talk about her “corpo dourado”- or golden body- it references the sun and then as this line “o seu balancado e mais que uma poema. E a coisas mais linda eu ja vi passar.” Translated meaning- the way she shakes her body is more than a poem. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen crossing.
So, that’s our starting point- that’s the context of Bishop’s little dog. But let’s look at our dog in the next stanza- by the way – this poem has fifteen stanzas of exactly three lines each and every stanza rhymes within itself- meaning the rhyme and rhythm it creates is a bit musical- much like the samba or the bossa nova of Rio.
Oh never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair…
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
Well, if we have the song in the back of our minds, it’s definitely a parody. These onlookers are staring too, but they’re not staring because the dog is the the most beautiful thing full of grace superceding the grace of poetry itself. They’re staring because it’s ghastly- it’s not wearing a skimpy bikini, it’s bare and naked- raw- bald.
Exactly- we don’t want this nakedness. And pink isn’t good either- it’s not the kind you get from a light sun tan- it’s the sickly kind. I do want to add, Bishop scholars who really have studied the multiple drafts with Bishop’s annotations in the margins of the poem tell us that there was an actual pink dog that Bishop saw that inspired the poem. She saw it not on Avenida Atlantica which is the beach road, but on Avenida Princesa Isabel which is the avenue that takes you to the beach from the interior of town. It’s the access road perpendicular to the beach road that runs into Avenida Atlantica. It’s a commercial street, not a touristy one. On this street the passerbyers wouldn’t be semi-naked like beach people might be anyone- so the dog would look even more out of place. Let’s read the next two stanzas as they talk about the dog.
Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
But look intelligent. Where are your babies?
A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
While you go begging, living by your wits.
These stanzas are interesting, first this is what we call an apostrophe, Elizabeth talks directly to the dog even though the dog can’t talk back. She, from the third line onward, switches to the second person. YOU are not mad; YOU have a case of scabies. Where are YOUR babies? This is a female dog. She’s ugly- not crazy- we can tell she’s a mother by the hanging teats but there are no babies. This is when we get into the social commentary. What slum did you come out of? What favela as they are called there. The mother is out scavenging while sickly and having to leave her babies unattended.
And of course the favelas are impossible not to notice when we drive through Rio or really any major city in Brazil- the contrasts between the rich and the poor are enormous- the beautiful landscapes juxtapose with these favelas or slums that line the mountains. The richness of Copacabana side by side in obvious contrast to the realities of urban poverty.
And Bishop uses an expletive here= which stands out as strange and harsh because she obviously has sympathy for the dog. She’s not shaming the dog. But she uses the expletive to show that this dog is despised by her society. She’s a beggar; people are afraid of her; she’s marginalized because of her looks. She looks crazy. Her hips are not swaying, her teats are. It’s gross. She’s marginalized maybe by how she’s making a living, by her social standing. This dog is everything the girl from Ipanema is not.
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.
Garry, this requires a historical and political explanation. What is she talking about?
Sure, and of course every country has its dark chapters, but during the sixties, there was a push in Brazil to get the squatters who were living in favelas which were on valuable real estate to be displaced and put to live outside of town- out of sight and certainly away from the affluent and middle-class neighborhoods. This was not just in Rio, but all over the country. However, Governor Lacerda, the governor of Rio, was implicated in a scandal with his effort to “clean up” if you want to use that word, these urban areas. The authorities were known to collect these homeless people- often the drug addicted, the mentally ill, crippled, definitely beggars but they shoot them and throw into the Rio Guarda. Here’s a quote from Governor Lacerda himself, “Once there appeared floating in the Guarda River the body of a man who had been tied up, with bullet holes in his neck, and that another had survived and gone to the police station in Santa Cruz or Campo Grande- I do not know where-and reported that the police had taken him there and thrown him into the river.”
Of course, Bishop references this like we know what she’s talking about…
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
Go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
Out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs,
Drugged, drunk or sober, with or without legs,
What would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?
Apparently there was an agency called the “Beggar Recovery Service”- you know everything terrible has a nice title. But “recovery” in this context meant drowning. They were recovering the city and handling the problem of beggars by literally getting rid of them in the river. This, once it got out, provoked an international scandal, actually. And Bishop draws attention to it very subtly with this pink dog.
She also makes a risky but very Brazilian-like joke. Brazilians, by the way, are very irreverent when it comes to their humor. They make fun of everything; nothing is sacred. Brazilian humor for the most part is not politically correct. They mock everything- especially themselves-. This comes from a long history of being a suffering people with no democratic voice- what could they do? The rulers did what they wanted, so all they could do is make a joke of their situation. Often, the more terrible something was the more they mocked it. Today, even though, they are a democracy and have more of a political voice, this humor still persists. Here, Bishop injects a little Brazilian humor,
In the cafes and on the sidewalk corners
The joke is going round that all the beggars
Who can afford them now wear life preservers.
I know, right, but I bet you anything that was an actual joke that really went around. The situation was so terrible. There’s nothing to be done, so the best we can do is make it a little funny joke that brings attention to the terrifying situation, and Bishop uses this very Brazilian of strategies and brings our attention back to the dog….it’s too bad off to survive being thrown into a river.
In your condition you would not be able
Even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible
After those three lines there is a break- to a new stanza, but the break gives us time to think. What would be the solution for this little dog..this helpless ugly girl mother beggar dog…what would be sensible and practical…and of course the solution is ironic…because of course it’s. not sensible or practical in any traditional sense…but yet the irony is that perhaps it is…
solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
N eyesore…But no one will ever see a
Dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?
So many interesting things to say here. First of all the word solution is not capitalized even though it’s starting a stanza—it’s not a practical solution because it’s not a permanent solution, but if the inevitable cannot be avoided forever, perhaps the solution is to wear a fantasia- that’s the Portuguese word for costume- except it’s a pun here- you can see the word looks like fantasy. The solution is to live a short fantasy- to pretend for a moment this is not your fate. The delusion of Carnaval won’t last but til Wednesday, but at least for tonight you can dress up in a fantasy- you can make believe you are not the eyesore you are every other day of the year. And here you see the a-n being split on two lines= all three of these lines end with the letter a. The social commentary is scathing…just dress up the problem…hide the eyesore with a rhyme, even a contrived one…there’s a reference to religion with Ash Wednesday, but also the spellin of the word Carnival…another detail Bishop doesn’t use the Brazilian spelling of Carnaval like they use to reference the holiday she uses the English Carnival…our word connotes those chaotic traveling little circus type things with rides and whatnot. She’s making another pun- she brings all of our associations with carnivals here, many of which aren’t all that super-positive. It highlights the chaos of the party is here.
There are two rhetorical questions- what sambas will you sing? What will you wear?
Again this speaks directly to the history and culture of Carnaval in Brazil. Garry tell us why the reference to Samba is interesting from a historical perspective?
Well, I’m definitely not a expert on Brazilian history. But Samba is Afro-Brazilian by heritage. It’s associated historically with the slums of Rio and originally associated with the abolition of slavery. And even though Samba today is associated with Brazilian culture and heritage as a whole, the Samba schools are still strongly associated with working class communities. In Rio, and you can even tour these today in Rio, and this is historically true, it was the working class neighborhoods that would compete in the parades at Carnaval. Each Samba school creates original songs, they practice original choreography, they have elaborate costumes and build magnificent floats. They are majestic, elaborate and we can see them on tv all over the world during the three days of Carnaval. During Bishop’s day the parades and the competition were in the streets, today it’s more organized, there’s an official stand called the Sambodrome with seating and waiting areas.
Of course, Bishop, likely along with everyone else, saw this commercialization of the street party coming…look at her final two stanzas..
They say that Carnival’s degenerating
-radios, Americans, or something,
Have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.
Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!
Well, even in her day, the Carnaval was becoming commercialized- today it’s even more so- with some events costing thousands of dollars to attend, but beyond just being more expensive, it became more tightly organized and controlled by elite people. Let me read a quote, “Much of the fun at Carnival has also been spoiled by the government’s forbidding costumes or floats that make sport of politicians, the church or the military. Some of the cleverest displays of wit were formerly inspired by these old reliable objects of satire. But radio and loudspeakers have done the most damage. The virtue of Carnival has always been its spontaneity and the fact that all the songs, music and dances came directly from the people themselves. When commercial songwriters start composing songs for it, and when these songs are broadcast long before Carnival, all charm is lost.” Bishop said. And of course, we’ve seen that over and over again in all kinds of areas- especially here in America. We take something that is fun and free and of the people and the big boys (as we call them) monetize and control it. We make it grander in some ways, more professional, but by doing that we also takes away everything we originally liked about it- are we erasing all the original magic- Bishop doesn’t think anyone can do that.
So, we see the slight of hand as Bishop through her pen takes us through the various ways of understanding her pink do. We start with the social, then move to the political then on to the commercial… This dog that we first saw on the beach of Copacabana invokes the beautiful girl from Ipanema…but quicly morphs to this social outcast slum dweller who one week a year is celebrated dancing the samba in beautiful fantasy…Garry, any thoughts…
Gosh…lots of them…there’s a lot to unpack here. It’s an indictment on how we treat the downtrodden for sure, Of course, she situates her poem in the political situation of Rio in the 1960s, but there is definitely a universality here. Rio is not alone in its stratification of society- that’s our natural human tendency, it’s actually unavoidably human- but she comments how how we hide this- layering the beautiful on the top the ugly- pretending and ignoring instead of addressing the complex and messy. All of us do this as societies, but we do it as individuals as well.
Exactly, and of course- that’s what’s so great about a lot of Bishop’s poems- this is one example but she does this all the time. She sees something in the world that’s really there- she describes it in detail, but in the detail we find the metaphorical- we find the political, we find the social, but we also find the personal. If I read this poem for a third time, and I’ll spare you listening to it a third time, but if you read it again, you can also read this poem as if the speaker identifies with the pink dog as an individual or maybe with the onlooker looking from the outside. Bishop was an outsider most of her life. You can see it both ways here. She was an outsider as a child, but even in Brazil where she finally found her home, she was an outsider. And in one sense isn’t that what the pink dog ultimately is, an outsider? But the outsider is also the observer, and this observer is detached, a narrator to something I am not interested in solving but observing. The narrator isn’t doing anything, except perhaps inviting us to empathize…she’s not preaching…or judging us, how could she, the narrator isn’t doing any more than just watching…She’s even funny and irreverent, in the most Brazilian of ways. But she expresses genuine empathy. She writes with a “just think about it attitude”, and it’s nice…In this case, she says, think about the pink dog. She sees the the actual animal, she sees IN it the beggar on the street, but beyond that..perhaps the pink dog is more…perhaps a pink dog on Copacabana is not the only one in a fantasia.. may be all of us are at times…even a closeted rich socialite can feel that way too.
And this was the last poem she wrote. How interesting? The pink dog was an image that stuck with her for over twenty years. Well, I have to admit, there was way more to that poem than I thought at first past. And the devil literally is in the details.
Indeed it is.
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