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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 34: Hoping for a response to the diary

Having accounted for the family in her first letter of 1958 (12 March), Bishop turned to a literary topic: “‘The Diary’ is doing pretty well, I think.” By which she meant her translation, The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’.”
Bishop told Grace that it was already into a second edition and was getting “very good reviews.” She couldn’t tell her aunt “how many copies have been sold yet.” In the end, not as many as she had hoped.

Bishop sent Grace a copy, but the niece was unsure if the aunt had received it. She thought not (partly because Grace was gallivanting), “I do think you’ll enjoy it when you get your copy.” [Grace did receive her copy and it is now resident at Acadia University Archives.]

It is not known what Grace’s response was, but knowing something of her sense of humour, she undoubtedly enjoyed it, as Helena has quite an attitude about life. Bishop said that Helena’s Diamantina reminded her of rural Nova Scotia. And there were remarkable echoes, indeed.

Interestingly, Bishop admitted to Grace that “it was hard to make it sound natural.” As she explained to others, Portuguese is a more formal language than English. In her effort to do so, when she “got stuck about how to translate them literally,” she said she tried “to think of what Gammie would have said! I think it worked pretty well.”
In 1999 I had the privilege of going to a Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. Brett Millier kindly invited me to present a paper on a panel she put together. My topic was Bishop’s translation of this book. Here is a brief paragraph from that talk, which speaks to the above claim:

While she tried to remain true to the tone and texture of the original, Bishop incorporated a good deal of her own colloquialism and idiom into the translation. I offer only one interesting example — there are many. One of Bishop’s favourite words was “awful” (and its variations). Listen to how many ways Bishop brings it into the translation: “awfully sorry,” “awfully funny,” “perfectly awful,” “how awful,” “awful things,” “something awful,” “an awful lot,” “this awful fault,” “that awful dentist,” “it’s awful,” “the rice is awful,” “it must be awful,” “so awful,” “awful uproar,” “really awfully bad,” “too awful,” “an awful shock.” And, again, there are many more examples.

Certainly, Grace would have recognized much that appeared in this lively translation, one of the most ambitious projects Bishop ever undertook, a commitment of several years’ duration.

Bishop also told Grace that she’d sent Aunt Mary “a copy of the book but I’ve never heard a word. I wonder if you happen to know if she got it?”

Bishop also wondered if Grace, who was still in Florida, happened to get to Key West for her visit with Marjorie Stevens. “I haven’t heard from Marjorie for ages,” Bishop noted, and reiterating something she’d told Grace before, “she works much too hard, usually.”  She had heard from her friend “at Christmas time,” but not since, Bishop said, and declared, “I know she’d like to see you though, if she possibly could.”

Scribbled on the bottom of this letter, in Bishop’s near indecipherable scrawl was an addendum, “I just got a letter from Marjorie — says she’s expecting you & Hazel on the 20th — hope you have a nice time.” Remembering her pretty “little house,” Bishop editorialized, “ she’s the world’s fussiest housekeeper!”

Earlier in this letter, Bishop accounted for its poor condition by telling Grace that she was “typing down at the house because the lights in the estudio aren’t working tonight.” She was using an “old typewriter and it skips dreadfully.” This letter is filled with all manner of misspellings and gapped words, more than usual. Finally, Bishop declared (you can hear the frustration), “I think this typewriter is really too awful [there’s that ‘awful’ again].” She would “give up for the night” and asked Grace to “forgive me for not writing for so long — it was really awfully busy here.” All the activity had meant she didn’t even “get up to the studio for days on end.” And with the bug she’d picked up in Rio at Carnival, she “stayed in bed most of last week, no sick, just tired.” Grandma Lota tended to her sick partner, as well as the babies, giving Bishop “vitamin B shots,” which did the trick and she was feeling “fine.” Which meant she was trying to write again, “trying to finish up a bunch of stories.” The hope here was that they would earn enough to contribute to another trip to the USA and parts north soon.” Bishop never lost sight of the need to earn a living: contemplation AND commerce.

She closed with her usual “lots of love.”

The next post will take us into April.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 33: Population explosion: the grandchildren visit

The main subject of Bishop’s letter of 12 March 1958 was “the grandchildren.” All four of them had come to Samambaia with their mother to escape the heat and water situation in Rio. Bishop reported to Grace that they were “staying at a little house down below” them, about “½ a mile” away, “thank goodness.” Bishop liked their mother, “a very nice quiet little thing,” who had been trying to cope with a four-month old “adorable” infant and three toddlers, all under five. The mother “said that first of all, when they got their 4 gallons [of water], they washed the children.” This family of little ones were fetched by Lota as soon as she learned of the troubles, “she brought them all up — all car-sick, hot, exhausted, and very yellow, poor little things.” Bishop could happily report, “Now they’re already looking 100% better.”

Knowing Grace had a perennial interest in babies, Bishop gave a full accounting of how things were going. Bishop had visited them just that afternoon, “a walk down the mountain to call on them.” She updated Grace on their demographics: “one boy, Paulo, aged two, very big and fair — surprising here — and shy” and “2 little girls, five and 3½.” The sisters “doted” on their little brother, undoubtedly pretending he was their baby doll: they “tug him around with them all day long, hug him and kiss him.” Bishop noted, undoubtedly with her tongue in her cheek, that “only the 3½  year old” understood “what he says.”

Lota took her grandmotherly duties very seriously. One of the things she brought back with her from New York, in the many boxes and barrels, was “junket tablets,” which she had seen in a grocery store. Something she had never heard of before. “Her idea was to make junket for the children.” Bishop reported that, unfortunately, “Brazilian milk is too poor.” At least their efforts proved unappealing. Bishop asks, rhetorically, “Or does it have to be whole milk?” The milk they could obtain was “so watery,” Bishop explained, she “wasn’t surprised when it wouldn’t work.” While shopping in Petrópolis, however, they bought more milk hoping it would be better. But it, too, failed to produce an edible treat. Bishop wondered if she’d explained to her aunt about the milk: “The milk is always watery — I guess I told you, didn’t I — they call it ‘baptizing’ the milk…”

The next little one to come in for comment was Betty, the cook’s daughter, who turned three on 7 February. Bishop included a photo of her namesake (which does not survive) with her sister, “Alisette Mara — (I don’t know how to spell it, that’s what it sounds like).” Bishop remarked again how “awfully bright” Betty was. Unkindly, she notes that her parents are “stupid,” and that she and Lota were going to “try to get her to school at least.” The new addition was only six months old. Even though space and time made the next bit of information irrelevant to Grace, Bishop couldn’t help but pass on some gossip: “this one looks exactly like our ex-gardener … but really exactly.” Even though it was obvious, Bishop noted that “Lota’s trying to get her courage up to ask Maria … if she didn’t slip a little.”

To round out these accounts, Bishop noted: “Besides all this infant human life, we also have one tiny black puppy.” This new addition was the offspring of their “mongrel dog.” This aging canine (one thinks of Bishop’s poem “Pink Dog”) “is getting quite old, her face is white, and she’s lost some teeth.” In spite of this diminishment, “somehow or other she recently produced this puppy.” As cute as it was, they had “found a home for it.” But Bishop assured Grace that “I won’t let it go until it’s over two months old,” a kindness and caution she undoubtedly learned in rural Nova Scotia during her childhood. She did report that it was “six weeks” old and, with a smile on her face, for sure, already “housebroken — that is, it comes in the house without fail, to go to the bathroom.”

(Parrot at house at Samambaia, during my 1999 trip to Brazi)

The next post will return to a subject close to Bishop’s heart, her translation of Mina Vida de Menina.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 32 – The Extended Brazilian Family and Carnival

With the weather situation dispatched in her letter of 12 March 1958, Bishop offered Grace an explanation for why Lota had been enduring the excessive heat in Rio. A crisis had developed with Lota’s sister and required her attention on a number of occasions.

Bishop was under the impression that Grace already knew something of the situation, “I think the last time I wrote you [Lota’s] sister [Marietta Nascimento] had had her first operation.” Since this information was not included in the final letter for 1957, another letter must have conveyed it. But, then, as Bishop thinks again, she wonders: “I’m not sure whether I wrote you or not.”’

Lota’s sister had “two badly infected tumors,” which required emergency surgery. Lota “had to rush to Rio one night and get the sister into a hospital, where she was operated on at 6 A.M.” Bishop was certain that if Lota had not intervened, her sister “surely would have died.” Clearly, in some sort of denial, the sister was “just dying, at home, taking aspirin and ice-water, with her lover at her bedside!” Bishop’s unkind assessment of this woman was that she was “too wacky to do anything for herself.”

The initial intervention solved one problem, only to have another, “adhesions,” develop. These required further surgery, which also required Lota’s presence. Bishop watched all this unfold and described the situation as “dreadful.” Bishop and Grace shared a keen interest in all things medical. Grace was still nursing, though in a reduced capacity, and she had been in this profession since the mid-1910s. A running theme in Bishop’s letters to her aunt was medicine. [Ed. note: Eons ago, I presented a paper to The History of Medicine Society in Halifax, N.S., about Bishop’s medical history and her keen interest in medicine.]

One pleasant consequence of this family drama was that Lota’s nephew, Flavio Soares Regis, came to stay with them for a few weeks, while his mother was in hospital. Bishop described Flavio as “a book-worm, 15 years old.” He suffered from asthma, so he and Bishop had an instant connection. His condition, like hers, required injections, which Bishop administered. They encouraged him to go swimming.

Bishop and Flavio eventually became good friends. One other deep connection they shared was a love of music. Flavio eventually entered the Brazilian diplomatic service, but retained a keen love of jazz music. Sadly, however, he committed suicide early in 1971. A death Bishop felt acutely. She never learned the reasons for this irreversible decision, but she blamed the troubled and tumultuous political situation in Brazil. She had always felt the pressures and strains of Lota’s involvement in public life and the Parque do Flamenco had taken a serious toll on her health and led directly to her suicide.

But, in 1958, Flavio was a bright, young, pleasant companion, someone Bishop could talk to about poetry and music. Her fondness for him never waned. He must have felt a deep fondness for her, too, because when she became persona non grata in Brazil after Lota’s death in 1967, their friendship endured.
Bishop did not remain always at Samambaia when Lota was in Rio. Once the worst of the trouble with Lota’s sister eased, Bishop went “to Rio for the one night of carnival I wanted to see — the Negro Samba ‘schools’.” Carnival is one of the most elaborate events in Brazil (might one suggest, the world). Bishop had a keen interest in this phenomenon of celebration and tried to see the big parade every year. This year, Bishop reported to Grace, “we had seats in the press section, but just boards, and it was fearfully hot.” They countered the strain of the heat with “a thermos of iced coffee to support us through the night, and sandwiches.” It was an all-nighter because “the really good ones don’t come until the end.” But they didn’t make it through to the end this year, giving up around 3 A.M., driving “all the way back here.”  For reasons unknown to Bishop, “the schedule was so off” that things didn’t wind up until 11 A.M. the next day.
Bishop then offers a description to Grace about the participants of this grand event. “They’re clubs of dancers, hundreds in each club.” These clubs “rehearse all year, and make their own songs and dances.” Bishop herself wrote some samba songs for carnival. Most of these clubs were comprised of “the poorest people” in Rio, but they managed to “put thousands into it.” Professional dance teachers were hired and elaborate, “beautiful costumes” made. Some clubs decked out in sumptuous “silks and satins,” with “white wigs” from the “Louis XVI period.” Bishop declared, “It’s one of the nicest things in Brazil, for me.”
Unfortunately, on this excursion, she “picked up some germs” and not being “used to them” developed “horrible diorraha [sic: I don’t think I need to clarify this misspelling!] and she had been struggling with something like flu for “over a week.” As bad as she felt, she did not return to Rio to see a doctor, but toughed it out in the cooler air of the mountains. Her treatment for this ailment was “charcoal pills” and “waited for it to subside and finally it did.”

By the time Bishop wrote this letter, Flavio was “back at school.” But all was not quiet at the house in Samambaia because all the grandchildren were visiting. More about them in the next post.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 31 – There is always weather, 1958 begins

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1958 is dated 12 March. There were perhaps others, but this long missive appears to be a catch-up, filling in a gap that occurred because Bishop was flat out busy. This letter will require several posts, as it is packed with detailed accounts of various people, activities and situations. Even with gaps, sometimes lengthy, Bishop’s letters simply launch into her side of the dialogue, knowing that Grace was as eager to hear her news as she was to hear Grace’s.

Bishop began the letter with a typical declaration, “I’ve been very bad about writing lately,” acknowledging that she had one of Grace’s in hand, unanswered, a letter that had included a photograph of Hazel Bulmer Snow’s house in Hollywood, Florida, where Grace was still staying. “It looks very nice and pleasant.” Though unsure if Grace was still there (she was), Bishop took that possibility to launch into a commentary about the weather (so typical of Maritimers, who might be called “weather obsessed”).

The winter of 1958 was a bad one, if Bishop’s observations are a clue. “You certainly chose the worst winter,” to be in Florida, “one of the coldest they’ve ever had.” Bishop knew this all the way in Brazil because she was reading American papers. She was sorry for Grace about this timing, because, as a rule, “it can be so nice in Florida in February — bright and up in the 80’s and no rain.”

As bad as it was in Florida, Bishop somehow knew it was “an awful winter” in Nova Scotia. How she knew this isn’t clear, but she remarked that “my friends in N.Y. have been seeing northern lights, and they’ve had to use ice breakers in N.Y. harbor.” So, as cold as Florida might have been, at least Grace had some sort of “escape” from the worst, farther north.

This kind of extreme weather occurs periodically, and most recently in the winter of 2015, which again caused N.Y. harbor to freeze solid:
And brought the Northern Lights as far south at the northern US:
If it was cold in the north, it was hot in the south, “Here, or at least in Rio,” Bishop noted, “it’s been the hottest summer ever on record,” with the temperature reaching 105F a few times. Bishop reported, “Lota tells me it’s sun spots, making these extremes, and maybe she’s right.” The spots would certainly have triggered the aurora borealis, but perhaps what was starting to manifest was what most scientists now call the chaos of climate change.
Bishop had been able to stay away from Rio, remain at the house in Samambaia; but Lota had been back and forth steadily for various reasons, “and she minds the heat much more than I do,” Bishop observed.

Another issue in Rio was water, or the lack of it: “there has been no water in some sections of Rio for months,” Bishop reported. Most places had water, but only “for an hour or two a day.” Bishop does not explain the cause of this shortage, but its affect was to trigger a visit from all of Lota’s “grandchildren” and their mother (an account of this visit is for another post).

In the midst of her lively reporting of the happenings around her, Bishop interjected an announcement, perhaps because it had happened while she was composing the letter: “I had a wonderful letter from Aunt Mable [sic].” Sadly, Bishop’s letters to this aunt did not survive. Mabel is vividly described in Bishop’s “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” a woman Bishop was not particularly close to, but even so, she clearly welcomed this epistle: “The first paragraph or two she hadn’t hit her stride,” Bishop observed, “then she really did, and she does write wonderful letters!” Writing a good letter was an admirable achievement in Bishop’s mind, and she had pretty high standards.

The next post will offer the first “happening” of 1958.