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What Not to Do in a Foreign Country, Lesson #3: Some Thoughts on Temporary Lives at Any Given Bend in the River

September 23, 2010

Of course I may be remembering it all wrong

after, after – how many years?

That golden evening I really wanted to go no farther;

more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile

in that conflux of two great rivers, Tapajós, Amazon,

grandly, silently flowing, flowing east.

Suddenly there’d been houses, people, and lots of mongrel

riverboats skittering back and forth

under a sky of gorgeous, under-lit clouds,

with everything gilded, burnished along one side,

and everything bright, cheerful, casual – or so it looked.

I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.

Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung

from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four

and they’d diverged. Here only two

and coming together. Even if one were tempted

to literary interpretations

such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female

– such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off

in that watery, dazzling dialectic.

— Elizabeth Bishop, 1978

American poet Elizabeth Bishop finished the final draft of Santarém the year before she died, almost two decades after she’d visited the small city on a trip down the Amazon in early 1960.

By the time Bishop published Santarém in the New Yorker in February, 1978, she’d buried the great love her life, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (September, 1967); her first and most important mentor, poet Marianne Moore (February, 1972); and her oldest, closest friend, poet Robert Lowell (September, 1977).

She’d also lost the high-modernist home she and Lota had designed and built in the Samambaia neighborhood of Petrópolis; Lota’s vast apartment overlooking Copacabana Beach; and Casa Mariana, the 18th-century house Bishop had bought and restored by herself in hilly Ouro Prêto.

And visitors poking around a blog called Expats Anonymous might well wonder why they were reading about Elizabeth Bishop at all… if they didn’t know that Bishop, more than any other 20th century American poet, saw displacement, dislocation, alienation, forgetfulness, anxiety, and loss — all the familiar themes attendant to the “expat” experience — as the simple commonplaces, the plain givens, the matter-of-fact foundation and framework, of her life.

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Bishop asks in her 1956 poem, Questions of Travel. “Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theaters?

Bishop, who refused to identify herself as a lesbian poet or female poet, and who tartly declined to have her work included in anthologies of “women’s” poetry, would have never thought of herself, much less called herself, an “expat” or an “expatriate,” likely dismissing those labels for their dishonesty or, worse yet, inaccuracy.

Like V.S. Naipaul, Joan Didion, Charles Darwin, and other writers who’ve wandered the world in the most thoughtful way,  Bishop rejected the merely personal and biographical to fix an obdurate gaze on the intransigent, unequivocal, observable facts of the world outside herself — the world where personality and opinion are eclipsed by the unassailable givens of geology, botany, zoology, geography, entomology, astronomy, anatomy, physics, chemistry, economics, history, archeology, mathematics, anthropology, and weather.

This is a world where theory and all other forms of wish fulfillment have no place, and where the precise botanical name of an odd little flower pushing its way through a crack in a tropical sidewalk has supreme importance.

This is a world, in other words, that doesn’t serve as a convenient stage on which folks might at whim assume roles as “expats” or “expatriates” or “travelers” or “tourists” or “exiles” to star in self-scripted dramas wherein the material facts of time and place are reduced to nothing more than props.

After all, what can the word “expat,” for example, possibly mean, what kind of exceptional or noteworthy state of being might it describe, when more people than ever before in human history are leaving or have left their country of origin to make lives for themselves in a nearby nation or one on the other side of the globe?

How can you be sure that you’ve left home at all if you don’t know the common names for the plants and trees around you? If you can’t identify a handful of local birds simply by the sound of their call? How can you be certain that you’re living in a “foreign” place if you know nothing of the history of the ground on which you stand, or the depth and length of the faults, if any, that run deep beneath it?

These and a few other questions like them first came to mind when we started talking about creating a blog called Expats Anonymous and the sort of material it should and oughtn’t offer.

And it was while asking ourselves these initial questions that we remembered Elizabeth Bishop and our favorite of her poems, Santarém, a poem about a small town which Bishop, near the very end of her life, self-admittedly only dimly recalled. What will we remember of the place where we were born and raised? What will take with us from those places where we lived for awhile and then moved on?

These perhaps aren’t productive questions for anyone who believes that “travel” or “living abroad” are instructive or ennobling or serve some other beneficial, or deleterious, point.

But in Santarém, Bishop, with nothing at all left to lose, finds herself again in the small Brazilian town at the confluence of “two great rivers…grandly, silently flowing, flowing east,” an equivocal paradise bathed in perpetual sunset where all distinctions, hope, mood, interpretation — even memory itself — surface evanescently only to dissolve in the bright, dazzling glare refracting off river water.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 9:53 am

    Beautiful post, Hugo. So many of the personal blogs I see profess to be blogs about “being an expat.” The phrase doesn’t really mean anything, and suggests a rather passive state of being. “Being an expat” isn’t doing anything, nor does it suggest any sort of transformation or growth over time. And as you pointed out so well, the little meaning the phrase does carry grows more diminished every day as more and more people move to countries other than their nations of origin.

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