"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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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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 29 – Too little time, too much to do

Bishop’s 16 September 1957 letter to Grace was written not long before she and Lota were due to return to Brazil. It was a busy time. Bishop had just returned from Key West, where she had gone to see Marjorie Stevens: “I felt I couldn’t leave the U.S.A. without seeing Marjorie.” With Lota occupied with a Brazilian friend visiting for a few weeks, Bishop had gone off to reconnect with Majorie after nearly a decade. Grace knew Marjorie, so Bishop knew Grace would be interested in how she was doing. Marjorie was also interested to know about Grace. “She asked all about you,” Bishop wrote.
(Marjorie Stevens and Pauline Hemingway in Key West, 1940s)
Marjorie was living in a “new little house” and was keen to show it to Bishop. Though it was “fearfully hot in K.W.,” Bishop seemed to have a pleasant time, and saw several other “old friends.” The big topic was “Blue Points,” that is, Siamese cats, which Marjorie was taking care of for a friend: “pale gray with silver markings and blue eyes, beautiful animals.” Being a died-in-the-fur cat person, Bishop “let them sleep with me,” in spite of the heat. The more challenging part of their nature was they “talk a great deal!”
Bishop had welcomed this side-trip because Lota (and the visiting Brazilian friend) was “shopping like crazy,” so the apartment was in a state of upheaval with all the packages and packing.

Upon returning to New York, which was “hotter than ever — an unusual heat wave for September,” Bishop found “a new batch of proof waiting,” which had to be gone through before they left. You can see what came next: “This, plus the earlier sailing date, plus the fact that I’m completely BROKE, of course — means that I don’t see how I can possibly get to N.S.” I suspect Grace was not surprised, even if she was disappointed. Bishop always “hop[ed] against hope” to get to Nova Scotia on the rare occasions she was in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. But it never happened.

To further explain her financial constraints, Bishop noted, “I thought I was getting a refund on my income tax that would have paid for the ticket.” Her accountant, however, had conscientiously applied the refund “on next year’s instead.” Bishop was never good with business matters. Perhaps the accountant knew this weakness and was trying to help Bishop, in spite of herself. After months in the US, Bishop declared, “I’m going off with lots of unpaid bills and unseen friends.” Still, her “I am so terribly sorry, really,” sounded genuine. She added, “If it’s any consolation, Aunt F tells me my Worcester relatives are mad at not seeing me again!” Poor Aunt Florence “got Lota on the telephone while I was away — called her “LOLA” and told her how smart I am, but how it was only natural because the Bishops are all so smart!” When Bishop returned, she called her elderly paternal aunt, who told her that she wanted “some pink pajamas, ‘pretty ones dearie’ (as if left to my own devices I’d buy ugly ones).” There might have been good reasons why Bishop avoided her Worcester relatives.

Amusingly, Florence declared (in all seriousness) to Bishop that Grace was “getting married.” Bishop knew, of course, that this was not true, but couldn’t resist: “Is this true, and if so I wonder who is the lucky man?” Though she knew perfectly well it was “Aunt F’s fancies.” To extend the joke a bit more, Bishop noted, “I think it is a fine idea but I’m surprised you’d confide in Aunt Florence first!” One can see the two of them laughing heartily over this fancy.

Bishop was clearly pressed for time with completing the book work, shopping, final visits, and other appointments. This letter has a tone of: there are not enough hours in the day; and a regret of letting go of something she really wanted to do.

Bishop concluded this letter with an odd story, about an appointment with the dentist (she had been preoccupied about her teeth in Brazil, needing to get to the dentist; so getting to one in the US was a priority). To Grace she said, “I spent the morning at the dentist’s and read the Sept. [sic: August] National Geographic — a very silly piece about the Bay of Fundy.” This piece, “Giant Tides of Fundy,” was written by Paul Zahl. She told her aunt, “I think I’ll buy it just for the photographs — some of them made me feel homesick.”
In 1918 Bishop was in another dentist’s office reading a National Georgraphic. Here, nearly 40 years later, she was again registering the contents of one of the most ubiquitous magazines found in such waiting rooms. One wonders if it might not have triggered the old memory, though it took nearly another decade before she began to write “In the Waiting Room.” Zahl’s piece is actually not “silly” but a passionate and lively account of the environment of the Bay of Fundy. There are dozens of photographs, and no wonder some of them made her homesick. She concluded her letter, “I do wish I could get there now, to see the colours of the maple trees. With much love, and I’ll try to write sooner.”

The next letter has them back in Brazil.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

An Uplifting Evening with Suzie LeBlanc and friends

In these troubling times, positive creativity is vital. We need more music, more poetry, more painting, dance, drama. Suzie LeBlanc’s “APocket of Time” concert, a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, on Sunday evening, 13 November, at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax, N.S., embodied the kind of collaborative creativity that brings out the best in and inspires all of us. Presented by Cecilia Concert Series, it gave all those who attended a great lift.

With Blue Engine String Quartet and pianist RobertKortgaard, Suzie sang several settings of Bishop poems, which had been composed for her for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in 2011: a setting of “Sunday 4 A.M.,” by John Plant (whose birthday it was that day – imagine, having Suzie LeBlanc sing you “Happy Birthday” accompanied by a string quartet!); and “A Short Slow Life,” by Emily Doolittle (who had arranged an orchestral score for this superb string quartet).

Two new settings of Bishop poems were also performed. The most recent, “Paris 7 A.M.,” by British composer Ivan Moody, was a world premiere performance. Halifax pianist and composer Peter Togni recently set “Lullaby for a Cat,” for Suzie and she closed the show with this tender song. The concert opened with Blue Engine performing Alasdair MacLean’s “The Silken Water is Weaving and Weaving,” inspired by this line from Bishop’s poem “Cape Breton.”

Music and songs by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos and Robert Schumann rounded out this program which explored time and dream and the moon.

I had the privilege of presenting a little pre-concert talk, which I think entertained those kind souls who arrived early. Here I am in full flight – not singing! – but declaring Bishop’s life-long love of music.
(Photo by Binnie Brennan)
I want to thank Cecilia Concert series for their warm welcome and for deep commitment to music, and all those who attended. It was a kind of “old home night” for me, seeing friends I had not seen in a long time, as I do not live in Halifax any longer. Including my friend, the poet and Open Heart Farming editor Mary Ellen Sullivan. To be part of this kind of music-making is a tremendously uplifting honour. Thanks to Binnie Brennan for taking these photos.
 (Photo by Binnie Brennan)
As Bishop wrote, “I am in need of music,” aren’t we all!


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 28 – A Gap and a Gift

Bishop’s letter of 10 January 1957 appears to have been the last she wrote to Grace until September (at least none in the interim have survived). The reason for this gap was the trip Bishop mentioned she and Lota were going to take to the United States. As Brett Millier records, this trip was primarily to shepherd the translation of Mina Vida de Menia (The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’) through publication with Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. (p. 289)

Perhaps Grace wrote a letter to Bishop before they left for the US, on Bishop’s urging. She hoped she would hear from her aunt: “maybe I’ll get more [letters] if you keep working nights.” And closed by saying she hoped to see her “in 1957.”

They arrived in New York on 31 March. The visit lasted six months and included side trips to Maine, Massachusetts and Florida. It was a whirlwind of reconnecting with many friends, of onerous work with the publisher on page proofs, and witnessing the changes that had happened in America since she left in 1951. Grace was nursing in New England and as a result she and Bishop managed to catch what Bishop called a “glimpse” of each other, their first direct meeting in a decade. During this stretch, however, it seems that Grace returned to Nova Scotia (indeed, Grace seemed to be far more nomadic than Bishop in the 1950s). It is evident from Bishop’s next letter, however, that Grace continued to write to her niece during this stretch of time.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 16 September 1957, and was written in New York at the apartment she and Lota rented at 115 East 67th Street. Bishop had recently returned from a week-long stay with Marjorie Stevens in Florida. She told Grace, “I took your letter down to Key West with me and then never did get a chance to answer it, and while I was away your postcard came.” At some point, either during their brief visit or in subsequent correspondence, Grace offered her niece a precious gift: two family portraits, one of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, and one of her uncle, Arthur Bridges Bulmer, painted sometime in the late 1880s, one in Grace’s possession and the other in Mabel Bulmer’s (Arthur’s wife) possession.
(Gertrude Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
Bishop opens her letter unequivocally, “I’d love to have that portrait of my mother — I’ve wanted it, as you know, for years.” Much of their discussion about this subject related to the logistics of getting the paintings to Bishop: how much the postage would be, how much to insure them for, and what the customs duty might be. Bishop stated strongly that she would be willing to pay whatever the cost, and added, “Thank Aunt Mabel for me. It seems a shame to break the pair … and tell her I do appreciate it.”
(Arthur Bridges Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
These portraits reached Bishop before she and Lota left the US in early October (“Our freighter is now sailing on … the 8th.” As Millier writes, they accompanied “the seven trunks, four wooden boxes, four large crates, three barrels, and twenty-six pieces of luggage that Elizabeth and Lota” took back to Brazil. (p. 293) These portraits triggered one of Bishop’s most detailed word portraits of a member of her maternal family, her memoir “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” She re-framed the paintings and hung them in the house at Samambaia. She brought them back when she left Brazil in the late 1960s.

During their brief meeting, Grace gave Bishop another gift: “I like that little photograph you gave me so much.” Since both knew the content of the photo, it of course did not need to be described (how frustrating!). Lota liked it, too, because Bishop notes that she “found a very pretty oval gold frame for it — well, brass with some gold wash, but it looks very nice!”

These family mementos meant a great deal to Bishop. The portraits would have hung initially in her grandparents’ home, though by the time she came along, the one of Arthur perhaps had already migrated across the road to her uncle’s house. The memoir she wrote focused on her uncle because she had already written and published “In the Village,” a powerful word portrait of her mother. “Memories of Uncle Neddy” is full to the brim of vivid memories and details of this man and his family, of the village itself.

What happened to these portraits?
When Bishop died in 1979, Alice Methfessel inherited the bulk of Bishop’s estate, including the portraits, which she kept for the rest of her life. When Alice died in 2009, her partner Angela Leap inherited Alice’s estate, including the Bishop materials she retained (part of which was a filing cabinet with a cache of letters, some of Bishop’s own paintings, a George W. Hutchinson painting, which triggered “Poem,” and the portraits). Leap sold the contents of the filing cabinet to Vassar College. She commissioned rare book dealer James Jaffe to help her sell all the artwork. I spent well over a year trying to raise awareness and funds to repatriate the portraits and the “Poem” painting. Regretfully, I failed.

In December 2011, the Tybor de Nagy gallery in New York City opened an exhibition of Bishop paintings and memorabilia, “Objects and Apparitions.” It included the portraits and the “Poem” painting. The latter sold. But the portraits did not. Frustratingly, I have now lost track of where they are.

The next post will be pressed for time.

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 28 – The Gap and a Gift

Bishop’s letter of 10 January 1957 appears to have been the last she wrote to Grace until September (at least none in the interim have survived). The reason for this gap was the trip Bishop mentioned she and Lota were going to take to the United States. As Brett Millier records, this trip was primarily to shepherd the translation of Mina Vida de Menia (The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’) through publication with Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. (p. 289)

Perhaps Grace wrote a letter to Bishop before they left for the US, on Bishop’s urging. She hoped she would hear from her aunt: “maybe I’ll get more [letters] if you keep working nights.” And closed by saying she hoped to see her “in 1957.”

They arrived in New York on 31 March. The visit lasted six months and included side trips to Maine, Massachusetts and Florida. It was a whirlwind of reconnecting with many friends, of onerous work with the publisher on page proofs, and witnessing the changes that had happened in America since she left in 1951. Grace was nursing in New England and as a result she and Bishop managed to catch what Bishop called a “glimpse” of each other, their first direct meeting in a decade. During this stretch, however, it seems that Grace returned to Nova Scotia (indeed, Grace seemed to be far more nomadic than Bishop in the 1950s). It is evident from Bishop’s next letter, however, that Grace continued to write to her niece during this stretch of time.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 16 September 1957, and was written in New York at the apartment she and Lota rented at 115 East 67th Street. Bishop had recently returned from a week-long stay with Marjorie Stevens in Florida. She told Grace, “I took your letter down to Key West with me and then never did get a chance to answer it, and while I was away your postcard came.” At some point, either during their brief visit or in subsequent correspondence, Grace offered her niece a precious gift: two family portraits, one of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, and one of her uncle, Arthur Bridges Bulmer, painted sometime in the late 1880s, one in Grace’s possession and the other in Mabel Bulmer’s (Arthur’s wife) possession.
(Gertrude Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
Bishop opens her letter unequivocally, “I’d love to have that portrait of my mother — I’ve wanted it, as you know, for years.” Much of their discussion about this subject related to the logistics of getting the paintings to Bishop: how much the postage would be, how much to insure them for, and what the customs duty might be. Bishop stated strongly that she would be willing to pay whatever the cost, and added, “Thank Aunt Mabel for me. It seems a shame to break the pair … and tell her I do appreciate it.”
(Arthur Bridges Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
These portraits reached Bishop before she and Lota left the US in early October (“Our freighter is now sailing on … the 8th.” As Millier writes, they accompanied “the seven trunks, four wooden boxes, four large crates, three barrels, and twenty-six pieces of luggage that Elizabeth and Lota” took back to Brazil. (p. 293) These portraits triggered one of Bishop’s most detailed word portraits of a member of her maternal family, her memoir “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” She re-framed the paintings and hung them in the house at Samambaia. She brought them back when she left Brazil in the late 1960s.

During their brief meeting, Grace gave Bishop another gift: “I like that little photograph you gave me so much.” Since both knew the content of the photo, it of course did not need to be described (how frustrating!). Lota liked it, too, because Bishop notes that she “found a very pretty oval gold frame for it — well, brass with some gold wash, but it looks very nice!”

These family mementos meant a great deal to Bishop. The portraits would have hung initially in her grandparents’ home, though by the time she came along, the one of Arthur perhaps had already migrated across the road to her uncle’s house. The memoir she wrote focused on her uncle because she had already written and published “In the Village,” a powerful word portrait of her mother. “Memories of Uncle Neddy” is full to the brim of vivid memories and details of this man and his family, of the village itself.

What happened to these portraits?
When Bishop died in 1979, Alice Methfessel inherited the bulk of Bishop’s estate, including the portraits, which she kept for the rest of her life. When Alice died in 2009, her partner Angela Leap inherited Alice’s estate, including the Bishop materials she retained (part of which was a filing cabinet with a cache of letters, some of Bishop’s own paintings, a George W. Hutchinson painting, which triggered “Poem,” and the portraits). Leap sold the contents of the filing cabinet to Vassar College. She commissioned rare book dealer James Jaffe to help her sell all the artwork. I spent well over a year trying to raise awareness and funds to repatriate the portraits and the “Poem” painting. Regretfully, I failed.

In December 2011, the Tybor de Nagy gallery in New York City opened an exhibition of Bishop paintings and memorabilia, “Objects and Apparitions.” It included the portraits and the “Poem” painting. The latter sold. But the portraits did not. Frustratingly, I have now lost track of where they are.

The next post will be pressed for time.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

“A Pocket of Time” – Suzie LeBlanc concert in tribute to Elizabeth Bishop

On Sunday evening, 13 November 2016, at 7:00 p.m., at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, in Halifax, N.S., soprano Suzie LeBlanc, Honorary Patron of the EBSNS, will present a concert in tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, “A Pocket of Time.” She will perform some of the settings of Bishop poems that she commissioned for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in 2011 and premiere a new one. She will be joined by the Blue Engine String Quartet and pianist Robert Kortgaard. This concert is presented by Cecilia Concerts. You can find out more about this concert by clicking here.

I am pleased to say that I will give a short pre-concert talk, focused on Elizabeth Bishop’s love of music.
(Suzie LeBlanc at the Elizabeth Bishop House, August 2010)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 27 – Friends, Neighbours, & Strange Folks

Christmas continued into 1957 for Elizabeth and Lota. In the 10 January letter, Bishop tells Aunt Grace that “a crate just came this afternoon from a woman we know in São Paulo.” This friend was a wealthy coffee plantation owner, who had wanted Bishop “to translate her life story she’d written!” Bishop managed to bow out, perhaps because she “found another American here to do it for her.” By way of a thank you, however, this woman “sent me a huge sack — like a potato bag” (something Grace would be very familiar with) “full of coffee beans,” “about 20 pounds.” Bizarrely, Bishop declares that they had “no mill … to grind it,” so they would “have to buy one tomorrow.” Remember, this letter was written from Rio. Presumably, they had such a device at the house in Samambaia. Bishop declared that the coffee was “marvellous … like nothing you’ve ever tasted.”

Bishop then tells Grace about Lota’s friend Alfred, “who visits us quite often,” and was there “for a stay.” Bishop described him as “a writer, more or less,” “separated from his wife” and living alone. He was “in terrible shape, poor dear,” not eating right, “etc., etc.” He liked coffee, so visited “just about every hour on the hour” with his thermos. To make him even stranger, Bishop scribbled in the margin, “He’s rich, but unhappy — a graduate of Princeton, so speaks English — perfect English, too.” Even with “a daughter of 22, & a son of 16,” he was very lonely. Bishop also had “to give him an injection every day.” For what, she does not say.

Another neighbour, this one in the country, offered much more delight. He owned land “next to Lota’s” in Samambaia and raised orchids. Bishop described his green houses, filled with “thousands of pots … each green house … a little further along and a little bigger, just like a school for orchids — until you get to the top class, when they’re in bloom.” He showed his orchids at “a big flower show” that was held annually in a hotel in Pétropolis, “and he usually gets some blue ribbons.” The most spectacular of his orchids, Bishop reported, “was just like a waterfall — an enormous pot, the plant about three feet high, with 12 cascades of small white orchids … each spray about 18 inches long — pure white with a tiny yellow spot.” As soon as Lota saw it, she went back to the house to get Bishop. “I’ve never seen such a gorgeous plant, really,” Bishop declared. Bishop noted that their neighbour had “been offered about $200 for it.” Having such a neighbour had its benefits. For one thing, “any time we feel like it we can go through his orchid houses.” And “at Christmas his truck came up with four beautiful gloxinias all in bloom” and “four big begonias.” Clearly, he grew more than orchids.

The orchid man came up in the letter because Grace had written something about a very showy flower called “Bird of Paradise,” which Bishop thought could also be found in Brazil, the flower that “looks like a cockatoo’s crest?” This comment then launched Bishop into the orchids.
Having exhausted quite a few topics in this inaugural letter of 1957, Bishop makes a few passing comments about a couple of strange subjects:

“‘The Ten Commandments’ sounds awful.” Clearly, Grace had seen this Cecil B. DeMille epic, but that didn’t stop Bishop from “enclosing a review of it by a funny friend of mine in the U.S.” It would be interesting to know who this was. Perhaps a review in The New Yorker?
"I just heard that [Anthony] Eden’s resigned,” though she wasn’t sure “whether he did it himself or was forced to,” because she had not seen the papers. “Poor England … But I think the U.S. handled that very badly, too, and that [John Foster] Dulles is a damned fool.”
(Anthony Eden)
 
 (John Foster Dulles)
She concluded her letter, with her love and a little scribble, “I hope to see you in 1957.” Which indeed happened. The next post will address a gap in their correspondence and the first letter that followed it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 26 – Jam

Bishop’s 10 January 1957 letter dwelt on food more than any other that she had written so far (at least of those letters that survive). After telling Grace about Lota’s preference for crêpe suzettes, Bishop wrote that over the Christmas holiday she “made some Dundee cakes — that white fruit-cake — and thought of Gammie [her maternal grandmother] — remember how much she liked it?”
This traditional Scottish cake, a kind of signature for the country, is in the midst of proprietary aspirations by the Scottish government. Heaven forbid someone attempts to claim this confection for another nation! Gammie (Elizabeth Bulmer) was a Maritimer born and very English, but the Yorkshire Bulmer ancestors were close enough to Scotland to have, perhaps, acquired the taste for it. Or, perhaps the general culture of Nova Scotia imprinted this preference on Bishop’s grandmother.
A good portion of this long letter was devoted to jam. One of Bishop’s delights in living in the house at Samambaia was being able to cook again, to learn how to make Brazilian dishes and teach the cook Maria how to make North American dishes. Brazilians have a sweet tooth, and no less so Lota, so Bishop’s eagerness to make jam was welcomed by all in the household. The main jam under consideration in this letter was apricot and coconut. It is a question whether Grace, in 1957, could get access to this produce; but since she was in the US working, perhaps it was easier to do so (easier than in Nova Scotia!).

Here is Bishop’s summary of her “DRIED APRICOT & COCONUT” jam recipe:
 “Crack the nut, collect the milk, peel off the brown rind (it handles more easily if immersed for a moment in hot water) and put the white flesh twice through the grinder. [I grate it.] Cut up a half pound of apricots and soak them, with the coconut and its milk, in a quart of water overnight. Next day simmer very gently for about an hour, until tender, and weigh. Add weight for weight of sugar and the juice of one lemon and cook fast but watchfully (keep stirring) until setting.” She noted that you could also use “dried coconut but it isn’t as good.”

Bishop had described the process of making this jam in even greater detail earlier in the letter, clearly wanting to make sure Grace knew all the tricks: “It should be soupy, but not liquid, if you know what I mean!”; “or two limes”; “warm sugar”; two coconuts and a pound of apricots yielded “6 pints,” but her “pots aren’t any known standard size.” She acknowledged that while “jam with coconut is delicious,” it was likely “hard on false-teeth wearers!” While she was “not quite one yet,” she worried that she might soon be “if I don’t get to that dentist.”

In addition to the apricot and coconut jam, Bishop also sent recipes for apricot and almond jam, which she said was “better than the above, but apricots are too expensive to make it often”; lime and pineapple jam; and, finally, rhubarb and orange jam. The apricot and almond jam was quite involved but Bishop assured Grace it was “a real delicacy, if you want to be very fancy!” The lime and pinapple was “excellent” but it required a long cooking time for the limes. The rhubarb and orange was “easy and good.”

As an afterthought, Bishop noted that there was “a wonderful way to make strawberry jam by cooking it in the sun — do you know it?” She doesn’t elaborate, saying only, “I never can get enough strawberries here, but I’ve made it,” and when Grace got back to Nova Scotia, Bishop promised to “send the recipe” to her.

To reinforce all this instruction about preserves, Bishop also promised to send Grace “a copy of the little English book of jams & jellies.” And she actually did send this book: Jams, Jellies and Preserves: How to Make Them, by Ethelind Fearon, published in 1956 in London by Herbert Jenkins. Bishop also sent Ambrose Heath’s Biscuits and American Cookies: How to Make Them (1953). Grace kept both of these tiny volumes for the rest of her life and they are now at AcadiaUniversity Archives.
If jam was not enough, Bishop also provided a little treatise on pickles, which “are dreadful here,” she observed. She told Grace that “occasionally” she made “watermelon rind pickle, and pepper relish (that’s so easy I can get Maria to do most of the work!).” Bishop’s relish had a reputation. She gave “a pot to our friend Oscar at Christmas” because “he loves pickles.” He liked it so much that “he asked Lota if she thought I’d mind giving his cook the recipe, or if it was a secret!” Because it was difficult to get some of the ingredients, Bishop was limited in the kind of pickles she could make, but told Grace that “an American friend is coming to visit in February — and I am asking her to bring us tumeric and ginger and celery seed.”

The next post will wind up 1957’s inaugural letter.

Monday, October 3, 2016

EBSNS fund-raiser to create an Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit in Great Village, N.S.

Background:
In 2014 the St. James Church Preservation Society provided the EBSNS with a temporary space in the sanctuary of the church to set up an exhibit about Elizabeth Bishop. The EBSNS put together an ad hoc display, which was seen by the many visitors to the café and attendees of various events, including the Elizabeth Bishop Arts Festival in August 2015.
 
When the Preservation Society took over full responsibility for the church, the EBSNS would receive a new location to set up a proper permanent exhibit/gallery space. That new location was offered in August 2016: at the front and on the east side of the sanctuary. The Great Village Historical Society has a permanent Marine Museum exhibit on the west side of the sanctuary. The Preservation Society will also set up an exhibit about the history of St. James Church.
 
(The area in the sanctuary of St. James Church where
the EB exhibit/gallery will be located. Photo by Laurie Gunn.)
This project has two components: 1. an exhibit called “Elizabeth Bishop’s Beginnings,” which will complement the panels about Bishop that are displayed on the pergola near Wilson’s Gas Stop; and 2. a gallery called “Echoes of Elizabeth Bishop,” where art created by Nova Scotia artists, inspired by Bishop, will be shown.

The Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit/Gallery Patron fund-raiser:

The EBSNS will invest its own funds, time and expertise in the exhibit. The society is also applying for a grant from Nova Scotia Arts. However, the cost of this project is such that the society needs to raise additional funds. All funds will go directly to upgrading the space and creating the exhibit.

The EBSNS seeks donations from members and anyone interested in supporting this permanent public place honouring Elizabeth Bishop and her connections to Great Village and Nova Scotia, and showcasing contemporary Nova Scotia artists.

If you would like to be an Exhibit Patron, there are two levels of support: $100 (Gold Sponsors) and $50 (Silver Sponsors).

Two ways to donate:

1. Click the Donate button on the EBSNS website: http://elizabethbishopns.org/events-projects/
2. Send a cheque, payable to the EBSNS, to P.O. Box 138, Great Village, N.S., B0M 1L0

Please indicate your donation is for the permanent exhibit.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
The EBSNS is grateful for your support.

The society will unveil the space at its AGM
on Saturday, 17 June 2017,
with guest speaker Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod. 

Watch for updates on the EBSNS Facebook page.



Monday, September 26, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 25 – Accounting for Christmas Past

Being the first epistle after Christmas, Bishop gave Grace an account of their holiday in the 10 January 1957 letter. “We had a very quiet Christmas,” she reported. Part of the reason was “it rained all day.” And they had only “two guests.” Lota’s gifts to Bishop were multi-cultural. They included “a beautiful red sweater (from Argentina).” Bishop noted that the “woolen things” from that country were “almost as good as English ones.” Then there was “an elegant gray silk umbrella (from Italy) and a cigarette lighter (from the U.S.).” Bishop’s main gift to Lota was far more practical: infrastructure, that is, “the shower-bath for the guest bathroom!” Clarifying a bit, Bishop noted she would be paying “for the booth, of chrome and glass.” In spite of their few guests over Christmas, Bishop observed that since they were “having so much company,” generally, Lota was “feeling desperate” about the bathroom, “other things, like floors, always seemed more important,” Bishop explained.

The other gift Bishop gave to Lota was “a bottle of brandy.” Lota loved “to make crepe [sic] suzettes (one of the few things she’ll cook — for Sunday night suppers),” so the brandy was for this culinary treat, as Lota was not much of a drinker (unlike Bishop).
Bishop then got to “the best part of our Christmas,” which was “giving presents to Betty,” the cook’s daughter and Bishop’s namesake. Even though she was still too young to understand “what it was all about” (“she’ll be 2 in February,” Bishop scribbled in the margin in her nearly illegible hand), she “opened everything very carefully and slowly, stared at it, and then looked at us with the most beautiful smile.” The gifts included a doll from Lota and “a dress and watering-pot” from Bishop. It seemed that Betty followed “the gardener around doing everything he does.” Betty also got “an adorable blue wool bathing suit” from “our friend Mary [Morse].” This suit had “white smocking and a white ruffle.”

Even their Rio friends sent along gifts for Betty because “they’ve all seen her and think she’s so cute.” This much doted on child “even went in the brook, finally, with two of her young aunts,” the day before Bishop’s letter was written. So familiar was she with Lota that whenever Betty saw her drive up in her car, she yelled “Totta! Totta!”

The only responses Bishop made to Grace’s account of her own Christmas (which, it appears, she spent in the U.S.) was to commend her for the thoughtful act of sending “poor Uncle George … a present” and to note that “your Christmas box sounded wonderful” (a gift which would have been sent from Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland, as immediately after Bishop asks, “How is David Alexander?” Phyllis’s newborn son.)
(Wallace, Phyllis and David Sutherland, 2006)
Bishop told Grace that she had heard from Aunt Florence just the day before, on 9 January, and reported that she had been “in the hospital a few days, at Christmas time, with what she says was a ‘Gaul bladder attack’.” Bishop assured Grace, who clearly had wondered why she had not heard herself from Florence, “she certainly isn’t mad at you …. this time she’s been sick.” Bishop reiterated that Florence “always speaks of you with the greatest admiration, honestly.” Bishop was noticing that Florence’s correspondence had become more erratic, “sometimes she writes to me twice a week, and sometimes she forgets and doesn’t write for weeks at a time — and then blames me, usually — or the Brazilian mails!” Bishop suspected that she would hear from her cousin Kay Orr Sargent with an update.

It is not too strong to say that for much of her early life, Bishop hated Christmas, a time when immediate family gathers and celebrates. While she had extended family (and even some beloved maternal relatives), Bishop found this holiday season lonely. Even in early childhood, Christmas in her maternal grandparents’ home generated one of her most unsettling memories (“brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years”), which she wrote about in vivid detail in “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” her complex word-portrait of Arthur Bulmer. Undoubtedly, this memory came from the first Christmas after her mother was hospitalized, so Bishop was particularly fragile and vulnerable. The gist of this memory was Arthur dressed improbably as Santa Claus “cavorting” in the parlour, “terrifying” her and making her cry. Through her sobs, she suddenly recognized that this “dreadful figure … was only Uncle Neddy.”
(Arthur around the time of his “cavorting,” circa 1910s,
with his wife Mabel, their daughters Eleanor and Hazel)
As an adolescent and young adult, Bishop often spent Christmas alone, just trying to get through to New Year’s Day. It was only when she settled in Brazil did this holiday lose some of its darker aspects, at least during the 1950s, when her relationship with Lota was strong and reinforcing.

A good portion of the 10 January 1957 letter was about food. Post 24 described a remarkable outing in Rio focused on food, but the rest of the letter referred to more domestic fare. The next post will offer up some of this fare.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Our Bedford Correspondent Writes --

-- sending us these... these... well, one supposes the most fitting word would be imposing.... these imposing photographs from the most recent meeting of the EBSNS Board, held last Sunday, September 18:

                                         Board members                                  
                                           discussing matters of High Policy                                  
"Do Not Bind the Mouths 
of the Kine that Tread the Corn..."
 Insalata Caprese 
complected later in the week 
from Great Village tomatoes 
(gift of President Sharpe)
A Great Village Pumpkin
(gift of President Sharpe)
flanked by Daruma (right) and 
Faithful Amanuensis and General Factotum (left)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 24 – 1957 Begins with Stones and Shrimp

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1957 was written on 10 January, in response to a “lovely long letter” from her aunt, “writen [sic] in the middle of the night.” The 68-year old Grace was back nursing somewhere in the US and doing night shifts. Bishop picked up this letter on the way to Rio, “early Monday morning,” so she “read it out loud to Lota en route.” Bishop always asserted that Grace was a good letter-writer and “so taken with it” was Lota “that she said ‘We must take her a nice present when we get to Boston!’” Bishop had mentioned in her last letter of 1956 their plan to go to the US in 1957. As things unfolded, that is just what she and Lota did at the end of March.

The plans were seriously in the air at this time because she and Lota spent some time puzzling over what to take Grace “from here, where the choice is so limited.” Bishop thinks perhaps an “aquamarine.” “Would you like a pin, a ring, or earrings?” She tells Grace that there is “rather nice jewelery [sic] made of all the Brazilian stones put together — aquamarines, beryl, a pink one, etc. — rather pretty.” [Ed. Note: Bishop sent Grace jewelry on a number of occasions. A few of these pieces are in the collection at Acadia University Archives. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland also inherited some of this jewelry, including one of the beautiful brooches Bishop sent to her aunt, one of those with several “Brazilian stones put together.”]
The run to Rio was to “attend to various duties.” But in the end it was “so damned hot” that they “did scarcely anything at all … I simply couldn’t face the dentist. It was too hot to move.” Even a welcome invitation “to dinner and a night club (something I almost never do, but adore when I get the chance)” was declined because “it was too hot to get dressed up and go.”

Instead, the two nights they were in Rio saw them going “way out along one of the beaches to a funny little place that sells fried shrimp — at least it was cool there.” These excursions were so interesting that Bishop wished she “could take you there — I’m sure you’d like it.” What follows is a lively description of the sights and sounds and the food they encountered.

First, there was a spot “along the road where they have set up a lot of little sheds.” Though “primitive” (with just oil lamps or torches), each shed had “a little saint inside, with flowers and a light in front.” The fare at these spots was: “hot corn on the cob, grilled bits of meat stuck on sticks of bamboo, slices of melon or pineapple stuck on bamboo.” And the piéce de resistence: “a strange Brazilian sweet made of corn meal and sugar and herbs, cooked in folded up corn-husks.” To Bishop, these looked and tasted “exactly like hot poultices … but Lota likes them!”
(Pamonha, a paste made from fresh corn and milk,
boiled wrapped in corn husks, turned into dumplings)
Continuing along the road was another “encampment of sheds where they sell fresh oysters and crabs.” The oysters were “delicious — small, just caught.” These shellfish were opened “as fast as you can eat, and you just stand up and suck them out of the shell, squeezing a little lime-juice on top.” To Bishop, the taste was far superior this way, rather than “being iced.” They had gone on this excursion with friends (whom she does not name). “One of the men with us ate 4 dozen [oysters].” But he claimed this was no real feat because “once he’d eaten 12 dozen!”

Believe it or not, these stops were merely “preliminaries.” They continued along the road, “right along the beach,” arriving at “two or three little restaurants where they sell hot shrimps, fried in the shell.” All this consumption generated a good thirst, too. And at the end the reward was beer: “The Brazilian beer is wonderful, much better than the U.S. — as good as the Canadian!” But, Bishop avers, “alas I never touch it any more because of my figger” (that is, figure).

After this mouth watering description, Bishop turned again to saccharine (which she spelled correctly this time), to clarify for Grace that the “liquid” variety she had mentioned before was a product of Park-Davis. The SWEETA was Squibb. She was trying to get their cook to use it. Maria, who clearly enjoyed her own cooking, was “getting fat and complains constantly.” But she refused to use the sweetner because “it tastes bitter! (It doesn’t at all).” In a somewhat superior tone, in light of the excess she had already described to her aunt, Bishop noted that “the Brazilian diet of black beans and rice …. cook[ed] with lard … and potatoes, usually),” along with “black coffee with about half a cup filled with sugar each time” wasn’t “exactly thinning.” Indeed, some might suggest that beans, rice and potatoes is quite a good diet, in contrast to grilled meat, oysters and shrimp! Well, everything in moderation!

During my visit to Brazil in 1999, my favourite meal was breakfast. The little inn where I stayed in Ouro Prêto laid out a lovely buffet with all sorts of delicious breads (I particularly liked one with cheese in it) and fruit. I steered clear of the North American fare that had been thoughtfully added to the menu for the gringos. I am no coffee drinker, but I’ve never tasted better coffee anywhere else. For lunch (if not provided by the conference), we usually went to a place that offered a salad buffet. I’ve never seen so many vegetables and fruits in my life, as well as more lovely breads. Dinners were always some sort of well-prepared meat. I never had Brazilian beer, but certainly tried cachaça (in a wonderful, potent drink called a caipirinha).
(caipirihna)
One of my most vivid memories of that trip was on the drive back to Rio. We stopped at a roadside BBQ (the equivalent to an North American truck stop, but in Brazil done up in a big way). It was a huge establishment and the sight that was most memorable was the half-dozen fellows in crisp black and white carrying big skewers of barbequed meat around, and slicing off what you wanted right into your plate.
(A feast in Brazil, 1999)
This first letter of the year was a long one, so there will be several more posts about its contents. The next post will be about Christmas Past.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mark your calendar -- And book your tickets now!




A Pocket of Time 
Elizabeth Bishop Tribute 

Suzie LeBlanc, Soprano
 Blue Engine String Quartet
 Robert Kortgaard, Piano

November 13, 2016 – 7:00PM

 A musical tribute to Pulitzer Prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop. Suzie LeBlanc reprises her captivating homage, reflecting the poet’s fascination with time, her travels, her life in Brazil and in the place she called home: Nova Scotia. 

Concert Location:

 Lilian Piercy Concert Hall 
6199 Chebucto Road 
Halifax, Nova Scotia 

Book Tickets:
[Scrolling down may be needed]

http://www.stcecilia.ca/product/november-13-2016-700pm-a-pocket-time-suzie-leblanc-soprano-blue-engine-string-quartet-robert-kortgaard-piano/

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 23: The usual updates

Bishop’s 2 December 1956 letter was her last before Christmas and the end of the year. It contained what was Bishop’s usual practice, a “small Xmas present now because I know how the mails get in the U.S. at this time…I wish it were much more.” As well as the usual updates. Even with only one side of the correspondence, even taking into account the amount of time between responses, it is clear from Bishop’s letters that she and her aunt were having an active conversation. Bishop wanted continuous updates (often asking for them), and she sent them. This wasn’t mere courtesy between them, it was essential communication.

Below are the updates about regular subjects covered in this letter:

First. Aunt Florence, who Bishop observed sounded “awfully feeble these days — vaguer than ever, poor thing.” Grace had been in touch with Florence, who had written to Bishop about this kindness: “she wrote me she’d heard from you and added, as she always does, ‘She’s a fine person’.” This was not the first time Florence had praised Grace to Bishop. Bishop regularly praised Grace to Florence, so it was a good thing Aunt Florence concurred, otherwise it would have been a tedious declaration to hear again and again.

Second. The baby Betty was “adorable, & talking. I left her playing in bed with Lota — jumping all over her, like a kitten.” Lota’s grandchildren were due to “visit for a month soon.” To help entertain them, “Lota is building a toy house, a playhouse, back of the kitchen.” Bishop provides the specs: brick and stone, “like everything else here”; with window frames, door frame, wooden shutters “with stars cut in them”; “1 door, 3 windows — about 5’x7’.” Bishop’s conclusion: “very cute.” And a drawing.
(Bishop's drawing of the playhouse.
Apologies for the hole-punch in the centre of this photocopy.)
Third. Weather and its impact, of course. The rainy season had been so abundant that their “flower garden is the best it’s ever been.” She also reported, “Lota’s 500 trees have all grown eight or ten inches.” She told Grace that the climate was too tropical for maples; the planted trees were “Australian pines,” which were common in Florida (so Grace would have encountered them), along with a native pine. Think about this reforestation for a moment: 500 trees!
This vast acreage required a gardener, but Bishop reports that “the first good gardener we’ve ever had is now leaving,” because they couldn’t “afford to pay him any more and he can’t live on what we pay him (this is real inflation).” So he had to move “back to the interior.” Bishop observed, “I don’t know how the poor people here are living now, really.”

Finally, Bishop introduced a new plan. Having been in Brazil steadily for four years, Bishop was thinking about visiting the U.S., an idea she mentions for the first time in this letter: “I am hoping so much that I’ll be able to get to the US for a long stay next year.” Bishop mentioned “the fellowship” (from The Partisan Review), noting that she had managed to save part of it, to pay the air fare. That she didn’t need to explain the details of this award, meant that she had already told Grace about it (so, clearly, some of her letters have gone missing).

As much as she would like to do the trip in the spring of 1957, she realistically observed that probably it would not happen until the fall. One of the main reasons was because the house at Samambaia was a long way from being finished. To give Grace an idea of why, Bishop wrote, “it has no front door, so far — and is open to the world all around.” Finding someone “reliable as a care-taker…is a big problem.” So, this trip remained in the realm of a wish and a hope for sometime in the not too distant future.

With all the updates checked off the list, Bishop typed an afterthought at the top of the first page of the letter: “I’ve written a long poem about N.S. — it’s dedicated to you — when it’s published I’ll send a copy.” This poem must be “The Moose.” It was triggered by her bus ride from Great Village to Boston in 1946. A decade later she’s telling Grace it is written, but in fact it wasn’t completed and published until the 1970s. Bishop lived with “The Moose” a long time.

Here are links to several readings of “The Moose”:




The next post will usher in 1957.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 22: Politics and Property

Bishop tends to be seen as an a-political or non-political artist. Perhaps hard-core “politics” and the ideologies and activism around it are relatively absent from her poetry; but she does speak of subjects, such as poverty and war, property and prejudice, class and commerce, which have deep political elements and implications. Bishop wasn’t much of an “ism” person or poet. She tended to steer clear of overt ideologies (e.g., feminism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism). Even in her art, she is difficult to place in any “ism”: modernism, post-modernism, confessionalism, surrealism. In spite of this elusiveness where labels are concerned, most critics identify a strong moral centre in her work. If there is any “ism” that might identify her, perhaps it is a kind of “humanism.” Being a very private person, Bishop practiced whatever beliefs she held (and much ink has been spilled trying to identify and describe these beliefs) in a low-key, gradualist sort of way. The work she released to the public was, in essence, her primary statements. Being art, they hold and express these beliefs in highly complex, often puzzling, always affecting ways.

Yet Bishop could also be an opinionated person, about all sorts of things, including politics. In her Brazilian letters generally, and also in her letters to Aunt Grace, Bishop often made comments on and observations about “P”olitics, meaning governments and politicians and world events that involved public actions. In her 2 December 1956 letter to Grace, she mentions several such subjects and offers brief assessments.

First, she declared she was “very disappointed” that Adlai Stevenson lost the US election; he “would have made a fine President, I think.” She supposed that Grace had been able to get “all the excitement on your T.V.,” noting “that kind of thing is fun to watch — for a while at least.” All that Bishop could do was listen to world events on “our friend and neighbour” Mary Morse’s radio. Bishop was still waiting, she said, to get “a small battery one from the U.S.” [Ed. Note: One wonders what she would have thought of the current election campaign in the US!]
 (Adlai Stevenson)
Even with these communication restrictions, Bishop was aware, for example, of the dramatic events unfolding in Hungary, which was in the midst of a revolution against Communist oppression. “At least we get the latest fearful news from Europe….Aren’t those Hungarians magnificent and brave.”
(Hungarian Revolution of 1956)
Turning her world events commentary to Brazil, she remarked, “Everything is an awful mess, here, too.” Though just what she meant by “threats of a new dictatorship” are curious because in 1956 Brazil elected Juscelino Kubitschek President. His Presidency brought in a period of economic development and increased relevance for Brazil on the world stage. Bishop reassured Grace, lest she think her niece was in danger of being caught up in some violent coup, that “Brazilians aren’t very blood-thirsty, thank goodness.” The last “‘revolution’ was all over in a few hours” and the joke was “how no one saw it, because it was a rainy day and no one went out.”
 (Juscelino Kubitschek, President from 1956-1961)
Having succinctly dispatched current events, Bishop tells Grace that her local “business” venture “hasn’t got under way yet.” Her “partner” was due that day “to discuss developments.” She felt quite sure that in six months, “I should think, I’ll really know more what my prospects are here.” Grace must have mentioned that she was now receiving an Old Age pension from the Canadian government and might even be eligible for some Social Security in the US for all her years working there. Bishop noted that “‘writers’ just became eligible for it two years ago.” But in her estimation, because it was based on “earnings or something,” she would “probably be able to collect about $2.50 a month in my old age!”

Finally, prompted by Grace’s inquiry, Bishop wrote that she had “decided to let the land — near Providence — go” because “it was over $300 back taxes, and worth less,” This decision was made after her old friend Dorothy Coe had kindly gone “to see it [the land] for me, called the tax-collector, etc.” It isn’t clear if Bishop actually recouped the $300, but she concludes this update by saying, “For $300 I could buy a piece of land here that would be worth ten times that much in ten years probably — so I let it go.” Perhaps her “business” ventures involved real estate.

One has to wonder why Bishop would be involved in business ventures in Brazil if the political and economic situation was a “mess,” as she had declared. It really is a rather curious aspect of her life, these dealings, especially for someone who claimed to have no head for business.

The next post will be wrap up 1956.