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

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.