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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 130: Monica, Florence, Roger and Zephyrino

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was full of family observations. It began with a report that she had “ordered ten of the ‘Peter Rabbit’ books for E’s daughters,” that is, Suzanne, Diane and Patricia Naudin The books “didn’t get there in time,” but rather reached her “in Cabo Frio instead.”

(Cover of one of the early editions of this
much beloved Beatrix Potter classic.)
Without pause or segue, Bishop then wrote that at the latter location (that is, Cabo Frio) there was “a big pointer dog … huge, named ‘Roger’,” a creature “adored” by Monica, Mary Morse’s daughter. They had gone to Cabo Frio, too, over the holidays for some fun. Bishop reported that at one point they found Monica “on the floor turning over pages for him to see the pictures in Peter Rabbit – very close to his nose.” The Naudin sisters were not the first to enjoy these Christmas presents. Bishop continued with Monica, who she noted again “adores the ocean” and who “only cried all ten days when we had to drag her away from the water.” Bishop described Monica as “very tiny – the dog could eat her in one gulp.” She reported, however, that Roger “seemed to like her.” Tiny Monica also loved to sing “Brazilian children’s songs at the top of her lungs – without words – but excellent pitch and rhythm.” Bishop claimed that she had “never seen a happier baby.” Bishop was clearly glad for this “little waif,” who she declared was “saved from the orphan asylum by pure luck.” Bishop did have a tender spot for all orphans, and she clearly “adored” this one. When people learned Monica’s story, she noted, they “take to her because of that.” Then Bishop reported that Mary Morse was planning on “adopting another one – as soon as she can find a white and healthy one.”

Another abrupt switch was signaled by her characteristic “//” The new subject was “the latest story of poor Aunt Florence.” This now quite elderly relative, with whom Bishop had such fraught experiences and memories (yet continued to stay in touch with and hear about), was “quite bed-ridden and pretty gaga.” One of Bishop’s cousins, “Priscilla[,] asked her what she wanted for Christmas.” This poor old woman declared: “A SCREWDRIVER!” The reason for this response was because there was “a thermometer on her wall, and it was hers, and she wants to take it off to take it back to Worcester with her.”* Poor old Aunt Florence indeed! There but for the grace of countless unknown forces and factors go each of us, especially these days, now that so many of us are living so long.

Another “//” signaled Bishop’s return to the here and now and her hope that her aunt was “well and that the weather is good there” (wherever Grace was). Bishop noted that they were “going to Samambaia tomorrow,” which meant she might “have a letter from you – I hope so.” She reported that Elizabeth Naudin was “in Teresopolis for 3 weeks, I think,” so the Peter Rabbit books would be even more delayed in reaching their intended recipients.

As her letter began to wind down, she said she had to” go out marketing to get ready for tomorrow.” Then another quick shift of subject, signaled by only “ – “ She told her aunt that she had just received a canary from “a man who works with Lota.” This fellow “raises them.” Said canary was “a very pretty one, orange, from Holland.” Undoubtedly, this little bird reminded her of Gammie’s and Aunt Maude’s canaries. To name him, Bishop “asked Lota what the man’s name was … it turned out to be Zephyrino.” This little creature was “very young, but sings quite a lot.” (Does this remind you of someone?) She noted that in the country they had cats, in the city, the canary, “well separated.” Again, like Roger, the cats could eat the canary in “one gulp.”

The last couple of sentences were typed on the vertical in the left margin. She quickly signed off “With much love, and thank you again Elizabeth.” This closing was not, however, the end of the letter. On the back of the page Bishop typed two postscripts, one quite lengthy, which filled the whole page. The next post will take up these addenda.

*Note: Florence was clearly suffering from dementia of some sort, at an advanced stage. I have had enough experience with dementia – my mother suffered from vascular dementia and my father has Alzheimer’s – that I cringe when I read Bishop’s tossed-off term “gaga.” With her own mother’s mental and physical sufferings, Bishop was terrified she would lose her faculties. The understanding of serious cognitive impairments and illnesses have improved greatly since the 1960s, but even now, most people don’t understand dementia and are just as terrified of it as Bishop.

Friday, November 1, 2019

New book about Elizabeth Bishop's childhood

I am excited to share the news of a new book about Elizabeth Bishop for young readers. Written by Rita Wilson and illustrated by Emma FitzGerald, Nimbus Publishing will be launching this book early in December. I’ll be posting information about the launches when it is available. As far as I know, there is no other book about EB for young readers. It is especially important for young Nova Scotians to learn about her deep and abiding connection to Great Village and how it shaped her artistic sensibility and development. Both Rita and Emma have strong connections to the EBSNS, so the society is especially happy to support this important project. You can read more about the book on Nimbus’s website.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 129: Holidays and gifts

Bishop’s first letter to her aunt in 1963 is dated 3 January from Rio. Proof that letters had been exchanged after her September 1962 epistle is in the first paragraph, when Bishop hoped that “you got my modest Christmas gift – because I got yours!” Bishop’s gift was, undoubtedly, money. Grace’s was more tangible and practical and was elaborated as Bishop got going. Even so, enough time had elapsed that Bishop was unsure “where to address you.” She surmised that Grace had “gone to Florida” and suspected she should use “Hazel’s address” in Hollywood, FL. Wherever her aunt was, Bishop knew “this will reach you,” directly or re-directly. The year was still brand new, so she emphatically typed, “Happy New Year.”

Bishop then accounted for her holiday, telling Grace that they “went to Cabo Frio for Christmas.” They left on “the 21st and came back ten days later.” She noted they had “a nice time” at their “friend’s house,” which they had “all to themselves, with servants, too.” They spent their “time swimming and driving around to see the beaches and birds, etc, and sleeping.” This leisure and rest were greatly needed after the stressful late summer visit by the Lowells and because of Lota’s increasingly busy job.

At one point ‘Mary Morse went there … with Monica,” and “brought all our mail, including your book, from P.” I assume “P” is Phyllis and the gift in question was a cookbook, because Bishop quickly remarked that “it came in very HANDY there [Cabo Frio].” The cook, who worked for their friends, a man, “isn’t too good” (it seems good cooks were hard to find), so “every once in a while I take over.” At least this cook “likes to learn things,” which was the reason why when “your book arrived,” Bishop found it helpful: “I taught him how to make a New England (or NS style) fish chowder.” Bishop then complained about the bread, which was “so bad” that she “made a Johnny cake – thanks to the book, too.” This gift had “hit the nail on the head” for Bishop, who offered a heartfelt “thank you very much.”

As for marking Christmas, they “didn’t do anything at all in the way of … celebration.” Bishop used “a bottle of store mincemeat and a box of store pie crust,” both given to them by “an American friend here,” and made “a rather mediocre mince pie” that “top[ped] off our boiled shrimp on Christmas day.” The poor pie did mange to taste “a little like Christmas.”

Bishop had never been fond of this holiday and the older she got the less she liked it. She confessed to her aunt that she was “rather sick of the whole commercialized racket.” (I am reminded here of Charles Schultz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which came out in the 1960s and addressed this “commercialized racket.”) Bishop wished that the Brazilians “wouldn’t adopt it.” She noted they were “still torn between our style of Christmas and their style of New Years.” Bishop explained that “until quite recently,” Christmas “was just a religious affair” in Brazil. Gift-giving happened “at New Years,” and still did. Indeed, “Lota got quite a few” gifts.

This brief treatise on cultural differences in gift-giving segued to a practical development. Bishop noted that she “gave us three air conditioners, out of my fellowship money” (so much for travelling). Because Lota’s job was keeping them so much in Rio, in the heat, they decided they “couldn’t take another summer in the city without them.” Bishop decided to do “it up brown* while we were at it.” The result: “what a relief.” Bishop reported that “Lota will be working like this for three more years, maybe longer.” They had decided “to make ourselves moderately comfortable in the apartment.”

This dense, opening paragraph of her first 1963 letter was only just getting things started. She had a lot more ground to cover, which will continue in the next post.

Click here to see Post 128.


*Note: I have never heard this turn of phrase before. Bishop so rarely used such colloquial terms, it jumped right out.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 128: 1962 finale

N.B.: I got diverted from these letters by sharing images from Penny Lighthall’s hooked rug exhibit. This final post for the year 1962 has got separated from the flow of previous Letters to Aunt Grace. However, I now offer it and bring to a close a fascinating and sometimes difficult year for Elizabeth and Lota. I will begin 1963 shortly.


The final two paragraphs of Bishop’s last extant 1962 letter to her aunt began with a strong, for Bishop, expletive: “DAMN!” She had mentioned earlier that she and Lota were finally going to get away to the country, to Samambaia, for the weekend, and were, actually, about ready to leave. But as Bishop typed this epistle, things changed: “we can’t go to the country after all.” The culprit this time was not Lota’s job, exactly, but the writer” John Dos Passos. Bishop wondered if her aunt had ever heard of him: “well — he’s here and now he wants to see me.” Moreover, “he also wants to see Lota’s park.” This request meant that their departure was delayed “until tomorrow.” So, not a total loss, but since she hadn’t been to the country in over a month, she was eager to go. This kind of interruption made her declare: “we are getting too official for my taste.” And observe that she was “a hermit by nature!”
All she wanted to do was “to get up there and just listen to the hi-fi all evening.” And she wanted to see Mary Morse’s daughter Monica, who she declared yet again was a “darling — almost two now.” Mary and Monica had recently visited them in Rio “for a few days and every morning early I took her swimming on the beach.” As young as Monica was, Bishop described her as “fearless” around the water: “she rushes right into the breakers, or water over her head, sinks, comes up laughing, her nose running, her hair all wet.” Clearly, a natural. So much did she love the water, Bishop said that she “couldn’t get her to sit & play on the sand.” All she wanted to do was “rush back into the water.” When they returned to the apartment Bishop jokingly said to Mary: “Your child is too rough for me to play with!” Who was tiring out whom?

The letter was finally winding down for good, with another “Well — ” and an effort to make the best of the delay in going up to the country:  “I’ll get to call on Elizabeth [Naudin] this afternoon,” something she had been wanting to do for some time.

As she reflected on what she wrote, she asked her aunt to “Please forgive all my various tales of woe.” And shifted gears to Grace, hoping that she was “keeping well and that you had a nice summer.” Since it had been so long since she wrote, and clearly since she had not heard from her aunt, she wondered “Where were you all this time?” And asked if there had been “lots of strawberries?” She noted that this fruit was just coming on “in Samambaia — and artichokes are just beginning.” Then she realized that it was in fact “‘spring’, more or less.” With the approach of hotter weather, she told her aunt that she was “going to invest in an air conditioner,” something they never had before, “but if Lota has to work all summer and stay in Rio I don’t think we can stand it without one.” The issue would be whether or not they could “get one, that is,” because there was “a shortage of practically everything.” This last line was just about typed off the bottom of the page.

Her final sentences were scribbled on the left margin. She wondered how Phyllis and her family were doing. How “Buddy’s baby” was: “I don’t even know its sex, name, or anything.” And she was genuinely interested. She knew her aunt would have lots of news so she signed off with “Please write soon. Lots of love, Elizabeth.”

It is hard to believe that no more letters were exchanged between Bishop and her aunt in 1962, but none exist. Grace and Phyllis were so careful to save Bishop’s letters, it is a shame that whatever was written in this next stretch has vanished. And all of Grace’s letters are gone, a real loss to history and an understanding of Bishop’s maternal family, about which she cared deeply. The next extant letter is dated 3 January 1963, from Rio. The next post will commence the New Year.

Click here to see Post 127. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019


The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will hold its 2020 Annual General Meeting on 20 June at the Royal Canadian Legion in Great Village, N.S. Guest speaker will be Nova Scotia poet Janet Barkhouse, who will read from her work and talk about her connection to Sable Island.
(Janet Barkhouse)
(Janet on Sable Island)
The society will present an exhibit of Bishop inspired drawings by Natalia Povalyaeva, from Minsk, Belarus, in the Echoes of EB art gallery in St. James Church. As further details become available, the society will share them on this blog and on the society's website.
(Natalia Povalyaeva)
(One of Natalia's images)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 20

The final image in this series is Lighthall's response to Bishop's early poem "Chemin de Fer." This strange, fable-like poem is one of the first in her first book North & South. It shows a view from a train (as opposed to a bus in the late poem "The Moose") and offers an odd aggressive act when a hermit shoots off a gun, though the act seems more like just making a noise than any sort of violence, because the hermit shouts one of Bishop's strong but mysterious declarations: "Love should be put in to action." Slight as this poem seems, it contains layers of meaning and many images that reappear in Bishop's work throughout her life. She is signalling that an essential character of her work is "an echo." I have enjoyed presenting Lighthall's images, which are themselves like visual echoes of Bishop's words, but they are of course much more than that. Lighthall has put her love of Bishop's art into action, into her own art, which is a pleasure to contemplate. Again, I want to thank Susan Kerslake for providing me with all the images used in this series.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 19

"Well, we have come this far." is the ending of "Cirque d'Hiver," the early Bishop poem that inspired this delightful rug. The poem is about a mechanical toy: a cantering horse with a twirling dancer on its back -- an object that seems both inanimate and animate at the same time. It is the penultimate image I will post. We have come quite far in this series and this charming image is one of my favourites. Seemingly purely descriptive, this poem carries with it a good deal of mystery, evoked in the very motion of the object, which moves in the poem without any apparent assistance from a human hand. I love that big key under the horse's belly.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 18

Bishop loved to cook, a skill she began to learn during her childhood. This delightful rug is based on a funny little poem Bishop wrote about Fanny Farmer's cookbook, a gift she gave her friend, the poet Frank Bidart and to whom she dedicated the poem. Yesterday Penny Lighthall gave a talk about her rugs at the Halifax Central Library. Wish I could have been there. Susan Kerslake attended and sent these images. Tahnks, Susie. And thanks Penny for creating such delightful works of art!

Monday, October 7, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 17

This rather dramatic rug is a response to EB's poem "Trouvee" (apologies for no accent on the first e.). This odd little poem, dedicated to her friends Wheaton Galentine and Harold Leeds, is about a hen that was killed on West 4th Street in NYC. EB knew many hens during her childhood. Great Village would have been full of them. But the disjunct of seeing one killed on a busy city street clearly struck her. The poem is essentially a question about why things happen where and when they do, for which we often seldom have full or even partial answers. It is interesting to me that Lighthall has chosen not only the most famous or iconic poems to interpret, but also some of Bisbop's more obscure poems.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 16

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth Bishop's death. I wonder if she could have imagined the global interest in her life and work in 1979. She had received many awards and had some sense of the interest in her poetry, but the stature and status of Bishop has only continued to rise since her death. This lovely rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Man-Moth," triggered by a misprint she saw in a newspaper (the word was supposed to be mammoth). This poem appeared in North & South and is one of her most mysterious. I love the simplicity of this rug and that strange shadow figure behind the poet.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 15

This intricate rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "First Death in Nova Scotia," about the death of one of her little cousins, son of Arthur and Mabel Bulmer. Lighthall said she felt uncertain about depicting a scene that was common in the early 20th century -- the laying out of bodies at home. But I think this rug captures the poem beautifully, with the chromographs of the royal family on the wall, the loon on the table, Bishop's mother lifting her to see her cousin and the deep snow outside. Bishop wrote this scene with both profound mystery and serious humour. It was a moment in her life that shaped how she saw the fragility reality. She was both confused and comforted in the midst of this common ritual of her childhood.

Friday, October 4, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 14

I was quite interested to see that Lighthall chose to do a rug based on Bishop's poem "Five Flights Up." This rarely remarked upon poem is the last one in her final collection, Geography III. This poem has a little bird and a little dog being observed by the "poet," who ponders our sense of self and time. The final lines in this poem are: "-- Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)" They are important to me because I took the title of my book from them: Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. We all lift and carry "yesterday" with us, and sometimes it is a heavy burden. Bishop lifted and carried her yesterday by writing transcendent poems that speak to many people "today."

Thursday, October 3, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 13

This rug is inspired by Bishop's late poem "In the Waiting Room," set in Worcester, MA, in February 1918, when she was seven years old. It is the one poem where she names herself directly and writes about her realization of how she was both connected to and separate from the people and world around her. Lighthall has caught the sense of the crowded feel of the waiting room that so unsettled Bishop. Not sure why she chose to insert the smiling tooth, but Bishop was always one for injecting humour into even the darkest or most shadowy moments, so it is not out of place.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 12

This rug could be inspired by only one poem, "The Moose," which is now perhaps Bishop's second most famous poem, after "One Art." The origin of this poem was a bus ride in 1946 from Great Village back to Boston. Bishop dedicated the poem to her beloved Aunt Grace, who, incidentally painted a portrait of a bull moose (the one in "The Moose" is female) when in her 80s. Here is a very poor scan of a photo of this painting, which used to hang in the sunporch of Elmcroft, the Bowers' family farm, in Great Village. The house has been recently renovated and the sunporch removed, and I have no idea where this painting is now. I love the way Penny has coalesced that long descriptive poem into this one clear and iconic image.
(Photo taken by Phyllis Sutherland in the
kitchen of Elmcroft, circa early 1990s).

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 11

This dramatic rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Ballad of the Subway Train," written when she was about sixteen at Walnut Hill School. This poem is her re-telling of the Biblical fall, but with dragons rather than humans, dragons that live and play freely in the cosmos until one day they eat a "swarm of stars new made" and God banishes them to the depth of the earth where they become subway trains. A truly precocious piece of juvenilia, an omen of her capacity to bring together strange elements and make them seem deeply familiar. I love Lighthall's wondrous dragon and all those humans who are rather unaware of the mystery of their mode of transportation.

Monday, September 30, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 10

This rug is inspired by Bishop's late poem "The End of March," set on a beach in Duxbury, MA. Littoral spaces were generative for Bishop, places between the mysterious ocean and the enigmatic continent. In this poem she is walking the beach looking for a perfect place to rest, to "be," which she knows to be "impossible." I like how Lighthall has rendered the most famous images of this poem, the kite string and the "big, majestic paw-prints" of "the lion sun."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 127: Medals, Money, Markets

After her lengthy account of the disastrous end to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick’s visit, Bishop turned to other matters in her 22 September 1962 letter. The next news to report concerned Lota. Bishop noted that she and Lota were finally “going up to the country this weekend” (the last word was crossed out and scribbled above it was “afternoon”). They had not been there for “a month.” Bishop wanted to “stay longer” than just the weekend, “but Lota has to work and I think I have to be here with her.” The work on the park was “going awfully well,” so much so that “last week she was given a medal.”* This honour was something of a big deal, something Bishop “knew about beforehand.” Her task was to ensure Lota got “off to work well-dressed that day.” She boasted in a scribbled line in the margin, “she didn’t suspect anything.” In bestowing this medal, Bishop noted “there were photographers … speeches.” Further celebration was “a cocktail party for all her work-group, in the big shed in the park where they work.” This shed had “two rooms, like a barn, full of draughting boards.” Bishop reported that this event gathered “thirty or more people.” Once again, Bishop was responsible for the fare: “I made all the food and drinks.” She “acted as barman.” She had taken along “our maid, and another friend brought a maid,” someone Bishop unkindly described as “useless but decorative”). The work-group’s janitor, “a Negro man,” also helped and Bishop “taught him now to shake cocktails, etc!” She declared this event “quite successful — at least the last people didn’t leave till almost ten.” Afterwards, “we had to carry everything back and forth.” Bishop and Lota finally “fell into bed about midnight and ate the last of the hor d’oeuvres [sic] in bed, for dinner!”

A break in this account so that Bishop could declare, “Next week I must take up my normal life somehow or other.” She had to go to the dentist and visit “Elizabeth [Naudin] and her baby.” She noted that Patricia was now “over four months old.”

The next subjects Bishop tackled were politics and the economy. She had been writing about “coups” and other unrest and noted that likely Grace had “seen in the papers” that “Brazil has been through crises after crises lately.” On that front at least, “things seem pretty calm at the moment.” The bigger issue was that “the country is bankrupt.” Bishop was hoping that the calm atmosphere would continue as there were “elections October 7th.” She noted that “there was supposed to be a big general strike last week,” but it appears it didn’t happen. She observed that they got prepared anyway, laying “in supplies.” Though in those days, this effort wasn’t exceptional, as Bishop observed that as a rule “I always keep stocked up with coffee, sugar, biscuits in tins, flour, etc.,” because “one never knows when” such staples might “vanish from the markets completely.” Bishop also confessed that she kept “some $$$ hidden away all the time — in case of any real emergency.”

She quickly added, to reassure her aunt, that they were “all right, of course.” She noted that it was really “the poor people who are suffering.” She described them as “incredibly patient,” wondering “why there isn’t a revolution every month, really.” She concluded this account with an observation that rings true nearly sixty years later: “And all the politicians except one or two are knaves and fools.” Her go-to description kicked in: “Poor Brazil!”
(Macumba worshippers gather in Rio, 1962.)
But, as bad as things were in that beleaguered country, she felt that “things look even worse elsewhere.” Take, for example, the “U S A [which] may be awfully rich — but their problems are worse, really, then [sic] any here.”

This letter was beginning to wind down, but there was still some news to report, which will comprise the next post.


*Note: I don’t know exactly what medal. Carmen Oliveira reports it in her book, but only notes that “it wasn’t the recognition this woman wanted.” Lota wanted “Carlos [Lacerda, Governor of Guanabara] to take a bigger interest in the Aterro [the park]. (p. 73)

Friday, September 27, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 9

We know from Bishop's letters that the poem that inspired this rug, "The Owl's Journey," was one that Bishop lived with for a long time. She believed the idea came to her in a dream when she was a child, but she wasn't sure. She tried for decades to finish it, but could never find the path to that conclusion. She shared versions of it with friends, including Katharine White, her editor at The New Yorker, but she never published any during her life. Her university friend, the artist Margaret Miller was the first to render the image of the owl riding on the rabbit's back. Alice Quinn finally put it into print in Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke Box (2006). Lighthall's rendition of this fable-like idea and poem is faithful to what Bishop imagined, and looks wonderfully child-like, like an image from a child's dream.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 8

This delightful rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Cape Breton," which begins by invoking the Bird Islands (Hertford and Ciboux). Countless puffins nest on these islands during the summer. Bishop visited Cape Breton in 1947, spending some weeks there. She went for the landscape, of course, but also because her mother had taught school in Cape Breton. I visited the Bird Islands once, myself, in the early 2000s, with friends from Texas. The ride out on the tour boat was choppy and I was queasy. Unlike Bishop, I am no seafarer!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 7

This charming rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Manners," which is a memory of riding with her maternal grandfather William Bulmer on his wagon. Bishop believed deeply in courtesy, in daily life and in her art. She gave her readers a good deal of credit in their ability to understand her work and felt she didn't need to spill out all the emotions inherent in her poems. Some critics felt this made Bishop aloof or reserved, but she might have said, in the spirit if this poem, that she had "good manners," a rather old-fashioned practice which we seem to be losing more and more in our fast-paced world. William (Pa) Bulmer was a kind, genial, gentle, courteous man and Bishop was an apprentice to his philosophy of interacting with family, friends, and strangers. And my manners require me to once again thank Susan Kerslake for taking the images I am using in this series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 6

One of the things I like about Penny Lighthall's choice of poems is that she doesn't always pick the most famous ones. This adorable rug is inspired by "Lullaby for a Cat," an homage to Bishop's cat Minnow. Bishop had a number of cats during her life, starting with cats at her grandparents' home. She especially mentions Nanny. Her most famous cat, however, was her Brazilian cat Tobias. Below are two images of Bishop with Tobias from Carmen Oliveira's book. She seems to have preferred black and white cats.

Monday, September 23, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 5

This Lighthall rug is quite different from all the others and was inspired by Bishop's poem "The Reprimand," which I have argued is about her relationship with her mother. Bishop's mother struggled with various illnesses and ended up spending eighteen years at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S. This poem is about the damage overwhelming grief can exact on one's mind. It was said Bishop's mother never recovered from her grief over losing her beloved husband when Bishop was only eight months old. Tears are a central motif in the poem. Lighthall will be giving a talk about her rugs at the Central Library on 7 October. To find out more click here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 4

This rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Imaginary Iceberg," which appeared in her first collection North & South. Brett Millier notes that Bishop had never seen an iceberg at the time of writing the poem in the early 1940s, but I wonder if she had not heard stories about encountering them from her grandmother, who would have heard them from George W. Hutchinson, who spent a lot of time on board ship travelling between England the Nova Scotia. He spent time in Newfoundland and Labrador, the best place in Canada to see icebergs. I love this vibrant image, Lighthall's own imaginary rendering of what Bishop imagined in her poem.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 3

This vivid rug is Lighthall's interpretation of "The Fish," which for years was Bishop's most anthologized poem, to the point that she got rather tired of it. Bishop learned to fish from her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, who could more or less pull trout out of puddles. This poem was triggered by a large fish she caught while living in Florida. I love how the water and sky are more or less of a piece, and she's even got some of that rainbow hue floating around the outboard motor.

Friday, September 20, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 2

This delightful image is inspired by Bishop's "Poem," a late work that responded to a painting done by her Great-Uncle George W. Hutchinson. I like the fact that Lighthall has given us a nice sky. Bishop writes in that poem that skies were her uncle's specialty. (Again, photo by Susan Kerslake.)

Here is the original painting, which is a view of Great Village looking east-northeast from the river, or so we think (there is some debate). It would have been painted probably in the 1890s or earlier. It is now owned by Rachel Jacoff, who happens to live in Lewis Wharf in Boston -- at least the last time I heard about her.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

From Pen to Hook: a must-see exhibit in Halifax

At the EBSNS AGM on 22 June 2019, Truro fabric artist Penny Lighthall opened an exhibit of eight delightful hooked rugs inspired by Bishop poems, designs that Lighthall calls her “interpretations.” This exhibit hung in the Echoes of EB gallery in St. James Church until late August. Now, these eight, along with a dozen others, are part of her “From Pen to Hook” exhibit at the Halifax Central Library, in Pavia on the top floor. Lighthall was supposed to have a launch, but Hurricane Dorian interfered with this plan. The rugs will remain, however, on exhibit until 28 October. I urge anyone who lives in the city (or who is visiting) and is a Bishop fan or a fan of hooked rugs to go have a look. These rugs are charming, whimsical, colourful, uplifting. EBSNS member and friend Susan Kerslake took photos of the rugs and I am going to post these images over the next month and a half – one at a time – with a comment or two. For now, I offer these images of the context of the spatial and artistic context of this exhibit.
(Some of the rugs in situ at Pavia, Halifax Central Library.
Photo by Susan Kerslake.)
(Penny’s artist statement. Photo above and
below by Susan Kerslake.)

Of the eight exhibited in GV, this is my favourite, though it is hard to pick a favourite. This rug was inspired by Bishop's poem "Sestina," set in the kitchen of the EB House. this poem begins, "September rain falls on the house." An appropriate way to begin this September/October exhibit and my brief commentaries. Note the wonderful hooked rug on the floor -- a hooked rug inside a hooked rug: "It was to be, says the Marvel Stove..." Bishop's grandmother and aunts all hooked rugs and Bishop vividly remembered "hooking bees" that happened at the house. Lighthall's inspired exhibit makes total organic sense in terms of the kinds of artisanal creativity Bishop experienced as a child. I must add that these rugs are also for sale. Lighthall tells me that she's already sold several of them.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 126: The Lowells, Part 2

Bishop’s final extant 1962 letter to her aunt is dated 22 September, from Rio. Nearly two months had passed since the previous epistle and she acknowledged right at the top that “it is ages since I wrote to you.” It was so long that Elizabeth Naudin “even telephoned this week saying that [Aunt] Mary said that you said you hadn’t heard from me!”  The family kept tabs, of a sort, on each other. Bishop confessed the silence had been caused by “lots of reasons.” The principle one, however, was the most complex, the visit of “my friend Robert Lowell his wife (also named Elizabeth), his 5½ year old daughter, Harriet, & a Radcliffe girl named Tony, to look after Harriet.” She couldn’t remember what she had already told her aunt about them, but noted that they had come “for one month, supposedly.” In the end, “they stayed on for two months,” because “apparently [they] had a good time.”

Bishop quickly observed that she was “awfully fond” of Lowell “of course,” but she had to “be frank with you!”: “it was pretty much of a strain.” She declared that she and Lota were “worn out.” Lota managed to get “off to work every afternoon” (the job with the park), “but I was right here.” Bishop took the brunt of their need to be entertained.

The Lowells had “stayed at Copacabana Palace,” where they “had a big apartment.” She and Lota had hosted them at Samambaia, “but only one week-end in all that time” (in addition to three trips to Cabo Frio, where they went “out on a boat”). This outline of accommodation and itinerary was not, however, what mattered to Bishop, as tiring as it was. She described her friends as “very bright, and ‘intellectual’,” positive enough attributes; but not sufficient qualities for parenting: “they have no more idea how to manage a small child, how to treat a small child, than a couple of fish.” 
(Copacabana Palace, circa 1960s)
“Poor little girl!” was Bishop’s take, because she was “about the worst child anyone has ever seen.” Bishop felt she and Lota were “pretty tough, and used to having children around,” but even these two seasoned babysitters “could only take one week-end.” Bishop quickly added that “no one blames the little girl,” describing her as “miserably unhappy.” But even conceding these assessments, “no one can stay in the room with her for more than ten minutes at a stretch.” Poor Harriet indeed! 
(Robert and Harriett Lowell)
When the one-month stay stretched into two, Bishop reported that they “sort of ran out of entertainment.” Bishop knew Lowell better than she knew Hardwick, but she “knew” enough to anticipate that this wife “wouldn’t like things here very much,” and that she was a “nagger.” Makes one wonder why the Lowells extended their stay.

If all of this was not difficult enough to navigate, Bishop paused briefly with “Well —” and then declared she would tell Grace “the worst,” adding immediately, “but please don’t repeat it to Mary because it would get back here, probably.” That eventuality was real enough from the opening of this very letter. Word got around, even across vast stretches of space-time. Bishop told Grace that she was trying to keep this “worst” as “quiet as I can,” even though it was really “no secret.” She just didn’t “want to talk about it here.” Upon reflection, she conceded that “everyone in N.Y. probably knows already!”

This worst involved “Lowell — Cal that is,” who Bishop declared “is my dearest friend, just about.” She assured Grace that she regarded Lowell as “a magnificent poet — but alas, he is schizophrenic,* and has breakdowns — every two or three years.” Bishop explained to her aunt that the “one reason why I only wanted them to stay for a month” was her knowledge of Lowell’s mental illness. And not too far into their visit, Bishop “could tell he was working up to one [a breakdown].” She noted with some incredulity that if she could see such a thing happening, “surely his wife must have realized it.” Even Lota could see it.

Perhaps Hardwick did realize it because after a quick ellipsis, Bishop noted that she and Harriett “went off by boat to N.Y. the 1st of the month,” leaving Lowell to go “off to Argentina for four days, supposedly — on the verge of a breakdown.” As one might expect, in such a state, Lowell “wouldn’t listen to anyone at that point.” Barely arrived in Argentina, the inevitable happened: “Of course he went to pieces.”

It was left to Bishop “to call in the U S embassy, etc — his doctor in N.Y. (fortunately we remembered the name).” Those who did the hands-on, managed to get him “locked up in a sanatarium [sic] in Buenos Aires” Bishop reported that “the latest idea is to send him back to NY on a U S Army plane — the airlines won’t take anyone in that condition, of course.” As Bishop was typing her letter, she noted that she was “expecting to hear from the Embassy here at any minute.”

Bishop’s summary terms for this situation were “an awful mess and an awful strain.” She told her aunt that she wouldn’t “feel much better until I know he’s back in N.Y. in a hospital there and with his own doctor.” As problematic as Lowell was, Bishop, perhaps unkindly, though perhaps understandably given the circumstances, observed: “I really think his wife is as crazy as he is” — or worse, in her view. Lowell was “perfectly sane most of the time and behaves sensibly, etc.” Elizabeth Hardwick, on the other hand, in Bishop’s opinion, was “just sort of crazy all the time!” She had to ask again, incredulity bursting forth, “How could she go off and leave him here?”

One of Bishop’s main aims was “to keep it out of the papers here if I can.” Scribbled in the margin with an “→” was, “they love gossip so.” Just like “poor little girl,” Bishop declared “Poor guy.” She averred that he “is a darling when he’s himself.”

Sounding weary, Bishop ended this saga with another “Well —” and the reiteration, “all this is why I haven’t written any letters, or done anything much, for the last six weeks, at least.”

This letter was only just getting started. Bishop had other things to update. The next post shifts focus to other stressful matters.


*Note: Lowell was bipolar, something quite different than schizophrenia. In a 14 June 1970 letter to Dorothee Bowie, Bishop applied this term not only Lowell, but also to her mother and Lota! Neither of these women suffered with this mental illness. Nor were they bipolar. Why someone as intelligent as Bishop used such a specific term incorrectly is odd. Perhaps she was using it in a common parlance way, like saying someone is “insane,” a kind of general label. Kay Redfield Jamison’s study Robert Lowell: Settingthe River on Fire: A study of Genius, Mania, and Character explores his mental illness in great depth and with deep compassion. I have tried to explore Gertrude’s illness in a similar way in my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. Carmen Oliveira writes about Lota’s illness in Rare and Common Place Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, translated by Neil Besner. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Elizabeth Bishop biography due out this fall

Bishop scholar Thomas Travisano's new biography is imminent. Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, by Penguin/Random House/Viking will be published this fall. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Special event in Great Village on Friday 13 September

(Click image to enlarge)
If you are anywhere near Great Village on Friday, take in this evening event, featuring two artists from the U.K. I certainly wish that I could attend! Heather Tookey tells me that their project will have an electronic life, so if it is at all possible to share it online, I will pass on the way to do so. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for making such opportunities possible.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 125: More about babies

After the account of their recent company, Bishop turned to her cousin in the 31 July 1962 letter. And after having just praised Elizabeth Naudin’s daughters for being better behaved than Harriet Lowell, Bishop embarked on a rather critical account of her cousin’s parenting.

She began this critique with a positive, reiterating again that the “new baby is adorable,” describing her like “a pink doll, really.” But then she reported something alarming, “she had pneumonia, at 3 weeks.” She wondered if Grace had heard. “E spent several days in the hospital with her” because “she was in an oxygen tent.” Bishop suspected she had “caught a cold from one of the others, poor infant.” Bishop had seen Patricia last on 4 July “I think!” and “she looked fine.” Catching something from her sisters seemed inevitable to Bishop, “(grandma E know all!),” because they “have too damned many colds — one right after the other.” “Grandma E” believed it was so because their mother “never opens her window!” She also kept her daughters “indoors much too much of the time,” as least in Bishop’s opinion.

Having blurted all this out, she added a caution, “Of course I never breathe a word of this — so don’t you ..!” Bishop knew she shouldn’t “criticize … but when I go there I nearly stifle.” Frustratingly, for Bishop, her cousin’s home “has one of the most magnificent views in the world, honestly.” But rather than basking in it, “she stays indoors with all the venetian blinds drawn tight.” Bishop couldn’t understand this modus vivendi, wondering, “do you suppose it’s to spare the carpet?” Or, perhaps, it came “from having lived in a cold northern city all her life.” For Bishop, “one of the advantages of living here — where there are so many disadvantages — is that you can really live out-doors all year round.” To prove her point, she noted that it was “why I think L & I almost never have colds, grippe, etc.” Even though two previous letters had reported bad colds, first for Lota and then her.

After all this venting, Bishop concluded, rightly, “But it’s none of my damned business I know very well.”

She then shifted to a child much farther away: Miriam. She reported to her aunt that she had not “had a chance to see Decio (that doctor),”* who had caused Phyllis some offence. She was hoping that when she got “back to Samambaia,” where she hadn’t been “for 3 weeks now,” she would see him because he was “up there for a vacation,” so he would have “more time” to talk.

Bishop clearly thought a great deal about Phyllis’s daughter and observed, “I suffer whenever I think of poor little Miriam.” She felt her situation was “a cruel thing” and declared in characteristic parlance that “life can certainly be awful.”
(Grace and Miriam, 1961. Source: Acadia University Archives.) 
Another “//” signaled a shift to more baby news, this time for Grace: “I think you must have still another grandchild now, and hope all went well.” This baby was the first child of Bud and Lois Bowers. I never met Bud and Lois’s children, who all lived in Ontario. Bishop quickly noted that they were going to have “some mail sent down [from Samambaia] today,” so she was hoping “to hear from you.” Perhaps with news about theses new additions. Grace’s family was expanding quickly.

As her hurried letter began to wind down, she noted that she had “so much work to do I don’t know where to begin.” The apartment in Rio was too chaotic a place for her to work (undoubtedly, she missed her estudio): “the phone rings too much … too many interruptions … Lota is too busy.” She had decided to rent ‘a room from a friend,” a place to work. She would “go out every A M from 8 to 1.” They had decided that it was “the only solution.”

Another “//” began the final wind-down with a plea for her aunt to “forgive this confused and gossipy note.” She promised to “write more lucidly in August!” Their friends would “be off to Argentina & Peru by the 10th, I think.” She was sort of wrong about this prediction. The fact that “there are revolutions in ALL the countries here,” something of a “speciality [sic]” the continent provided “for distinguished guests,” perhaps spoke to the disaster that was about to unfold for Robert Lowell.

She signed off with “much love to you as always,” and turned back to the chaotic life she was leading at that moment.

The next post will take up Bishop’s final extant letter to Grace for 1962, accounting for the happenings with the Lowells and other news.

*Note: I have since discovered who the doctor Decio is: Decio Soares de Sousa.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 124: The Lowells arrive

Bishop next wrote to her aunt on 31 July 1962, two months after her previous letter of 31 May. The long gap was occasioned by the visit of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, which was still happening at the time of this epistle, an event that caused Bishop all manner of stress. The first paragraph of what was, for Bishop, “a very hurried note,” outlined this reason, so as to “explain why I haven’t written before.” 
(Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick)
First, Bishop acknowledged receipt “your letter of the 24th of June.” She wanted to reassure her aunt that she hadn’t “forgotten you, & shall write at length when I have time.” Even though Bishop clearly was in a rush, she still took time to sketch the basics of the main cause of the delay.

She vaguely remembered that she “may have told” her aunt about this visit when she last wrote, and confirmed that “my friends the Lowells came, around July 1st.” Already a month into the visit, Bishop reported that it “has kept us awfully busy.” She quickly qualified, “ — though a great pleasure to see them and to be able to talk to him about writing, etc.” She noted that both Lowell and Hardwick had already “given several talks,” and she and Lota “had them up for week-ends.” But her concern about the cooking that she had mentioned in passing in the May letter had come to pass. She noted that they had “no cook — she ran away again, for good this time.” One has to observe that it might not be so surprising that Maria would vanish, given the criticism that Bishop often expressed in her letters to her aunt — even as patient as Bishop perhaps tried to be, Maria would grasp the issue. That said, Maria was also married, yet the husband stayed, and Bishop noted that “the husband and I manage somehow!”

They had also taken the Lowells “to Cabo Frio for 4 days,” trying hard to find things to do because “the organization that invited them did absolutely nothing in the way of publicity, entertaining, arranging, etc.” As a result, “Lota and I had to do it all.” Amid this doing, Bishop tossed off: “plus a ‘revolution’ now over.” Just what she is referring to is unclear. Brazilian politics in early 1962 were nothing if not volatile. In July, the Prime Minister changed, but President Goulart remained in power. Whatever this event was, it registered only as a glancing reference for Bishop.

The element that made this extended visit the most problematic was not politics or too much cooking, it was “the fact that they brought their 5½ year old child with them.” In addition, there was “a college girl to look after” this child. Bishop scribbled: “(now left)” in the margin next to this line. Five extra people were rather a lot when all Lota and Bishop had for transportation was “a tiny Volkswagon [sic] car.”

At the time Bishop wrote this hurried letter, Lowell was “off now seeing a few places on his own.” Bishop so wished that she “could have gone with him, but couldn’t.” The reason for this confinement was “the wife alone at the hotel with the child.” Bishop felt she couldn’t leave them, partly because “the child [is] a horribly behaved little girl — poor thing.” Bishop readily asserted that her behavior was not “her fault.” She laid the blame at the feet of the parents: “they are just too ‘intellectual’ … to know how to treat a small child.” This “complicated” situation meant that “we suffer.”

Bishop had enough experience with other children to have some perspective on this little visitor. She noted that Monica, Mary Morse’s adopted child, “is such an angel and so happy compared to her [Harriet Lowell].” Further, “so are E’s little girls.” She noted that “Suzanne [was] the same age,” so she was “trying to get them together to play.” The problem with this plan was that “E has been up in “Terezopolis [sic] for 2 weeks,” because of “school holidays.” But they were returning that very day, so perhaps the plan could manifest.

Based on what happened during this visit, Bishop’s account is the barest outline. She offered a much more detailed explanation in her last extant letter to Grace in 1962, written near the end of September. For now, this hurried note continued with a “gossipy” paragraph about Elizabeth Naudin, particularly about her parenting skills, and then a concluding paragraph with a few updates and projections. The next post will tackle these bits and pieces.

Click here to see Post 123.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 123: Foreshadow

Bishop concluded her 31 May 1962 letter with a paragraph filled with updates and news. First, she noted that she had “been to see Elizabeth [Naudin] twice since she got home with Partricia.” This new member of the Naudin family “was 18 days old the last time” Bishop saw her. Bishop described her as “a lovely pink baby, trying to raise her head and eating like a little pig.” Patricia’s sisters, Suzanne and Diane, “naturally have rather mixed feelings — love and hate her at the same time!” How sibling-less Bishop comprehended the response of these two “little girls” is a question, but she was an active observer of children and Lota’s adopted son had a brood, so she had had a chance to watch sibling interaction up close.

In her previous letter to Grace, early in May, she had noted that Lota was sick with a cold. Now she reported that she had “a horrid cold this week.” Grace must have reported the same condition because Bishop quickly wrote, “I hope yours is better!” Bishop noted that she “rarely gets colds,” so she was “furious” because “they immediately turn to asthma.” In this instance. Bishop reported that she was “wheezing like a grampus.”

In response to something Grace, a career nurse, wrote, Bishop observed, “Yes, I don’t believe much in all those medicines, either.” She noted that she was “allergic to penicillin so that’s no help to me!”

With her characteristic “//” Bishop shifted gears to some interesting news, reporting that “my friend Robert Lowell, his wife [Elizabeth Hardwick], daughter [Harriet] — age 6 — and a Radcliffe girl to take care of the daughter, all are arriving the end of June.” She noted that this group would be staying “for a month,” though not with her and Lota. Lowell and Hardwick would be “lecturing” and “will be entertained.” Even so, Bishop anticipated that they would be “pretty busy too, having them up to the house, etc.”

She told her aunt that Lowell was “my best friend — he and Lota are.” Yet she stated with some force that she was “dreading … all the COOKING — since our cook can’t boil an egg.” (Maria had been spared comment for some time but couldn’t escape criticism in this state of anticipation.)

Bishop reminded Grace that she had “sent you the page from TIME with him, another poet friend, and me, on it — some time in March.” But since Grace had not responded, Bishop “guess[ed] you never got it.”

Then another “//” shift and a more positive observation: “I am loving the G V book [History of Great Village] and am working on a long story using a lot of information from it.” Bishop is undoubtedly talking about her memoir about Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” Though not published until 1977, this piece came together when she had received the portraits of her mother and Arthur as children. The Great Village history was an excellent source of the kinds of details for which she was looking.

Yet another “//” and a return to her cousin and her new baby, confirming to Grace that she had written to “you the day after E’s baby was born here — you asked about that — so do you suppose that’s still another one missing?” One solution to the poor mail service was to “mail everything from Petropolis from now on.”

She concluded her short letter by saying she hoped “you are better,” and that she didn’t “know where to send this — G V or N[ew] G[lasgow].” Grace was clearly back from Florida because Bishop commiserated with her: “your trip does sound uncomfortable,” and “I loathe flying, too,” noting, “I always take lots of sedatives!” This latter declaration was typed vertically on the left side of the page. She crammed in one more question: “Did Hazel forward my B[razil] book from Florida or did it come direct?” That wayward volume was a long time getting to her aunt. She signed off with a scribbled “much love, Elizabeth,” because there was no more room on the page to type it.

Bishop’s next letter was not written until the end of July, a two-month break, because that fateful visit by Lowell and Hardwick came off with a rather troubling conclusion. The next post will begin that story.

Click here to see Post 122.