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Tapestried Landscape: The Queer Influence of Roberto Burle Marx on Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil

“Marvelous and somehow sad, flamboyant, and threatening.[1]

The words are Elizabeth Bishop’s, writing in a letter to describe the extraordinary tropical plant life encountered at the Sítio Burle Marx, the hundred-acre home and nursery of Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s best-known landscape architect and a key figure in the country’s modernist movement. Although Bishop had already lived in Brazil for ten years when she wrote this, the Sítio Burle Marx, located on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, was and continues to be an incomparably rich showcase for botanical exotica collected on the designer’s many scouting expeditions to remote Brazilian biomes (fig. 1). A polymath, “one of the real Brazilian geniuses” in Bishop’s words, Burle Marx was a celebrated painter, tapestry artist, and muralist (Words in Air, 361). But it was as a landscape designer where his influence was most profound. From 1938 onward, when he contributed a garden for a Le Corbusier–designed building in downtown Rio de Janeiro, his designs and writings served as a persuasive argument for the use of indigenous rather than European plants.[2] (To some, his gardens were a living embodiment of antropofagia, the Brazilian modernist turn to indigenous traditions, alongside a cannibalistic digestion of colonial influence.[3]) He increased the amount of greenery in Brazilian cities and, beginning in the 1960s, advocated fiercely for the protection of the Amazon and other threatened biomes. On a formal level, his crucial innovation was to isolate and concentrate a few extravagant species of plant, pruning back the dense ecodiversity of the rain forest into an expressive, “artificial” style.[4] Indeed, while Bishop is ostensibly describing the qualities of plants she encountered at the Sítio, her use of the word “flamboyant” points beyond them to the camp manner of the designer himself (fig. 2).

Garden at Sítio Burle Marx, Barra de Guaratiba, Brazil
Fig. 1. Sítio Burle Marx, Barra de Guaratiba, Brazil. Photograph by the author.
 Roberto Burle Marx, an older man with glasses, holding jewelry
Fig. 2. Landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, in camp mode. Screenshot from archival footage exhibited at “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx,” New York Botanical Garden, 2018. Fair use.

Bishop’s own manner was more restrained; she “believed in closets, closets, and more closets.”[5] Yet the qualities she uncovers in Burle Marx’s nursery could describe her own, equally artificial representations of Brazilian landscape. In this essay, I suggest that Bishop’s depictions of Brazilian landscape, and the queerness she locates there, are mediated and influenced by Burle Marx’s landscape designs and philosophy. Despite the extensive criticism on Bishop—and the many mentions of Burle Marx in her letters and nonfiction book Brazil for Life World Library—a connection between the poet and landscape artist has yet to be explored. While many scholars have written on Bishop’s landscape poetry in general terms, I shift approach by considering the specifically Brazilian histories and attitudes toward nature that appear in Bishop’s writing.[6] This follows critics whose work has increasingly placed Bishop’s Brazil writings within the social and political contexts of that country, by drawing out the problematic class politics in poems like “Manuelzinho” and “Squatter’s Children,” or by unpacking Bishop’s commentary on the failures of modern architecture at Brasília.[7] Building on this work, I direct focus toward the perhaps subtler meanings of modern Brazilian landscape, which is equally fraught with ideological meanings as the country’s modernist architecture. (This is especially true of the landscapes of Burle Marx, who worked intimately with Brazil’s most powerful modern architects and planners.[8]) Burle Marx influences Bishop’s representations of Brazilian landscape through his transformative use of plants native to the tropics rather than importing European varieties and in his arrangements of those plants in “artificial associations” not found in nature. These two elements—united in Burle Marx’s flamboyant, queer style—influence the conscious artifice of Bishop’s own “tapestried landscapes.”

What does it mean to compare physical landscape to its appearance in poetry? How does the physical world enter into words on a page? Bishop herself poses similar questions in a wry interview response:

Inspiration is a very curious word. When I was living in Brazil, I had a study up on the side of a mountain that overlooked a waterfall and a small pool beneath it. Around it was a clump of royal bamboo. When visitors came, many of whom had never read a single line I had written, they would point to the bamboo and say, “So this is where you get your inspiration!” I thought at one point of pinning a sign on the bamboo saying, “Inspiration.”[9]

Is it worse that the visitors haven’t read a lick of Bishop’s poetry, or does it save her from being misread in even grosser ways? What seems to irk her most is the visitors’ clichéd notion that a beautiful landscape should enter the poem unmediated. The poet is no mere scribe of landscape; she is rather its author, Bishop suggests, to the extent that her language enters it. Despite her reluctance to admit the influence of the picturesque, Bishop remains faithful to an accurate description of place, noting the position of the waterfall and pool. The royal bamboo is also worth comment. Although the plant is native to South America, a “clump” of them is almost certain to have been planted there, Zen garden–style, by Bishop’s partner Lota de Macedo Soares (an old friend and classmate of Burle Marx’s). If Bishop had indeed been inspired, it would have been a consciously designed landscape, with an “artificial” arrangement of plants, providing the inspiration.

Placing an “Inspiration” sign in the landscape is also a way of defiling it, making it less picturesque. When W. J. T. Mitchell introduces his three-pronged analytic of place, space, and landscape, he notes how often landscape—which he defines as the image or “sight” of a fixed place—is “consumed” through “picturesque tableaus.”[10] The consumption of tropical landscape was a recurrent concern for Bishop. In “Questions of Travel,” she gives us an ironic emblem of it: “have we room / for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?”[11] In the letter about Burle Marx I quote above, Bishop describes an even more violent instance of consumption, noting how at his Sítio, there were “fantastic fruit-and-flower-decorations yards high that everyone tore to shreds at the end of the day, to take home” (Words in Air, 362). Bishop is keenly aware of the scene’s ideological meanings, as she imagines herself and the other guests to be a cautionary example in the eyes of a Chinese communist delegation also present: “there we were all being very gay, admiring plants and Roberto’s collection of Brazilian antiques, etc., and stuffing ourselves . . . about to reap what we sowed” (362). Satirizing western decadence, Bishop’s signifiers here are notably queer: the “gay” mood, the male homosexual aesthete’s collection of treasured objects, the guests’ sentimental attachment to the flora. There is more to be said about Bishop’s split between communist concern and queer pleasure than I can say here.[12] But the immediate point is that for Bishop, Burle Marx was a joyful figure who provided many opportunities to think about the melding of queer sensibility and landscape design.[13] 

Although Burle Marx’s queerness is an open secret in Brazil, his sexuality is not mentioned in either Portuguese- or English-language criticism.[14] Whether or not we deem it necessary to view Burle Marx’s landscapes though a queer lens, Bishop herself does connect his consciously artificial designs to his gay sensibility. To establish this connection further, I draw on biographical material from the Bishop archives as well as Portuguese-language sources, some of which have not appeared in English. Burle Marx was not a distant influence on Bishop but an actual friend, introduced to her through Macedo Soares, who twice oversaw his design work. In the late 1940s, the two worked in tandem to develop her inherited country estate, Fazenda Samambaia, then collaborated more publicly—and fractiously—in the early 1960s when she supervised his designs for the Parque do Flamengo, or Flamengo Park, built out of landfill on Rio de Janeiro’s waterfront. This work on the “fill,” as Bishop calls it in her letters, opens a small window onto a mid-century queer coterie and its dissolution.[15]

Specifically, Burle Marx’s aesthetic influence, and his personal entanglement with Macedo Soares and Bishop, illuminate two major Bishop poems: “Brazil, January 1, 1502” from her 1965 volume Questions of Travel, and “Crusoe in England” from Geography III (1976). In the presciently ecocritical “Brazil,” Bishop complicates the commonplace view that tropical landscape is a wild and untouched first nature by highlighting the landscape forms the Portuguese conquistadores projected onto it. The poem’s alternation between nature and its visual representation in painting and tapestry links the poem to Burle Marx’s distinct practices of landscape design and fine art painting. Passages from the poem echo Bishop’s English translation of Henrique E. Mindlin’s 1956 book Modern Architecture in Brazil, in entries describing specific Burle Marx landscapes. Understanding Macedo Soares and Burle Marx’s fractious collaboration on the design of Flamengo Park helps to explain Bishop’s more ambivalent descriptions of tropical landscape in her later poems. Finally, Bishop’s obliquely autobiographical “Crusoe” connects to her image of Burle Marx as botanist-explorer in the Darwin tradition. The queer dimension of Bishop’s poem echoes Burle Marx’s collecting expeditions, especially those he undertook with the architect Rino Levi. Alongside Bishop’s lifetime of reading scientific adventure accounts, Burle Marx’s real-world plant expeditions offer the poet a model of queer botanizing. 

Tapestried Landscape: Burle Marx and “Brazil, January 1, 1502”

Interviewer: I’ve been reading a critical book about you that Anne Stevenson wrote. She said that in your poems nature was neutral.

Bishop: Yes, I remember the word “neutral.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that.[16]

It’s no surprise that Bishop would be primed to see Brazilian plant life as threatening. Not long after she arrived in Brazil in 1951, she ate caju, the astringent tropical fruit that is often discarded for the more valuable cashew nut it protects. With one acid bite, the course of Bishop’s life shifted and found new ground. Asthmatic, she experienced an allergic reaction so severe, it delayed her departure from Brazil for several weeks. She fell into the care of Macedo Soares, the “precipitate and pragmatical” woman described in Bishop’s poem “The Shampoo” (Poems, 82). The two would fall in love and live together for sixteen years, mostly at Macedo Soares’s mountain retreat near Petrópolis, sixty kilometers inland from Rio de Janeiro. The estate was named Casa Samambaia after a fern common to the area.

The threat ebbed once Bishop settled at Samambaia, and she began to appreciate the landscape’s marvelous qualities.[17] Writing to Marianne Moore in 1951, Bishop is awed by the landscape’s impurity, its mixture of native and grafted elements:

I have been staying mostly at my friend Lota’s country place in Petrópolis, about 40 miles from Rio, and it is a sort of dream-combination of plant & animal life. . . . Not only are there highly impractical mountains all around with clouds floating in & out of one’s bedroom, but waterfalls, orchids, all the Key West flowers I know & Northern apples and pears as well. (One Art, 236)

The letter is often quoted to show the openness of Macedo Soares’s modernist house, a theme of Bishop’s poems “Electric Storm” and “Song for the Rainy Season.” Of greater interest to me is how the poet immediately recognizes that the nature surrounding her is not an unadulterated tropical wild. A practiced observer of flora and fauna, Bishop sees—and creates in her seeing—a landscape that is a hybrid of new perception and mediated knowledge. Its hybrid character grows even more surreal when Bishop turns to the animal life, of special interest to Moore: “Lota has sold one of her [plots] to a famous Polish zoo man and you just have to drive down the mountainside for two minutes to see a black jaguar, a camel, all the most beautiful birds in the world” (236). The environment surrounding Samambaia is not a first nature of pure wilderness but a consciously landscaped third nature, filled with native Brazilian plants but also non-native elements, such as northern apples and animals from other continents. Is this what Moore had in mind when she described poetry as an art of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them?”[18]

It is instructive to turn from this letter to “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” completed eight years later in 1959. In the 1951 letter, Bishop shows off her botanical knowledge and keen eye; in the poem, she is more suspicious of such mediation effects. “Brazil” critiques the damaging preconceptions of landscape the Portuguese brought with them to the Americas, while acknowledging the contemporary tourist’s—and artist’s—complicity in imperial regimes of knowledge. Bishop accomplishes this layering of colonial and neocolonial gazes with a single, arresting word, “Januaries,” condensing an historical past and a touristic present into one continuous timeframe:

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes

exactly as she must have greeted theirs:

every square inch filling in with foliage. (Poems, 89)

With this image, it would seem that Bishop means to establish tropical nature as ever-abundant, “filling in” and overcoming any human interference. Bishop invokes this cliché to seduce us into a shared complicity revealed at the poem’s ending. Through the story of first encounter, Bishop shows us how our perceptions of nature are more often projections onto it:

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,

tiny as nails, and glinting,

in creaking armor, came and found it all,

not unfamiliar:

no lovers’ walks, no bowers,

no cherries to be picked, no lute music,

but corresponding, nevertheless,

to an old dream of wealth and luxury

already out of style when they left home— (90)

If the conquerors hoped for an immediately recognizable pastoral—a bower, an arbor—they would be disappointed. Yet despite the absence of these recognizable tropes of courtly love, Brazil is “not unfamiliar,” its lush forest “corresponding . . . / to an old dream of wealth and luxury.” There is some ambiguity as to what might constitute this “old dream”;[19] Bishop most likely means the Virgilian “myth of a Golden Age in which man lived on the fruits of the earth, peacefully, piously and with primitive simplicity,” as Kenneth Clark writes in Landscape Into Art, the source of Bishop’s epigraph for the poem “embroidered nature . . . tapestried landscape” (Poems, 89).[20]

Landscape as tapestry is Bishop’s master trope, and the deft way she moves within this metaphor is a crucial source of the poem’s power. The poem begins with precise natural description: leaves with “occasional lighter veins and edges, / or a satin underleaf turned over,” which gives way to a scene that is “fresh as if just finished / and taken off the frame” (Poems, 89). (The visual medium seems to shift between painting and tapestry.) In the next stanza, the language of art and its material support creeps in more and more. The sky is blue-white, but there is also “a simple web, / backing for feathery detail” (89). As in a medieval tapestry, Bishop layers Christian allegory into the scene, as “the big symbolic birds keep quiet” and “in the foreground there is Sin: / five sooty dragons near some massy rocks” (89). This invocation of the Christian tradition is a deep irony, considering the violence of the Portuguese against both the landscape and the native women, as seen in the poem’s final passage:

they ripped away into the hanging fabric,

each out to catch an Indian for himself—

those maddening little women who kept calling,

calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)

and retreating, always retreating, behind it. (90)

The Indians retreat behind what exactly? Behind the scrim of the forest, its density protecting them from discovery? Or behind the rent fabric of the tapestry? The forest-as-tapestry trope has turned one last time, as its “ripped . . . fabric” is revealed to be densely layered, retreating into a three-dimensional background of foliage. It’s a marvelously ambiguous ending because Bishop disappears as well at this moment, behind the scrim of her own art. Many readers have wondered whether the indigenous women successfully escape from the Europeans or succumb to their invasion. Bethany Hicok and Katrina Dodson both bring forward an illuminating intertext, noting how Bishop borrows the phrase “retreating, always retreating,” from her translation of the Clarice Lispector story, “The Smallest Woman in the World,” set in the Congo.[21] In the story, the satirically exoticized title character Little Flower holds the advantage in her encounter with the European explorer, disarming him through her nakedness and openly displayed pregnancy. Likewise in Bishop’s poem does female sexual display (the threatening “red-hot” back of the female lizard) become a form of power, which, together with the forest cover, seems to protect the native women from pillaging. Bishop’s poem revises history through feminist reversal, perhaps also drawing on her personal sense of the tree cover at Samambaia as a protective retreat for female love.

In Bishop’s own overly modest description of “Brazil” to Robert Lowell, she says that her intention was to re-work a touristic cliché: “I am so glad you liked the New Year’s poem. I think it is a bit artificial, but I finally had to do something with the cliché about the landscape looking like a tapestry, I suppose. And it does now in February, too” (Words in Air, 310). Art becomes life becomes art—repeat. There is an additional historical facet to Bishop’s use of painting and tapestry to mediate the destruction of the rain forest. For decades after the European conquest of Brazil, the main resource extracted was the pau-brasil or Brazilwood tree, which gave the country its name. The primary value of this tree was its ability to produce red dye for paint and luxury fabric, including tapestries. Brazil in its very name is predicated on the transformation of the forest—and the exploited labor of its indigenous populations—into the fiber of European “luxury.” Bishop narrates this origin story in her nonfiction book for Life: “At least as early as the 9th century a land called ‘Brasil’ was already a legend in Europe. It was wherever bresilium came from, a wood obtained in trade with the far east, much in demand for dyeing cloth red.”[22] Bishop goes on to speculate on the presence of Brazilwood in paintings by European masters: “Perhaps all the red woolens the peasants wear in the paintings of Brueghel were dyed with ‘brasil’ wood?” (Prose, 174). The question condenses two forms of representation: the dye used for fabric and the pigment used for paint. (Because red from Brazilwood was not colorfast, it was used less frequently for painting. However, artists from Tintoretto to Turner to Van Gogh did use it in the place of more expensive reds derived from cochineal or madder.)

Considering its use of visual art as a central trope, it is no surprise that “Brazil” is among Bishop’s most painterly poems, mentioning seventeen distinct hues of color in the first two stanzas alone. Although shades of green dominate, red is the last color mentioned, in a reference to the “back” of a “female” lizard—a focal point for potential male exploit—as “red as a red-hot wire” (Poems, 90).[23] Is it possible the poem is performing the transformation of green into red that characterizes Brazilwood extraction? Certainly, the movement of the poem’s master trope, from living forest to painting or tapestry, echoes the Portuguese mercantile traffic in dyewood the poem frames. The poem’s form reinforces its message that representations of landscape—including the material necessary for its creation—influences our apprehension and treatment of nature. Ironically, the very pictorial allure of tropical nature may contribute to its destruction, Bishop’s poem suggests. Indeed, the original stands of Brazilwood were ruinously depleted by Portuguese resource extraction; the tree is now a protected species. 

The array of references behind “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is vast, and Burle Marx is by no means the predominant one. However, a key message of Bishop’s poem—that European landscape forms do damage when projected onto the tropics—is one she drew from Burle Marx, who did much to change Brazilian elites’ attitudes toward their botanical patrimony. Historian Nancy Stepan writes: “from the Portuguese the Brazilians inherited an attitude of ruthless utilitarianism in relation to natural resources that left little space for nature sentimentality.”[24] Not recognizing the value of the forest beyond the extraction of wood for building, the ruling classes in the early years of the Republic feared that their country would forever be a “terrible sublime of nature” and not a “technological sublime of modernity” (Stepan, Picturing, 214). It is Burle Marx whom Stepan and other cultural historians credit with shifting this attitude. His landscapes were in some senses rhetorical arguments for valuing the beauty of native plant life, and thus, Brazilian nature as a whole.[25] That Bishop connected this revaluation of indigenous plant life with Burle Marx is evident in her description of him in Brazil, the mass-market nonfiction book she published in 1962 with Life World Library: “Amid all this misuse of the country’s natural assets, a force for the good is represented by the noted landscape gardener and botanist Roberto Burle Marx. . . . Until [he] began his work, the average public or large private garden in the tropics or subtropics was an inappropriate, sun-yellowed imitation of the Tuileries, the large formal park in the center of Paris.”[26] Bishop’s claims, which were based on Burle Marx’s own self-mythologizing, merit further discussion. Burle Marx did not so much reject European influence as digest it, in cannibalistic fashion. Catherine Seavitt Nordenson points out how Burle Marx, and before him Auguste Glaziou, drew on English picturesque garden style (rather than the more rigid French parterre) in the design of public gardens in Rio de Janeiro. Nordenson also notes that Glaziou used indigenous plants in Brazil’s gardens well before Burle Marx.[27] The point, however, is not to test Burle Marx’s claims to originality but to understand how Bishop’s views of his work inform and enter into her conceptions of Brazilian landscape. The very dichotomy she draws out in her description of Burle Marx above—between inappropriate European models and more apt Brazilian style that draws on indigenous elements—is a central tension that animates “Brazil, January 1, 1502.”

The artifice of Bishop’s tapestry metaphor also connects the poem to Burle Marx’s landscapes and design philosophy. Like Bishop, Burle Marx was not interested in a pure naturalism but rather highlights the artificiality of human-made landscape. “When I design gardens I don’t try to copy nature slavishly,” he notes (Lectures, 155). In his landscapes, he maintains ecological integrity while enjoying the creative license of an artist:

The landscape architect in Brazil enjoys the liberty of creating gardens in this environment of overflowing abundance. While acknowledging the requirements of ecological and aesthetic compatibility, one can create artificial associations or relationships with great expressiveness. To create an artificial landscape is not to negate or imitate nature in a servile manner. It is to know how to transpose and associate plants by using one’s selective and personal criteria, developed over time from intense and prolonged observation. (“Garden and Ecology,” 265–66, emphasis mine)

So bold was Burle Marx’s use of artifice, William Adams titled the 1991 show of his work at the Museum of Modern Art “The Unnatural Art of the Garden,” as if to cast him as a protagonist from Huysman.[28] French landscape designer Gilles Clément more seriously questions Burle Marx’s embrace of artifice and unnatural plant combinations. Why does he “not think that ecology could be integrated into the garden?” he complains, though it is really the absence of a naturalistic style that he deplores (quoted in Stepan, Picturing, 237). Stepan rephrases his concern more neutrally: “how could Burle Marx’s ecological imagination connect . . . to the extreme artificiality of his gardens?” (237).

Aspects of Burle Marx’s visual art practice are also relevant to Bishop’s poem. Unique among modern landscape artists, Burle Marx was also celebrated for his paintings and tapestry art. There are clear stylistic correspondences between the artworks and garden designs; both draw on a distinctive mid-century serpentine biomorphism present in designs by Niemeyer and non-Brazilians like Alvar Aalto and Thomas Church. Yet the relationship between his paintings and gardens is more complex than it may at first seem.[29] In addition to straightforward design plans produced in advance of the gardens, Burle Marx also produced gouache painting of the gardens after they were completed, often shifting colors and changing shapes for compositional effects, which has caused problems for later designers and architects attempting to restore the gardens.[30] It also creates a productive confusion for the viewer. Are Burle Marx’s gardens simply paintings in three dimensions, and if so, how do they respond to such accidents of place as light, distance, volume, weather? How does Burle Marx’s distinct practice of fine art abstraction—in paintings, tile murals, and tapestries—relate to his similar-looking design plans? The artworks, meant for gallery exhibition and placement within gardens, share a visual idiom with the design renderings but do not necessarily represent a specific landscape, or depict landscape at all. If we see landscape in these abstractions, perhaps it is because we project this landscape onto them, just as the Portuguese projected their European ideas of nature onto the Brazilian landscape.

Roberto Burle Marx overseeing the installation of his tapestry at the Pálacio Itamaraty in Brasília, Brazil
Fig. 3. Roberto Burle Marx overseeing the installation of his tapestry at the Pálacio Itamaraty in Brasília, Brazil. Screenshot of archival footage from Filme Paisagem (2018), directed by João Vargas Penna. Fair use.

On the one hand, the historical and symbolic aspects of Bishop’s “Brazil” place it in conversation with the medieval and early modern art in Clark’s Landscape Into Art.[31] However, the poem’s very modern confusion of the living rain forest and its two-dimensional representation echoes Burle Marx’s alternation between painting, tapestry-making, and actual landscape. Bishop certainly knew and admired Burle Marx’s artmaking, writing in a 1959 letter, “We went to São Paulo for the opening of the Biennale this year. . . . Thousands of abstractions—horribly depressing after a few hours—but a few very good things—folk stuff from Bahia, a wonderful show, the Burle-Marx was good” (One Art, 376–77). Bishop might have marveled how, in cubist style, Burle Marx’s paintings and tapestries toggle between pure abstraction and a more figurative mode of representation—when a seemingly abstract curve transforms into a quite recognizable leaf. Perspective shifts also enter into the experience. Some of his tapestries give the viewer the simultaneous experience of walking through nature and flying above it, as though taking in both the bird’s eye and perspective views in one plane (fig. 3).

Burle Marx’s ideas circulated widely, but there were more immediate material reasons why Bishop should absorb his notions about landscape. In various nonfiction writings and translations, Bishop describes Burle Marx’s garden designs, largely because the actual landscapes surrounding her at Samambaia were shaped by his interventions. In the late 1940s, before Bishop’s arrival, Macedo Soares brought in her old friend and classmate Burle Marx to help divide up the family farm she had inherited into individual plots (fig. 4). Bishop explains some of the financial particulars in a 1956 letter to the poet May Swenson:

[Lota] owns a big tract of land, i.e., Samambaia, left by her mother, and the ancient Fazenda of Samambaia (a “national monument” now), down below us . . . is being “developed,” which is her source of income, but she’s kept a couple square miles here at the top where we live, so it will always be protected from neighbors. (One Art, 317)

According to official chronologies of his life, Burle Marx completed the gardens of the Fazenda Samambaia in 1948.[32] The “national monument” Bishop mentions in her letter is a protected landscape attributed to him. He is also credited with the design of many of the estates Macedo Soares sold off or rented to supply her an income. The source of this information is Henrique E. Mindlin’s 1956 book Modern Architecture in Brazil, an intriguing document translated into English by a poet whose time might “have been better used in her own writing, since her poetry brought her in 1956 the Pulitzer Prize Award,” as Mindlin writes in the book’s introduction.[33] The translator is of course Bishop. In the course of translating and editing Mindlin’s book, she would have written Burle Marx’s name twenty-eight times.

The landscape at Samambaia, Petrópolis
Fig. 4. The landscape at Samambaia, Petrópolis. Folder 100.25, Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Library. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library.

Mindlin himself purchased a plot at Samambaia with a garden by Burle Marx, and was thus a close neighbor of Bishop, who “worked intensively” with him on the translation of the book and likely took an active role in poeticizing its descriptions (Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil, 9). There are some compelling links between the Burle Marx entry in Mindlin’s book and Bishop’s poem “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” The first connection is an entry describing another estate near Petrópolis that Burle Marx designed. The text reads: “Sculptural notes point up the softness of the ‘tapestry’ textures: a group of Philodendron” and other flora (Modern Architecture in Brazil, 242, emphasis mine). If landscape-as-tapestry is a cliché, as Bishop complained to Lowell, she encountered it here years earlier, and perhaps even provided the English translation. Elsewhere in the text, a Burle Marx landscape is described as alternating between an abstract painting and a sculptural terrain, just as Bishop’s poem wavers between the two: “From a distance the reds, greens and grays are an abstract plant painting, but become an interplay of volume on closer approach” (240). The Burle Marx entry also suggests a source for Bishop’s unusual modifier for red in the poem. The translation notes Burle Marx’s use of “red-hot poker,” a finger-like red floral variety that, in the design, “point[s] strategically towards a ‘picturesque’ tree” (240). Bishop did not invent this vernacular nickname for the phallic-looking Kniphofia uvaria, but the phrase would likely have struck her as marvelous bit of poetry. Use of it in the Burle Marx translation may have inspired her own description of the Brazilian landscape in terms of “red-hot” metalwork, especially its erotic elements—the exposed back-side and tail of a lizard, which Bishop describes in “Brazil, January 1, 1502” as throbbing, “red as a red-hot wire.”

Conflicts at Flamengo Park

An entry on Macedo Soares’s house also appears in Modern Architecture in Brazil, and sources suggest that she landscaped her own estate, just as she took a strong hand in the design of the house, though it is credited officially to Sérgio Bernardes (fig. 5). It is hard to know how extensively Burle Marx was involved in advising Macedo Soares. Because he developed the greater Fazenda Samambaia, it seems fair to say that his expertise and ideas about landscape at the very least would have influenced the design of her own plot. Yet even this modest claim is likely to exercise critics intent on recuperating Macedo Soares’s reputation in the wake of the Flamengo Park fracas.[34]      

Preliminary landscaping outside the newly built house at Samambaia
Fig. 5. Preliminary landscaping outside the newly built house at Samambaia, Petrópolis. Architecture by Sérgio Bernardes and Lota de Macedo Soares (pictured at left). Photograph by Darcy Trigo. Folder 113.5, Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Library. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library.
Black and white photo of Lota de Macedo Soares, seated
Fig. 6. Lota de Macedo Soares. Folder 100.12, Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Library. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library.

A 296-acre landfill addition to the Rio waterfront built in 1961–65, Flamengo Park extends from the southern edge of the city’s Centro district to front the neighborhoods of Glória, Catete, Flamengo, ending at the beach promenade at Botafogo, which was also redesigned (fig. 7). Overall, this lengthy stretch of land comprises roughly half of the waterfront of Rio proper, reflecting the heavy hand Burle Marx had in shaping the image of the city. He was also responsible for redesigning the sprawling Copacabana beach promenade—both the traditional wavy stone calçadão fronting the beach and the modernist graphic designs in the boulevard stretching the length of Avenida Atlântica, which artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster calls “the largest drawing in the world” (quoted in Hoffmann and Nahson, Brazilian Modernist, 178). At Flamengo Park, Burle Marx created the biomorphic green spaces, while architect Affonso Reidy designed its built structures, including pedestrian bridges over the highway separating the park from the neighborhoods behind it. Macedo Soares maintained control over the overall plan, making decisions about futbol fields and light posts, to the consternation of Burle Marx.

Parque do Flamengo, or Flamengo Park, circa 2018
Fig. 7. Parque do Flamengo, or Flamengo Park, circa 2018. Screenshot from Filme Paisagem (2018), directed by João Vargas Penna. Fair use.

The park was a rare opportunity to realize a Central Park–scale expanse in the middle of a developed city. It allowed both figures to indulge socialist principles, designing a “people’s park” rather than a private estate.[35] Yet the park’s creation was part of a conservative political calculus by Macedo Soares’s friend Carlos Lacerda, then the governor of Guanabara state. Although he subscribed to leftist ideas in his earlier career as a journalist, as politician he became virulently anti-communist, supporting the right-wing military coup of 1964. (He was also the target of a failed assassination attempt in 1954 ordered by Getúlio Vargas, who committed suicide in the aftermath.) Macedo Soares argued for making the park a signature project to promote his presidential run against leftist Goulart, who was deposed by the military coup. Even the land of the Flamengo Park was the result of conservative machinations. Much of the landfill came from the demolition of two hills in the Centro area, Morro de Santo Antônio and Morro do Castelo, the heart of the original colonial settlement. At the time of their razing, these hills were home to about 4,200 low-income immigrants from the Northeast, “undesirable[s]” who were displaced to area further outside the city center, as part of a racist program of “public health.”[36]

Headstrong Burle Marx bristled at being overseen by Macedo Soares in her first public position. “When Lota got power, she began to be a little authoritarian,” he notes (Fountain and Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 196). He objected to her hiring a separate designer for the park’s playground spaces, whose visual appeal he likened to that of a “concentration camp” (Nogueira, Invenções, 156).[37] When he heard her credit one of his sub-employees for the park’s landscaping, suggesting that Burle Marx had been traveling during most of the installation, he took his grievance to Rio’s daily newspaper, O Globo. Belittling her abilities and lack of formal training, he wrote that “having the good taste to pick out a spoon or a Finnish kettle does not signify that you have creative talents” (Oliveira, Rare, 135). He claimed sole authorship, arguing that the park was “created by me and my office of experts, with the decisive support of Governor Carlos Lacerda.”[38] The final straw was Macedo Soares’s using a cheaper nursery to supply the grass for the park, undercutting his profits (Nogueira, Invenções, 159). In a second letter, Burle Marx complained about the oversized lampposts that Macedo Soares had commissioned for the park, manufactured in the U.S. at great expense.

This conflict between Macedo Soares and Burle Marx deepens our understanding of the subsequent rupture between her and Bishop. Burle Marx’s complaints were not a primary catalyst for the couple’s estrangement, of course. Yet his betrayal of a friend in so public a manner caused Macedo Soares significant distress and factored into her mental breakdown in 1966. Much of the biographical criticism and cultural productions about the end of Bishop’s and Macedo Soares’s affair allude to the conflict without offering an accurate account of it. For example, the 2013 Brazilian movie Flores Raras (Reaching for the Moon in English) omits Burle Marx’s role in the park’s design entirely, elevating Macedo Soares as sole designer. (The film also features one of Burle Marx’s most famous and best-preserved designs, the grounds of the private residence Casa Cavanelas, as a stand-in for Macedo Soares’ less photogenic Casa Samambaia [fig. 8]). It is possible to credit Burle Marx as rightful designer of the park’s green spaces, while also revealing his sexist complaints against Macedo Soares in the press (behavior which he later regretted). This is not meant to diminish his achievements in landscape design, but rather to clarify his complicated position in Bishop’s psychological and poetic imaginary.

Burle Marx’s landscape design at Casa Cava
Fig. 8. Burle Marx’s landscape design at Casa Cavanelas, which stands in for Bishop and Macedo Soares’s Casa Samambaia in the feature film Reaching for the Moon (2013), directed by Bruno Barreto. House designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Fair Use.

Bishop complained that Macedo Soares had been “attacked awfully, indecently, by Roberto Burle-Marx” (One Art, 438). In a later interview, he attempts to excuse his actions: “I wrote a very strong article against her . . . In a moment that you are furious, sometimes you say much more than you [truly] think . . . [Eventually] Lota and I came together, but I lost the intimacy that I had had with her. But I want to underline that Lota was very important for that moment” (Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 197, brackets in original). In the aftermath of their skirmish, Burle Marx emerged as the park’s heroic creator, while Macedo Soares succumbed to mental illness, grew estranged from Bishop, and died of an overdose, possibly a suicide. In 1995, the newspaper Jornal do Brasil paid tribute to Macedo Soares, declaring that she “was the creator of Flamengo Park, and not Roberto Burle-Marx, as the majority of Rio’s residents believe” (quoted in Nogueira, Invenções, 166). While this posthumous recognition of Macedo Soares is an important act of feminist reparative justice, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Bishop’s Botanizing

Prior to the Flamengo Park debacle, Burle Marx appeared across Bishop’s letter prose writings as, if not quite a character, then a fantasy figure who magnetizes and organizes her feelings about the power of tropical landscape to elicit queer affect. In these appearances, he becomes an exemplar of the botanist-explorer, a figure who appears in somewhat altered forms in many of her poems and prose writings (e.g., “Crusoe in England,” “Santarem,” her essays about traveling in Brazil’s interior). Like Darwin, one of Bishop’s favorite writers, Burle Marx was a self-trained botanist, but one whom she could befriend. In this role, he functions within Bishop’s psychic imaginary as a double and, at times, a foil for Macedo Soares. The two Brazilians were schooled together, occupied similar class positions, and were equally sophisticated and authoritative in their tastes—snobs, in a word. The crucial difference is that Macedo Soares disdained the poverty and difficulty of Brazil’s less developed interior landscapes, preferring European culture and travels.[39] Before Macedo Soares and Burle Marx’s collaboration on Flamengo Park transformed the two old friends into rivals, Bishop in her letters was already positioning Burle Marx as a queer competitor for her affections, a substitute companion and guide to Brazil’s remote interior landscapes and cultural traditions.[40]

Until the Burle Marx archives open more fully, we have only her reports of their friendship, which may have been more aspirational than real. (When interviewed about Bishop after her death, Burle Marx suggested that although he knew her well, they “never had any intimacy” [Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 196].) In any case, Bishop in her letters openly fantasizes about “botanizing” expeditions she might take with him. In a 1963 letter to Lowell, she muses: “Should I go to Peru with Roberto BM [Burle Marx], or shouldn’t I?—I am trying to decide and meanwhile I’ll answer your letter. He was supposed to go today but there were both a revolution AND an earthquake—so it’s been briefly postponed” (Words in Air, 446). While Macedo Soares’s absence from this trip was seen as a drawback, in a later outing, Bishop has given up on including her: “I was about to go off, also with Burle Marx and Rosinha, and a botanist, chauffeur, etc., to drive to Bahia—I’ve not been there yet. He postponed it, but I think we’ll be going fairly soon. He means to botanize all along the way and it should be interesting” (Words in Air, 458). Bishop complained that Macedo Soares “refuses to have anything to do with anything Brazilian or ‘primitive’ . . . She says she wants something more civilized rather than less when she goes traveling” (Words in Air, 318). Burle Marx was the opposite, and one can imagine Bishop fanning the flames of a rivalry already simmering under the surface. I don’t have a record that Bishop ever did take a botanizing journey with Burle Marx, but she did make several major trips into Brazil’s interior without Macedo Soares: a sublime trip down the Amazon river and a less happy one down the Rio São Francisco in Bahia in 1967.[41]

Even if Burle Marx had been on speaking terms with Bishop in 1967, a voyage to Bahia at that time is not likely to have appealed to him. On a fateful viagem de coleta he undertook there in 1965, Burle Marx lost his frequent collaborator and friend, architect Rino Levi, to a heart attack on their strenuous hike. It is unconfirmed whether the two were lovers; the São Paulo–based Levi was at one point married with children. Yet there is evidence of a profound, abiding intimacy between the two men, with the remote rain forest as backdrop, perhaps a retreat for Levi from the binds of compulsory heterosexuality. This tropical Brokeback Mountain scenario has produced excited gossip among young generations of queer architects and urban planners in Brazil, who treat a romantic relationship between the two as sacred lore.[42] One apocryphal story suggests that Levi didn’t die of “natural causes”; in a pique of sexual jealousy, Burle Marx is supposed to have fed him a poisoned fruit. Another version imagines he laid a venomous asp in wait for him. If this gossip casts Burle Marx in a sinister light, it also grants him a Medean power, with vast knowledge of the rain forest’s powers. The story also speaks to the ways that queers must embroider history, expanding it to telenovela proportions to enter it at all, especially in a country of such Catholic and authoritarian repression as Brazil.

Marvelous, flamboyant, threatening—the Burle Marx lore is all that and more. Behind the gossip, Levi’s death must have been more than “somehow sad.” Did Levi stagger and fall toward his friend? Did Roberto try to breathe air into Rino’s lungs, and beat his heart to resuscitate him? Guilherme Mazza Dourado, the first to examine letters in the recently collected Burle Marx archives, reports that the loss “caused him such shock and suffering,” he shared his distress in four separate letters in 1965.[43] The queer character and specificity of that grief remains repressed from view, but one can see a glimpse of their bond in Burle Marx’s admiring introduction to a monograph on Levi published nine years later:

I first knew Rino Levi in 1935. The friendship which began then was constantly strengthened . . . by . . . an intimate participation in all his actions and opinions, but also, and especially, because of his love for nature, and particularly for plants. . . . On the last day of his life we had spoken of all the problems connected with our ideals: of their ennoblement through constant application in our daily work, of the necessity to give significance to all our acts, and in the final analysis, of our reasons for living.”[44]

One senses reserves of deep feeling in this tribute, which expresses his affection indirectly, through their shared passions: plants, architecture, “unified design,” and an interest in “just and reasonable equality.” Elsewhere in his testimonial, Burle Marx recalls, “Innumerable were the trips we made together in search of new species of plants” (“Testimonial,” 11).  Photographs of some of these expeditions are extant; in one from the 1950s, the men exhibit a queer brio in their dandyish adventuring attire (fig. 9). A later photo (not pictured here) reveals a more down-to-earth intimacy, as the two huddle to shoulder the burden of a heavy plant. Levi’s eyes are on the bromeliad, while Burle Marx’s warm gaze is directed toward his dear friend.

Four men photographed on an early botanizing expedition, circa 1952
Fig. 9. An early botanizing expedition, circa 1952. From left to right, Cândido Procópio Ferreira de Camargo, Roberto Burle Marx, Rino Levi, and Severo Gomes. Courtesy of Acervo Escritório de Paisagismo Burle Marx. Creative Commons License.

If Burle Marx suppressed the keen pain of grief, perhaps Bishop’s late masterpiece “Crusoe in England” can help us imagine how it would have felt to lose a treasured companion in a remote tropical landscape. Loosely based on Defoe’s novel, Bishop’s poem also draws on Darwin’s notes on the Galápagos, her own notes from a visit to Aruba, and a visit to the Darwin house when visiting England, where Crusoe resides in the poem’s present.[45] Bishop was a vocal admirer of Darwin, one of the few figures (besides Burle Marx) she singles out for unreserved praise: “reading Darwin one admires the beautiful solid case built up out of his endless, heroic observations, . . . and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels that strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eye fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown.”[46] In “Crusoe,” Bishop amplifies the loneliness by drawing out the melancholy aspects of tropical landscape. The poem’s sadness may speak to Bishop’s own feelings of exile, discovery, and loss experienced living in—and leaving—a geography filled with exotic tropical flora. The poem’s composition was begun before the death of either Macedo Soares or Levi; however, Bishop worked on an earlier draft of “Crusoe at Home” (as she titled her draft) in 1965 during a period of estrangement from Macedo Soares, due to her exhausting work on Flamengo Park.[47] Thus, an imminent sense of loss informs the poem’s first draft, which would prove prescient. “Crusoe” is almost uncanny in predicting Bishop’s later exile from Brazil in the wake of Macedo Soares’s death, a sentiment she voices more directly in her most famous poem, “One Art”: “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent” (Poems, 198).  

Among the many curiosities of Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” is the way Bishop ties these feelings of loss to a kind of compulsory “botanizing” she seemed eager to undertake with Burle Marx. In “Crusoe,” this botanizing becomes threatening, as though it had become imbued with trauma in the interim. Trapped on his island for years, Crusoe would

. . . have

nightmares of other islands

stretching away from mine, infinities

of islands, islands spawning islands,

like frogs’ legs turning into polliwogs

of islands, knowing that I had to live

on each and every one, eventually,

for ages, registering their flora,

their fauna, their geography. (185)

Much of the poem is a surreal evocation of the sort of exotic flora Bishop described at the Sítio Burle Marx. Yet the passage registers a more perplexing and raw feeling, a fantasy that feels more personal to the poet than to Crusoe the character. Why would the act of botanizing, which had appealed to her before Macedo Soares’s death, seem in retrospect like a grief-filled nightmare? Could Bishop be drawing on both her own experience and that of Burle Marx, who lent his name, burle-marxii, to thirty-odd species of plants he introduced to scientific nomenclature? Does Bishop imagine the emotional trauma Burle Marx overcame to resume his botanizing in the wake of Levi’s death? If the melancholy glamor of a figure like Burle Marx inspired Bishop’s imagination, one wonders whether the loss of his botanizing partner might also have entered into the matrix of associations informing “Crusoe”—transformed into the loneliness of Crusoe’s botanizing, the grief in losing Friday.

Bishop’s cross-gender ventriloquism allows for a number of subtle queer reverberations across the landscape of the poem. The seclusion of the tropical landscape becomes a cover for Crusoe’s attachment to Friday, an indigenous male who is the object of flickering erotic attention. Crusoe’s gaze is sexual, objectifying—“Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body”—which make his stated desire for female companionship seem like overcompensation: “If only he had been a woman!” Crusoe declares, a comment that simultaneously cloaks his queer desire behind an alibi and encodes Bishop’s own lesbianism (185–86). The poem ends with an abrupt, plaintive cry, indicating the depth of an attachment only hinted at previously in the descriptions of landscape: “And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March” (186).

The tropical landscape of “Crusoe” is queer in a few senses of the word, but differently so from the landscape at Samambaia, the safe retreat where Bishop wrote her tenderest poems for Macedo Soares. Populated by ungainly plants in uncommon juxtapositions, Crusoe’s island is not conventionally picturesque. A fantasized hybrid space collaged from disparate geographies—Galápagos, Aruba, Brazil—it is a landscape, like Burle Marx’s gardens, constructed out of “artificial associations.” Surreal pairings of flora and fauna prepare us for the equally improbable, if inevitable, queer pairing of Friday and Crusoe. In grief, through botanizing, Bishop achieves a counter-picturesque that registers queer love and loss through Burle Marxian effects: a landscape that is flamboyant, threatening, marvelous, and deeply sad.


[1] Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, June 15, 1961, in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas J. Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 361.

[2] The building is the Ministério da Educação e Saúde in downtown Rio de Janeiro, now called Palácio Gustavo Capanema. Le Corbusier contributed an initial design sketch for the building during a visit to Brazil in 1936, which was then realized by a group of Brazilian architects, led by Lúcio Costa and including Affonso Eduardo Reidy and Oscar Niemeyer.

[3] For a discussion of Burle Marx as modernist cannibalist, see Valerie Fraser, “Cannibalizing Le Corbusier: The MES Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 59, no. 2 (2000): 180–93.

[4] In his article “Garden and Ecology” from 1969, Burle Marx argues that if the designer is sensitive to “the requirements of ecological and aesthetic compatibility, one can create artificial associations or relationships with great expressiveness.” The article is reproduced in Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes Under Dictatorship (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 263–71, 265.

[5] Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 327.

[6] Bonnie Costello, for instance, masterfully identifies the emotional and spiritual patterns that recur in Bishop’s landscape poems; yet in doing so, she treats landscape and nature as transcendent categories. Placing Bishop in a line of poets that includes Keats and Wordsworth, Costello asks, “What is the point of describing landscapes, if not to render a vision of God’s Work, or find a transcendental meaning?” (Bonnie Costello, “Vision and Mastery in Elizabeth Bishop,” Twentieth Century Literature 28, no. 4 [1982]: 351–70, 352). Her reading bends towards a single, dark vision of landscape across Bishop’s poetry; in Romantic fashion, exterior climate reflects interior storm.

[7] For a critique of Bishop’s anti-communist position in Brazil, see Harris Feinsod, The Poetry of the Americas: From Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 255–317. Fiona Green discusses some aspects of modern Brazilian architecture in “Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and the ‘New Yorker,’” Journal of American Studies 46, no. 4 (2012): 803–29. See also Jessica Reese Goudeau, “Elizabeth Bishop and Brazil” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2014) and Katrina Kim Dodson, “Traveling Proprieties: the Disorienting Language & Landscapes of Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil” (PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2015).

[8] Bethany Hicok offers the most sustained and thorough examination of Bishop’s time in Brazil, and in her chapter “Samambaia and the Architecture of Class” succinctly explains Brazil’s ideological embrace of International Style, promoted by Getúlio Vargas as the visual embodiment of a nationalist program of economic development, Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress). See Bethany Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 9–37. Although Burle Marx provided several gardens and large parks for Brasília, he was not involved in the original planning, possibly because of a feud with President Juscelino Kubitschek, who launched the building of the new capital.

[9] Elizabeth Bishop and Alexandra Johnson, “Geography of the Imagination,” in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, ed. George Monteiro (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 100.

[10] W. J. T. Mitchell, “Preface to the Second Edition of Landscape and Power: Space, Place, and Landscape,” Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), vii–xii, x.

[11] Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, ed. Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 91.

[12] Years earlier, in 1938, Bishop was already vicariating the flamboyance of a gay male friend to understand her attractions to tropical landscape and women—and contrasting them to communist social concerns. Responding to a racy passage in a letter from gay poet T. C. Wilson, Bishop wrote back, somewhat censoriously, “Don’t you think that homosexuality can be made just as much as a ‘escape’ as a tour to the exotic West Indies?” (Elizabeth Bishop, “‘An Audience May Be Found’: Letters to T. C. Wilson,” introduced by Kamran Javadizadeh, Yale Review 93, no. 4 (2005): 20–50, 33). Bishop was living in Key West at the time, and the statement seems almost to predict her move to Brazil in 1951. Earlier in the letter, Bishop scolds Wilson for turning to the subject of sex when she had broached more high-minded social concerns: “Now don’t you think that’s a bad state for a Communist to be in, when he can’t even recognize one of his parties’ [sic] war-cries when he hears it?” (33). Bishop’s cartoonish image of the communist delegation at Sítio Burle Marx grounds Feinsod’s critique in The Poetry of the Americas, 260–62.

[13] In his astute reading of “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” Stephen Gould Axelrod comes close to positing the designed natural landscape of Washington, D.C. as a means of queer resistance to U.S. power and compulsory heterosexuality. In the poem, Bishop describes the “queer” phenomenon that music from the Air Force Band does not penetrate the “giant trees stand[ing] in between” the Capitol and the Library (Poems, 67). In Bishop’s Brazil poems, however, landscape becomes a site of queer pleasure rather than covert resistance. See Stephen Gould Axelrod, “Elizabeth Bishop and Containment Policy,” American Literature 75, no. 4 (2003): 843–67, 858.

[14] As recently as 2019, an English-language catalog for a show at the New York Botanical Garden describes Burle Marx as “discreet,” encoding his sexuality in a way that both acknowledges it and protects his discretion about it. See Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, ed. Edward J. Sullivan (New York: New York Botanical Garden, 2019), 11. The only detailed acknowledgement of Burle Marx’s queerness (in print, at least that I have seen) comes from his associate and friend Marta Iris Montero, who writes: “César da Silva, Burle Marx’s cook since 1974, [was] his great friend, his constant companion, the person closest to him, who looked after him to the end”; she includes a photograph of Burle Marx in drag near this passage (Marta Iris Montero, Roberto Burle Marx: The Lyrical Landscape [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001], 30).  

[15] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 398.

[16] Elizabeth Spires, “The Art of Poetry, XXVII: Elizabeth Bishop,” in Conversations, 119.

[17] “Marvelous” or “marvellous” is a word that carries many meanings for Bishop. She traces its use in the queer milieu of W. H. Auden, making it a measure of poetic connotation, the way a word can signal differently to a “sensitive” audience. In a journal entry, she writes: “A sensitive reader, I think, familiar with the work of a poet, can feel what words are fashion-words, used ironically . . . but they tend to fall back, I believe, to the previous use—I mean, A’s ‘marvellous’ will lose its slight tint of mystery-Oxbridge-naiveté and become anyone’s ‘marvellous’” (Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, ed. Alice Quinn [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006], 268). The word makes a key appearance in Bishop’s most explicit love poem, “It is marvellous to wake up together,” published posthumously (See Edgar Allan Poe, 44).

[18] Marianne Moore, Observations, ed. Linda Leavell (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 27.

[19] I am indebted to Jacqueline Vaught Brogan for drawing out the many sources for Bishop’s poem and arguing, as I do, that Bishop is critiquing colonial projection onto the landscape. In discussing the line in question, she draws on Hicok’s analysis of Bishop’s trip to Brasília in 1958, connecting this “old dream” to early Brazilians’ desire to conquer the interior of the country and unearth a city of gold (“Mapping Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59, no. 1 [2017]: 106–135, 117). The quest to settle the interior, however, came decades after first contact, when precious minerals were discovered in Minas Gerais. Much of the interior, including Goiás where Brasília is located, is a much drier biome than the lush rain forest depicted in the poem, which corresponds best to the littoral Mata Atlântica rain forest.

[20] Kenneth Clark, Landscape Into Art (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949), 54. Brogan points out that the epigraph is “deceptive”: although the phrase “embroidered nature” does appear in Clark’s text, “tapestried landscape” does not (“Mapping,” 125). I discuss another possible inspiration for Bishop’s use of the phrase “tapestried landscape” below.

[21] See Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil, 79–82; Dodson arrives at a similar conclusion through careful study of Lispector and her translators (“Traveling Proprieties,” 18–20).

[22] Elizabeth Bishop, Prose, ed. Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 174.

[23] “Home-made” vegetal red dye (from a “kind of berry”) also makes appearance in Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England.” Crusoe muses, “One day I dyed a baby goat bright red / with my red berries, just to see / something a little different” (Poems, 184–85).

[24] Nancy Leys Stepan, Picturing Tropical Nature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 215.

[25] See Fraser, “Cannibalizing” and William Howard Adams, “Roberto Burle Marx: The Unnatural Art of the Garden,” MoMA no. 7 (1991), 1–7. Fellow Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi captures the transformation Burle Marx accomplished: “the forest does not scare us any more. The ancient terror [. . .] is overtaken by the serene vision” (Quoted in Fabiola López-Durán, “Eugenics in the Garden: Architecture, Medicine, and Landscape from France to Latin America in the Early Twentieth Century” [PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009], 229).

[26] Quoted in George Monteiro, Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 115. The final published version contains the identical praise for Burle Marx but redacts the opening complaint about Brazilians’ “misuse of the country’s natural assets” (115). See Bishop, Prose, 220.

[27] See Nordenson, Depositions, 24, 64. In his writings, however, Burle Marx claimed he was not interested in questions of “originality” (Roberto Burle Marx, Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism, ed. Gareth Doherty [Zürich: Lars Müller, 2018], 88). In these lectures, Burle Marx also shows a deep and generous awareness of garden designers and botanists who came before him (see especially 87–99).

[28] See Adams, “Roberto Burle Marx.”

[29] He sometimes privileged the fine arts, suggesting that his gardens were paintings in three dimensions: “the plant is, to a landscape artist, not only a plant. . . . It is the paint for the two-dimensional picture I make of a garden on a drawing board in my atelier” (Roberto Burle Marx, “A Garden Style in Brazil to Meet Contemporary Needs: With Emphasis on the Paramount Value of Native Plants,” Landscape Architecture Magazine 44, no. 4 [1954]: 200–208, 200). At other times, he was more careful to distinguish the different mediums of representation: “If I do gardens, I don’t want to paint; if I do paintings, I don’t want to do woodcuts . . . Each specialty calls for its own technique and medium of expression. That’s why I fight hard: I will not do a painting that is a garden” (quoted in Jens Hoffmann and Claudia J. Nahson, Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016], 2).

[30] See Rossana Vaccarino, Roberto Burle Marx: Landscapes Reflected (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 43.

[31] See Brogan, “Mapping,” for a thorough overview of these correspondences.

[32] Roberto Burle Marx: Uma Vontade De Beleza, ed. Giancarlo Hannud and Bruno Schiavo (São Paulo: Pinacoteca do Estado, 2014), 165.

[33] Henrique E. Mindlin, Modern Architecture in Brazil, [with editing and translation assistance by Elizabeth Bishop] (Amsterdam: Colibris, 1956), xiii.

[34] Two Portuguese-language biographical studies by Carmen Oliveira and Nadia Nogueira have attempted to recuperate Macedo Soares’s reputation; only the former has been translated into English. See Carmen Oliveira, Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002) and Nadia Nogueira, “Invenções de Si em Histórias de Amor: Lota Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop” (PhD diss., Universidade Estadual de Campinas, 2005).

[35] Burle Marx has said: “If you would ask me what you prefer, to create a garden for a couple or to create a garden for a city, I would say I prefer to create for a city or for a country, where many people can have a profit of what we are doing” (Zara Muren, dir. The Landscape Architecture of Roberto Burle Marx, 1989 [Ross, CA: Master Design Series, 2014]).

[36] Fabiola López-Durán, Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 62, 77.

[37] All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

[38] Burle Marx’s attacks on Macedo Soares occasioned Lacerda’s interventions: “The park is the work of a group, led by a person who championed this park and made it a reality through her dedication. Undermining her now, rather than supporting the creation of a Foundation to protect the park, is undignified” (quoted in Nogueira, Invenções, 153).

[39] In this, she is rather like Brazil’s second and last “emperor,” Dom Pedro II, who in 1876 traveled to the U.S. to visit Niagara Falls but never saw his own country’s much more impressive Foz de Iguaçu. Bishop kept a photograph of Dom Pedro on the wall of her study (Spires, “The Art of Poetry,” 114).

[40] So frequent were Bishop’s references to Burle Marx in letters, Lowell seems unconsciously to have adopted him as Brazil’s patron saint: “Brazil is far away, and yet it has somehow accompanied us . . . whenever we give a dinner . . . [w]‌e try to describe Goulard [sic], Aledjadinho (?), Burly Marx [sic], Rebellion in the Backlands” (quoted in Feinsod, The Poetry of the Americas, 279). It is possible that Lowell met Burle Marx through Bishop when he visited Rio de Janeiro in 1962; it is also possible he is merely adopting Bishop’s enthusiasm secondhand.

[41] The essay draft Bishop left behind of her Rio São Francisco is a grim one, almost humorously so: a dreary trek down a yellow-watered river, while onboard, all the passengers, including Bishop, were wrecked by dysentery and competed for access to the ship’s single toilet (“A Trip on the Rio São Francisco,” box 55, folder 3, Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College).

[42] Wesley Macedo, personal conversation, January 30, 2012.

[43] Guilherme Mazza Dourado, “Espelhos de Si: Burle Marx a Partir de Suas Cartas,” Paisagem E Ambiente 39 (2017): 15–39, 26.

[44] Roberto Burle Marx, “Testimonial to Rino Levi,” Rino Levi (Milan: Edizioni di Comunita, 1974), 11–12.

[45] See Lorrie Goldensohn, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 54.

[46] Quoted in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 6.

[47] She began the poem and finished a draft that she almost sent to The New Yorker in 1965; see Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Joelle Biele (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 278.