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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 130: Monica, Florence, Roger and Zephyrino

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was full of family observations. It began with a report that she had “ordered ten of the ‘Peter Rabbit’ books for E’s daughters,” that is, Suzanne, Diane and Patricia Naudin The books “didn’t get there in time,” but rather reached her “in Cabo Frio instead.”

(Cover of one of the early editions of this
much beloved Beatrix Potter classic.)
Without pause or segue, Bishop then wrote that at the latter location (that is, Cabo Frio) there was “a big pointer dog … huge, named ‘Roger’,” a creature “adored” by Monica, Mary Morse’s daughter. They had gone to Cabo Frio, too, over the holidays for some fun. Bishop reported that at one point they found Monica “on the floor turning over pages for him to see the pictures in Peter Rabbit – very close to his nose.” The Naudin sisters were not the first to enjoy these Christmas presents. Bishop continued with Monica, who she noted again “adores the ocean” and who “only cried all ten days when we had to drag her away from the water.” Bishop described Monica as “very tiny – the dog could eat her in one gulp.” She reported, however, that Roger “seemed to like her.” Tiny Monica also loved to sing “Brazilian children’s songs at the top of her lungs – without words – but excellent pitch and rhythm.” Bishop claimed that she had “never seen a happier baby.” Bishop was clearly glad for this “little waif,” who she declared was “saved from the orphan asylum by pure luck.” Bishop did have a tender spot for all orphans, and she clearly “adored” this one. When people learned Monica’s story, she noted, they “take to her because of that.” Then Bishop reported that Mary Morse was planning on “adopting another one – as soon as she can find a white and healthy one.”

Another abrupt switch was signaled by her characteristic “//” The new subject was “the latest story of poor Aunt Florence.” This now quite elderly relative, with whom Bishop had such fraught experiences and memories (yet continued to stay in touch with and hear about), was “quite bed-ridden and pretty gaga.” One of Bishop’s cousins, “Priscilla[,] asked her what she wanted for Christmas.” This poor old woman declared: “A SCREWDRIVER!” The reason for this response was because there was “a thermometer on her wall, and it was hers, and she wants to take it off to take it back to Worcester with her.”* Poor old Aunt Florence indeed! There but for the grace of countless unknown forces and factors go each of us, especially these days, now that so many of us are living so long.

Another “//” signaled Bishop’s return to the here and now and her hope that her aunt was “well and that the weather is good there” (wherever Grace was). Bishop noted that they were “going to Samambaia tomorrow,” which meant she might “have a letter from you – I hope so.” She reported that Elizabeth Naudin was “in Teresopolis for 3 weeks, I think,” so the Peter Rabbit books would be even more delayed in reaching their intended recipients.

As her letter began to wind down, she said she had to” go out marketing to get ready for tomorrow.” Then another quick shift of subject, signaled by only “ – “ She told her aunt that she had just received a canary from “a man who works with Lota.” This fellow “raises them.” Said canary was “a very pretty one, orange, from Holland.” Undoubtedly, this little bird reminded her of Gammie’s and Aunt Maude’s canaries. To name him, Bishop “asked Lota what the man’s name was … it turned out to be Zephyrino.” This little creature was “very young, but sings quite a lot.” (Does this remind you of someone?) She noted that in the country they had cats, in the city, the canary, “well separated.” Again, like Roger, the cats could eat the canary in “one gulp.”

The last couple of sentences were typed on the vertical in the left margin. She quickly signed off “With much love, and thank you again Elizabeth.” This closing was not, however, the end of the letter. On the back of the page Bishop typed two postscripts, one quite lengthy, which filled the whole page. The next post will take up these addenda.

*Note: Florence was clearly suffering from dementia of some sort, at an advanced stage. I have had enough experience with dementia – my mother suffered from vascular dementia and my father has Alzheimer’s – that I cringe when I read Bishop’s tossed-off term “gaga.” With her own mother’s mental and physical sufferings, Bishop was terrified she would lose her faculties. The understanding of serious cognitive impairments and illnesses have improved greatly since the 1960s, but even now, most people don’t understand dementia and are just as terrified of it as Bishop.

Friday, November 1, 2019

New book about Elizabeth Bishop's childhood

I am excited to share the news of a new book about Elizabeth Bishop for young readers. Written by Rita Wilson and illustrated by Emma FitzGerald, Nimbus Publishing will be launching this book early in December. I’ll be posting information about the launches when it is available. As far as I know, there is no other book about EB for young readers. It is especially important for young Nova Scotians to learn about her deep and abiding connection to Great Village and how it shaped her artistic sensibility and development. Both Rita and Emma have strong connections to the EBSNS, so the society is especially happy to support this important project. You can read more about the book on Nimbus’s website.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 129: Holidays and gifts

Bishop’s first letter to her aunt in 1963 is dated 3 January from Rio. Proof that letters had been exchanged after her September 1962 epistle is in the first paragraph, when Bishop hoped that “you got my modest Christmas gift – because I got yours!” Bishop’s gift was, undoubtedly, money. Grace’s was more tangible and practical and was elaborated as Bishop got going. Even so, enough time had elapsed that Bishop was unsure “where to address you.” She surmised that Grace had “gone to Florida” and suspected she should use “Hazel’s address” in Hollywood, FL. Wherever her aunt was, Bishop knew “this will reach you,” directly or re-directly. The year was still brand new, so she emphatically typed, “Happy New Year.”

Bishop then accounted for her holiday, telling Grace that they “went to Cabo Frio for Christmas.” They left on “the 21st and came back ten days later.” She noted they had “a nice time” at their “friend’s house,” which they had “all to themselves, with servants, too.” They spent their “time swimming and driving around to see the beaches and birds, etc, and sleeping.” This leisure and rest were greatly needed after the stressful late summer visit by the Lowells and because of Lota’s increasingly busy job.

At one point ‘Mary Morse went there … with Monica,” and “brought all our mail, including your book, from P.” I assume “P” is Phyllis and the gift in question was a cookbook, because Bishop quickly remarked that “it came in very HANDY there [Cabo Frio].” The cook, who worked for their friends, a man, “isn’t too good” (it seems good cooks were hard to find), so “every once in a while I take over.” At least this cook “likes to learn things,” which was the reason why when “your book arrived,” Bishop found it helpful: “I taught him how to make a New England (or NS style) fish chowder.” Bishop then complained about the bread, which was “so bad” that she “made a Johnny cake – thanks to the book, too.” This gift had “hit the nail on the head” for Bishop, who offered a heartfelt “thank you very much.”

As for marking Christmas, they “didn’t do anything at all in the way of … celebration.” Bishop used “a bottle of store mincemeat and a box of store pie crust,” both given to them by “an American friend here,” and made “a rather mediocre mince pie” that “top[ped] off our boiled shrimp on Christmas day.” The poor pie did mange to taste “a little like Christmas.”

Bishop had never been fond of this holiday and the older she got the less she liked it. She confessed to her aunt that she was “rather sick of the whole commercialized racket.” (I am reminded here of Charles Schultz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which came out in the 1960s and addressed this “commercialized racket.”) Bishop wished that the Brazilians “wouldn’t adopt it.” She noted they were “still torn between our style of Christmas and their style of New Years.” Bishop explained that “until quite recently,” Christmas “was just a religious affair” in Brazil. Gift-giving happened “at New Years,” and still did. Indeed, “Lota got quite a few” gifts.

This brief treatise on cultural differences in gift-giving segued to a practical development. Bishop noted that she “gave us three air conditioners, out of my fellowship money” (so much for travelling). Because Lota’s job was keeping them so much in Rio, in the heat, they decided they “couldn’t take another summer in the city without them.” Bishop decided to do “it up brown* while we were at it.” The result: “what a relief.” Bishop reported that “Lota will be working like this for three more years, maybe longer.” They had decided “to make ourselves moderately comfortable in the apartment.”

This dense, opening paragraph of her first 1963 letter was only just getting things started. She had a lot more ground to cover, which will continue in the next post.

Click here to see Post 128.


*Note: I have never heard this turn of phrase before. Bishop so rarely used such colloquial terms, it jumped right out.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 128: 1962 finale

N.B.: I got diverted from these letters by sharing images from Penny Lighthall’s hooked rug exhibit. This final post for the year 1962 has got separated from the flow of previous Letters to Aunt Grace. However, I now offer it and bring to a close a fascinating and sometimes difficult year for Elizabeth and Lota. I will begin 1963 shortly.


The final two paragraphs of Bishop’s last extant 1962 letter to her aunt began with a strong, for Bishop, expletive: “DAMN!” She had mentioned earlier that she and Lota were finally going to get away to the country, to Samambaia, for the weekend, and were, actually, about ready to leave. But as Bishop typed this epistle, things changed: “we can’t go to the country after all.” The culprit this time was not Lota’s job, exactly, but the writer” John Dos Passos. Bishop wondered if her aunt had ever heard of him: “well — he’s here and now he wants to see me.” Moreover, “he also wants to see Lota’s park.” This request meant that their departure was delayed “until tomorrow.” So, not a total loss, but since she hadn’t been to the country in over a month, she was eager to go. This kind of interruption made her declare: “we are getting too official for my taste.” And observe that she was “a hermit by nature!”
All she wanted to do was “to get up there and just listen to the hi-fi all evening.” And she wanted to see Mary Morse’s daughter Monica, who she declared yet again was a “darling — almost two now.” Mary and Monica had recently visited them in Rio “for a few days and every morning early I took her swimming on the beach.” As young as Monica was, Bishop described her as “fearless” around the water: “she rushes right into the breakers, or water over her head, sinks, comes up laughing, her nose running, her hair all wet.” Clearly, a natural. So much did she love the water, Bishop said that she “couldn’t get her to sit & play on the sand.” All she wanted to do was “rush back into the water.” When they returned to the apartment Bishop jokingly said to Mary: “Your child is too rough for me to play with!” Who was tiring out whom?

The letter was finally winding down for good, with another “Well — ” and an effort to make the best of the delay in going up to the country:  “I’ll get to call on Elizabeth [Naudin] this afternoon,” something she had been wanting to do for some time.

As she reflected on what she wrote, she asked her aunt to “Please forgive all my various tales of woe.” And shifted gears to Grace, hoping that she was “keeping well and that you had a nice summer.” Since it had been so long since she wrote, and clearly since she had not heard from her aunt, she wondered “Where were you all this time?” And asked if there had been “lots of strawberries?” She noted that this fruit was just coming on “in Samambaia — and artichokes are just beginning.” Then she realized that it was in fact “‘spring’, more or less.” With the approach of hotter weather, she told her aunt that she was “going to invest in an air conditioner,” something they never had before, “but if Lota has to work all summer and stay in Rio I don’t think we can stand it without one.” The issue would be whether or not they could “get one, that is,” because there was “a shortage of practically everything.” This last line was just about typed off the bottom of the page.

Her final sentences were scribbled on the left margin. She wondered how Phyllis and her family were doing. How “Buddy’s baby” was: “I don’t even know its sex, name, or anything.” And she was genuinely interested. She knew her aunt would have lots of news so she signed off with “Please write soon. Lots of love, Elizabeth.”

It is hard to believe that no more letters were exchanged between Bishop and her aunt in 1962, but none exist. Grace and Phyllis were so careful to save Bishop’s letters, it is a shame that whatever was written in this next stretch has vanished. And all of Grace’s letters are gone, a real loss to history and an understanding of Bishop’s maternal family, about which she cared deeply. The next extant letter is dated 3 January 1963, from Rio. The next post will commence the New Year.

Click here to see Post 127. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019


The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will hold its 2020 Annual General Meeting on 20 June at the Royal Canadian Legion in Great Village, N.S. Guest speaker will be Nova Scotia poet Janet Barkhouse, who will read from her work and talk about her connection to Sable Island.
(Janet Barkhouse)
(Janet on Sable Island)
The society will present an exhibit of Bishop inspired drawings by Natalia Povalyaeva, from Minsk, Belarus, in the Echoes of EB art gallery in St. James Church. As further details become available, the society will share them on this blog and on the society's website.
(Natalia Povalyaeva)
(One of Natalia's images)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 20

The final image in this series is Lighthall's response to Bishop's early poem "Chemin de Fer." This strange, fable-like poem is one of the first in her first book North & South. It shows a view from a train (as opposed to a bus in the late poem "The Moose") and offers an odd aggressive act when a hermit shoots off a gun, though the act seems more like just making a noise than any sort of violence, because the hermit shouts one of Bishop's strong but mysterious declarations: "Love should be put in to action." Slight as this poem seems, it contains layers of meaning and many images that reappear in Bishop's work throughout her life. She is signalling that an essential character of her work is "an echo." I have enjoyed presenting Lighthall's images, which are themselves like visual echoes of Bishop's words, but they are of course much more than that. Lighthall has put her love of Bishop's art into action, into her own art, which is a pleasure to contemplate. Again, I want to thank Susan Kerslake for providing me with all the images used in this series.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 19

"Well, we have come this far." is the ending of "Cirque d'Hiver," the early Bishop poem that inspired this delightful rug. The poem is about a mechanical toy: a cantering horse with a twirling dancer on its back -- an object that seems both inanimate and animate at the same time. It is the penultimate image I will post. We have come quite far in this series and this charming image is one of my favourites. Seemingly purely descriptive, this poem carries with it a good deal of mystery, evoked in the very motion of the object, which moves in the poem without any apparent assistance from a human hand. I love that big key under the horse's belly.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 18

Bishop loved to cook, a skill she began to learn during her childhood. This delightful rug is based on a funny little poem Bishop wrote about Fanny Farmer's cookbook, a gift she gave her friend, the poet Frank Bidart and to whom she dedicated the poem. Yesterday Penny Lighthall gave a talk about her rugs at the Halifax Central Library. Wish I could have been there. Susan Kerslake attended and sent these images. Tahnks, Susie. And thanks Penny for creating such delightful works of art!

Monday, October 7, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 17

This rather dramatic rug is a response to EB's poem "Trouvee" (apologies for no accent on the first e.). This odd little poem, dedicated to her friends Wheaton Galentine and Harold Leeds, is about a hen that was killed on West 4th Street in NYC. EB knew many hens during her childhood. Great Village would have been full of them. But the disjunct of seeing one killed on a busy city street clearly struck her. The poem is essentially a question about why things happen where and when they do, for which we often seldom have full or even partial answers. It is interesting to me that Lighthall has chosen not only the most famous or iconic poems to interpret, but also some of Bisbop's more obscure poems.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 16

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth Bishop's death. I wonder if she could have imagined the global interest in her life and work in 1979. She had received many awards and had some sense of the interest in her poetry, but the stature and status of Bishop has only continued to rise since her death. This lovely rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Man-Moth," triggered by a misprint she saw in a newspaper (the word was supposed to be mammoth). This poem appeared in North & South and is one of her most mysterious. I love the simplicity of this rug and that strange shadow figure behind the poet.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 15

This intricate rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "First Death in Nova Scotia," about the death of one of her little cousins, son of Arthur and Mabel Bulmer. Lighthall said she felt uncertain about depicting a scene that was common in the early 20th century -- the laying out of bodies at home. But I think this rug captures the poem beautifully, with the chromographs of the royal family on the wall, the loon on the table, Bishop's mother lifting her to see her cousin and the deep snow outside. Bishop wrote this scene with both profound mystery and serious humour. It was a moment in her life that shaped how she saw the fragility reality. She was both confused and comforted in the midst of this common ritual of her childhood.

Friday, October 4, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 14

I was quite interested to see that Lighthall chose to do a rug based on Bishop's poem "Five Flights Up." This rarely remarked upon poem is the last one in her final collection, Geography III. This poem has a little bird and a little dog being observed by the "poet," who ponders our sense of self and time. The final lines in this poem are: "-- Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)" They are important to me because I took the title of my book from them: Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. We all lift and carry "yesterday" with us, and sometimes it is a heavy burden. Bishop lifted and carried her yesterday by writing transcendent poems that speak to many people "today."

Thursday, October 3, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 13

This rug is inspired by Bishop's late poem "In the Waiting Room," set in Worcester, MA, in February 1918, when she was seven years old. It is the one poem where she names herself directly and writes about her realization of how she was both connected to and separate from the people and world around her. Lighthall has caught the sense of the crowded feel of the waiting room that so unsettled Bishop. Not sure why she chose to insert the smiling tooth, but Bishop was always one for injecting humour into even the darkest or most shadowy moments, so it is not out of place.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 12

This rug could be inspired by only one poem, "The Moose," which is now perhaps Bishop's second most famous poem, after "One Art." The origin of this poem was a bus ride in 1946 from Great Village back to Boston. Bishop dedicated the poem to her beloved Aunt Grace, who, incidentally painted a portrait of a bull moose (the one in "The Moose" is female) when in her 80s. Here is a very poor scan of a photo of this painting, which used to hang in the sunporch of Elmcroft, the Bowers' family farm, in Great Village. The house has been recently renovated and the sunporch removed, and I have no idea where this painting is now. I love the way Penny has coalesced that long descriptive poem into this one clear and iconic image.
(Photo taken by Phyllis Sutherland in the
kitchen of Elmcroft, circa early 1990s).

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 11

This dramatic rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Ballad of the Subway Train," written when she was about sixteen at Walnut Hill School. This poem is her re-telling of the Biblical fall, but with dragons rather than humans, dragons that live and play freely in the cosmos until one day they eat a "swarm of stars new made" and God banishes them to the depth of the earth where they become subway trains. A truly precocious piece of juvenilia, an omen of her capacity to bring together strange elements and make them seem deeply familiar. I love Lighthall's wondrous dragon and all those humans who are rather unaware of the mystery of their mode of transportation.

Monday, September 30, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 10

This rug is inspired by Bishop's late poem "The End of March," set on a beach in Duxbury, MA. Littoral spaces were generative for Bishop, places between the mysterious ocean and the enigmatic continent. In this poem she is walking the beach looking for a perfect place to rest, to "be," which she knows to be "impossible." I like how Lighthall has rendered the most famous images of this poem, the kite string and the "big, majestic paw-prints" of "the lion sun."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 127: Medals, Money, Markets

After her lengthy account of the disastrous end to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick’s visit, Bishop turned to other matters in her 22 September 1962 letter. The next news to report concerned Lota. Bishop noted that she and Lota were finally “going up to the country this weekend” (the last word was crossed out and scribbled above it was “afternoon”). They had not been there for “a month.” Bishop wanted to “stay longer” than just the weekend, “but Lota has to work and I think I have to be here with her.” The work on the park was “going awfully well,” so much so that “last week she was given a medal.”* This honour was something of a big deal, something Bishop “knew about beforehand.” Her task was to ensure Lota got “off to work well-dressed that day.” She boasted in a scribbled line in the margin, “she didn’t suspect anything.” In bestowing this medal, Bishop noted “there were photographers … speeches.” Further celebration was “a cocktail party for all her work-group, in the big shed in the park where they work.” This shed had “two rooms, like a barn, full of draughting boards.” Bishop reported that this event gathered “thirty or more people.” Once again, Bishop was responsible for the fare: “I made all the food and drinks.” She “acted as barman.” She had taken along “our maid, and another friend brought a maid,” someone Bishop unkindly described as “useless but decorative”). The work-group’s janitor, “a Negro man,” also helped and Bishop “taught him now to shake cocktails, etc!” She declared this event “quite successful — at least the last people didn’t leave till almost ten.” Afterwards, “we had to carry everything back and forth.” Bishop and Lota finally “fell into bed about midnight and ate the last of the hor d’oeuvres [sic] in bed, for dinner!”

A break in this account so that Bishop could declare, “Next week I must take up my normal life somehow or other.” She had to go to the dentist and visit “Elizabeth [Naudin] and her baby.” She noted that Patricia was now “over four months old.”

The next subjects Bishop tackled were politics and the economy. She had been writing about “coups” and other unrest and noted that likely Grace had “seen in the papers” that “Brazil has been through crises after crises lately.” On that front at least, “things seem pretty calm at the moment.” The bigger issue was that “the country is bankrupt.” Bishop was hoping that the calm atmosphere would continue as there were “elections October 7th.” She noted that “there was supposed to be a big general strike last week,” but it appears it didn’t happen. She observed that they got prepared anyway, laying “in supplies.” Though in those days, this effort wasn’t exceptional, as Bishop observed that as a rule “I always keep stocked up with coffee, sugar, biscuits in tins, flour, etc.,” because “one never knows when” such staples might “vanish from the markets completely.” Bishop also confessed that she kept “some $$$ hidden away all the time — in case of any real emergency.”

She quickly added, to reassure her aunt, that they were “all right, of course.” She noted that it was really “the poor people who are suffering.” She described them as “incredibly patient,” wondering “why there isn’t a revolution every month, really.” She concluded this account with an observation that rings true nearly sixty years later: “And all the politicians except one or two are knaves and fools.” Her go-to description kicked in: “Poor Brazil!”
(Macumba worshippers gather in Rio, 1962.)
But, as bad as things were in that beleaguered country, she felt that “things look even worse elsewhere.” Take, for example, the “U S A [which] may be awfully rich — but their problems are worse, really, then [sic] any here.”

This letter was beginning to wind down, but there was still some news to report, which will comprise the next post.


*Note: I don’t know exactly what medal. Carmen Oliveira reports it in her book, but only notes that “it wasn’t the recognition this woman wanted.” Lota wanted “Carlos [Lacerda, Governor of Guanabara] to take a bigger interest in the Aterro [the park]. (p. 73)

Friday, September 27, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 9

We know from Bishop's letters that the poem that inspired this rug, "The Owl's Journey," was one that Bishop lived with for a long time. She believed the idea came to her in a dream when she was a child, but she wasn't sure. She tried for decades to finish it, but could never find the path to that conclusion. She shared versions of it with friends, including Katharine White, her editor at The New Yorker, but she never published any during her life. Her university friend, the artist Margaret Miller was the first to render the image of the owl riding on the rabbit's back. Alice Quinn finally put it into print in Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke Box (2006). Lighthall's rendition of this fable-like idea and poem is faithful to what Bishop imagined, and looks wonderfully child-like, like an image from a child's dream.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 8

This delightful rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Cape Breton," which begins by invoking the Bird Islands (Hertford and Ciboux). Countless puffins nest on these islands during the summer. Bishop visited Cape Breton in 1947, spending some weeks there. She went for the landscape, of course, but also because her mother had taught school in Cape Breton. I visited the Bird Islands once, myself, in the early 2000s, with friends from Texas. The ride out on the tour boat was choppy and I was queasy. Unlike Bishop, I am no seafarer!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 7

This charming rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Manners," which is a memory of riding with her maternal grandfather William Bulmer on his wagon. Bishop believed deeply in courtesy, in daily life and in her art. She gave her readers a good deal of credit in their ability to understand her work and felt she didn't need to spill out all the emotions inherent in her poems. Some critics felt this made Bishop aloof or reserved, but she might have said, in the spirit if this poem, that she had "good manners," a rather old-fashioned practice which we seem to be losing more and more in our fast-paced world. William (Pa) Bulmer was a kind, genial, gentle, courteous man and Bishop was an apprentice to his philosophy of interacting with family, friends, and strangers. And my manners require me to once again thank Susan Kerslake for taking the images I am using in this series.