Flamengo Park, one of its several alternative names, is Rio de Janeiro’s largest public park. It incorporates many sporting areas, gardens, a museum, an art gallery and a beach along Guanabara Bay in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. In 2012 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 1960 the site was just a huge landfill area. It was where several hills had been flattened and the soil dumped along the bay in order to construct the ever-growing road network.
The Governor of Guanabara State, Carlos Lacerda, had embarked on a programme of urban regeneration. Almost immediately on taking up office he appointed 51) Lota de Macedo Soares to his administration. Lota was known as an influential figure in local architecture and design, even though she had no formal training. She had worked with one of Rio’s leading architects and was virtually self-taught. What Lota was especially good at was coming up with an idea, a design, and assembling a team of other designers, architects and builders to bring her vision to reality.
Governor Lacerda asked her what ideas she had for improving Rio’s less developed areas. The story goes that Lota was with the governor in his apartment when asked this. She pointed straight out of the window to the landfill area along the bay and said “Give me that and I’ll turn it into Central Park” (referring to New York’s Central Park, of course).
And so it was that Flamengo Park came into being. After designing the whole park Lota gathered around her a group of top architects, builders and landscape designers to put the fine details onto her plans. Among the design elements was an airport and the planting of over 11 thousand trees. Below is a Youtube video of a drone flight over Flamengo Park filmed in November 2016. It gives you a good idea of just how big the park is.
However good Lota’s vision and organisational skills may have been she was not a politician, and Governor Lacerda soon had other matters to deal with, leaving Lota to deal with the Rio city bureaucracy on her own.
Fortunately, in her private life Lota was not on her own, though she was not without her share of stress. In 1951 she met and fell in love with an American, 52) Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). The two met during Elizabeth’s travels around the world. She had only intended to stay in Rio for a couple of weeks and ended up staying for fifteen years.
When the two met Elizabeth was a well-known poet in the US. She had only published one book of poetry, “North and South” published in 1946 (though she had other poems published in student magazines when she was a university). Elizabeth found Brazil fascinating and began to study Latin-American literature and her was later was influenced by its poets. The first published work after moving to Rio was a “sequel” to “North and South” called “Poems: North and South – A Cold Spring”, published in 1955. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The Flamengo Park project dominated Lota’s life when it began in 1960. She spent a lot of time personally supervising the work but Elizabeth didn’t really like Rio city centre and remained in their Lota-designed home about an hour’s drive away. Despite her happiness Elizabeth was prone to alcoholic binges that put a strain on the relationship. Another was the stress Lota felt over her battles with Rio bureaucracy. Both problems were to lead to Lota’s bouts of depression.
In 1966 Elizabeth took up a post as Writer in Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. To ease her loneliness she began a relationship with another woman. After Elizabeth returned to Brazil Lota found out and their relationship became tarnished. Elizabeth began to travel around Brazil before deciding to return to the US to find work.
However much Lota hated Elizabeth over her affair in Seattle she felt their own relationship was worth salvaging. The continuing stress over bureaucratic interference over the management of Flamengo Park seemed to be unbearable without Elizabeth. Lota travelled to New York to see Elizabeth and try to get their relationship back on track. Their meeting was friendly and promising, but short-lived. On the second morning Elizabeth found Lota collapsed in a coma. She was rushed to hospital but Lota died several days later. Suicide was the official cause of death.
Elizabeth was devastated, even more so after Lota’s family began accusing her of being the cause of Lota’s death. Elizabeth’s return to Brazil was not a happy one and she moved permanently back to the USA.
Elizabeth’s later career was spent mainly in lecturing rather than writing. For a major poet she wrote comparatively little but she received many fellowships and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize I mentioned above and also the Order of Rio Banco from the Brazilian government.
Perhaps the appointment which highlights the significance of her work to Brits like myself was that of Elizabeth’s appointment as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress in 1949-50. This title doesn’t resonate with the British as much as the commonly used alternative title of US Poet Laureate.
The US has been appointing its Consultants in Poetry/Poets Laureate since 1937. Among them have been Sir Stephen Spender, Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. Unlike the UK there have been more than one female US Poet Laureate. Elizabeth Bishop was the third. In the UK there has been only one, the current Poet Laureate, and the only openly lesbian one – 53) Dame Carol Ann Duffy (b.1955).
Next time : We have no time to rest on our laurels before going through the agony of singing.