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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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