Sledge (Mother and Son: A Memoir, 1995) turns his gaze southward to re-create the passionate love affair between Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian Lota de Macedo Soares.
Elizabeth and Lota had briefly met each other at a social function in New York, so when in 1951, at the age of 40, Elizabeth goes to Rio to visit some friends, it’s both likely and logical that she would renew her acquaintance with Lota, an immensely wealthy aristocrat and political firebrand. Besotted with modern architecture, Lota is building a glass house in Samambaia, in the jungle, where Elizabeth joins her—and Elizabeth essentially doesn’t go home for the next 17 years. The relationship is complicated, in part because of Lota’s fiery personality. She recognizes Elizabeth’s genius and encourages, coaxes and beguiles her into writing more poetry, but she’s both concerned and horrified by Elizabeth’s severe alcoholism. (At one point Elizabeth justifies her craving by claiming that “drinking…provided a context, a frame, if you required one, for the disorganized desire to cause injury to yourself, operating somewhat like the formal structure of a poem.”) For her part, Elizabeth wants to give herself over to the intensity of a love relationship, but Lota alternates between being clingy and erratic. The political situation in Brazil is volatile, though eventually Lota gets a place in the new order. As always, she’s both imperious and seductive—and she definitely likes to get her way—but the energy she invests in political commitments and maneuverings diminishes her relationship with the poet. After a short stint teaching at the University of Washington, Elizabeth returns to Brazil, feeling that she’s failed as a teacher. She comes back to discover Lota in ill health and begins to nurse her, though much to Lota’s rage she still can’t control her almost constant need for drink. Close to death, Lota hurries the process by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
A moving novel of an illicit and impassioned relationship.