"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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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.

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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

EBSNS AGM 2020

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.