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

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).
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]


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.