"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 41: “Saints casting down their crowns”

With the missing June letter, the next extant epistle is dated 9 July. Bishop wrote it during a stay in Rio. She explained the reason for this location at the beginning, which I’ll reveal it later. The central subject of this post was, however, her account of recent festivities connected to Christian saints and their celebrations in Brazil.

Bishop informed her aunt that they had “just had the two biggest Saints’ days — Saint John and Saint Peter.” The festival for Saint John occurred at the equinox, “your longest day, our shortest.” So, winter had arrived in the southern hemisphere, even as there had been “beautiful weather — hot enough to go swimming in the middle of the day, but really quite cool most of the time.”

The Festa Junina came with “great displays of fireworks and bonfires.” Then, Bishop added, “about a week later comes St. Peter,” with “more fireworks.”

In order to see the fireworks at their best, Bishop told Grace that she and Lota “took a group of friends in our bus up to the top of a mountain.” To orient Grace, Bishop noted that the spot was “almost up to that Christ you saw in the movies.” This reference is, of course, to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue perched high above Rio. I remember being take to this spot in 1999 with it spectacular 360° view of the city. I have never seen such an amazing spot. Surely, Rio must be one of the most beautiful settings for a city in the world.
 
Bishop explained to Grace that the fireworks “were set off in a lagoon down below.” Bishop’s only word for the sight was “beautiful.” She noted that being “so high up” meant that the fireworks “were almost silent.” The colourful explosions were capped off with “a lot of rockets … set off right from that Christ — back and forth, from below and above, answering each other.”

This breath-taking outing ended up consuming breath in another way. Bishop reported that during that evening “we broke the car and we all had to get out and push.” Then she said something that made me pause and ponder, having been up the side of at least two precipitously steep mountains in Rio: “then coast all the way down the mt.” I imagine the effort to keep the car from careening.

Car trouble was their frustration during this Saint’s day, but there were also consequences for the city, as Bishop noted, “the fireworks around the Christ started a brush fire up there” — one thinks of the fire in “The Armadillo.” “Oh well,” Bishop concluded, “it was all very spectacular!”

These celebrations were a welcome diversion from dental work she was having done, “such a bore.” They had gone to Rio intending “to stay four or five days.” Two weeks later they were still there because of the broken car and it was taking “so long to get it fixed.” “You can imagine,” Bishop wrote, “how short our wardrobes are running!” They had managed to get a friend to retrieve their mail and send it “on the bus,” their post box “overflowing.” Bishop had hoped that this abundance would include a letter from Grace, but there was none, which got her niece worried. “So much mail has been lost this year.” Bishop was so concerned about the mail that she had “been numbering my letters to Aunt F.” Doing so documented that “about one out of three” went missing. So, she reasoned that the same was the case with Grace’s letters. Even so, “I’m awfully worried,” because by her reckoning, “this is the fourth time I’ve written in a row without any answer so far.” She was concerned that Grace might be sick.

Along with the “dentistry,” Bishop was taking “the opportunity” of the delay to have “a new bunch of allergy tests made.” She had had “two bad weeks” before the Rio trip because “all the grass had gone to seed.” She informed Grace that apparently “lots of ‘foreigners’ are allergic to this grass when it blossoms — Brazilians never.” Even so, she couldn’t help but say that “the scenery with all the grass on the mountains a bright rose-red, was superb.” Sometimes beauty exacts a price, but one Bishop did not complain too much about.

She told Grace that she had “a nice new doctor” who “never takes a penny.” This allergist’s “various vaccines and serums really have me almost cured.” But he “likes to repeat all the tests every year.”

The Rio sojourn was going to end “tomorrow or the next day.” They had been away from the house at Samambaia long enough for them to be “worried about our two dogs and two cats, and our cook, who telephones faithfully every morning, and hates being left alone.”

In that lost June letter, Bishop had told Grace about the most recent baby, born on 17 June, “very pretty and very healthy.” This must have been the cook’s most recent. The girl had been named Patricia, which Bishop observed, oddly, was “a rather silly name for her, but it isn’t too bad.” Bishop promised her aunt that she would send her “some snapshots of the whole family.” If she did they did not survive.

As anxious as they were to get back home, they had needed the break (even if unexpectedly extended) because “we were both so tired with all the preparations, everyone sick in bed with grippe, etc., except us.” They had enjoyed seeing “our Rio friends, etc.” But it was now time to escape the busy city.

Winding down her letter, Bishop mentioned that she needed to “get dressed to go to town.” This jaunt required a “20-minute bus ride.” She closed with a plea, “Please do let me hear from you,” wondering if her aunt was “with Phyllis.” Bishop sent this letter to Great Village, but knew that might not be right. Just before her usual “with much love,” Bishop asked, “Are the strawberries ripe?” They would be full-on in Great Village at that time. She was able to get them in Rio, “about 50¢ for a small basket,” but they were “never ripe enough, although they do have more flavour than the N.Y. ones, at least.”


The next post finally brings a letter from Grace.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 40: A Quick Note

Bishop’s next communication with her aunt was a postcard dated 30 March 1959. It always amazes me to see that Bishop typed rather than wrote these briefest of notes (though her characteristic signature sits at the end, accompanied by “with love.”)

The “grandchildren” would have already come and gone, but there is not room to mention them in this 3.5 x 5.5 inch space. Even so, Bishop packs quite a bit onto this card.

First, she wonders where Grace is, whether or not “you are home from your travels.” She assumes Grace must be, even though “it’s some time since I heard from you.” This suggests that the post card is not in response to any letter from Grace, but because Bishop is thinking about her aunt. It might also have been prompted by an upcoming run to Rio, the next day, “to have a tooth pulled, oh dear.” So she would be going through Petrópolis (Bishop inked in the accent over the o) and would stop at the P.O. “en route” to mail the postcard and check for a letter from Grace.

Bishop’s choice of postcard was “a ‘partial view’ of P,” that is Petrópolis, “at night.” A view of “the main street, where we go marketing.” She explains that the big buildings “are apartment houses” and tells her aunt that many of them are “vacant most of the year and used only in the ‘summer’.”

The intense heat that she had described in her previous letter “is over now.” One reason why the grandchildren would have returned to Rio.

Bishop tells Grace that she was expecting Marjorie Stevens to visit, something that was supposed to happen “in April but she can’t get away now until after May,” which would be the fall season, so Bishop worried that her friend, used to the warmth of Key West, would feel the cold. Sadly, this visit never took place as Stevens died later this year. Wherever Grace was, however, the season was leaning towards spring: “Is it beginning to get spring-like?” Bishop asked — confessing to Grace that “spring is what I really miss here.” But then immediately Bishop announces that she and Lota were “planning on a trip next fall — We HOPE! — including N.S.” This trip did not happen. Bishop’s next time in the US was in 1961.

With her usual query, “How are you and how did you find the relatives?” she closed her little epistle, “cramped, / dim” on a tiny postcard.

(verso of the postcard)
In the Vassar file for 1959, there is an envelope addressed to Grace (to Great Village), postmarked 23 June 1959. Sadly, this June letter is missing. On the verso, which gives Bishop’s address as “Caixa Postal 279,” someone has written a list:

baby
citron
recipe for marmalade
Florence B
Marjory S
coming home

This handwriting is clearly not Bishop’s. Might it be Grace’s hand, summarizing the contents of the missing letter? Alas, Phyllis Sutherland, who could identify her mother’s holograph, is gone.

The next post will have something to say about saints.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 39: How was Cabo Frio anyway?

No big gap this time. Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is dated 6 January 1959, written almost immediately after she and Lota returned from Cabo Frio. Above the typed date, Bishop had written in “Wednesday A.M.” so that her aunt would know how quickly Bishop was responding. This letter was triggered by a gift Elizabethreceived from Grace and her cousin Phyllis. Bishop and Lota had arrived back in Samambaia “Monday morning” and had gone “to the P.O. first thing” to “collect our Christmas mail that had piled up,” as a result of their two week vacation
Bishop surmised that this gift had “probably even arrived in time for Christmas, if we’d been here.” The reason for this confidence was that “the customs seem to have been completely reorganized,” as Bishop had hoped at the end of 1958. She reported to Grace that “we got lots of packages and didn’t have to pay anything,” and even more astonishing, “some of them had come very fast.” One package arrived in “three weeks or so, from N.Y.”

The gift was “a nice book.” Alas and of course (since Grace knew what it was), Bishop does not offer any more detail, only a response: “I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but I did look up a lot of the places I know in the index to see what he had to say about them.” Not only was Bishop “delighted to have it,” she also assured her aunt that “it will be a great help to me in my work.” The particular work Bishop refers to can be surmised by the next sentence: “Lota is rather disgusted with me, the way I keep writing away about N.S., after all these years!” Well, it is unlikely we will ever know what this book was, but one can surmise it had something to do with the geography of Nova Scotia.

Bishop had “an awful feeling” that her “complaining about the customs” had triggered this gift, because she remembered writing at some point that she couldn’t get “anything but books” through the mails, “I’m afraid you thought I was hinting.”

Returning to the customs situation, Bishop remarked that “it had got so bad” that they had “given up even ordering books” because things got stuck in a no-man’s land in Rio, sometimes for months. And the duty charged had become exorbitant. A friend had sent her “a little box of tea” and she had to pay “100% duty,” which made the “¼ pound” cost “$4.00.” A dollar bought a lot more then than it does today, so this doubling of the price was a lot to swallow (no pun intended).

Few letters Bishop sent to Grace ignored something all Maritimers think about obsessively: the weather. Bishop reported that they were getting “rains, rains, rains up here.” In the seven years she’d been in Brazil, she had “never seen such rains.” As expected, the result was serious flooding, even in Samambaia. The rains started as they set off for their Christmas holiday and were still falling upon their return. Bishop reported that the usually “good-sized brook” running through the property was “now raging.” While they were away, a “girl was actually drowned in our stream — down below us, trying to cross over.” The swimming hole that Lota had constructed was washed out, so it had to be done “over again, and heaven knows when we can afford to.”

Returning to their holiday at Cabo Frio, Bishop told Grace that the weather had been quite the opposite, indeed “perfect, hot, clear … wonderful.” They had gone fishing “a couple of times” and astonishingly, Bishop reported she “caught two enormous dolphins”! I wonder if she let them go, as she did “The Fish.” Since there are many species of dolphins, it is hard to say what kind it was, and at a time when they were not protected.

In addition to fishing, they swam a lot and “slept an awful lot,” concluding, “we were both very tired without realizing it.” They had also eaten a lot, their hosts stuffing them “with fish and shrimp — now we are both dieting!”

They were now settling in to their routine again and “as soon as the weather clears a bit,” Bishop wrote, “we are due to have the three oldest ‘grandchildren’ for a month’s visit.” Bishop was looking forward to it because “they are getting adorable, all of them.” After the oldest were encamped for a few weeks, their mother would arrive with the baby, now nearly one. Knowing Grace would be interested in these little people, Bishop noted, “I am determined to get some photographs for you.”

Wanting not to delay her “thank you for the book,” Bishop closed her letter reiterating how “extremely pleased” she was to have received it, and extending her hope that her aunt was “well and not over-doing — how’s the LIMB?” What that refers to, I can’t say. An injury?

Knowing that Grace had been with her youngest son, Rod, Bishop sent the letter there and urged her aunt to “write me all the news about Mary, Elizabeth, John, the baby, etc. (if you saw E and the baby),” referring to Aunt Mary’s oldest child, Elizabeth Ross Naudin, who was now a new mother herself. This short but busy letter ended, as usual, “With much love.”

Next post will be a quick glimpse of spring in 1959.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 38: How fast Christmas comes around

The next letter to Grace is dated 15 December 1958. What happened in that long gap from the end of May? Brett Millier has very little to say about this year in Bishop’s life. With the publication of The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ in December 1957, Millier more or less leaps to 1960, which saw Bishop make her first trip down the Amazon. One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters includes only seven letters (and part of an eighth) during this late May to mid-December period. And then this 15 December letter to Grace.* Why Robert Giroux chose this letter, a short, utilitarian epistle, is puzzling unless there are few extant letters overall for this year, so it was necessary in order to bulk it up.

What is immediately obvious, and amusing when you think about it, is that Grace had been on the move all year. Bishop couldn’t keep track of her. Indeed, Aunt Grace was far more peripatetic at this time than her niece. Perhaps 1958 and 1959 were the most settled and domestic years of Bishop’s entire Brazilian sojourn.

Bishop’s letter was triggered by receiving “your card a few days ago.” Bishop supposed a letter from Grace “got lost” because she confessed that “I didn’t know you were going any place!” Bishop had already sent Grace “a card and Christmas gift” (undoubtedly, the usual money), and hoped that the folks at the farm in Great Village would forward it to her, wherever that might be. Bishop speculated that perhaps her aunt was with Aunt Mary, but then thought better of that and said, “I think you must be spending Christmas with Roddy” (Grace’s youngest son who lived in Brantford, Ontario, Canada): “I’ll send it [“this note”] there.” All this confusion and uncertainty was, in Bishop’s view, caused by the postal service, “The mails are getting worse and worse, obviously. I rarely lost anything until the past year.”
After typing the above sentence, Bishop inserted a “//” — signaling a seemingly right angle change of subject: “How I wish we had some more of that delicious venison you once sent us — and maple syrup.” Where did that come from? But you can see why Bishop made the leap, remembering the gifts Grace had sent in the past, but would no longer be able to trust to the worsening postal system: “but it is out of the question now to send anything at all, in or out.” Bishop reported to Grace that the customs service was “supposedly”  being “reorganized,” something Bishop hoped would be done “in a few months,” so that they could “begin again” to exchange more than just letters.

One of the subjects of Grace’s now lost letter was clearly about what the weather was like and what Bishop’s Christmas would entail, which prompted a detailed report. After the reprieve of a relatively cool winter at Samambaia, summer had arrived, bringing “the hottest November in 33 years — around 104 in Rio most of the time. (That is HOT.)” At Samambaia “it never gets like that,” but even so, the temperature was higher than normal. This prompted much swimming “in our pool every day.” Bishop was also “making sherberts all the time,” from the abundant “wonderful pineapples, mangoes, etc.” that were available. The extreme heat in Rio also meant that they had lots of company, people escaping the oppressive weather.

As for their Christmas holiday, Bishop tells Grace that “on the 22nd we are going away to Cabo Frio (‘cold cape’) for ten days.” Bishop and Lota had gone there for the first time the Christmas before and would continue this holiday getaway for the next several years. Friends “have a nice house there, on the beach.” It was a place to fish and swim and had “beautiful scenery.” Part of the motivation for this getaway was to give “the maids a rest from us and us from them.”
Bishop explained that when they stayed at home for Christmas they actually “have a tree, of sorts.” Bishop refers to this “tropical plant” as a “graveta.” And offers a vivid description: “it’s a huge things, six or eight feet high, dark red, waxy, with yellow blossoms at the tips, and shaped like a Christmas tree, more or less — anyway, with candles it is very striking, and we usually send a boy up the cliffs to cut us the biggest one he can find (we located one through binoculars one year!).” As exotic as this probably sounded to Grace, Bishop concluded that the whole thing “isn’t Christmassy at all.” If she couldn’t have a northern holiday, Bishop clearly was happy with a Christmas Day “swimming and lying in hammocks….”

Their contribution to the feast was ham, which they would “bake and decorate … there,” and “chocolate cake and tins of cookies.”

Before signing off, Bishop couldn’t help but tell the still-practicing nurse that she had been administering “whooping-cough shots” to the maids’ children, and wished she “give them both Salk shots, too.” But she was not able to get the serum.

The wanderer turned home-body Bishop closed her letter declaring, “I don’t like to think of you traipsing around in the freezing cold.” And wondering just where Brantford was, “I must look at a map.” Appealing once more for her aunt to “write me all your doings, much more interesting than mine,” she urged Grace “to take care of yourself” and “have a good time.” Ending with her usual, “With much love.”

The next post offers an account of that holiday in Cabo Frio.


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*Note: One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters includes ten letters to Grace (in whole or in part — one is a mere fragment). The dates of these letters are:  5 July 1956; 19 October 1956;  2 December 1956; 16 September 1957; 15 December 1958; 15 or 16 November 1959; 3 September 1960; 26 July 1961; 26 August 1961; 12 December 1961.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 37 – Crossing space and time

Over a month passed before Bishop wrote again to Grace, a letter dated 20 May 1958. Without Grace’s letters, it is difficult to keep track of the back and forth of their correspondence. The letters crossed real space (thousands of miles) and swaths of time (weeks, sometimes months). And Bishop, with her busy life at the house in Samambaia, often lost track of who owed a letter, and even when she or her aunt had last written. As a result, there is repetition in what Bishop wrote, since she was sometimes unsure if Grace had actually received her letters. It appears from what is extant that Grace received most of Bishop’s letters (though some of them went MIA over the decades of their correspondence) and faithfully preserved them. It is deeply unfortunate that Bishop didn’t manage to do the same, for reasons that will never be known, probably.

Bishop starts the May letter by declaring that is it had been “so long” since she heard from her aunt that she was “beginning to feel very concerned.” According to Bishop, her aunt’s “last letter was just before you went down to Key West.” Bishop again refers to the letter from Marjorie Stevens and its update. Bishop’s April letter had been sent to Great Village: “Perhaps I should have sent it to Phyllis?” (in Dartmouth, N.S.). She told her aunt that in that letter “I sent some clippings about the ‘Diary’ for you to see.” Bishop assumes the distinct possibility that Grace never got that letter. Bishop rationalized, “I think fat letters are the ones that get lost because someone at the P.O. thinks they might be worth stealing.” Here is a cynical view of the postal service. I must say that even these days, occasionally, I don’t receive my weekly copy of The New Yorker, kindly subscribed to for me by a dear friend in the US. When they don’t come, I am quite sure someone on the “inside” has taken it for their own edification.

We assume instantaneous contact and expect rapid response these days. Only those of a certain generation will remember the visceral nature of letter-writing, and how it fostered patience. But even Bishop could get wound up, and she was one of the most prolific letter-writers of the twentieth century, someone with vast experience of the postal services in Canada, the US, Europe and Brazil.

If indeed Bishop’s letter had gone astray, she noted that Grace “may think I’m the one who owes a letter.” Because no letter at Vassar contains the “clippings,” it is entirely possible that it did not reach its destination.

The one item from her April letter that she reiterated most fully was what Marjorie had written about Grace’s visit to Key West: “Marjorie … said you looked very chic — and was awfully sorry that she couldn’t do more for you, because you did so much for us that stay in G.V. long ago.” That stay was the summer of 1947, when Bishop and Stevens had spent time in Cape Breton and then some days in Great Village.

Turning to life in Brazil, Bishop assured Grace that “everything is fine here” except for the money. That is, “Brasilian money is slipping so fast it’s terrifying.” This slip was in relation to the American dollar, so for Bishop it wasn’t an issue. For Lota, not so good: “Poor Lota feels that she’ll never never see New York again.”

Bishop explained to her aunt that in 1952 “the dollar was worth 33 cruzeiros. Then for quite a long time it was worth around 65 or 70 cruzeiros. But now it is almost up to 150.” This inflation was “fearful for Brazilians.” But Bishop hoped that “it may only be temporary.”

Bishop also reported that the grandchildren had gone home. For a couple of months the house at Samambaia had been a veritable nursery school: “six small children … with Maria’s two — quite a lot of children!” In the end they “bought four tricycles.” Bishop’s namesake, Betty, was clearly Bishop’s favourite. She comes in for the most glowing accounts: “Betty is pretty as can be and very smart.” To demonstrate, Bishop noted: “A guest asked Betty if her sister could walk, and she said ‘Yes, she walks. You take her hand and she falls down.’ (I’m afraid this is funnier in Portuguese!).”

The extreme heat of the beginning of the year had eased and they were into winter. “I actually have on long red woolen underwear under my blue jeans,” Bishop reported. There was still heat “in the middle of the day but we keep a fire going all evening now and take hot water bottles to bed.” Bishop was quite happy with the colder temperatures because Brazil had had “three summers in a row, after all!” (meaning that the previous year and a half had record breaking heat).

Coming to the end of this short letter, Bishop told Grace that she recently found “a nice book called DOWN EAST on sale for $1.00.” Written by Sargent F. Collier, Down East: Maine, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, The Gaspé, was published in 1953 by Bishop’s first publisher, Houghton, Mifflin Company.

Bishop described it as “mostly photographs” and said that one of them, “View from Economy Mountain,” made her “feel quite homesick.” She then informed Grace that she had “almost finished a long poem about N.S. that I think I’ll dedicate to you, with your permission.” This must be “The Moose,” though it was not finished until the 1970s.
Signing off “With much love,” Bishop asked about Phyllis and her family and urged her aunt to “let me hear” how she was doing. Scribbled in the margin, Bishop put in an additional plea for her aunt to “tell me where I shd send letters.”

The next post brings Christmas around again.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 36: Grandchildren and Greyhounds

The 9 April 1958 letter was written shortly after Easter, which fell on 29 March that year. As always, Bishop updated Grace on “the ‘grandchildren’,” who were were “still staying down the road.” Having them nearby gave Bishop the incentive to host “their first party and the first time they’d ever hunted for anything” — that is, an Easter egg hunt. Bishop “hid a hundred little eggs around the yard and terrance” and let them go to it. Even the two-year old, “filled his little basket and shrieked with excitement.”
The youngest of this little tribe was Lotinha, who turned “four ½ months” and to Bishop was “one of the prettiest babys [sic] I’ve ever seen, without exaggeration.” So adorable was this infant (“pink … tanned with red cheeks … and dark eyes and lots of fine dark hair”) that “on Sunday everyone took turns carrying her around, even our men guests.”

Once again, Bishop tells Grace that Lota was “very proud of all her ‘offspring’,” and happy to be a “doting grandma.” Bishop wasn’t sure how well they’d do in life, but she reported as proudly as Lota might have that these little people were “good and polite and healthy.”

The other subject on Bishop’s mind was the gift of her translation, The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’. Grace had finally written to Bishop about this book, though clearly not to the extent that Bishop hoped: “I was hoping you’d go into detail.” She wanted to know if Grace thought it was “funny”: “didn’t a lot of it remind you of G V?” and she listed a few things she thought would resonate for her aunt: “the false pregnancy,” “the town’s a regular asylum,” “because her dress was with ‘they may even thinks I have two,” “and so on.”

Bishop had also heard from Aunt Mary, to whom she’d also sent a copy. “she, too, just said it was ‘interesting’.” By that, I suppose, one can assume that Grace herself offered such a succinct review!

Bishop had spent a great deal of time on this translation. She was so excited about it, believed it offered and respresented something deeply authentic, that she confessed to her aunt, “I yearn for flattery, I guess.” She noted that it was getting “wonderful reviews everywhere,” and was disappointed that her aunts didn’t share her enthusiasm.

Letting go of translation and grandchildren, Bishop returned to the weather that Grace had experienced during her Florida sojourn, “such a cold winter.” Grace must have given her more particulars about this trip because Bishop noted, “I went to the dog races once, too,” and wondered if Grace “got to Hialeah — race track?” Bishop had been there once and declared it “one of the prettiest race tracks in the world.” Bishop remembered the “flamingos” and “a lagoon.” Bishop didn’t think very highly of Miami, “a pretty horrible city,” except for “some of the old parts, like Coconut grove,” which she thought were still “very nice.”

Greyhound dog racing has actually entered into my consciousness. There are a number of people in Middleton, where I live, who have adopted greyhounds retired from racing. One of the most recent arrivals of these Florida canines is Monty, who has become the office dog for the company where my sister works. Monty arrived during a severe cold snap, so he got some cosy pajamas.
 (Monty in his warm Canadian pjs and his new "mom")
Bishop concluded her letter with the most immediate of her updates: “It’s time for lunch.” She told Grace that lunch consisted of “garbanzos” and “left-over Easter ham.” She wondered if Grace had eaten garbanzos in Florida, noting “the Cubans eat them a lot,” and again wistfully writing, “Wish you were here!” She sent her love to “Phyllis and Ernie” and gave one final plea for her aunt to write more about her trip and to tell her niece “how you are.”

Next offering will show how space-time is a real force in transcontinental communication.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Our Cambridge Correspondent Writes --


Megan Marshall  (“Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast”) reads at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 11, 2017, in Lesley University’s Marran Theater, 34 Mellen St., Cambridge, Massachusetts.>

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Response to Elizabeth Bishop and Translation, by Mariana Machová

CONTEXT
I met Mariana Machová in 2005. She was a young scholar and translator who made her way to Nova Scotia to get the lay of the land and to hear the sound of the talk, the elements that would still be familiar to Elizabeth Bishop. I forget now just how we connected. She probably sent me an email.

At that point, the artist retreat at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village was starting to establish itself and I invited her to stay there and offered to act as tour guide. Mariana will have to remind me of the time of year (not hot summer nor snowy winter, so spring or fall). [Ed. Note: Mariana has confirmed that her visit was in April.]

I met so many wonderful people during the eleven years I took care of the house, it is difficult to remember the details of each visit, because I tended to “do” the same tour each time, retracing the routes and stopping at the sites Bishop fans want to see.

Mariana came bearing a gift: her first translation into Czech of Bishop’s poems. She also came with an openness and eagerness to learn something of Great Village and Bishop’s childhood. I am sure we drove “The Moose” route. We also spent time in Halifax.

Besides Mariana’s delightful personality, what I remember, specifically, are two small details: a story about an escaped hamster and a discussion about finding a word in Czech for “seal” (the animal), found in “At the Fishhouses,” a challenge in the language of a land-locked country. I listened with fascination to her talk about translating and now realize she was forming ideas that coalesced in the book about which this post is written.

After her visit, Mariana continued to translate Bishop’s work. She kindly sent her collection of translated stories and letters, a substantial volume. In the fall of 2016, her next book was published — in English — Elizabeth Bishop and Translation. Again, she generously sent me a copy.

I told Mariana I would write something about this book for the blog and proceeded to read it with keen interest. It has been a long time since I read serious literary scholarship about Bishop. I have steered clear of it for many years. Knowing Mariana, however, and being interested myself in the idea of translation in general, and in Bishop’s ambiguous fascination with and practice of translation, I was eager to read this detailed study of the subject.

Before I continue, I must apologize because I will not shift gears and turn formal and academic in my response, switching to the convention of using Mariana’s last name, for example, which is the professional way to proceed. I admire what Mariana does in this book and I hope that she will not mind my response’s familiarity. After all, she offers a serious contemplation and discussion of the nature of “the foreign” and “the familiar,” including as it applies to names and naming. My choice is done quite consciously, based on my own principles. I mean no disrespect.
(Mariana at the Elizabeth Bishop House)
RESPONSE
The first part of this book is a detailed exploration of Bishop’s practice of translation from her college efforts to her mature projects, from Aristophanes’s The Birds to The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ and beyond. The second part examines the way Bishop incorporated the principles of “translation poetics” (which Mariana regards as “a creative attitude,” “an aesthetic stance”) into her own creative process.

Here are two statements/observations Mariana makes that for me offer a good sense of what this book contains:

“My aim is to see Bishop’s translation [sic] from a new perspective, not as a marginal activity by which Bishop was occasionally and accidentally distracted from her real work as a poet, but as a recurrent presence in her creative life, which was not by any means dominant, but which was present there all along, sometimes more and sometimes less conspicuously, like a basso continuo beneath the main voice of her own poetry.” (2–3)

“The ‘translator type’ of the poet is conscious of the richness and the potential of language, and is fascinated by the many voices which sound in the language, and at the same time she realizes that this richness is not limited to the variation of sound, that each tongue and voice says different things.” (152)

Around these ideas and observations, Mariana provides deep, detailed readings of a wide-range of texts. This approach is especially welcome with the translations themselves. The Bishop translation I have thought about most is The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ (I presented a paper about it at a conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, in 1999). While I am certainly aware of the others Mariana discusses, I knew little about the originals and the translating process Bishop used. Through her discussions of these works — their chronologies, contexts and challenges — Mariana lays the foundation for the second part of the book, which looks at Bishop’s own poetry through the lens of translation poetics. Mariana makes a solid argument for seeing Bishop as a “translator type” poet. You need to read the book to learn the various elements and practices of translation that Mariana argues Bishop employed in her own creative process; it is a fascinating claim.

It is usually considered naïve** in a reviewer of an academic book to say that she learned a lot from reading it, but I did, especially about the space-time around Bishop’s own translations. For a writer who was not a professional translator and for someone essentially monolingual (she could read and speak languages other than English, but none really well), Bishop translated quite a lot. By simply bringing together all the translations Bishop did, Mariana shows the significance of translation in Bishop’s life. I don’t know of any other book that has so fully focused on this subject, which offers such a concentration.
 
 (Translation as curtained window.)
A COUPLE OF QUIBBLES
I will say, I sighed a bit when I came upon the rather conventional academic practice of dismissing the biographical approach to reading Bishop’s work. It never ceases to amaze me how academics must set up a hierarchy of analyses. Since just about every literary critical study about Bishop I’ve read does so, I can’t fault Mariana too much for engaging in it. And she presses the point far more moderately than many critics. It is a bit ironic, though, that Mariana’s well argued and supported claim about how Bishop did not privilege one voice over another, but had a remarkable capacity for hearing them all, does not translate to her own practice. This gripe is, however, my own hang-up, and the reason why I am not an academic. I just can’t see the point of dismissing one approach and privileging another. Bishop never did, even as she was known to have an ambivalent opinion of literary criticism. She asserted to Anne Stevenson that she was fine with her poems being “interpreted,” though she rarely read such stuff herself.

While Mariana’s own English is good, there were a few places where I paused and wondered if she really meant to use the word she had chosen. For example, she describes “In the Waiting Room” as “notorious.” (“Well known, commonly or generally known, forming a matter of common knowledge, esp. on account of some bad practice, quality, etc., or some other thing not generally approved of or admired.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1,952). I wondered what this poem had done to make it so? I wondered about “superficial” (9); “threat” (31); “primeval” (143–44), and a few other words. Though I thank her for “macaronic”(55), a word I had to look up.

I also found that the text could have stood a better copy edit, particularly when it came to those annoying but vital helping words (articles and prepositions), as well as agreement between subject and verb, and a handful of typos. But these kinds of infelicities are so common in published texts these days, they clearly are accepted (if not acceptable), even for prestigious academic presses.

All this said, I found Mariana’s book a fascinating read.

CONCLUSION
One of the many questions in Bishop’s work that Mariana uncovers in her readings of the poems is: “where is the source of control over representation?” (125) Though a rather dry way of saying it, this is a critical question for all artists, and she is right that it is one Bishop asked over and over, in all sorts of ways.

Another insightful conclusion she arrives at delving deeply into the texts is Bishop’s realization that “what she has achieved is so relative that other people may fail to recognize it …. the translation may be in vain.”(111), epitomized for me in “Crusoe in England.” As a poet myself, I found this idea unsettlingly familiar. All artists inhabit this existential condition and it might be the sub-text to just about every creation (unless one is a raging egomaniac). Doubt is healthy. It keeps one honest, on one’s toes; unless it becomes crippling, of course.

Mariana makes the valuable observation that Bishop often engaged in translation when she was stuck in her own writing. By so doing, Mariana argues, translation became a practice that helped Bishop see and know her native tongue differently. It not only reflected her preoccupations in her own work, but returned unexpected insights and approaches to help with her own poems. This observation made a great deal of sense to me.

This way of looking at Bishop, arguing for the indispensability of translation, is thought-provoking. Bishop’s nature and poetic practice held a remarkable diversity and range. Add to this her fascination with translation, ambiguous as it was, we see more fully just how Bishop’s eclectic interests manifested and evolved.

Thanks, Mariana, for making me think about Bishop’s poetic program from this unusual perspective, to think about it more carefully and to understand it more fully.
(Sandra and Mariana in study of EB House, 2006)
Note:

** A reviewer is generally considered to be another expert, someone who has the knowledge to assess the research, writing and authority in a given book; someone who knows such things already. I am not such a reviewer, at least where the subject of translation is concerned.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 35: Grace and Marjorie

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 9 April 1958. Since the March epistle, Bishop had heard from Grace, who was back in Nova Scotia. She had also heard from Marjorie Stevens about Grace’s visit to Key West. Catching up with these correspondences was the first order of business.

Even though Grace was “home” from her gallivanting, Bishop wasn’t exactly sure if that meant Great Village or Dartmouth. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland and her family lived in the latter place and Grace often spent time with them. Even though Grace had been gallivanting, she always took time to write and she had remembered Bishop’s birthday (8 February): “Your birthday card to me arrived about a week ago!” One can observe that mails are not much faster these days. The slowness of this natal day greeting was due to it being “overweight so it had come by boat.” Bishop mentioned “the yellow roses,” but didn’t linger on this birthday greeting, rather she jumped right into “a long letter from Marjorie,” in which she learned more about Grace, Mabel and Hazel’s visit to Key West. Marjorie had penned the letter “the day after your visit there.”

Bishop passed on Marjorie’s response: “She was sorry she couldn’t do more for you … but loved seeing you.” Grace clearly had been stylishly turned out, as Marjorie “described your outfit in great detail, said you looked very chic and had a good haircut.” Bishop envied Grace’s good hair, confessing she cut her own hair when not in Rio and declared that at “the moment I look like a bundle of steel-wool.”


As for Grace’s niece Hazel (Mabel’s daughter), she was very familiar with Key West, having lived in Florida for decades. Bishop said that Marjorie felt Mabel seemed “rather indifferent to it all,” in contrast to Grace who “took in everything.” With a knowing, behind the hand whisper in her words, Bishop wondered, “maybe she was having the sulks that day?”

Bishop herself had been in Key West the previous year, a visit after a long absence. For her, Key West was “completely ruined.”  Some of the “back streets” retained their charm, but the main street was “just one long bar and stinks of beer.” Not a slogan for a tourist brochure! Marjorie must has shown Grace the house Bishop and Louise Crane had owned in the 1930s: “How did you like” it? Bishop asked. It had changed, too, from the time Bishop lived there in the 1930s. At that time “there were not buildings across the street just fields.” Because “the woman who has it now has never pruned a single bush in 15 years,” Bishop was shocked by how overgrown it was. Even with this change, Bishop held some affection for the building itself, “a pretty house, as far as lines go.”
(EB’s house in Key West, 2011.
I have forgotten who sent me this photo and the ones below.)
Eager to learn Grace’s impressions of the place, Bishop urged her aunt to write, and also to “tell her how Marjorie seemed.” Bishop’s visit the previous year had been pleasant, with her “well and cheerful” friend. But Bishop knew her Marjorie “works much too hard — Saturdays & Sunday’s usually, too.” Living on her own, with a house to maintain and a modest income, Marjorie had not yet been able to “furnish her house” fully, partly because she had renovated. But Bishop was impressed by how much her old friend had accomplished. She worried, however, that Marjorie was “terribly lonely there, poor dear.” To cheer her up, Bishop was going to try to send her “some orchids.” Bishop had described the “orchid-growers for neighbours” in Samambaia, and two of the big nurseries had “export licenses.” Alas, it is not known if Marjorie ever got her Brazilian orchids.
(EB’s house in Key West. Still overgrown!)
Even with all the struggles and challenges, Bishop admired how her old friend “keeps going and keeps up her ‘standards’.”

After all this catching up, Bishop concluded wistfully with, “Well, I wish you could have come a few thousand miles further south, too.”
 (The literay landmark plaque on Bishop's house in Key West.)

The next post is a little hunting expedition.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 34: Hoping for a response to the diary

Having accounted for the family in her first letter of 1958 (12 March), Bishop turned to a literary topic: “‘The Diary’ is doing pretty well, I think.” By which she meant her translation, The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’.”
Bishop told Grace that it was already into a second edition and was getting “very good reviews.” She couldn’t tell her aunt “how many copies have been sold yet.” In the end, not as many as she had hoped.

Bishop sent Grace a copy, but the niece was unsure if the aunt had received it. She thought not (partly because Grace was gallivanting), “I do think you’ll enjoy it when you get your copy.” [Grace did receive her copy and it is now resident at Acadia University Archives.]

It is not known what Grace’s response was, but knowing something of her sense of humour, she undoubtedly enjoyed it, as Helena has quite an attitude about life. Bishop said that Helena’s Diamantina reminded her of rural Nova Scotia. And there were remarkable echoes, indeed.

Interestingly, Bishop admitted to Grace that “it was hard to make it sound natural.” As she explained to others, Portuguese is a more formal language than English. In her effort to do so, when she “got stuck about how to translate them literally,” she said she tried “to think of what Gammie would have said! I think it worked pretty well.”
In 1999 I had the privilege of going to a Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. Brett Millier kindly invited me to present a paper on a panel she put together. My topic was Bishop’s translation of this book. Here is a brief paragraph from that talk, which speaks to the above claim:

While she tried to remain true to the tone and texture of the original, Bishop incorporated a good deal of her own colloquialism and idiom into the translation. I offer only one interesting example — there are many. One of Bishop’s favourite words was “awful” (and its variations). Listen to how many ways Bishop brings it into the translation: “awfully sorry,” “awfully funny,” “perfectly awful,” “how awful,” “awful things,” “something awful,” “an awful lot,” “this awful fault,” “that awful dentist,” “it’s awful,” “the rice is awful,” “it must be awful,” “so awful,” “awful uproar,” “really awfully bad,” “too awful,” “an awful shock.” And, again, there are many more examples.

Certainly, Grace would have recognized much that appeared in this lively translation, one of the most ambitious projects Bishop ever undertook, a commitment of several years’ duration.

Bishop also told Grace that she’d sent Aunt Mary “a copy of the book but I’ve never heard a word. I wonder if you happen to know if she got it?”

Bishop also wondered if Grace, who was still in Florida, happened to get to Key West for her visit with Marjorie Stevens. “I haven’t heard from Marjorie for ages,” Bishop noted, and reiterating something she’d told Grace before, “she works much too hard, usually.”  She had heard from her friend “at Christmas time,” but not since, Bishop said, and declared, “I know she’d like to see you though, if she possibly could.”

Scribbled on the bottom of this letter, in Bishop’s near indecipherable scrawl was an addendum, “I just got a letter from Marjorie — says she’s expecting you & Hazel on the 20th — hope you have a nice time.” Remembering her pretty “little house,” Bishop editorialized, “ she’s the world’s fussiest housekeeper!”

Earlier in this letter, Bishop accounted for its poor condition by telling Grace that she was “typing down at the house because the lights in the estudio aren’t working tonight.” She was using an “old typewriter and it skips dreadfully.” This letter is filled with all manner of misspellings and gapped words, more than usual. Finally, Bishop declared (you can hear the frustration), “I think this typewriter is really too awful [there’s that ‘awful’ again].” She would “give up for the night” and asked Grace to “forgive me for not writing for so long — it was really awfully busy here.” All the activity had meant she didn’t even “get up to the studio for days on end.” And with the bug she’d picked up in Rio at Carnival, she “stayed in bed most of last week, no sick, just tired.” Grandma Lota tended to her sick partner, as well as the babies, giving Bishop “vitamin B shots,” which did the trick and she was feeling “fine.” Which meant she was trying to write again, “trying to finish up a bunch of stories.” The hope here was that they would earn enough to contribute to another trip to the USA and parts north soon.” Bishop never lost sight of the need to earn a living: contemplation AND commerce.

She closed with her usual “lots of love.”

The next post will take us into April.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 33: Population explosion: the grandchildren visit

The main subject of Bishop’s letter of 12 March 1958 was “the grandchildren.” All four of them had come to Samambaia with their mother to escape the heat and water situation in Rio. Bishop reported to Grace that they were “staying at a little house down below” them, about “½ a mile” away, “thank goodness.” Bishop liked their mother, “a very nice quiet little thing,” who had been trying to cope with a four-month old “adorable” infant and three toddlers, all under five. The mother “said that first of all, when they got their 4 gallons [of water], they washed the children.” This family of little ones were fetched by Lota as soon as she learned of the troubles, “she brought them all up — all car-sick, hot, exhausted, and very yellow, poor little things.” Bishop could happily report, “Now they’re already looking 100% better.”

Knowing Grace had a perennial interest in babies, Bishop gave a full accounting of how things were going. Bishop had visited them just that afternoon, “a walk down the mountain to call on them.” She updated Grace on their demographics: “one boy, Paulo, aged two, very big and fair — surprising here — and shy” and “2 little girls, five and 3½.” The sisters “doted” on their little brother, undoubtedly pretending he was their baby doll: they “tug him around with them all day long, hug him and kiss him.” Bishop noted, undoubtedly with her tongue in her cheek, that “only the 3½  year old” understood “what he says.”

Lota took her grandmotherly duties very seriously. One of the things she brought back with her from New York, in the many boxes and barrels, was “junket tablets,” which she had seen in a grocery store. Something she had never heard of before. “Her idea was to make junket for the children.” Bishop reported that, unfortunately, “Brazilian milk is too poor.” At least their efforts proved unappealing. Bishop asks, rhetorically, “Or does it have to be whole milk?” The milk they could obtain was “so watery,” Bishop explained, she “wasn’t surprised when it wouldn’t work.” While shopping in Petrópolis, however, they bought more milk hoping it would be better. But it, too, failed to produce an edible treat. Bishop wondered if she’d explained to her aunt about the milk: “The milk is always watery — I guess I told you, didn’t I — they call it ‘baptizing’ the milk…”

The next little one to come in for comment was Betty, the cook’s daughter, who turned three on 7 February. Bishop included a photo of her namesake (which does not survive) with her sister, “Alisette Mara — (I don’t know how to spell it, that’s what it sounds like).” Bishop remarked again how “awfully bright” Betty was. Unkindly, she notes that her parents are “stupid,” and that she and Lota were going to “try to get her to school at least.” The new addition was only six months old. Even though space and time made the next bit of information irrelevant to Grace, Bishop couldn’t help but pass on some gossip: “this one looks exactly like our ex-gardener … but really exactly.” Even though it was obvious, Bishop noted that “Lota’s trying to get her courage up to ask Maria … if she didn’t slip a little.”

To round out these accounts, Bishop noted: “Besides all this infant human life, we also have one tiny black puppy.” This new addition was the offspring of their “mongrel dog.” This aging canine (one thinks of Bishop’s poem “Pink Dog”) “is getting quite old, her face is white, and she’s lost some teeth.” In spite of this diminishment, “somehow or other she recently produced this puppy.” As cute as it was, they had “found a home for it.” But Bishop assured Grace that “I won’t let it go until it’s over two months old,” a kindness and caution she undoubtedly learned in rural Nova Scotia during her childhood. She did report that it was “six weeks” old and, with a smile on her face, for sure, already “housebroken — that is, it comes in the house without fail, to go to the bathroom.”


 
(Parrot at house at Samambaia, during my 1999 trip to Brazi)

The next post will return to a subject close to Bishop’s heart, her translation of Mina Vida de Menina.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 32 – The Extended Brazilian Family and Carnival

With the weather situation dispatched in her letter of 12 March 1958, Bishop offered Grace an explanation for why Lota had been enduring the excessive heat in Rio. A crisis had developed with Lota’s sister and required her attention on a number of occasions.

Bishop was under the impression that Grace already knew something of the situation, “I think the last time I wrote you [Lota’s] sister [Marietta Nascimento] had had her first operation.” Since this information was not included in the final letter for 1957, another letter must have conveyed it. But, then, as Bishop thinks again, she wonders: “I’m not sure whether I wrote you or not.”’

Lota’s sister had “two badly infected tumors,” which required emergency surgery. Lota “had to rush to Rio one night and get the sister into a hospital, where she was operated on at 6 A.M.” Bishop was certain that if Lota had not intervened, her sister “surely would have died.” Clearly, in some sort of denial, the sister was “just dying, at home, taking aspirin and ice-water, with her lover at her bedside!” Bishop’s unkind assessment of this woman was that she was “too wacky to do anything for herself.”

The initial intervention solved one problem, only to have another, “adhesions,” develop. These required further surgery, which also required Lota’s presence. Bishop watched all this unfold and described the situation as “dreadful.” Bishop and Grace shared a keen interest in all things medical. Grace was still nursing, though in a reduced capacity, and she had been in this profession since the mid-1910s. A running theme in Bishop’s letters to her aunt was medicine. [Ed. note: Eons ago, I presented a paper to The History of Medicine Society in Halifax, N.S., about Bishop’s medical history and her keen interest in medicine.]

One pleasant consequence of this family drama was that Lota’s nephew, Flavio Soares Regis, came to stay with them for a few weeks, while his mother was in hospital. Bishop described Flavio as “a book-worm, 15 years old.” He suffered from asthma, so he and Bishop had an instant connection. His condition, like hers, required injections, which Bishop administered. They encouraged him to go swimming.

Bishop and Flavio eventually became good friends. One other deep connection they shared was a love of music. Flavio eventually entered the Brazilian diplomatic service, but retained a keen love of jazz music. Sadly, however, he committed suicide early in 1971. A death Bishop felt acutely. She never learned the reasons for this irreversible decision, but she blamed the troubled and tumultuous political situation in Brazil. She had always felt the pressures and strains of Lota’s involvement in public life and the Parque do Flamenco had taken a serious toll on her health and led directly to her suicide.

But, in 1958, Flavio was a bright, young, pleasant companion, someone Bishop could talk to about poetry and music. Her fondness for him never waned. He must have felt a deep fondness for her, too, because when she became persona non grata in Brazil after Lota’s death in 1967, their friendship endured.
Bishop did not remain always at Samambaia when Lota was in Rio. Once the worst of the trouble with Lota’s sister eased, Bishop went “to Rio for the one night of carnival I wanted to see — the Negro Samba ‘schools’.” Carnival is one of the most elaborate events in Brazil (might one suggest, the world). Bishop had a keen interest in this phenomenon of celebration and tried to see the big parade every year. This year, Bishop reported to Grace, “we had seats in the press section, but just boards, and it was fearfully hot.” They countered the strain of the heat with “a thermos of iced coffee to support us through the night, and sandwiches.” It was an all-nighter because “the really good ones don’t come until the end.” But they didn’t make it through to the end this year, giving up around 3 A.M., driving “all the way back here.”  For reasons unknown to Bishop, “the schedule was so off” that things didn’t wind up until 11 A.M. the next day.
Bishop then offers a description to Grace about the participants of this grand event. “They’re clubs of dancers, hundreds in each club.” These clubs “rehearse all year, and make their own songs and dances.” Bishop herself wrote some samba songs for carnival. Most of these clubs were comprised of “the poorest people” in Rio, but they managed to “put thousands into it.” Professional dance teachers were hired and elaborate, “beautiful costumes” made. Some clubs decked out in sumptuous “silks and satins,” with “white wigs” from the “Louis XVI period.” Bishop declared, “It’s one of the nicest things in Brazil, for me.”
Unfortunately, on this excursion, she “picked up some germs” and not being “used to them” developed “horrible diorraha [sic: I don’t think I need to clarify this misspelling!] and she had been struggling with something like flu for “over a week.” As bad as she felt, she did not return to Rio to see a doctor, but toughed it out in the cooler air of the mountains. Her treatment for this ailment was “charcoal pills” and “waited for it to subside and finally it did.”

By the time Bishop wrote this letter, Flavio was “back at school.” But all was not quiet at the house in Samambaia because all the grandchildren were visiting. More about them in the next post.



Sunday, December 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 31 – There is always weather, 1958 begins

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1958 is dated 12 March. There were perhaps others, but this long missive appears to be a catch-up, filling in a gap that occurred because Bishop was flat out busy. This letter will require several posts, as it is packed with detailed accounts of various people, activities and situations. Even with gaps, sometimes lengthy, Bishop’s letters simply launch into her side of the dialogue, knowing that Grace was as eager to hear her news as she was to hear Grace’s.

Bishop began the letter with a typical declaration, “I’ve been very bad about writing lately,” acknowledging that she had one of Grace’s in hand, unanswered, a letter that had included a photograph of Hazel Bulmer Snow’s house in Hollywood, Florida, where Grace was still staying. “It looks very nice and pleasant.” Though unsure if Grace was still there (she was), Bishop took that possibility to launch into a commentary about the weather (so typical of Maritimers, who might be called “weather obsessed”).

The winter of 1958 was a bad one, if Bishop’s observations are a clue. “You certainly chose the worst winter,” to be in Florida, “one of the coldest they’ve ever had.” Bishop knew this all the way in Brazil because she was reading American papers. She was sorry for Grace about this timing, because, as a rule, “it can be so nice in Florida in February — bright and up in the 80’s and no rain.”

As bad as it was in Florida, Bishop somehow knew it was “an awful winter” in Nova Scotia. How she knew this isn’t clear, but she remarked that “my friends in N.Y. have been seeing northern lights, and they’ve had to use ice breakers in N.Y. harbor.” So, as cold as Florida might have been, at least Grace had some sort of “escape” from the worst, farther north.

This kind of extreme weather occurs periodically, and most recently in the winter of 2015, which again caused N.Y. harbor to freeze solid:
And brought the Northern Lights as far south at the northern US:
If it was cold in the north, it was hot in the south, “Here, or at least in Rio,” Bishop noted, “it’s been the hottest summer ever on record,” with the temperature reaching 105F a few times. Bishop reported, “Lota tells me it’s sun spots, making these extremes, and maybe she’s right.” The spots would certainly have triggered the aurora borealis, but perhaps what was starting to manifest was what most scientists now call the chaos of climate change.
Bishop had been able to stay away from Rio, remain at the house in Samambaia; but Lota had been back and forth steadily for various reasons, “and she minds the heat much more than I do,” Bishop observed.

Another issue in Rio was water, or the lack of it: “there has been no water in some sections of Rio for months,” Bishop reported. Most places had water, but only “for an hour or two a day.” Bishop does not explain the cause of this shortage, but its affect was to trigger a visit from all of Lota’s “grandchildren” and their mother (an account of this visit is for another post).

In the midst of her lively reporting of the happenings around her, Bishop interjected an announcement, perhaps because it had happened while she was composing the letter: “I had a wonderful letter from Aunt Mable [sic].” Sadly, Bishop’s letters to this aunt did not survive. Mabel is vividly described in Bishop’s “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” a woman Bishop was not particularly close to, but even so, she clearly welcomed this epistle: “The first paragraph or two she hadn’t hit her stride,” Bishop observed, “then she really did, and she does write wonderful letters!” Writing a good letter was an admirable achievement in Bishop’s mind, and she had pretty high standards.

The next post will offer the first “happening” of 1958.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 30 – Back in Brazil: Bureaucracy and Babies

If Elizabeth and Lota had been busy in the final weeks of their stay in the US, they were even busier once they returned to Brazil. Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 11 December 1957. If others were written and sent, they no longer survive. Undoubtedly, Bishop did let Grace know when they were safely back in Brazil, but perhaps it was just a postcard, which vanished into time’s vast vaults. These vaults hold many lost and forgotten communications. Even so, it might have taken Bishop that long to settle down enough to write, the prompt of approaching Christmas bringing her to the letter she perhaps had wanted to write all along.

Another issue in the delay was Brazilian bureaucracy. After expressing her hope that her missive would reach Grace “in time for your Christmas,” in spite of the “slow mails” at “this time of year,” Bishop informed her aunt that her delay was partly because she was “waiting for my Christmas cards that I bought in New York to show up!” But they, along with much else, were “still in the customs … and now they’ll have to wait until next Christmas.”

Since returning, Elizabeth and Lota had been trying to free their many boxes and barrels from Brazilian customs. Bishop noted, “Poor Lota has been to Rio three times now and still half our stuff is there.” They both had to make another trek “next week” to keep at the bureaucrats, who had, “at one point … lost all our papers — including both our passports!” Bishop’s word for this slog was “maddening.”

After being away for months, Lota’s family had its own demands. Bishop wrote that the “two oldest ‘grandchildren’” were visiting. Old being a relative term: “aged 3 and 4½.” Their mother had just had her fourth child, another girl, so the older siblings needed tending. The newborn was named after Lota, “‘Maria Carlota’  and nicknamed ‘Lotinha’, or ‘Little Lota’.” If these toddlers weren’t enough, “the cook’s new baby is here, too … three months [old].” As well as Betty (Bishop’s namesake), who would be three in February. Bishop acknowledged the “big responsibility” these little ones brought to Lota. Musing on the nursery that surrounded her, Bishop wrote, “You’d think that two old maids could avoid all this fuss about little shoes, cod liver oil, bowel movements, haircuts, etc. — but apparently not!”

The straw on the camel’s back of all this activity was the “horrible weather since we’ve been back.” So bad was it that Bishop could count the sunny days on one hand: “exactly three sunny days so far.” The “pouring rain” meant the children were more or less housebound: “You should hear me trying to tell stories in Portuguese!”

Winding down her letter, Bishop apologized for its poor quality, “but I think you owe me one.” Her brief epistle was meant to carry the “small present” (the usual money, with an echo of her previous claim that it would have been bigger “if I weren’t so broke after my N.Y. trip”).

Suddenly realizing that she had forgotten an important update, she added, “I love having the pictures.” The grandchildren were intrigued by them, too. They “think they’re my mother and father, and asked all about them.” When Helena asked, “What did they die of?” Bishop directed her, “go and ask your Grandmother … so she went and asked Lota.”

One thing that becomes clear in this letter is that Grace was back in the US, in Florida. In Hollywood, FL, to be exact, where Hazel Bulmer Snow lived. Hazel was Arthur and Mabel Bulmer’s daughter, so another of Grace’s nieces.
Hazel had been living in Florida for some time. Mabel, a widow of five years, was spending the winter with her daughter. Grace joined them. Clearly, Grace had been in touch about this recent development (it was not “news” to Bishop), so perhaps it was Bishop who really owed a letter. Bishop wrote, “I’ll try to get a card for Aunt Mabel in Petrópolis today.” And concluded this brief, jumbled letter with a plea: “I am very eager to hear from you and learn what you’re doing, if you’ve got a job, etc., and how you’re liking it there.”

While not as far south as Key West, Hollywood was in southern Florida. Having been in that neck of the woods relatively recently, it is clear Bishop was pleased that Grace was experiencing something of the “state with the prettiest name.” Scribbled in Bishop’s gnomic holograph, at the bottom of the page, was her acknowledgement that Grace would find it “strange,” having her “1st Christmas in the tropics! They put off fire-works — or used to.”
Distracted, with little left to say, Bishop signed off with love to her cousin and two aunts. If you would like to see a photograph of Grace and Mabel in Florida,click here. And Mabel and her daughter Hazel, click here.

The next post makes up for December’s brevity, but when 1958 is well underway.