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

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.

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