Review of Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to this House, a Film on Elizabeth Bishop

By Ruth Novaczek

Welcome to this House, a Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015). United States, 79 minutes. Directed by Barbara Hammer. Starring: Kathleen Chalfant, Barbara Hammer, and Erin Miller.

Welcome to this House still

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” — “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (1979)

Barbara Hammer weaves together anecdotal fragments and imagery to build a portrait of a poet as a lesbian at a time when nobody talked of such things openly. Elizabeth Bishop had told Robert Lowell, whom she met in the ’40s, that she was “the loneliest person in the world”; in Welcome to this House, Hammer crafts a vivid picture of how loneliness worked as a driving force in Bishop’s life and work. The film explores the ambiguity of relationships when things were about the “love that dare not speak its name,” necessarily fraught, hidden, and ambivalent.

Having recently watched Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto’s 2013 feature about the long love affair between Elizabeth Bishop and the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, I was immediately aware of Hammer’s different — open yet tangential — approach to her subject when watching Welcome to this House. Hammer’s documentary portrait opens with the writer Marie-Claire Blais, a champion of Bishop’s writing, who says that the poet “couldn’t find peace” and that “homesickness is as much a part of Bishop as the search for a home.” Hammer explores this theme chronologically. In an opening sequence of what seem to be clichés — a child’s face, flowers, typewriter keys, and buzzing bees — Hammer sketches the poet’s difficult beginnings. Nova Scotia 1915, Bishop’s childhood home, is given particular importance, reflected by Hammer’s focus on the rooms, walls, and windows that formed the poet. Curtains, flowers in vases, and old photographs move in and out of focus as a neighbor describes the “little orphan” Bishop. Hammer draws a portrait of Bishop’s profound existential loneliness, her sexuality, and her search for a home. While Barreto’s Brazilian drama, based on Carmen Oliveira’s book Flores raras e banalíssimas: A história de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop, focuses on a single story, Hammer takes us through all of Bishop’s putative liaisons, friendships, and dalliances, as well as through the houses that contained them. She sketches a series of questions that draw us into Bishop’s contradictions.

At summer camp in Cape Cod, the young poet is shown in montaged, cross-fading photographs, happy by the sea, among friends and possible lovers. Cutting between archive and re-enactment, Hammer portrays the tangents and stations of a life.

Hammer aptly shows Bishop’s quest for something intangible, as she has many affairs, which are sketchy at best, because she wasn’t out, and we don’t really know what they were. Through Bishop’s story, Hammer describes the era of the closet, a time, when there was no women’s movement, no lesbian feminism.

Hammer dedicates part of the film to Bishop’s affair with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Welcome to This House works as a series of biographical clues and doesn’t try to find answers. Hammer paints a psycho-topography of the poet. She maps the contradictions, the gossip, the unspoken, and the poems themselves, to trace an outline that refuses drama or melodrama. “The black wave of death, no coffee can wake you,” Bishop writes about her lover’s death, and in 1970 she takes up a teaching post at Harvard, moving to a small apartment on Brattle Street. The film maps Bishop’s emotional life through the buildings she inhabits and the lovers and friends she encounters and loves, in fragmented anecdotes that piece together the life of a poet who was a lesbian before gay liberation. Hammer sketches the final years of her life in the seafront wharf in Boston.

Hammer’s film seeks out the heart of Bishop’s story, not so much for the dramas and accolades but for her endless search for love and place, as a woman of the coastlines whose gaze extends beyond the walls that contain her. Hammer’s body of work is concerned with the lesbian gaze, and in an era of gay marriage, this portrait of Bishop shows the crucial importance of love and desire in the life of a poet. Welcome to This House leaves questions unanswered, and raises them; it rethinks history in context, an homage to a lesbian poet who lived in the quasi-closet of her times. Hammer looks at Bishop’s poems and life, to show that they’re one and the same.

This is a film for anyone interested in Elizabeth Bishop who understands the contradictions of the time in terms of lesbian poets. It is a broad sketch of a poet’s life as told by a poetic lesbian filmmaker. Hammer attempts a complex portrayal that traverses the times Bishop lived in and her intimate connections. Paramount for this film is Hammer’s insistence on the topography of home, a focus on Bishop’s orphaned condition, and the importance of place as the center, the contained core of any artistic endeavor.
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