Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

Rare and Commonplace Flowers


First published: 1995 (in English, 2001)
Found: I watched the movie first. Sorry.
Pages/read time: 218, two weeks’ bedtime reading


Ah, how sad a life is mine
Little grandma, little grandma!
I miss the time when I still had
My little grandma, little grandma.
                 – from Vovozinha, a popular Portuguese ballad

I usually try not to watch the movie first. Or at least if I do I try to leave many months between the film and the book so I don’t start critiquing the two comparatively. Well, I broke my rule. I live dangerously.

Reaching for the Moon (2013) directed by Bruno Baretto is based on the English translation of Carmen Oliveira’s creative-non-fiction biography Flores Raras e Banalíssimas (in English, Rare and Commonplace Flowers). Entranced by the rich scenery and enchanting cinematography, I immediately went in search of the book. The work recounts the real story of the romantic relationship between American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the Brazilian architectural designer Lota de Macedo Soares. This text is part biography informed by archival research and interviews conducted by the author, and part the fictional saga of the daily minutiae of a love affair between two highly gifted and volatile intellectuals.

In 1951, in a bid to escape her writer’s block, Bishop bought a ticket to travel the world, first stop Brazil. After meeting the aristocratic and charismatic Soares (and suffering a horrendous allergic reaction to a cashew fruit, forcing her to remain in Rio for treatment) Bishop stayed in Brazil for the better part of the next two decades. The narrative variously explores her creative triumphs, bouts of alcoholism, and Pulitzer prize winning poetry in light of her intense relationship with Soares over this time. Quite remarkably, poems about and in hommage to Soares were included in her Pulitzer prize-winning 1955 collection Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
 – Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
               – from The Shampoo, by Bishop

Conversely, the narrative also explores Soares’ obession with her country, political scheming in the name of art, infatuation with and occasional deep disdain for Bishop, and her complex and heated involvement with the creation of Rio de Janeiro’s Aterro do Flamengo – the city’s defining waterfront park landscape. Indeed, not just her involvement, but her position as the key creative visionary and political force behind the entire project.

The prose, told from through the various voices of Saores’ intimate friends across various decades, Bishop’s literary acquaintances, and the aloof and concise voice of the narrator, is somewhat disorientating at first. Luckily, before starting the text I broke another rule of mine: never to read acknowledgements or forewords before the work. Had I not, I would have been quite confused by the unusual turns of phrase and use of sentence order employed by the translator, Neil Besner, who worked with Oliveira closely to translate the poetic and innate fluidity of her original Portuguese prose into English. Dispersed with excerpts of Bishop’s poetry, extracts of Soares’ letters to various politicians and curt, fictionalised dialogue between the two lovers and various friends, the text quickly becomes a playful minefield of romantic blunders, social snap-backs, coup d’etats and hilarious domestic moments. Like this excerpt from Bishops’s poem about the incompetency of the new gardener:

And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you’d been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word “potatoes”
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.
                – from Manuelzinho, by Bishop

Though at times the text does get a little bogged down in the intricacies of the Flamengo construction (or lack of construction), the work is ultimately a satisfying portrayal of an unconventional relationship in two decades of very conventional value, both in the US and Brazil. The relationship’s narrative is mercifully not told with the view of selling copies through scandal and lesbian intrigue, but treated with the respect, detail and subtle intimacy so often denied the relationships of a) non-heterosexuals b) women c) people over the age of thirty and d) intellectuals.

A thoroughly rewarding text for lovers of biography, unconventional prose, and poetry alike.

Reading Suggestion: If you don’t speak Portuguese (I don’t) maybe read a quick wiki article on significant Portuguese-language writers in the mid twentieth century first. And though I was not able to try it, maybe playing LPs of the Porter and Cartola hits mentioned while reading the dryer bits on concrete engineering would be pleasant.

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