"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
____________________________________________

Friday, August 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 20: Rainy Season

One of Bishop’s loveliest evocations of her time in the house at Samambaia is her poem “Song for the Rainy Season,” describing the fog and flowers, the “magnetic rock” and “giant fern,” the clouds and waterfalls surrounding the “open house.” This poem appeared in The New Yorker on 8 October 1960. The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the happiest time of Bishop’s adult life, when her days amid the abundance of the sub-tropics, in the countryside away from the city, were as domestic and creative as she needed and wanted. Her letter of 19 October 1956 was written well before “Song for the Rainy Season” emerged, but Bishop’s descriptions of her surrounds to Aunt Grace clearly foretell the poem.

Bishop was indeed deep into the domestic at this time, all aspects of it, including medical matters, some of which connected to the very flora and fauna of her surrounds. “We give ourselves shots, when we need them,” Bishop reported “even penicillen [sic].” Bishop was giving herself all her “allergy shots,” as well as administering them to “the cook, the workmen, etc.” Bishop was being nurse, just like Aunt Grace had been for her decades before. She even noted, “we have anti-snake serum on hand all the time, just in case,” because “there are a few deadly ones around.” Since Bishop had arrived, however, it hadn’t been needed, “thank goodness.”

Just for good measure, Bishop explained, “Lota and I are taking something called Geri-Caps — Park Davis,” Bishop declared, noting that this medication was for “old ladies,” and asking Grace if she gave them to her patients, “blue capsules with yellow stripes.” Bishop assured Grace that she was feeling fine taking them, along with some vitamins, though she observed in her good skeptic’s manner, “maybe I’d feel fine without anything!”

All of this medical activity was happening amid the onset of the rainy season: “It’s pouring rain,” Bishop stated, observing that “in fact there was scarcely a dry season.” As a result of all the rain, the flowers were busting forth: agapanthus, “huge blue or white lilies …all up the hillside.” These could reach “3 or 4 ft high.” There were also azaleas, allyssum [sic], phlox, sweet william [sic] and irises: “all over the place.”
(Agapanthus in full flower)
With all this flowering, they had decided “to keep bees. I’ve always wanted to.” They were awaiting four hives of “Italian bees,” to be brought by a man, who would “install them and care for them when you need him.” Much of the motivation for this important ecological action was the honey, “friends of ours got about 50 pounds” of honey from the hives they had installed. The hives had to be built in a special way to prevent ants from moving in and taking over. “The ants here would eat US, I think, if we didn’t watch out.”
(Perhaps this is the kind of Brazilian bee hive Bishop writes about.)
The image of Brazilian bees from my childhood is that of “killer bees” and the great fear that they would reach North America. Clearly, these continental bees were safe and beneficial.

Also in the midst of all this domestic preoccupation, Bishop told Grace that she’d not heard from poor old Aunt Florence “for about a month, or more.” She noted that she’d had a letter from someone named Fulton, who worked for her grandfather’s company (which still existed though her grandfather and uncle were long gone), “about a piece of land I own but have never seen.” She doesn’t elaborate about this property, but rather tells her aunt that Fulton could “scarcely write, poor boy …. I was rather shocked.” As she signed off this letter filled with all sorts of domestic subjects, she urged Grace to “write again” and tell her about the new job and “your building plans.”

There were just as many flowers and trees at the Samambaia house in 1999, such as this amazing “blood-red” bromelia.
Ed. Note: In light of the revelations that are discussed in the news item posted on this blog on 17 August, I can't post this "Letters to Grace" without acknowledging them. I only just today read about them. Until Bishop's letters to Dr. Foster were made public, the tragic experiences of Bishop's childhood, could only be speculation. Some might say these things are too private to be discussed by strangers, but such is the way of the world, these days (reality and talk show television have transformed our world). And perhaps Bishop would be relieved that they are no longer secret. Bishop's cousin, Phyllis Sutherland, who was a dear friend of mine, only very obliquely hinted at secrets; but she was a whole generation younger than Bishop and such things were kept so well hidden that perhaps she didn't even try to speculate herself. I suppose it is now inevitable that a whole raft of writing will happen in the academy about these revelations and it will come to define Bishop as lesbianism and mental illness have done at various times. We are the sum of all our experiences and Bishop was about as complex a person and artist as they come. My feeling about all of this, as someone who has explored deeply Bishop's childhood and her maternal family, is profound sadness. Perhaps I will have more to say about it sometime, but I am not sure. If these letters are ever published (and I suppose they are at least amply quoted in the upcoming biographies about her), they will really say that can be said. What else can we say in the face of such sorrow, but how sorry we are.

Click here to see Part 19.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 19: Television

Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956 begins with the birth of her cousin Phyllis’s second son, David Alexander, and also the birth of a new grandchild for Aunt Mary, by Mary’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. But with these dutiful acknowledgements dispatched, she turns to a quite different subject: “If you really enjoy having TV like that, why not get one?” Television technology had been around for some time, and during the post-war baby boom years, televisions were becoming more common and the broadcast industry expanding rapidly. Even so, these “devices” (as we now call such things), this “platform,” remained expensive enough that they were still subjects for serious discussion. And in Brazil, television was “just in its infancy,” as Bishop observed. (Now our discussions are about television’s irrelevance, with expanding, exploding electronic social media and online broadcasting. One wonders what Bishop would have thought of YouTube!)

Bishop declared to her aunt, “I have seen so little television that I really don’t know anything about it.” There was television in Rio, she notes, “but I’ve never even seen it.” Her friends judged “the sports things … the best,” but “they say the programs are dreadful.” A few people “have sets in Petrópolis,” some with “big enough aerials” that could pick up Rio broadcasts.
 (1956 cabinet tv)
Bishop noted that Lota was trying to convince a neighbour “to get one [a television] for himself and his elderly sister — 4 elderly people living together, and he has plenty of money.” But he was balking at the idea of this new-fangled technology. Lota’s motive was not entirely disinterested because, as Bishop observed, if these neighbours got TV, “then we could go to see things on it we wanted to see!” Lota’s house at Samambaia was “up against enormous steep high stone mountains,” meaning that they would “probably never be able to get it, even when Rio gets more powerful stations.” (This sounds like the kind of talk you still hear in rural Nova Scotia, and many rural areas, where high-speed internet {don’t even think about “fibreop”} is still not yet available.)
(View of the mountain at Samambaia, 1999. I think I took this photograph.)
For some reason, writing about television and sports made Bishop think of Marianne Moore: “My friend the poet, Miss Moore, lives in Brooklyn and is a great Dodger [sic] fan.” Moore was 69 in 1956 and had become a fixture at baseball games. Bishop tells her aunt that Moore had recently “written a song for them! — I can’t quite imagine it being sung, but anyway.” Bishop undoubtedly refers to the poem Moore wrote in 1956, “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reece”  — which was set to music.
 
Even in my childhood (the 1960s), television was a particular luxury. We had a black and white television set, one of those big cabinets that took up a lot of room, and got two channels, if I remember correctly. We never missed our favourite shows. I remember my parents faithfully watching Don Messer’s Jubilee and the Red Skelton Show and as my sisters and I got older, we never missed The Carol Burnett Show or Canadian Bandstand. We also grew up watching The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, both much beloved (long before the dominance of Sesame Street, a show which Bishop did watch when she returned to the US in the 1970s).
(Yours truly beside our television, 1967. Looks like the news is on.)

The next post will be about flora, fauna and weather.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 18: (Re)Construction

On of the last things Bishop tells her aunt in the 28 August 1956 (besides the fact that she’d written “a long letter” to Aunt Mary, but had heard nothing) was that the “cook Maria had a miscarriage.” With what for some might sound like callousness, Bishop observed, “we were awfully glad, I’m afraid.” Maria recovered quickly. Remember, there was already one baby, Betty, who was “trying so hard to talk — she uses all the gestures already — and is adorable.” Just before signing off “With lots of love, and please write,” Bishop wrote, “I do hope Phyllis is well.” Grace’s daughter Phyllis was just about due to have her second child.

This subject, important to Bishop, was taken up at the beginning of her next extant letter dated 19 October 1956: “I got the little announcement about David Alexander.” Bishop thought it a good name, “nice and Scotch.” Bishop didn’t meet Phyllis’s children until 1970, when she was finally back living in Boston and taking annual trips to Nova Scotia. Her first gift to the then 14 year old David Alexander was a Grateful Dead album!

Grace had obviously filled Bishop in on the activities of her cousin’s family. “Ernie is doing very well, isn’t he.” Ernest Sutherland was a World War II veteran who became a contractor and builder after the war. He was one of the first North American contractors to build wooden, pre-fabricated houses in Palestine during the late 1940s. The post-war boom also saw much housing construction throughout Nova Scotia and Canada, and the Sutherland family moved numerous times during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in Balfron, N.S. Bishop was always interested to hear where they had gone and what they were doing, and Grace was always keen to tell her.

“Ernie’s” construction work intrigued Bishop because the house at Samambaia was still under construction. She told her aunt that Lota was hoping to finish the house “inside another year.” There was some delay because “costs have gone up here about five times since she started,” meaning that Lota was “paying exactly five times as much for a bag of cement, for example.” (Construction issues in Brazil seem perpetual — one of the biggest issues for the Brazil Olympics, which begin today, is the state of the athletes’ accommodations, conditions which have made the news around the world. But, then, such colossal international events put a strain on all the cities in which they are held. In Canada, Montreal’s 1976 Olympics are still notorious for “the Oval,” a monstrous building that never really got finished and was a kind of blight on the cityscape for decades, or, as Wikipedia characterizes: a white elephant.)
(Patio of the house at Samambaia, 1999,
taken by yours truly during my trip.)
Grace was also preoccupied with housing. Clearly, she’d been thinking out loud to her niece in a recent letter, as Bishop responds: “I think it is a very good idea for you to have a small house of your own.” Bishop urged her aunt to plan for her “retirement” and commiserated with Grace about living “with all those other people” (meaning the big Bowers family at Elmcroft). “The older one grows the more privacy one needs (I find).” Bishop mentions that Marjorie Stevens had “remodeled a little old place in Key West for herself,” having secured a “government building loan” to do so. Might it be possible for Grace to get such a loan? Bishop remembered a small house on the Elmcroft farm and asked, “Have you considered remodelling that little house down the road where you & I stayed, or is that too far from the big house?”

Grace’s living arrangements remained fluid for some time, as she continued nursing work, sometimes going back to the US. In any case, Bishop was concerned enough for her aunt’s future that she offered to help, eventually: “either with the down-payment or with the installments,” if Grace chose to buy or build a house. This support could not be immediate because she was paying back the loan she had taken from a US bank to invest in a “real-estate enterprise” in Brazil, “that should start paying off in three years, until then I have to pay a big interest every month, of course.” She hopes she will “get rich,” but also acknowledges that she might end up “just as poor as ever to the end of my days.”

Besides the investment scheme, which clearly was the long view, Bishop told Grace that since she’d finished the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, she was working on “some stories and if all goes well — and I sell the translation, too (2½ years work) — I should have more money pretty soon.”

Bishop urged her aunt to “tell me the details” of her hopes and plans so she could “day-dream about your house — I adore planning houses,” and to keep her informed about her “pension situation” and assured her aunt that she wanted to help, “My idea all along.” These hopes, ideas, plans unfolded over the course of the next several years, though it appears Bishop couldn’t or didn’t need to provide Grace with this kind of on-going support, when Grace reached finally retired in the late 1960s. Besides, Grace was a feisty and independent woman, whose children faithfully supported her in her retirement years.
(Pilgrims, many who trekked up the mountain,
to visit Lota’s house at Samambaia, 1999.
Photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
The next post offers a glimpse of Bishop’s opinions about the television and the perennial subject: weather.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 17 – House Guest

Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, as well as to her writer friends, were often populated by the guests who were fairly common at Lota’s house in Samambaia, especially in the 1950s. Bishop’s vivid descriptions of these people are highly entertaining. One of them even ended up in a poem, “House Guest,” which Brett Millier says was “based loosely on … the sister of one of Lota’s aristocratic friends.” (411) This funny poem rarely receives attention (Millier gives it a sentence), but its existence comes from a fairly constant experience of Bishop’s Brazilian life. Though “House Guest” is a kind of caricature, still, it is entirely sympathetic toward “the sad seamstress,” who might actually be “one of the Fates … Clotho, sewing our lives.”
(Bishop's studio at Samambaia, where
she wrote "House Guest" -- photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
In the 28 August 1956 letter, Bishop offered her aunt a lively word portrait of another house guest, “an old friend of L’s.” This guest had been with them for two weeks, “resting up from her husband and mother and general debility.” She was “a beautiful Rio ‘society lady’,” who was so “delicate” that she made her hosts “feel like peasants.”

Whereas “the sad seamstress” was obsessed with sewing, the society lady was obsessed with “deciding what she can eat and can’t eat,” opting for “tea and dry toast and baked apples.” The rest of her days were spent “taking a bath, putting on make-up, taking a short walk, [and] taking a nap.” Bishop’s conclusion is that she was a “hypochondriac.” But “in spite of it all she’s really a very nice creature, with nice manners.”

Elizabeth and Lota tried to entertain her and persuade her to do other things: “we’re getting really tough and taking her to a movie in Petrópolis — I hope she doesn’t collapse on us!” (I wonder what was playing at the cinema in Petrópolis in late August 1956!)

After all this background, Bishop finally describes this person, physically, to Grace: “tall, blond, sort of grizzled hair [rather like Bishop’s], big perfect teeth (I envy my Brazilian friends their teeth …) and — one blue eye and one brown eye.” Curiously, Bishop never tells her aunt the name of this striking person.

Bishop’s life-long struggles with asthma, allergies and other illnesses would perhaps make her a little impatient with a relatively healthy person believing she was ill, wasting “so much of her life being sick like that,” with her “five bottles of medicine at her place at the table.” Even so, Bishop wasn’t entirely unsympathetic.

This house guest was a good Catholic, too, and asked to be taken to mass. “Lota — who is very anti-church — tried to get out of taking her.” In the end, other friends provided that service, but Elizabeth and Lota were required to fetch her at “a little church” near them. They arrived and “went in and got her off her knees.”

Bishop then tells Grace an interesting fact about their guest and about the history of Brazil: “She had a Scotch governess for 27 years.” As a result, “she speaks beautiful English with a slightly Scotch accent.” Bishop met other Brazilians who had had this kind of education: “There used to be lots of these brave Scotch and English governesses here.” One of the remnants of this pedagogy and upbringing was that “their ex-pupils all still eat oatmeal every morning!”

In “House Guest” the seamstress confessed that “she wanted to be a nun / and her family opposed her.”

“Perhaps we should let her go,
or deliver her straight off
to the nearest convent — and wasn’t
her month up last week, anyway?”

Tucked in this letter, long vanished, was a sprig of jasmine, which grew outside on her studio. Scribbled in her nearly indecipherable hand, Bishop wrote: “Smell this — if it has any smell left.” Brazilian Jasmine blooms are red, unlike the more commonly thought of white jasmine flower. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Bishop included a sprig of this exotic flower after describing their delicate, beautiful, nice house guest.
(Brazilian jasmine blossom)

The next post will introduce Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 16: The Voice

The first time I heard Elizabeth Bishop’s voice was in the early 1990s. I went to Special Collections at Dalhousie University in Halifax and borrowed an lp record done at the Library of Congress (you could take things out from S.C. at that time). The lp was translucent red! I took it home and listened to a young Bishop reading “Jerónimo’s House” and a couple other early poems. Bishop made this recording at the invitation of Robert Lowell, then Poetry Consultant, in October 1946. It was, however, not her first recording. Brett Millier notes that Bishop made a recording at Harvard University in September 1945, but it wasn’t very good. (194)

For someone as shy as Bishop, there is a remarkable archive of audio recordings of her reading, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. So many are there that Random House included her in its “Voice of the Poet” series, which is still available, if one is able to play cassettes.
The Library of Congress has recently launched an online digital archive of many of its recordings of poets. Bishop is included, but interestingly, the 1946 recording is not listed. The recordings are of events at which Bishop read with other poets in 1969 and 1974

It appears that Bishop made another recording at Harvard in1947. You can hear it on Harvard’s “Listening Booth” website. Along with a number of other recordings connected to Bishop.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 28 August 1956. Bishop noted, “I’ve been very busy the last few weeks.” She had made a number of trips to Rio, mostly to see the dentist and the doctor; but one thing she did during the previous week’s visit was spend “a horrible day making a recording of poems” in a recording studio at the U.S. Embassy. The recording was for “a commercial company in N.Y.” — what would that have been and why? Bishop doesn’t say. She says that the embassy let her use the studio and her friend Rosinha went with her “and held my hand, figuratively speaking….Lota couldn’t get away.” The recording took all day, “10 to 5, with lunch out.” Bishop’s assessment: “I record abominably, but sort of felt I had to [do the recording].” This commercial outfit did “make a little money,” but Bishop couldn’t “imagine anyone buying them, really.” By the end of the day, she, Rosinha and the sound-engineer were “exhausted.”

One of the Rio trips took her to see the young allergy doctor, whom she had mentioned to Grace a number of times. It is in this letter we learn what gift Bishop decided to give him, since he would not take any money from her: “so I gave him a copy of my book, and now I’m trying to get someone in New York to buy me some sort of very elegant brief-case.” Such items were not easily bought in the Rio of the 1950s. She was quite determined to find some way to repay him for all the “tests and serums etc.,” which he had been giving her for a couple of years. “I hate to think what I would have paid a doctor in N.Y. for it all.” It was this young doctor who had “hit on the infection or whatever it was.” And she happily declared to her aunt that she hadn’t had “asthma for months, for the first time in 15 years or so.”

In Rio she also was getting some clothes made: “a suit and two dresses” because of her weight loss. These new outfits were tailored with such precision that if she gained “an ounce” she wouldn’t “be able to get into them; they’re like the paper on the wall.”

One of the wonderful things about these letters is the way Bishop writes to her aunt as if she is simply talking to her, as if they were chatting over coffee and not thousands of miles apart, with weeks, even months between the letters. Clearly, Grace was a vivid presence in Bishop’s mind, and staying connected was a priority between aunt and niece.

The next post will introduce a house guest.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 15 Odds and Ends

Following is the final post about Bishop’s letter of 5 July 1956. Bishop didn’t write only about finances, health and world events to Grace, she was also eager for Grace to learn about her literary successes. At this moment in time that included the Pulitzer Prize, which she received in May for her collection Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring.
(Pulitzer Prize medal)
Bishop had informed her aunt about this prestigious award (which, she said helped convince Lota’s many friends that she {Bishop} really was a poet) in an earlier letter; but that letter is no longer extant. She asked, “I don’t think you got the funny clippings about the Pulitzer P that I sent you from here, did you?” Bishop noted that she had sent the same package of clippings to Aunt Florence, “and she never mentioned them either.” Resignedly, she observed that a batch of eight letters sent at the same time seemed to have “got lost.” But just as well, she added, as the photos of her were “far from flattering, but Lota’s library came out pretty well.” She sent them not only to “amuse” Grace, and to let her aunt see “what a sylph I am…118 lbs — 115 is my goal”; but also because it deeply  mattered to Bishop that her favourite aunt know of this success.

Grace’s most recent letter must have contained a response to a poem of Bishop’s that she had recently read. Her niece replied, “The poem you saw must have been ‘Manuelzinho’ — about L’s kind-of-a-gardener — wasn’t it? It’s all completely true.” So, Grace was keeping track of things on her own, too.
("Manuelzinho," published in The New Yorker on 26 May 1956)
Bishop recounts a few stories about Betty (the cook’s daughter): “She’s almost 18 months old now, has 10, almost 12 teeth, and is ‘into everything’.” Bishop offers another lengthy disquisition about child-rearing to her expert aunt (“but they say NO all day long, when it’s much easier to put the carving knife where it belongs…”), concluding, “Well, all this about babies isn’t exactly news to you, I’m afraid.”

She gets around to Aunt Florence, too: “Your dinner party with Aunt F sounds rather grim!” One can only imagine the things Florence said to Bishop during her childhood and adolescence to make Bishop observe over and over that “she is really absolutely impossible, poor thing,” because she always managed to “say the most unkind thing of all.” One of those things, as Bishop remembered was: “One of her favorite cracks to me is that being a writer makes a woman coarse, or masculine…!”

In spite it all, Bishop continued to correspond with Florence, and when her aunt died in the early 60s, she left her niece a bequest. It would be interesting to know what Bishop did with this money.

This letter also mentions several of her cousins: 1. two Bishop cousins, Kay and Nancy, who had the unenviable task of dealing with Florence; 2. Phyllis, Grace’s daughter, who was about to have her second child; and 3. Elizabeth, Mary’s oldest daughter, who ended up living in Brazil for several years. Family (that is, relatives) were not distant abstractions for Bishop. She kept in continuous contact with her aunts and cousins, and seemed genuinely keen to hear about their activities, especially Grace’s children. As Ellie O’Leary recently wrote in an essay about Bishop and her childhood, Bishop was an orphan but not abandoned. No one can replace parents and siblings, of course, but Bishop’s ties with family were complex and enduring (just like they are for most of us).

As solitary as Bishop was, like her “Sandpiper,” on many levels, she adhered quite persistently to her family, even as they were difficult to deal with, even as they were far away when she lived in Brazil.

The next post will look at a letter Bishop wrote in late August 1956.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

From Our Correspondent in Minsk --

-- comes this delightful visualization of an incident that occurred when EB was complecting the marvellous Cornell Box which in fractal transmogrification graces our masthead.  Natalia Povalyaeva quotes EB:

«The pacifier was bright red rubber. They sell them in big bottles and jars in drugstores in Brazil. I decided it couldn’t be red, so I dyed it black with India ink. A nephew of my Brazilian friend, a very smart young man, came to call while I was doing this. He brought two American rock-and-roll musicians and we talked and talked and talked, and I never thought to explain in all the time they were there what I was doing. When they left, I thought, "My God, they must think I’m a witch or something!"» (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, p. 120).


Thank you, Natalia!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 14 “These new drugs”

Bishop’s letter of 5 July 1956 contains an addendum dated 16 July. The first part got “mislaid” and she went to Rio for several days. The letter turned up again in her studio at Samambaia and Bishop finished and mailed it, with a cheque for $15, for the maple syrup Grace was commissioned to obtain and send (an amount which Bishop hoped would cover the postage — these days, that amount wouldn’t even cover a fraction of the postage!)

In the initial part of the letter, Bishop had updated Grace about her boils, giving her aunt an account of how they came to manifest. She had “an infected gum, first,” which infection decided to move to her knee, where erupted enough boils that walking was not possible. As always, Lota’s “tender care” kicked in and that with the help of “Antiphlogistine” and vitamin B, she began to feel better quickly, even though the boils persisted: “God knows what it is.” She noted that she would see a doctor in Rio about this situation, “as soon as I can.”

That consultation happened while she was visiting Rio in the days between 5 and 16 July, so Bishop was able to provide a second update in the same letter. As it turned out, the boils were “a bad reaction to penicillen” [sic] which she had taken for the gum infection (three shots of it). “Fortunately,” she noted, “I take metacorten [sic] all the time anyway, for asthma, and that’s just what I should have taken.” Once the penicillin was out of her system, the boils turned to red lumps, then to bruises.
 chemical formula for penicillin
“When someone is allergic like me, you never know what may happen, apparently,” she wrote to Grace, who understood well enough these causations. Just like the “ghastly” plane crashes she wrote about, Bishop observed what we all know (and even more so today, with even more reason), “These new drugs are fearful & wonderful, aren’t they.”

To further reassure Grace, Bishop noted that she had a good allergy doctor, “the best in Rio, a young man, a friend of a friend, and he won’t take a cent.” Even as Bishop argued with him about this generosity, he would not relent, so she told Grace that she’d now have to figure out some sort of present to give him. Stay tuned. Her next letter reveals what gift she chose, and I will let you know when we get there.

Fast forward over four decades: On 2 February 1998, I gave a talk to members of the History of Medicine Society in Halifax, Nova Scotia: “‘In the Waiting Room’: Elizabeth Bishop’s History of Medicine.” Like finances/money, health/medicine were foundational forces in Bishop’s life, affecting every aspect of it. In Grace, she had a correspondent who not only cared about her health issues, but also understood them deeply, having spent most of her early adult life tending to the sick and injured. Doctors and hospitals were present in Bishop’s life from the beginning and they played important roles in shaping her world view. And her letters to her aunt contain many references to all things medical (one of their main subjects).

Thus, it seemed logical to talk to a room full of doctors about Bishop’s close relationship with the medical world. After all, at one point, Bishop almost gave up poetry to become a doctor.

I don’t remember giving the talk, alas, at least not any particulars. But I do remember the q&a was lively and the doctors were surprised and impressed by Bishop’s knowledge of drugs and medical procedures. (If anyone is interested in this talk, I can send a pdf — just make a comment to the blog with your email address.)
 Nova Scotia Hospital (N.S. Archives)
I puzzled for awhile over an appropriate image for this post (how does one show “these new drugs.” But then I thought of the above image of perhaps the most important hospital in Bishop’s life: The Nova Scotia Hospital (a.k.a. Mount Hope), in Dartmouth, N.S., where her mother Gertrude spent 18 years of her life. If you start looking for hospitals, nurses, doctors and other medical elements in Bishop’s poetry and prose, you find quite a population of them, and no surprise. Medical and health issues were not just daily things that happened to Bishop, she pulled them into her art, too, and looked at them from all angles, transformed them into symbols, metaphors, emblems, which resonate for us all.
St. Elizabeth's Hospital
The image above is of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. One of Bishop’s official duties when she was Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress in 1949–1950 was to visit Ezra Pound, incarcerated there. Out of those experiences came “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” a somewhat controversial poem. What is fascinating and little known is that the woman responsible for establishing St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Dorothea Dix, also played an instrumental role in the creation of the Nova Scotia Hospital. I have written in detail about this connection in my book Lifting Yesterday. Bishop was quite aware of Dix’s involvement with both hospitals and said to her friend Dorothee Bowie that the only biography she ever wanted to write was about Dix because she had helped the mentally “insane.”
The next post will be the last for the 5 July 1956 letter and return to poor Aunt Florence and other matters.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia AGM, 18 June 2016

About thirty members and friends gathered at the "In the Village" Cafe in Great Village, N.S., on Saturday afternoon 18 June 2016 for the EBSNS Annual General Meeting. Our guest speaker, Halifax artist Emma FitzGerald, gave a lively talk about her artist residency in Rio de Janeiro, where she worked on a project inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's poems. Here are some images of that day, taken by EBSNS member Susan Kerslake.
(The business part of the day.)
(l to r) (Life member Lois Bray, our new
Vice President Judith van Duren,
and long-time member Barbara Bell.)
(Emma FitzGerald weaving her tales of Brazil)
(Tea, treats and talk)
Thanks to all who came out to help us celebrate Elizabeth Bishop "In the Village." Go to the EBSNS website to read the minutes of the meeting and the President's Report.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 13: Getting down to business

Even Elizabeth Bishop knew she was “no business-woman.” Her relationship with money was complex and fraught. She was a fortunate writer in some ways because she had inheritance from her father, mother and paternal grandfather. This inheritance provided at least some income for a good part of her adult life. But she had little interest in managing her finances, perhaps because she professed to have little ability to do so. Indeed, from her earliest childhood, until she came of age, her inheritance was managed by her mother, then her grandfather and then her paternal uncle.

Even with money in hand, and increasing success as a writer (being published, receiving awards, fellowships and other prizes), Bishop always seemed to worry about money, about having enough to live on. Her life-long health issues and their attendant costs were certainly enough to keep her at least concerned about finances. Though, as she admits in her Depression era memoir “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” she didn’t really have to work in a conventional way, until much later life.

Bishop disliked teaching, but in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, she taught because she needed the money. She did readings, an activity she disliked even more than teaching, for the money. She sold the Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore letters in her possession in the 1970s because she needed the money. She was always very direct about this motivation. In her letters to Grace in the early 1970s, worry about money is a regular theme, especially as she approached retirement.

Money is even a subject in her poems and stories. Perhaps her first awareness about money as a force in daily life came in Great Village during her early childhood. Her memoir “In the Village” contains several fascinating references to money.


For example, it refers to a five-cent piece Bishop receives as a gift, with the image of King George V on it. The above image is not of a nickel, but this gives you the idea. This coin dates 1916, the year of “In the Village.”

And much later in her life, one thinks of “Poem” where art and money are directly linked, the little painting having never earned any money in its life, even though it is the size of an old-style dollar bill.
The "old-style dollar bill" painting by Bishop's Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson.

In her own letters to friends and colleagues, money is a not infrequent subject. As much as artists want and need to be outside the crass realm of business and commercialism, unless they are independently wealthy, artists are often, reluctantly, obsessed with money, or the lack of it.

I have always thought a book, or at least an essay, about Bishop and money would be well worth the effort and quite revealing. It is a subject that directly touched every aspect of her life from birth to death; but it is a subject that seems to be somewhat taboo: too private? too uncomfortable? too crude?

In her letters to Grace, Bishop wrote about her finances and business transactions, especially in the 1960s, when Brazil was going through serious economic upheaval. Such subjects were not central in their dialogue, but they were present in ways that demonstrates how these issues mattered to Bishop.

In the 5 July 1956 letter to Grace, Bishop tells her aunt that she is “investing some money here.” She had borrowed from her bank in the US (I don’t know if anyone has ever figured out what bank(s) Bishop dealt with — perhaps not much of an issue, but it would be interesting to know) and invested it in Brazil. The nature of this investment is not revealed in the letter, but Bishop tells Grace that “interests are fantastically high.” Bishop had help in this endeavour from “a friend of mine who’s supposed to be a great money-maker.” The idea was to make “enough to live on here” and “send some more $$$ back to the U.S.” Bishop seemed quite sure this plan would work, even though she had “never thought of doing anything like that before.” She declared that it must be “the ‘Bishop side,’ as Aunt F would say, — the grandpa B side!”
 “Grandpa B”: John Wilson Bishop
The Bishop side of her family was decidedly all business. Her paternal grandfather, John W. Bishop, was a self-made man who had created a solid construction company in New England, building landmark buildings such as the Boston Public Library. Grace herself knew the Bishops well enough and understood their inclination. In her letter, Bishop declared, “Anything artistic I feel positive couldn’t come from there, even if my father did do well in high-school.” Bishop’s father, William, might very well have been the most “artistic” of this family, a well-read, gentle and thoughtful man, who clearly cared about more than just making one buck and then another.

Perhaps Bishop’s aversion to dealing with money and finances came from seeing these forces dominate her paternal side. But even as she lacked a business acumen, she did have to deal with her “living” at every stage of her life, and especially so as she aged. I do not know if Bishop's investment paid off as well as she hoped.

The next post will deal with more health and medical matters.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 12: The Fear of Flying

The next extant letter for 1956 is dated 5 July, the promised full response that Bishop mentioned in her postcard. This letter contains a number of ongoing and new subjects, and the next couple of posts will focus on them in turn.

Bishop’s dislike of flying was something she mentioned on more than one occasion to Grace. One of my previous posts introduced the subject of air travel.

Grace’s view of this mode of transportation is unknown, but it might have been similar to her niece’s because Bishop mentions a recent news event that clearly unsettled her, something she thought would interest Grace: “Weren’t those airplane accidents ghastly.” So upsetting were they that Bishop observed she would not have gone to Diamantina (a trip she took in April) “after them.”

Of course, I wondered what plane crash had happened, and thanks to Google and the internet, I learned about a tragic mid-air collision of two aircraft over the Grand Canyon, on 30 June 1956, only a few days before Bishop’s letter, so indeed a very current event. It was the first airplane crash in aviation history causing over 100 deaths. 128 people perished.

Commercial transcontinental, transatlantic/pacific flight was still in its early years, though expanding rapidly. This terrible accident clearly shocked the world. Bishop noted, trying to lighten what for her was a dark subject, told her aunt about a painter friend of theirs who had recently flown to Europe. When, upon arriving, he was asked how he liked the flight, his said, “It was the longest fright I ever had.”

Bishop is, of course referring specifically to the Colorado tragedy in her letter, though it is interesting that she writes “airplane accidents” (plural). As I searched online, I found a site that lists plane crashes that have occurred in each year, planecrashinfo.com, and discovered that there were over 50 plane crashes in the world in 1956, including one on 15 May, when a Canadian air force plane crashed into a populated area in Orleans, Ontario, and killed over two dozen people on the ground.

I myself am afraid of flying. Like Bishop, I have flown in spite of it; but never comfortably. We are told that flying is safer than driving in a car; but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like that. Well, humans are quite irrational on many levels. I wonder how many of these 50+ crashes Elizabeth and Grace heard about in 1956, multiple accidents each month, most not of the magnitude of the one in Colorado, but they all added up to a deadly year in aviation.

I am not sure when Bishop’s first flight occurred. From birth, she was a frequenter of ships and trains, which continued when she began to travel on her own in the 1920s and 1930s. Her first vivid description of flight that I have found appears in a journal she kept in August 1951, when she made a trip to Nova Scotia and Sable Island. For some reason, Bishop chose to fly, from New York to Boston and then on to Nova Scotia.

The trip journal begins with a description of this flight, which seemed to fascinate more than frighten her. On the New York to Boston leg, she wrote that they saw only one other plane, miles off, and commented in a way that invokes her poem “Manners”: “It seemed wrong not to hail it, for the 2 planes not to approach each other & talk over the strangeness of being there at all – It didn’t seem possible.” The plane landed at an airport in Dartmouth, “a clearing in the fir woods,” and she took a little ferry across the harbour to Halifax. For the Nova Scotia to Sable Island leg, she boarded the HMCS Cornwallis (a Coast Guard resupply ship) to make the journey. She approached Sable Island by sea.

In May 2008, I had the great privilege of going to Sable Island, thanks to a kind invitation from Zoe Lucas. Along with writer Janet Barkhouse, we went by air and I felt quite reassured because our pilot was a woman, Debbie, and very experienced. A regular trip for her. It might have been the least nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever taken. I wished Bishop had seen Sable Island from the sky. She would have appreciated its striking appearance way out there in the vast ocean.
 Sable Island by air, May 2008. Photo by Janet Barkhouse
 
Janet Barkhouse (centre), Sandra (right) and
Sable Island Station Manager Gerry on the South Beach
In her 1951 journal, she was fascinated by the geography beneath her (the plane flew only 11,000 feet up): “N.S. looked lovely from the air — fresh dark greens, red outline, glittering lines of rivers — more animated than Maine had looked — & that amazing cleanness that strikes me every time.” By 1956, flight was more common, but the skies were becoming more dangerous, too. The adventure was turning into an anxiety, at least for Bishop.

The next post will look at a subject for which Bishop had little acumen: business.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 11: Another Postcard

The next extant communication from Bishop to Grace in 1956 is a postcard dated 3 July, clearly in response to a letter from Grace. Indeed, the continuation of a series of lost back and forths, since there is a big gap from the previous letter of January. What happened to all the letters in between? What we get in this postcard is a glimpse of the continuum, their ongoing dialogue, but like listening to only one side of a phone conversation.

Bishop packed as much as she could on the verso of this card. It is amazing how much she managed to type, filling the small space to the edges. Remember, she did so on a manual typewriter.

She began by instructing Grace to send “some maple syrup” directly to their post office box in Petrópolis, because “Mr. Liberal has left customs.” — perhaps someone who helped smooth the way for gifts from the north. (One wonders what sort of person this fellow was with a name like that!) While it took longer for mail to reach that destination, Bishop noted that it still seemed to get through.

Anything “maple” was eagerly and gratefully received by Elizabeth and Lota. Indeed, Aunt Mary had recently sent “a pound of Red Rose tea” and some maple sugar. The shipment from Grace was a business transaction, as Bishop indicates she will be sending a cheque. Grace, however, also begifted such northern treats on many occasions. And they always triggered vivid memories for Bishop. July was well past the maple syrup season in Nova Scotia (which is February/March), but maple products are available year round. Two producers of maple products in Colchester County are: Sugar Moon and Maple Mist.

The verso of this postcard was a view of Glória, Rio de Janeiro


“Poor Aunt F” is invoked again. It appears that Grace had finally seen her at some point during this year. Indeed, visited long enough to be part of a “dinner party.” Grace was gallivanting again. Bishop conceded, surely based on more reports from her Bishop cousins, that Florence was “getting worse.” Bishop confessed that she had always stayed away from her “as much as possible,” even as she “felt rather sorry for her.” Bishop’s biggest objection, declared emphatically, was that her aunt was a “snob…putting it mildly.”

The item mentioned most briefly in this brief communication concerned a big subject, Bishop’s health. The correspondence between them contained many discussions about all things medical and health-related (sadly, we see only one side of it). This shared interest was of long standing between them, for all sorts of reasons.

In this particular instance, Bishop tells Grace, “I have a BOIL, or boils,” one large on her kneecap and “some little ones.” Bishop’s reason for mentioning this infirmity was: “what do you suggest?” It is easy to imagine that Grace’s advice was practical and germane, even at a distance. Ever the person to make a joke, Bishop wrote that she new understood the old saying, “sore as a boil.”

“How was your trip?” Bishop asked, and promised that she would “write soon,” asking her aunt where to send her next letter. Bishop did write very soon after sending this postcard, a long letter dated 5 July 1956. The next post will begin a pondering of subjects in this epistle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

EBSNS AGM, 18 June 2016

Join the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia on Saturday, 18 June 2016, 1:30 p.m., at “In the Village” Café in Great Village, N.S. Our guest speaker is Halifax-based visual artist and architect Emma FitzGerald, who will be speaking about her artist residency in Brazil in the fall of 2015, when she visited Bishop’s houses. Her best-selling book Hand-Drawn Halifax (Formac) has been turned into a colouring book. See the EBSNS Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/EBSofNS) to learn more about the society’s activities and interests. Hope to see you in June!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 10: Work in progress

"I’m glad you liked the little poem about Pa,” wrote Bishop in her 18 January 1956 letter to Grace. This poem, “Manners,” appeared in the 26 November 1955 issue of The New Yorker. It doesn’t appear that Grace had a subscription to TNY, so somehow Bishop was sending them to her aunt. She told Grace that she had “done some more, 3 or 4,” that is, poems about childhood and children, and hoped “eventually, in a couple of years, to publish a little book of children’s poems.” She added that another poem had come out in the 10 December 1955 New Yorker, “Filling Station,” which she would also send, “you may think it’s funny. (At least it’s supposed to be.)”
(26 November 1955 cover of The New Yorker)
Bishop never collected and published a book of children’s poems, but she continued to work on poems that might have fit such a collection. The poems she directly mentions here, and the 3 or 4 others not named (likely including “Sestina,” which was published in the 15 September 1956 issue of TNY; “First Death in Nova Scotia,” which was published in the 20 March 1962 issue of TNY; and “Sandpiper,” published in the 21 July 1962 issue of TNY) ended up in her 1965 Questions of Travel.

As busy as Bishop was helping Henique Mindlin with his book about Brazilian architecture, and working on new poems, Bishop was, at this time, well into one of the biggest projects she ever undertook, the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, a Brazilian classic. This book is the diary of a young girl who grew up in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil. It had captured Bishop’s imagination and though she knew very little Portuguese, she embarked on the translation project with enthusiasm. It took her several years to complete.
Bishop wanted to title this translation “Black Beans and Diamonds,” but it eventually came to be called The Diary of ‘Helena Morely’, published in 1957.
The author of the diary was Alice Dayrell Caldiera Brant(1880–1970), still very much alive when Bishop began the translation

In letters to friends, she wrote about meeting Dona Alice and the introduction to the translation is a lengthy essay, which describes some of her encounters with the latter-day “Helena.” So committed was Bishop to this project, that she took a trip to Diamantina. She was disappointed by the mediocre reception of the diary in the US.
 (Dona Alice)
Bishop had already told Grace about this project, because in the letter Bishop notes, “The translation of the girl’s diary is almost done — about 3 weeks’ more work now.” She told her aunt that a publisher in England was on board, but she hadn’t “decided on a U.S. one yet,” noting how different the language in America was from England, which meant “a lot more work” to make sure idioms were correct: “in the U.S. one[,] I say ‘a can of candy,’ for example; and in the English one, ‘a tin of sweets,’ etc. etc.”

Bishop eventually went with Farrar, Straus and Cudhay as the American publisher, agreeing to give them her next poetry collection if they published the diary.

Bishop was always eager to hear what Grace thought of her work — poems, stories, reviews and translations. She made sure Grace and her family had all her books and sought their responses, especially her beloved aunt’s. She sent Grace a copy of the diary and asked her on a number of occasions what she thought of it. Grace’s response is, of course, lost. Mina Vida de Menina resonated with Bishop on so many levels, and she drew directly on her own childhood experiences to help her translate. She told Grace later on, that when it was too hard to translate Helena’s grandmother’s sayings into English, she thought about what Gammie (her maternal grandmother) would have said in a similar situation, and it worked just fine. In a small way, Bishop’s translation of the diary was an homage to her own childhood. 
 (Pa and Gammie, circa 1920s)

In Part 10, I will write about another postcard, which introduces a major subject of interest to aunt and niece: health.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace — Part 9: The Babies

One subject that Bishop knew would keenly interest her aunt was children, particularly babies and toddlers. In the mid- to late 1950s, the house as Samambaia was a veritable nursery, with several children present on a regular basis.

In Bishop’s letter of 18 January 1956, she gives an account of “Lota’s ‘granddaughter’,” Helena, who was the daughter of Lota de Macedo Soares’s “adopted” son Kylso. Kylso and his wife had several children in close succession (Helena, Paulinha, Roberto, Lotinha and Patricia). At this point, it was just Helena and her younger sister. During the late 1950s, these children spent time with their “granny” on a number of occasions, partly because Kylso and his family lived in a very small apartment in Rio, where, Bishop speculated, “they just never go to bed.” January 1956 appears to have marked Helena’s first visit, because Bishop is introducing her to Grace.

Bishop observed that she thought Lota was “causing a slight social scandal” when, in Petrópolis she told anyone who asked, that Helena was “My grandchild.” “So I imagine,” Bishop wrote, “people are asking each other when Lota had a child, and if the family hushed it up, or what!” This kind of speculation was familiar to Bishop because local gossips in Great Village had said of Arthur Bulmer, Grace's brother, that he “had” to marry Mabel Pigott, though it was decidedly not true, as their first child was born nearly two years after their wedding. Being from a small community, Grace would have appreciated Bishop’s observations on a number of levels, after all, Grace herself had eloped with the widower William Bowers, a “slight social scandal” in its day.

Bishop told Grace that Lota “would spoil Helena in no time,” thus proving to be “a real ‘granny’.” Bishop was quite intrigued by Helena, who “is barely three, and so good.” Yet, “she’s too clean for a child that age — always washing her face and hands, folding up her clothes and putting them away.” This behaviour made Bishop worry “a little.” On the trip to Petrópolis, Lota bought Helena an ice cream: “I came out of a store,” wrote Bishop, “& saw nothing but Helena’s little bottom sticking up in the air as she leaned over the side of the car to eat it.” Bishop observed, however, that this spoiling was doing the child good, as she “is already much fatter and sleeping much more than when she came.”

Helena was not the first baby to arrive in the household. Lota’s cook had a child on 7 February 1955, the day before Bishop’s birthday. She was named Maria Elizabeth. As Brett Millier notes, the cook wanted Bishop to be the child’s godmother, but because she was not baptized, the church would not allow it (Life & the Memory of It, 265). It is clear from this letter that Bishop had already told Grace about “Betty” (Millier says she was called “Bettchy”), because she mentions her without much background, and notes that at just under a year “she already has two teeth…and is walking a little…pretty good, isn’t that?”
Millier writes, “Elizabeth and Lota supervised the raising of Bettchy, relying heavily on Dr. Spock.” (265) In the letter to Grace, Bishop remarks that Lota had studied “child-psychology,” so she had a lot of theory to draw upon.
(Benjamin Spock himself, 1970s)
Sadly, Bettchy and her parents were gone by 1960 and Bishop never saw her again. Bettchy’s place was filled in 1961 when Mary Morse (Lota’s previous partner, who still lived nearby) adopted a baby, Monica. But the bigger gap was the loss of Kyslo’s family, around this same time, caused by a rift between Lota and her adopted son. (Millier 266) By 1960, however, preoccupations with children were quickly replaced by preoccupations with the creation of Parque do Flamengo, a huge project which became Lota’s true “baby.”
 
(Mary and Monica Morse. Source:
http://www.institutolotta.com.br/index.html )
The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the most conventionally domestic time of Bishop’s life, and also one of the most creative. Bishop told Grace, “It’s probably good for us to have babies around.” Elizabeth and Lota seemed inclined and suited to the roles of aunt and grandmother. They certainly had definite ideas about child-rearing, which is rather amusing considering they were never mothers. Grace, on the other hand, was the veteran in this field, already with a first grandchild and a second one due to arrive that year. It is sad that Grace’s responses to Bishop’s many stories and theories about these children are lost. Undoubtedly, they would have been amusing, practical and insightful. Grace had been such an integral part of Bishop’s own childhood, right from birth, that it is not surprising Bishop was eager to share details about their “babies.”

With all these children around, Bishop was thinking a great deal about her own childhood, and she had begun a translation project directly connected to the childhood of a famous Brazilian. In the next post, I will look at the work Bishop was engaged in at this time.