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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 5: “No detail too small”

The next file of letters from Bishop to Aunt Grace, held at Vassar (EBP I, 25.3), for the year 1955, indicates “2 letters.” In the next couple of posts, I will write about various aspects of the first of these letters, which is dated 19 December 1955. I am going to pluck out some elements and turn them over a bit, in the spirit of Bishop’s sandpiper’s gaze where no detail is too small.

By this point, Bishop was fully ensconced in Brazil with Lota. They were living mostly at Petrópolis (the relentless pull of Rio was still five years away). By December 1955, after a drought of several years, Bishop had in hand Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (which would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1956). She had already sent Grace a copy, which now resides in the Acadia University Archives, inscribed: “Grace Bowers from Elizabeth Bishop with love.” (In my view, this formal-sounding inscription was Bishop thinking about posterity, and the importance of her full signature.)

Bishop had published during this stretch, most importantly, her stories “In the Village” and “Gwendolyn” in The New Yorker (both in 1953). But very little poetry had seen the light of day, so the book was a great relief. She told Grace that she had seen her book in the window of a bookshop in Rio and it had been written up in the newspapers: “Isn’t it amazing when its in a different language?” She observed that one article claimed she received $1,000 per poem: “God  knows where they got that.” She was quite sure that as soon as the local merchants read this extraordinary fact, Lota’s grocery bills would “probably be doubled.”

At the time of this letter, Bishop was in the throes of helping Henrique Mindlin (http://www.arquivo.arq.br/#!henrique-mindlin/c12eu), a Brazilian architect, translate his book Modern Architecture in Brazil (1956), a task she called “a hideous rush job” to Randall Jarrell (OA, 311). Mindlin was involved with Lota in the design of her house at Samambaia.
To Grace, she noted that she had been “too busy,” referring to “this job on the architecture book I think I told you about.” The deadline for it was 8 January. Then she told Grace a bit of information that was of keen interest to them both, that Mindlin’s wife was imminently due to have their first child. The couple had just spent the weekend, and they had been “slaving” from morning to, what Bishop could have said, in the tradition of Robbie Burns, “the wee sma’ hours.” She was worried that Henrique would have a “nervous breakdown” before this task was completed.

Bishop knew Grace would be interested in the approaching birth because her aunt had been an obstetrics nurse early in her career, training at the Boston-Lying-In Hospital. She had helped to deliver and care for countless babies. For a childless woman, Bishop had an active interest in children and her letters to Grace are full of details about the children who were part of her and Lota’s Brazilian household at this time (and there were several).

Brett Millier notes that Bishop and Mindlin worked well together and ended up becoming friends. (287) Curiously, Mindlin and Bishop were born in the same year. Bishop’s life-long interest in architecture would have been augmented with this project. As Millier also notes, this was one of only a very few “commercial” gigs Bishop did during her life. She was not one for deadlines.

This letter is the first full epistle in this particular collection. It is clear through the conversational style and wide-ranging subjects that Bishop and Grace had a well-established correspondence, which was integrated in and integral to Bishop’s larger epistolary practice. Perhaps there were not as many “literary” details as found in her letters to writer friends, but neither were they absent. Indeed, word for word, Bishop kept Grace apprised of all her Brazilian doings in ways that echo directly the rest of her correspondence.

The next detail I will discuss, which is central to this letter, is Christmas.

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