"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 49: Lizards

"The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as a red-hot wire."
            “Brazil, January 1, 1502”

Brett Millier says that the above poem was part of a “second-wave of poems about her adopted country” (300), which Bishop began to write in 1959. “Brazil, January 1, 1502” appeared in The New Yorker on 2 January 1960. (Millier 301)

I start this post about Bishop’s next letter to Grace with these lines and facts because this letter, dated 12 November 1959, commences with a lively account of lizards at Samambaia.

As I mentioned last time, this November letter breaks a long gap, the previous letter being dated August. It is clear that the letters between them had continued, but what happened to them is unknown. Bishop begins this one with a declaration, “I’m not sure who owes whom a letter now.” This bespeaks of a steady exchange, not a three month silence, because Bishop also thought that their last epistles “crossed.”

Without any more preliminaries, Bishop launched right into her exotic account, one I’m sure she knew would make Grace laugh.

She started with a brief weather report: “a quick rain and hail storm with the sun shining at the same time.” One result: “everything looks dazzling.” Another result: “the lizards have started to come out again.”

It is her account of the lizards’ activities that relate directly to what she was writing at the time. “Watching the lizards’ love-making is one of our quiet sports here!” She tells Grace about the ritual: “the male chases the female, bobbing his head up and down and puffing his throat in and out like a balloon.” One wonders if Grace could imagine this courting display (the only place she might have seen it was on the pages of a National Geographic). Bishop observed that the males were “much larger and uglier” than the females. In this chase, Bishop notes, “the female runs ahead and if she’s feeling friendly she raises her tail up over her back like a wire — it is bright red, almost neon-red, underneath.” All this chasing was often for naught, as Bishop reported: “He hardly ever seems to catch up with her.”

These shenanigans were not always confined to outside. Bishop informed her aunt that “sometimes the cat will pursue a huge one right through the living-room.” Imagining that might be even harder! This pursuit “usually” happened “when we have squeamish lady guests, who shriek.” The main instigator of this race was Bishop’s cat Tobias, whom, she thought, probably did “it on purpose, really.”

When you Google lizards and Brazil, you get hundreds of possibilities and thousands of images. Even when I narrowed it to mating rituals, I could find nothing to match Bishop’s description. I asked Carmen Oliveira, the author of Flores Rares e Banal√≠ssimas, if she had any idea which lizard Bishop described. She sent me the photo below and told me that in Portuguese, lizard is legarto. Even if it is not exactly correct, it is a nice lizard that looks like it has attitude!
The 12 November 2018 letter is as wide-ranging as all the others Bishop wrote to her aunt. The next paragraph, and next post, brings in one of their favourite subjects: food.

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