"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 26, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 134: SS Florida and Florence

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt was dated 18 March 1963, over two months after the previous letter. She was at Samambaia for a week on her own, an increasingly rare circumstance. Bishop had also not heard from Grace in a while, so was “relieved to find your postcard here when we came up for the week-end.” Bishop was worried about the silence and “had just written you a little note to say where are you, what the hell,” but the postcard brought the reassurance she needed and the information that Grace had gone “on a trip to Nassau.” For all her time in Florida, Bishop “never got there, although I got to some of the other islands once.” Grace had gone to this Bahamian spot on a cruise with Mabel aboard the S.S. Florida, a ship Bishop had seen “many times” – presumably in Key West. She hoped her aunt “had a lovely time” and asked, “how long did you stay…?” Bishop noted that this island had “sad associations for me now, because that’s where Marjorie Stevens died.” Grace had known Marjorie and they were fond of each other. Marjorie had been on “vacation with a friend” and “died in the Nassau hospital.” 
The next paragraph was a lengthy account of “more sadness,” which was, in the end “actually of course … a ‘blessing’.” That is, she reported the death of Aunt Florence, “about March 1st, I’m not sure,” the news of which she received in “letters from all the [Bishop] cousins when I arrived” at Samambaia. Bishop enclosed something unnamed in her letter to Grace, which had come from one of her cousins – likely the obituary thatis in the Bulmer family papers at Acadia University. 
(Obituary of Florence Bishop, 1963. AUA.)
Bishop reported that Florence’s death “was very peaceful.’ This elderly, often difficult woman had “2 or 3 small heart attacks or strokes,” and at the end “was almost unconscious, in bed, a week.” Bishop’s cousin “Nancy went to see her the day before” she died, “and Aunt F was quite clear-headed, knew her, and held her hand.” Florence had been suffering not only from heart issues, but also from dementia, probably vascular dementia from the strokes. It was that night after Nancy’s visit when Florence “died in her sleep.” Bishop observed not without some irony that Florence’s “heart must really have been made of iron,” even thought “all her life poor dear,” she “insisted there was something wrong with it!” The cousins had reported “a terrible snow-storm the day of the funeral,” but that didn’t stop “all the relatives and some of her old friends” from attending. The rest were “afraid of breaking their hips, of course – all being of that age now,” so had to stay home. As per her “full instructions,” Florence “was cremated, and then just a simple memorial service.” Bishop thought this conclusion was “very modest and sensible of her.”

Then Bishop shifted gears slightly as she knew Grace would “enjoy a bit of family gossip.” Cousin Priscilla was “on bad terms with Cousin Dorothy.” Priscilla made it to the service, but Dorothy, “who must be pretty ancient now,” wasn’t able to “get to the bus because of the storm.” Bishop let that non-meeting hang in the air with a “…” pause – then reported that two other cousins (Bishop had at least a dozen paternal cousins), “Nancy & Kay,” with whom she was closest, told her that Florence’s lawyer, “one Mr de Malley [sic], so far hasn’t let them  know anything about the will.” Bishop observed that she didn’t “think she left much of anything, and maybe nothing at all.” Bishop knew that Florence was being supported in “the last years” of her life by “a fund Uncle Jack sensibly left her – very tiny – and she couldn’t touch the capital of it.” That capital “reverts to Aunt Ruby,” Jack’s wife, “wherever she is.” Bishop had lost touch with this woman, but suggested she was “on the Cape [Cape Cod?], I think.” If Florence left anything of her own, Bishop believed “the ‘nieces’ are supposed to get it – but how many of us, I don’t know.” She thought only “Kay, Nancy & I.” Bishop guessed it might be “about $200 each,” concluding, “and O’Malley will get the rest!” Being Florence’s executor, this lawyer got “a huge percentage … it seems,” in fees. In the end, it took some years for Florence’s bequests to reach their beneficiaries. Bishop received her legacy from Florence in 1966. One wonders what Mr. O’Malley was doing all that time?!

After this update and gossip, Bishop turned to other matters: her perennial frustrations with the mail and the cost of living. The next post will take up these practical matters.

Click here to see  Post 133.

Friday, January 24, 2020

A Pocket of Time receives notice in the Globe & Mail

I am delighted to share this item from illustrator Emma FitzGerald, who sent it along this morning, a notice of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop, written by Rita Wilson and illustrated by Emma, which appeared in a recent Globe & Mail issue. Wonderful for this charming, engaging book to receive national notice. Congratulations. Rita and Emma will be hosting a panel discussion about Elizabeth Bishop at the Central Library in Halifax on evening of 2 March. As more information about this event comes in, I will share it.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 133: A Joke and a Journey

It has been some time (November 2019) since my last LTAG post, which dealt with Bishop’s letter of 7 January 1963. That post covered only half of the letter, left it hanging unfinished as other matters distracted me. And we are already well into 2020! I hope now to return to these letters and the first task is to finish Bishop’s 7 January missive.

Her 7 January letter was by way of a note added to hers of 3 January, because she had in the interim heard from Grace, who was in Florida, so Bishop wrote the addendum and posted both letters to Hollywood, FL, where Bishop’s cousin Hazel Bulmer Snow lived. After an initial update about her own happenings, Bishop cast about for something else to tell her aunt and settled on “a silly dirty joke Lota’s nephew (aged 19) told us.” The joke was about “a nun, and she was so pure, so pure, so pure.” This saintly creature “never had an evil thought in her life.” When “she died and went to heaven” she met St. Peter, who said, “You are so pure, sister, you have to go up higher.” Up she went and met an “angel who said, ‘You are so pure, Sister Maria Magdalena, you have to go up higher in Heaven’.” Up she went again and “kept going higher and higher.” She finally reached “the very highest level of Heaven,” where “the archangel said: ‘Sister Maria Magdalena, please! You are too pure! Please say “ass” or you’ll go into orbit!’”

Grace had a famous sense of humour and probably chuckled, though the devout Presbyterian might not have been so impressed by such a Catholic joke. Even so, Bishop was clearly trying to entertain her aunt.

Bishop’s addendum quickly began to wind down and the final paragraph shifted back to Grace herself, who made the trip to Florida by bus, prompting Bishop to say that she hoped Grace “got away without too much trouble” and hoped the long journey wasn’t “too tiring.” Like Bishop, Grace was not fond of flying, “I feel the same way,” Bishop declared. But any mode of transportation comes with risk: “A friend of mine,” Bishop reported, “once got snowed in on a bus to Florida,” something Bishop hoped “doesn’t happen to you.” One wonders how Grace did it with her bad leg, sitting for hours and hours and miles and miles. Probably Grace took a Greyhound bus, the main interstate company serving the US in the early 1960s. Bishop had taken her own long trips by bus. Out of one of them in 1946 came “The Moose,” which she dedicated to Grace, perhaps not only for their shared encounters with moose, but for their shared bus trips.
(A Greyhound bus from the 1960s.)
Bishop’s next concern was Miriam, who she hoped was ‘better, too – poor infant.” And finally, she asked Grace to “Please give my love and best wishes to Aunt Mabel and Hazel,” with whom Grace was staying. She closed with a usual plea, “do write me.” And confirmed that she had received her aunt’s “Christmas card,” which she thought “at first glance” was a picture of Great Village, “I thought it had been taken there!” She realized, however, that the steeple of the church “wasn’t quite right.” She thanked Grace again “for the [cook] book,” which she had “already used,” as her 3 January letter noted, a book that she would use “a lot more I know.” She signed off with her usual “Much love” and a wish for “a healthy and cheerful 1963.”

A scribbled PS contained two seemingly random family thoughts. First, she wondered if “Hazel & Norm (is it?)” were “still living in the old house?” That is, Hazel and Norman Bowers, Grace’s stepson and wife, who were indeed still living in the Bulmer family home. Hazel lived there until 1996. Second, she reiterated that she thought “E[lizabeth Ross Naudin] shd [sic] have named one of her daughters E!”

Considerably more time passed before Bishop’s next 1963 letter, dated 18 March and written at Samambaia, but it was a fulsome letter filled with family gossip. The next post will pick up the ongoing narrative.

Click here to see Post 132.

Monday, January 13, 2020




Вспять

The hawk's glacial prey
pens its last moments in this
weak calligraphy.

                                    13 January 2018



[For several years now, I have been writing anagram-haiku.  The title of this one is in Russian, meaning "Back." It is a honkadori, alluding to the last stanza of Mandelstam's poem "Век" --

И с бессмысленной улыбкой
Вспять глядишь, жесток и слаб,
Словно зверь, когда-то гибкий,
На следы своих же лап.

[And with a senseless smile
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like a once flexible animal,
At your own paw prints.]

"Hawk glacial prey" is an anagram of the third line of my little poem. I liked the way the word 'weak' connected Mandelstam's poem to Elizabeth Bishop's "Questions of Travel." -- and how her "The End of March," too, is distantly evoked.].



Thursday, January 2, 2020

New Year's Poem


Snow on the houses.
Houses on the empty street,
silence on the snow.

Each of them perfect.
Number Six, or Twenty-Eight,
(a double sonnet?) --

like those of language
stanza'd, with their doors opened
by the still unknown

occupant to whom
all letters come unaddressed,
slipshod stamps unstuck.

Lie back, passenger.
Gentle hallucinations
begin in the night

making room for you,
smoothing out your coverlet,
plumping your pillow.

All of them equal
the sum of their divisors,
however devised.

Verse devoid of hue,
scratchy, splintery, hairy
as Caliban was,

as this kimono
may have been, its sugar lift
aquatint formless

floating above snow,
before it settled and slid
in white hen's feathers

from old featherbeds
to cover if it but could
the twenty-eight lines

your double sonnets
left in Trollop's Washington
with your Prodigal

-- or even your Moose,
if a sestain were a line.
No.  Lincoln was right.

Calling a sestain
a line doesn't make it one
-- nor a tail a leg.


                                     1 January 2020
                                                    28 Moirs Mill Road
                                                     Bedford, Nova Scotia