Questions of travel

‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places?

Every time I visited Ouro Preto, I used to ask for Elizabeth Bishop’s home. ‘There was this poet who lived here in the 1960’s, can you tell me where her house is?’ The locals, however, never seemed to know where it was located, nor who she was. ‘An American poet lived here in this town? Are you sure?’ – this was the usual response I got. In my mind, Bishop’s home had become almost an imagined place I used to look for in Ouro Preto and never find.

I walked through this labyrinthic town, looking up at its yellow and blue windows, and thinking ‘this could be her house, or this.’ Maybe I’ve passed it many times without knowing. Maybe I’ve imagined it. The fact that I always came back and left without finding it also gave me – somehow – a strong sense of Bishop’s homelessness: her home was nowhere, and everywhere. Maybe she carried her home with her when she left Brazil.

Yesterday, however, I’ve finally arrived at my – imagined place. I thought about ringing the bell and asking to come in. What would I have said, had someone answered the door? ‘I’ve read her poems many moons ago, and they seemed to say something about me.’ Or: ‘They’ve made me feel less lonely’. Or: ‘They gave me a home’. Or: ‘I wanted to come in through her homelessness‘.

In the end, I didn’t ring the bell, no one came, and I said nothing. As I was taking a picture, a passerby commented with her friend: ‘Such an ugly house, what has this woman seen in it?‘. It was a busy street and I felt the urge to go away. I took a picture and left, carrying my imagined place with me.

Andrew Wyeth. “Wind from the Sea”, 1947

“Iʼve never felt particularly homeless, but then, Iʼve never felt particularly at home. I guess thatʼs a pretty good description of a poetʼs sense of home. He carries it within him” – Elizabeth Bishop, in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, 1996

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in oneʼs room?

Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?” – Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel, in Poems, Prose, and Letters, 2008

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