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

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 15 Odds and Ends

Following is the final post about Bishop’s letter of 5 July 1956. Bishop didn’t write only about finances, health and world events to Grace, she was also eager for Grace to learn about her literary successes. At this moment in time that included the Pulitzer Prize, which she received in May for her collection Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring.
(Pulitzer Prize medal)
Bishop had informed her aunt about this prestigious award (which, she said helped convince Lota’s many friends that she {Bishop} really was a poet) in an earlier letter; but that letter is no longer extant. She asked, “I don’t think you got the funny clippings about the Pulitzer P that I sent you from here, did you?” Bishop noted that she had sent the same package of clippings to Aunt Florence, “and she never mentioned them either.” Resignedly, she observed that a batch of eight letters sent at the same time seemed to have “got lost.” But just as well, she added, as the photos of her were “far from flattering, but Lota’s library came out pretty well.” She sent them not only to “amuse” Grace, and to let her aunt see “what a sylph I am…118 lbs — 115 is my goal”; but also because it deeply  mattered to Bishop that her favourite aunt know of this success.

Grace’s most recent letter must have contained a response to a poem of Bishop’s that she had recently read. Her niece replied, “The poem you saw must have been ‘Manuelzinho’ — about L’s kind-of-a-gardener — wasn’t it? It’s all completely true.” So, Grace was keeping track of things on her own, too.
("Manuelzinho," published in The New Yorker on 26 May 1956)
Bishop recounts a few stories about Betty (the cook’s daughter): “She’s almost 18 months old now, has 10, almost 12 teeth, and is ‘into everything’.” Bishop offers another lengthy disquisition about child-rearing to her expert aunt (“but they say NO all day long, when it’s much easier to put the carving knife where it belongs…”), concluding, “Well, all this about babies isn’t exactly news to you, I’m afraid.”

She gets around to Aunt Florence, too: “Your dinner party with Aunt F sounds rather grim!” One can only imagine the things Florence said to Bishop during her childhood and adolescence to make Bishop observe over and over that “she is really absolutely impossible, poor thing,” because she always managed to “say the most unkind thing of all.” One of those things, as Bishop remembered was: “One of her favorite cracks to me is that being a writer makes a woman coarse, or masculine…!”

In spite it all, Bishop continued to correspond with Florence, and when her aunt died in the early 60s, she left her niece a bequest. It would be interesting to know what Bishop did with this money.

This letter also mentions several of her cousins: 1. two Bishop cousins, Kay and Nancy, who had the unenviable task of dealing with Florence; 2. Phyllis, Grace’s daughter, who was about to have her second child; and 3. Elizabeth, Mary’s oldest daughter, who ended up living in Brazil for several years. Family (that is, relatives) were not distant abstractions for Bishop. She kept in continuous contact with her aunts and cousins, and seemed genuinely keen to hear about their activities, especially Grace’s children. As Ellie O’Leary recently wrote in an essay about Bishop and her childhood, Bishop was an orphan but not abandoned. No one can replace parents and siblings, of course, but Bishop’s ties with family were complex and enduring (just like they are for most of us).

As solitary as Bishop was, like her “Sandpiper,” on many levels, she adhered quite persistently to her family, even as they were difficult to deal with, even as they were far away when she lived in Brazil.

The next post will look at a letter Bishop wrote in late August 1956.

No comments:

Post a Comment