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

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 38: How fast Christmas comes around

The next letter to Grace is dated 15 December 1958. What happened in that long gap from the end of May? Brett Millier has very little to say about this year in Bishop’s life. With the publication of The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ in December 1957, Millier more or less leaps to 1960, which saw Bishop make her first trip down the Amazon. One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters includes only seven letters (and part of an eighth) during this late May to mid-December period. And then this 15 December letter to Grace.* Why Robert Giroux chose this letter, a short, utilitarian epistle, is puzzling unless there are few extant letters overall for this year, so it was necessary in order to bulk it up.

What is immediately obvious, and amusing when you think about it, is that Grace had been on the move all year. Bishop couldn’t keep track of her. Indeed, Aunt Grace was far more peripatetic at this time than her niece. Perhaps 1958 and 1959 were the most settled and domestic years of Bishop’s entire Brazilian sojourn.

Bishop’s letter was triggered by receiving “your card a few days ago.” Bishop supposed a letter from Grace “got lost” because she confessed that “I didn’t know you were going any place!” Bishop had already sent Grace “a card and Christmas gift” (undoubtedly, the usual money), and hoped that the folks at the farm in Great Village would forward it to her, wherever that might be. Bishop speculated that perhaps her aunt was with Aunt Mary, but then thought better of that and said, “I think you must be spending Christmas with Roddy” (Grace’s youngest son who lived in Brantford, Ontario, Canada): “I’ll send it [“this note”] there.” All this confusion and uncertainty was, in Bishop’s view, caused by the postal service, “The mails are getting worse and worse, obviously. I rarely lost anything until the past year.”
After typing the above sentence, Bishop inserted a “//” — signaling a seemingly right angle change of subject: “How I wish we had some more of that delicious venison you once sent us — and maple syrup.” Where did that come from? But you can see why Bishop made the leap, remembering the gifts Grace had sent in the past, but would no longer be able to trust to the worsening postal system: “but it is out of the question now to send anything at all, in or out.” Bishop reported to Grace that the customs service was “supposedly”  being “reorganized,” something Bishop hoped would be done “in a few months,” so that they could “begin again” to exchange more than just letters.

One of the subjects of Grace’s now lost letter was clearly about what the weather was like and what Bishop’s Christmas would entail, which prompted a detailed report. After the reprieve of a relatively cool winter at Samambaia, summer had arrived, bringing “the hottest November in 33 years — around 104 in Rio most of the time. (That is HOT.)” At Samambaia “it never gets like that,” but even so, the temperature was higher than normal. This prompted much swimming “in our pool every day.” Bishop was also “making sherberts all the time,” from the abundant “wonderful pineapples, mangoes, etc.” that were available. The extreme heat in Rio also meant that they had lots of company, people escaping the oppressive weather.

As for their Christmas holiday, Bishop tells Grace that “on the 22nd we are going away to Cabo Frio (‘cold cape’) for ten days.” Bishop and Lota had gone there for the first time the Christmas before and would continue this holiday getaway for the next several years. Friends “have a nice house there, on the beach.” It was a place to fish and swim and had “beautiful scenery.” Part of the motivation for this getaway was to give “the maids a rest from us and us from them.”
Bishop explained that when they stayed at home for Christmas they actually “have a tree, of sorts.” Bishop refers to this “tropical plant” as a “graveta.” And offers a vivid description: “it’s a huge things, six or eight feet high, dark red, waxy, with yellow blossoms at the tips, and shaped like a Christmas tree, more or less — anyway, with candles it is very striking, and we usually send a boy up the cliffs to cut us the biggest one he can find (we located one through binoculars one year!).” As exotic as this probably sounded to Grace, Bishop concluded that the whole thing “isn’t Christmassy at all.” If she couldn’t have a northern holiday, Bishop clearly was happy with a Christmas Day “swimming and lying in hammocks….”

Their contribution to the feast was ham, which they would “bake and decorate … there,” and “chocolate cake and tins of cookies.”

Before signing off, Bishop couldn’t help but tell the still-practicing nurse that she had been administering “whooping-cough shots” to the maids’ children, and wished she “give them both Salk shots, too.” But she was not able to get the serum.

The wanderer turned home-body Bishop closed her letter declaring, “I don’t like to think of you traipsing around in the freezing cold.” And wondering just where Brantford was, “I must look at a map.” Appealing once more for her aunt to “write me all your doings, much more interesting than mine,” she urged Grace “to take care of yourself” and “have a good time.” Ending with her usual, “With much love.”

The next post offers an account of that holiday in Cabo Frio.

*Note: One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters includes ten letters to Grace (in whole or in part — one is a mere fragment). The dates of these letters are:  5 July 1956; 19 October 1956;  2 December 1956; 16 September 1957; 15 December 1958; 15 or 16 November 1959; 3 September 1960; 26 July 1961; 26 August 1961; 12 December 1961.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 37 – Crossing space and time

Over a month passed before Bishop wrote again to Grace, a letter dated 20 May 1958. Without Grace’s letters, it is difficult to keep track of the back and forth of their correspondence. The letters crossed real space (thousands of miles) and swaths of time (weeks, sometimes months). And Bishop, with her busy life at the house in Samambaia, often lost track of who owed a letter, and even when she or her aunt had last written. As a result, there is repetition in what Bishop wrote, since she was sometimes unsure if Grace had actually received her letters. It appears from what is extant that Grace received most of Bishop’s letters (though some of them went MIA over the decades of their correspondence) and faithfully preserved them. It is deeply unfortunate that Bishop didn’t manage to do the same, for reasons that will never be known, probably.

Bishop starts the May letter by declaring that is it had been “so long” since she heard from her aunt that she was “beginning to feel very concerned.” According to Bishop, her aunt’s “last letter was just before you went down to Key West.” Bishop again refers to the letter from Marjorie Stevens and its update. Bishop’s April letter had been sent to Great Village: “Perhaps I should have sent it to Phyllis?” (in Dartmouth, N.S.). She told her aunt that in that letter “I sent some clippings about the ‘Diary’ for you to see.” Bishop assumes the distinct possibility that Grace never got that letter. Bishop rationalized, “I think fat letters are the ones that get lost because someone at the P.O. thinks they might be worth stealing.” Here is a cynical view of the postal service. I must say that even these days, occasionally, I don’t receive my weekly copy of The New Yorker, kindly subscribed to for me by a dear friend in the US. When they don’t come, I am quite sure someone on the “inside” has taken it for their own edification.

We assume instantaneous contact and expect rapid response these days. Only those of a certain generation will remember the visceral nature of letter-writing, and how it fostered patience. But even Bishop could get wound up, and she was one of the most prolific letter-writers of the twentieth century, someone with vast experience of the postal services in Canada, the US, Europe and Brazil.

If indeed Bishop’s letter had gone astray, she noted that Grace “may think I’m the one who owes a letter.” Because no letter at Vassar contains the “clippings,” it is entirely possible that it did not reach its destination.

The one item from her April letter that she reiterated most fully was what Marjorie had written about Grace’s visit to Key West: “Marjorie … said you looked very chic — and was awfully sorry that she couldn’t do more for you, because you did so much for us that stay in G.V. long ago.” That stay was the summer of 1947, when Bishop and Stevens had spent time in Cape Breton and then some days in Great Village.

Turning to life in Brazil, Bishop assured Grace that “everything is fine here” except for the money. That is, “Brasilian money is slipping so fast it’s terrifying.” This slip was in relation to the American dollar, so for Bishop it wasn’t an issue. For Lota, not so good: “Poor Lota feels that she’ll never never see New York again.”

Bishop explained to her aunt that in 1952 “the dollar was worth 33 cruzeiros. Then for quite a long time it was worth around 65 or 70 cruzeiros. But now it is almost up to 150.” This inflation was “fearful for Brazilians.” But Bishop hoped that “it may only be temporary.”

Bishop also reported that the grandchildren had gone home. For a couple of months the house at Samambaia had been a veritable nursery school: “six small children … with Maria’s two — quite a lot of children!” In the end they “bought four tricycles.” Bishop’s namesake, Betty, was clearly Bishop’s favourite. She comes in for the most glowing accounts: “Betty is pretty as can be and very smart.” To demonstrate, Bishop noted: “A guest asked Betty if her sister could walk, and she said ‘Yes, she walks. You take her hand and she falls down.’ (I’m afraid this is funnier in Portuguese!).”

The extreme heat of the beginning of the year had eased and they were into winter. “I actually have on long red woolen underwear under my blue jeans,” Bishop reported. There was still heat “in the middle of the day but we keep a fire going all evening now and take hot water bottles to bed.” Bishop was quite happy with the colder temperatures because Brazil had had “three summers in a row, after all!” (meaning that the previous year and a half had record breaking heat).

Coming to the end of this short letter, Bishop told Grace that she recently found “a nice book called DOWN EAST on sale for $1.00.” Written by Sargent F. Collier, Down East: Maine, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, The Gaspé, was published in 1953 by Bishop’s first publisher, Houghton, Mifflin Company.

Bishop described it as “mostly photographs” and said that one of them, “View from Economy Mountain,” made her “feel quite homesick.” She then informed Grace that she had “almost finished a long poem about N.S. that I think I’ll dedicate to you, with your permission.” This must be “The Moose,” though it was not finished until the 1970s.
Signing off “With much love,” Bishop asked about Phyllis and her family and urged her aunt to “let me hear” how she was doing. Scribbled in the margin, Bishop put in an additional plea for her aunt to “tell me where I shd send letters.”

The next post brings Christmas around again.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 36: Grandchildren and Greyhounds

The 9 April 1958 letter was written shortly after Easter, which fell on 29 March that year. As always, Bishop updated Grace on “the ‘grandchildren’,” who were were “still staying down the road.” Having them nearby gave Bishop the incentive to host “their first party and the first time they’d ever hunted for anything” — that is, an Easter egg hunt. Bishop “hid a hundred little eggs around the yard and terrance” and let them go to it. Even the two-year old, “filled his little basket and shrieked with excitement.”
The youngest of this little tribe was Lotinha, who turned “four ½ months” and to Bishop was “one of the prettiest babys [sic] I’ve ever seen, without exaggeration.” So adorable was this infant (“pink … tanned with red cheeks … and dark eyes and lots of fine dark hair”) that “on Sunday everyone took turns carrying her around, even our men guests.”

Once again, Bishop tells Grace that Lota was “very proud of all her ‘offspring’,” and happy to be a “doting grandma.” Bishop wasn’t sure how well they’d do in life, but she reported as proudly as Lota might have that these little people were “good and polite and healthy.”

The other subject on Bishop’s mind was the gift of her translation, The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’. Grace had finally written to Bishop about this book, though clearly not to the extent that Bishop hoped: “I was hoping you’d go into detail.” She wanted to know if Grace thought it was “funny”: “didn’t a lot of it remind you of G V?” and she listed a few things she thought would resonate for her aunt: “the false pregnancy,” “the town’s a regular asylum,” “because her dress was with ‘they may even thinks I have two,” “and so on.”

Bishop had also heard from Aunt Mary, to whom she’d also sent a copy. “she, too, just said it was ‘interesting’.” By that, I suppose, one can assume that Grace herself offered such a succinct review!

Bishop had spent a great deal of time on this translation. She was so excited about it, believed it offered and respresented something deeply authentic, that she confessed to her aunt, “I yearn for flattery, I guess.” She noted that it was getting “wonderful reviews everywhere,” and was disappointed that her aunts didn’t share her enthusiasm.

Letting go of translation and grandchildren, Bishop returned to the weather that Grace had experienced during her Florida sojourn, “such a cold winter.” Grace must have given her more particulars about this trip because Bishop noted, “I went to the dog races once, too,” and wondered if Grace “got to Hialeah — race track?” Bishop had been there once and declared it “one of the prettiest race tracks in the world.” Bishop remembered the “flamingos” and “a lagoon.” Bishop didn’t think very highly of Miami, “a pretty horrible city,” except for “some of the old parts, like Coconut grove,” which she thought were still “very nice.”

Greyhound dog racing has actually entered into my consciousness. There are a number of people in Middleton, where I live, who have adopted greyhounds retired from racing. One of the most recent arrivals of these Florida canines is Monty, who has become the office dog for the company where my sister works. Monty arrived during a severe cold snap, so he got some cosy pajamas.
 (Monty in his warm Canadian pjs and his new "mom")
Bishop concluded her letter with the most immediate of her updates: “It’s time for lunch.” She told Grace that lunch consisted of “garbanzos” and “left-over Easter ham.” She wondered if Grace had eaten garbanzos in Florida, noting “the Cubans eat them a lot,” and again wistfully writing, “Wish you were here!” She sent her love to “Phyllis and Ernie” and gave one final plea for her aunt to write more about her trip and to tell her niece “how you are.”

Next offering will show how space-time is a real force in transcontinental communication.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Our Cambridge Correspondent Writes --

Megan Marshall  (“Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast”) reads at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 11, 2017, in Lesley University’s Marran Theater, 34 Mellen St., Cambridge, Massachusetts.>

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Response to Elizabeth Bishop and Translation, by Mariana Machová

I met Mariana Machová in 2005. She was a young scholar and translator who made her way to Nova Scotia to get the lay of the land and to hear the sound of the talk, the elements that would still be familiar to Elizabeth Bishop. I forget now just how we connected. She probably sent me an email.

At that point, the artist retreat at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village was starting to establish itself and I invited her to stay there and offered to act as tour guide. Mariana will have to remind me of the time of year (not hot summer nor snowy winter, so spring or fall). [Ed. Note: Mariana has confirmed that her visit was in April.]

I met so many wonderful people during the eleven years I took care of the house, it is difficult to remember the details of each visit, because I tended to “do” the same tour each time, retracing the routes and stopping at the sites Bishop fans want to see.

Mariana came bearing a gift: her first translation into Czech of Bishop’s poems. She also came with an openness and eagerness to learn something of Great Village and Bishop’s childhood. I am sure we drove “The Moose” route. We also spent time in Halifax.

Besides Mariana’s delightful personality, what I remember, specifically, are two small details: a story about an escaped hamster and a discussion about finding a word in Czech for “seal” (the animal), found in “At the Fishhouses,” a challenge in the language of a land-locked country. I listened with fascination to her talk about translating and now realize she was forming ideas that coalesced in the book about which this post is written.

After her visit, Mariana continued to translate Bishop’s work. She kindly sent her collection of translated stories and letters, a substantial volume. In the fall of 2016, her next book was published — in English — Elizabeth Bishop and Translation. Again, she generously sent me a copy.

I told Mariana I would write something about this book for the blog and proceeded to read it with keen interest. It has been a long time since I read serious literary scholarship about Bishop. I have steered clear of it for many years. Knowing Mariana, however, and being interested myself in the idea of translation in general, and in Bishop’s ambiguous fascination with and practice of translation, I was eager to read this detailed study of the subject.

Before I continue, I must apologize because I will not shift gears and turn formal and academic in my response, switching to the convention of using Mariana’s last name, for example, which is the professional way to proceed. I admire what Mariana does in this book and I hope that she will not mind my response’s familiarity. After all, she offers a serious contemplation and discussion of the nature of “the foreign” and “the familiar,” including as it applies to names and naming. My choice is done quite consciously, based on my own principles. I mean no disrespect.
(Mariana at the Elizabeth Bishop House)
The first part of this book is a detailed exploration of Bishop’s practice of translation from her college efforts to her mature projects, from Aristophanes’s The Birds to The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ and beyond. The second part examines the way Bishop incorporated the principles of “translation poetics” (which Mariana regards as “a creative attitude,” “an aesthetic stance”) into her own creative process.

Here are two statements/observations Mariana makes that for me offer a good sense of what this book contains:

“My aim is to see Bishop’s translation [sic] from a new perspective, not as a marginal activity by which Bishop was occasionally and accidentally distracted from her real work as a poet, but as a recurrent presence in her creative life, which was not by any means dominant, but which was present there all along, sometimes more and sometimes less conspicuously, like a basso continuo beneath the main voice of her own poetry.” (2–3)

“The ‘translator type’ of the poet is conscious of the richness and the potential of language, and is fascinated by the many voices which sound in the language, and at the same time she realizes that this richness is not limited to the variation of sound, that each tongue and voice says different things.” (152)

Around these ideas and observations, Mariana provides deep, detailed readings of a wide-range of texts. This approach is especially welcome with the translations themselves. The Bishop translation I have thought about most is The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ (I presented a paper about it at a conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, in 1999). While I am certainly aware of the others Mariana discusses, I knew little about the originals and the translating process Bishop used. Through her discussions of these works — their chronologies, contexts and challenges — Mariana lays the foundation for the second part of the book, which looks at Bishop’s own poetry through the lens of translation poetics. Mariana makes a solid argument for seeing Bishop as a “translator type” poet. You need to read the book to learn the various elements and practices of translation that Mariana argues Bishop employed in her own creative process; it is a fascinating claim.

It is usually considered naïve** in a reviewer of an academic book to say that she learned a lot from reading it, but I did, especially about the space-time around Bishop’s own translations. For a writer who was not a professional translator and for someone essentially monolingual (she could read and speak languages other than English, but none really well), Bishop translated quite a lot. By simply bringing together all the translations Bishop did, Mariana shows the significance of translation in Bishop’s life. I don’t know of any other book that has so fully focused on this subject, which offers such a concentration.
 (Translation as curtained window.)
I will say, I sighed a bit when I came upon the rather conventional academic practice of dismissing the biographical approach to reading Bishop’s work. It never ceases to amaze me how academics must set up a hierarchy of analyses. Since just about every literary critical study about Bishop I’ve read does so, I can’t fault Mariana too much for engaging in it. And she presses the point far more moderately than many critics. It is a bit ironic, though, that Mariana’s well argued and supported claim about how Bishop did not privilege one voice over another, but had a remarkable capacity for hearing them all, does not translate to her own practice. This gripe is, however, my own hang-up, and the reason why I am not an academic. I just can’t see the point of dismissing one approach and privileging another. Bishop never did, even as she was known to have an ambivalent opinion of literary criticism. She asserted to Anne Stevenson that she was fine with her poems being “interpreted,” though she rarely read such stuff herself.

While Mariana’s own English is good, there were a few places where I paused and wondered if she really meant to use the word she had chosen. For example, she describes “In the Waiting Room” as “notorious.” (“Well known, commonly or generally known, forming a matter of common knowledge, esp. on account of some bad practice, quality, etc., or some other thing not generally approved of or admired.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1,952). I wondered what this poem had done to make it so? I wondered about “superficial” (9); “threat” (31); “primeval” (143–44), and a few other words. Though I thank her for “macaronic”(55), a word I had to look up.

I also found that the text could have stood a better copy edit, particularly when it came to those annoying but vital helping words (articles and prepositions), as well as agreement between subject and verb, and a handful of typos. But these kinds of infelicities are so common in published texts these days, they clearly are accepted (if not acceptable), even for prestigious academic presses.

All this said, I found Mariana’s book a fascinating read.

One of the many questions in Bishop’s work that Mariana uncovers in her readings of the poems is: “where is the source of control over representation?” (125) Though a rather dry way of saying it, this is a critical question for all artists, and she is right that it is one Bishop asked over and over, in all sorts of ways.

Another insightful conclusion she arrives at delving deeply into the texts is Bishop’s realization that “what she has achieved is so relative that other people may fail to recognize it …. the translation may be in vain.”(111), epitomized for me in “Crusoe in England.” As a poet myself, I found this idea unsettlingly familiar. All artists inhabit this existential condition and it might be the sub-text to just about every creation (unless one is a raging egomaniac). Doubt is healthy. It keeps one honest, on one’s toes; unless it becomes crippling, of course.

Mariana makes the valuable observation that Bishop often engaged in translation when she was stuck in her own writing. By so doing, Mariana argues, translation became a practice that helped Bishop see and know her native tongue differently. It not only reflected her preoccupations in her own work, but returned unexpected insights and approaches to help with her own poems. This observation made a great deal of sense to me.

This way of looking at Bishop, arguing for the indispensability of translation, is thought-provoking. Bishop’s nature and poetic practice held a remarkable diversity and range. Add to this her fascination with translation, ambiguous as it was, we see more fully just how Bishop’s eclectic interests manifested and evolved.

Thanks, Mariana, for making me think about Bishop’s poetic program from this unusual perspective, to think about it more carefully and to understand it more fully.
(Sandra and Mariana in study of EB House, 2006)

** A reviewer is generally considered to be another expert, someone who has the knowledge to assess the research, writing and authority in a given book; someone who knows such things already. I am not such a reviewer, at least where the subject of translation is concerned.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 35: Grace and Marjorie

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 9 April 1958. Since the March epistle, Bishop had heard from Grace, who was back in Nova Scotia. She had also heard from Marjorie Stevens about Grace’s visit to Key West. Catching up with these correspondences was the first order of business.

Even though Grace was “home” from her gallivanting, Bishop wasn’t exactly sure if that meant Great Village or Dartmouth. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland and her family lived in the latter place and Grace often spent time with them. Even though Grace had been gallivanting, she always took time to write and she had remembered Bishop’s birthday (8 February): “Your birthday card to me arrived about a week ago!” One can observe that mails are not much faster these days. The slowness of this natal day greeting was due to it being “overweight so it had come by boat.” Bishop mentioned “the yellow roses,” but didn’t linger on this birthday greeting, rather she jumped right into “a long letter from Marjorie,” in which she learned more about Grace, Mabel and Hazel’s visit to Key West. Marjorie had penned the letter “the day after your visit there.”

Bishop passed on Marjorie’s response: “She was sorry she couldn’t do more for you … but loved seeing you.” Grace clearly had been stylishly turned out, as Marjorie “described your outfit in great detail, said you looked very chic and had a good haircut.” Bishop envied Grace’s good hair, confessing she cut her own hair when not in Rio and declared that at “the moment I look like a bundle of steel-wool.”

As for Grace’s niece Hazel (Mabel’s daughter), she was very familiar with Key West, having lived in Florida for decades. Bishop said that Marjorie felt Mabel seemed “rather indifferent to it all,” in contrast to Grace who “took in everything.” With a knowing, behind the hand whisper in her words, Bishop wondered, “maybe she was having the sulks that day?”

Bishop herself had been in Key West the previous year, a visit after a long absence. For her, Key West was “completely ruined.”  Some of the “back streets” retained their charm, but the main street was “just one long bar and stinks of beer.” Not a slogan for a tourist brochure! Marjorie must has shown Grace the house Bishop and Louise Crane had owned in the 1930s: “How did you like” it? Bishop asked. It had changed, too, from the time Bishop lived there in the 1930s. At that time “there were not buildings across the street just fields.” Because “the woman who has it now has never pruned a single bush in 15 years,” Bishop was shocked by how overgrown it was. Even with this change, Bishop held some affection for the building itself, “a pretty house, as far as lines go.”
(EB’s house in Key West, 2011.
I have forgotten who sent me this photo and the ones below.)
Eager to learn Grace’s impressions of the place, Bishop urged her aunt to write, and also to “tell her how Marjorie seemed.” Bishop’s visit the previous year had been pleasant, with her “well and cheerful” friend. But Bishop knew her Marjorie “works much too hard — Saturdays & Sunday’s usually, too.” Living on her own, with a house to maintain and a modest income, Marjorie had not yet been able to “furnish her house” fully, partly because she had renovated. But Bishop was impressed by how much her old friend had accomplished. She worried, however, that Marjorie was “terribly lonely there, poor dear.” To cheer her up, Bishop was going to try to send her “some orchids.” Bishop had described the “orchid-growers for neighbours” in Samambaia, and two of the big nurseries had “export licenses.” Alas, it is not known if Marjorie ever got her Brazilian orchids.
(EB’s house in Key West. Still overgrown!)
Even with all the struggles and challenges, Bishop admired how her old friend “keeps going and keeps up her ‘standards’.”

After all this catching up, Bishop concluded wistfully with, “Well, I wish you could have come a few thousand miles further south, too.”
 (The literay landmark plaque on Bishop's house in Key West.)

The next post is a little hunting expedition.