"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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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

John Demont's commentary on Bishop's "indrawn yes"

A contact in Great Village has just sent notice of Chronicle Herald reporter John Demont's commentary on Bishop's "indrawn yes." Leave it to John to go seeking the sources of our expressions. Check out his piece by clicking here.
(Apropos of nothing, here is a page of the
AMERICAN DICTIONARY that Bishop sent
to her cousin, Phyllis Sutherland, containing her signature.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 137: Painting

The next letter Bishop wrote Grace was done in “the installment plan,” that is, in two sittings. The first part was dated 19 April 1963; the second part 21 April, both done in Rio. This letter is long and comprised a range of subjects – some the regular topics, some new. This post will focus on the first installment, which is just one long paragraph, plus the beginning of the second part.

Bishop began with the usual account of a “batch of mail” brought “from Petropolis yesterday,” which contained a letter from Grace sent from “Birmingham, Alabama,” a location which “amazed” Bishop, it being, in her view, a “hot-bed of race-ism, industry, etc.” Why Grace was there is not apparent from Bishop’s letter, and since Grace’s letters are lost, we can’t know. No family lived there, as far as I know, so likely she was visiting an old friend. Grace had friends all over North America from her nursing days. Even so, Bishop was surprised enough by this destination that she asked, “where will you get to next?” Bishop could see that Grace was on the  move (she had recently been to Florida and was heading to Montreal), so she told her aunt that she would take her time writing the letter, which she would send to Aunt Mary’s in Montreal, “to be sure to catch you.”

Grace’s letter had informed Bishop of a new hobby: “I am glad you took up painting!” Grace’s daughter, Phyllis Sutherland, told  me that her mother took up painting in her early 80s, but clearly it was earlier. In 1963, Grace turned 74. Bishop observed that painting was “much more fun, don’t you think, than card-playing,” a common pastime for lots of Maritimers at that time.

Bishop quickly reminded Grace that “I paint, too, you know,” which she did “just for the heck of it.” Then she remembered that “you have one of my original primitives.” Whatever that painting was, I don’t know. There was no original Bishop artwork in the family archive that Grace collected and passed on to Phyllis (much of which is now at Acadia University Archives). It makes me wonder if this “primitive” got left at Elmcroft in Great Village, when Grace finally left for good.
Bishop reported that she had just done “a pastel – that’s lots of fun, too.” She enjoyed this medium because “you can put on lots of colors and then smooch them with our fingers and get wonderful effects.” She told her aunt that “a friend of mine here – (named Oscar [Simon]) –” had given her “a box of Japanese” pastels for Christmas, some of them “chalky,” some of them “greasy,” which meant that the pictures didn’t “need to be ‘fixed’ afterwards.” The brand was “SAKURA,” and Bishop recommended “them for the amateur.”  

To thank Oscar, she had done “a picture of coxcombs in a vase – lots of reds and purples – and gave it” to him “for his birthday – today.” Oscar “seemed pleased!” 
(Bishop’s “Coxcombs” for Oscar. Exchanging Hats Paintings, 73)
Then she reported that a “small art gallery” in Rio had “asked to put on a show of my paintings.” The problem was, Bishop wrote, “I do about one a year, or two.” So, she felt  it wouldn’t “be much of a show.” This rate of production was, more or less, on par with writing poetry.

To round out her advice on the pleasure of working in pastels, Bishop also made “one suggestion”: “DON’T copy pictures!” She did concede doing so was “a good way to find out how to use the paints, they say.” However, Bishop reckoned that “it’s much more fun and I like the results better if you do something from life,” which was Bishop’s routine practice. She paused then and qualified, perhaps hoping not to deter Grace with her views, “I shouldn’t say anything.” Clearly, Grace had been copying, because Bishop quickly added, “perhaps I’d like your ‘Arabs at Prayer’ best,” realizing she had not seen any of Grace’s work yet. Still, she had to add that Grandma Moses “you know, just painted what she remembered.” Then, to counter her pedagogy, she added, “It is fun, isn’t it.” For Bishop, painting was a pleasure, noting, “I’m always completely happy when I do get around to painting a small picture, whereas,” on the other hand, “writing is hell, most of the time.”

At this point, the first installment of the letter ended, to be taken up two days later, after returning from “Samambaia for the week-end.” She had two last painting observations to make. The first, “I bet you don’t need any art classes.” The second was a request, that her aunt “paint me a picture of the barn, or the pigs, or cows,” even “the family.”

Bishop knew Grace’s inclination to paint, as her own, came honestly through the family, with the precedent and ability of Great-uncle George Hutchinson and Aunt Maude. A few of Grace’s paintings are at Acadia University, but her biggest extant work, a painting of a bull moose, is still in private hands, with the Bowers family in Great Village. William Benton did a book about Bishop’s paintings, Exchanging Hats Paintings (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). The second edition of this book, brought out around the time of Bishop’s centenary, has her one Nova Scotia painting on the cover. 
The next post will take up the second installment of this April letter, which commenced with some poetry talk.

Click here to see Post 136.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Elizabeth Bishop celebrations in Key West, Florida, 3-8 February 2020: A report by Kay Bierwiler

Before we get to Kay’s report, I want to thank her for sending it along with the photographs. I also want to mention that Judy Schuhlein, another correspondent, also attended some of the Key West EB events. In particular, she attended the birthday party/poetry reading, which she noted took “place in the ‘listening room’ behind the Key West theatre, a totally black room with round tables for two with black tablecloths and dim lighting.” She reports that “about 20 people read [Bishop’s] poems or poems they had written about her or inspired by her.” She notes there was “wine, and in the intermission there was a birthday cake … and we all sang happy birthday to” Bishop. Interestingly, Judy reports that she spoke “with one of the poets, who was from Halifax, Nova Scotia, but now lives in Key West. Her name is Janice Colbert, and she read her lovely poem entitled ‘Dear Elizabeth Bishop’.” Finally, Judy concludes, “It was great to hear so many local poets and to see the great enthusiasm for Elizabeth and for her poetry in Key West.”

Now to Kay’s report:

This has been a banner year for Elizabeth Bishop studies in Key West. The house Bishop purchased at 624 White Street in Key West was put up for sale and was purchased by the Key Literary Seminar in November 2019.  Arlo Haskell, the chairman of the Seminar, said the goal is to restore and maintain it as it was when Bishop lived there.

During the week of February 3-8 several events were held to honor Bishop. A talk by Arlo Haskell entitled “From the highest heron down to the weightless mangrove island: Elizabeth Bishop among the Birds and Beasts of Key West.”  Bishop was fascinated by the variety of birds and the natural surroundings of Key West. Photos of various birds were presented by Mark Hedden.

Thomas Travisano, a prominent Bishop scholar, presented a talk, “My Shelter from the Hurricane:  Elizabeth Bishop’s Search for Home.”  He discussed the various homes that Bishop lived in from Great Village, Canada, to Key West, running down the east coast of Canada and the United States and later,  Brazil. Bishop purchased her first home in Key West in 1938. Travisano spoke of the solidity of Bishop's poetry, similar to the solidity of the buildings her father's company built in Boston. He discussed how homes mattered to Bishop. He asked the audience to imagine Bishop peering into a worker's house and its sense of stability which she didn't have.

The next day, February 8, was proclaimed “Elizabeth Bishop Day” by the Mayor of Key West.

A panel discussion entitled “North and South: Key West in Elizabeth Bishop’s Life and Art,” consisted of  Bethany Hicok, Tom Travisano, Barbara Page. Emily Schulten, and David Hoak, moderated by Arlo Haskell.  It took place on 8 February in the backyard of Bishop’s house in Key West, 624 White Street. Palm branches rustled overhead, gently blowing in the breeze. Hoak discussed love and stability in Key West. When Bishop and Louise Crane bought the house at 624 White Street, it was the longest stretch living with someone yet. It was also the first of her beloved homes. Hicok spoke about Key West’s effect on Bishop’s views on race relations in the U.S. Bishop’s poem “Cootchie” discusses how a black servant, Cootchie, spent her life caring for her white employer, Miss Lula. Travisano spoke about Bishop’s poem “Seascape,” written in Key West, as central to her poetry. 
(Left to right: Emily Schulten, Tom Travisano,
Bethany Hicok, Barbara Page, David Hoak)
Later in the evening local poets gathered and read a variety of poems by Bishop, including “Filling Station,” “Florida,” “Questions of Travel” and “One Art,” as well as some of their own poems, which focused on Bishop in Key West. During the intermission all enjoyed a slice of the Elizabeth Bishop Happy Birthday cake. The Bishop birthday party was hosted by Malcom Willison. 
(Alas, I do not know any of the people in this photo)
Here are some more photos from the reading, just in from Kay. Thanks, again, Kay for sending the report and supplying the images.
(Arida Wright)
(Sheri Lori)
(Edgardo Alvarado-Vazquez)
(Arlo Haskell)
(The BIRTHDAY CAKE!)

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 136: Monica and Martha?

Bishop began the next paragraph of her 18 January 1963 letter reporting that Mary Morse’s “aunt died, too.” She was the “same age as Aunt F[lorence].” Mary had to return to the U.S. to “settle the estate,” and left “Monica with us 2 for a month,” as there was “no one else to leave her with.” Monica came with “a little nursemaid, a neighbor – aged 12.” Elizabeth and Lota took this duo “back to Rio.” The main issue this option presented came about because “Nina , the nursemaid, had never been to Rio, seen the ocean, been up in an elevator, etc.” As a result, Bishop noted, “it was almost as bad as having 2 children to take care of.” The other issue: “Nina is very pretty so we were afraid to let her out on the street alone – all the men spoke to her, etc. (Latins, you know!).” The responsibility of taking care of a toddler and an adolescent caused Bishop to observe, “Well – I was wise not to have children, I’ve decided.” Even so, Bishop declared that she “love[d] this baby and she couldn’t be better – so good.” Still, Bishop observed, “I am a NERVOUS mother, -- Great-Aunt, rather.” Tending these two charges for such a stretch meant they were “absolutely exhausted.”

Entertaining ‘dear little Monica” was, actually, easy because “she likes to go swimming more than anything in the world.” Bishop asserted, somewhat unfortunately, that this preference was because of “her Indian blood, I think (they go in many times a day).” Bishop herself loved to swim and observed later in this letter that while she was at Samambaia, “I dip in our little pool once or twice a day,” and Bishop had only white, English blood. Whatever the reason for Monica’s delight, it meant they “put the 2 out on the beach for as many hours as we could without giving them sunstrokes!”

Bishop reported that Monica was “talking a lot – Portuguese, however,” and described her as “tiny, very Brazilian – and such a wonderful disposition – gay all day long – almost never cries.” Once when she “fell and cut her chin,” badly enough that they “thought it needed a stitch,” Monica offered “just two howls, absolutely nothing more.” And, once again, Bishop invoked “an Indian stoic, I guess!” Monica was also smart and liked routine, Bishop noting that “she woke me up about 6 every day.” One morning, this effort included “poking a tiny plastic fork in my mouth.” Monica and Nina were by that time back home and Bishop lamented that “in spite of the work and worry we miss her dreadfully.” Then she reported that Morse was “adopting another – one’s being born this week.” This child, “if it’s a girl,” would be called “Martha.” Bishop reported that she would “probably have to go to Rio on the bus and bring her back in the basket Mary has already prepared.”

Bishop knew that Grace understood all about babies, toddlers and adolescents, observing, “I know full well what you mean when you say your grandchildren tire you!” After a full day of tending, Bishop declared, “I fell into bed at 9:30 many nights – and think I had ‘palpitations’.”

A month of baby sitting meant she was ‘away behind with my own work.” Alone at Samambaia was an attempt “to make up for it.” In Rio, “Lota works so hard, “ so she wouldn’t “even miss me for a week.” Bishop reported with pride that “Lota is doing wonders – and won’t take any pay.” She promised to “send you pictures of her 2-mile long PARK.” The problem with Lota’s “wonders” was that she was “getting too damned important for fun, however.” Bishop told Grace, with what was likely a weary tone, “we both need to get away from Brazilian problems and politics for a while.” The obstacle was that Lota couldn’t “leave while the present governor [Carlos Lacerda] is in office – 2 years to go.”
(The park under construction, 1960s.)
This long letter was coming to a close. Being in the house at Samambaia gave her access to their natural pool, which Bishop described to Grace as “sort of like the Old Rock Hole” on the Great Village River, not far from her grandparents’ house, “only colder.” Being able to bathe in the “just right” temperatures of Samambaia must have made Bishop think of its health benefits, which made her think of Grace: “How is your health? How’s the leg?” And since Grace was in Florida, “How are Aunt Mabel and Hazel – give them my love.” Bishop reported that she had received “a letter from [Aunt] Mary two weeks ago.” Mary’s daughter Joanna was planning to get married later in the year and Bishop wondered out loud, “What shall I send for that wedding.” She confirmed Joanna’s sister, Elizabeth Naudin, was “going back in June,” but Bishop was unclear the exact date of the wedding. Bishop had “suggested Brazilian coffee spoons” as a gift, but cousin “E said oh NO!” which somewhat offended Bishop, “since it was what I gave her.” Bishop thought this response “a bit tactless!” especially since she was “sure she’s used hers here, anyway.”
(Joanne and Frank Eartly on their wedding day. AUA.)
Bishop reported what Grace likely already knew, that Mary was “very pleased with lots of re-painting, etc. – and a possible trip to Europe!” Bishop paused here and noted parenthetically, “(I am feeling awfully bitchy today – but poor Jack [Ross, Mary’s husband] must have carried TERRIFIC insurance!).”

The letter was finally winding down for good with a statement Bishop was known to repeat at other points in her life, that Grace was her “favorite relative” and she hoped her aunt was “well and all was well.” She drifted off with a slight regret that she “never did hear about your bus trip – a letter must have got lost – oh dear.” As always, Bishop signed off  “With much love” and an added desire, “I’d love to see you –”

Only a month passed until Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, dated 19 April 1963. The next post will pick up the narrative with a short treatise on painting.

Click here to see Post 136.

Saturday, February 8, 2020




MCLIII

一藝術

One last narrative.
One final journey elsewhere.
Travel is an art.

[Today is Elizabeth Bishop's one hundred ninth birthday.]



Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Conversation about Elizabeth Bishop in Halifax

I am delighted to have been invited to participate in an EB event happening in Halifax on 2 March 2020, starting at 6:30 pm., at the Central Library. Here is the wonderful poster. Click the image to enlarge.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 135: Mail and Money

After the lengthy update about Aunt Florence’s death, Bishop shifted gears in her 18 March 1963 letter. She turned to one of her perennial subjects: the mails. She asserted, tentatively, that she didn’t think she owed Grace a letter: “unless one of yours got lost again!” An all too frequent happening and concern. She told her aunt that “shortly after Christmas” she had written Grace “almost a BOOK,” and noted of her last from her aunt, “I have it here – was just before you left for Florida.” A little pause, “ – ” and an afterthought, “or maybe you didn’t get my BOOK?” Clearly, there was some break in the exchange, which sometimes could not get “flowing,” but was rather more often “flown.” Upon reflection, that “BOOK” “may have looked temptingly fat to someone.” Evidence of pilfering had come to hand recently, in the form of “a manilla envelope that had obviously been opened.” The contents “were just three crayon drawings by the small son of a friend of mine.” Bishop was “puzzled” by this offering, “they were funny, but not that funny.” The mystery was solved when she “got a letter from him [her friend] saying he’d sent the drawings along with 3 pot holders his little girl had made me!” Bishop had received such a gift from this girl “once before & I had thanked her effusively.” This time, however, they were removed and Bishop wondered if that “someone” would even “know what they were for!” because Brazilians “usually just use towels.” This account was but one more in the long saga of how “the mails get worse and worse.” Sadly, Bishop observed, “but if only that were all that’s getting worse for poor damned Brasil.”
This set Bishop up for the next subject that often preoccupied her: inflation. Before she got to the core of that subject, she told Grace that she and Lota had come up to Samambaia “for Lota’s birthday – the 15th.” This event meant “hordes of people all day [Saturday] – and more on Sunday.” After the celebrations, Bishop “decided to stay on alone and try to get some work done.” In Rio, even when she “shut myself up in the study,” she still found it “hard to concentrate,” partly because “the phone goes all day long,” and the heat there was extreme, “over 100 a lot of the time.” She “desperately” needed to work because she “need[ed] MONEY.” Writing was her only way to “earn some.” This need was immediate and practical because “inflation here is a nightmare.” She noted that since she came to Brazil in 1951, “prices are about 2,000 % more … if you can imagine that.” Her American “$$$ keep[s] rising … but not enough.” She could “manage here while I’d have to teach or something in the US,” but even so, she had to write.

To convey more practically to Grace what she meant, Bishop offered an example: “I bought a little pair of sandals for ‘Monica’ … while her ma was away – just cheap, open sandals – for a 2 year old.” Bishop paid for them in Brazilian currency and they cost more … than I used to pay to have my own very best shoes hand-made by a Portuguese ladies’ bootmaker, about four years ago.” (An aside: it is interesting that EB had a shoemaker make shoes, just like her shoemaker Grandfather Bulmer probably did.) Bishop reported that “in [US] $$ it came to about $3.00 for the sandals.” Bishop’s own shoes had cost “about $10.” I was a bit confused by her calculations, but she doesn’t give the amount she paid in Brazilian currency, which was where the inflation was the worst. I took this to mean that Brazilians were paying equivalent to the $10, where EB paid only $3.00 in US funds. Whatever the case, inflation was high and Bishop was making the point that “poor Brazilians” were being hit hard. One of the most basic staples, milk, was for Brazilians, “equivalent … to … over $1.50 a quart” (remember, it is 1963). All Bishop could say, soberly, was, “I think of the babies here.”

Another example concerned their “part-time maid” in Rio. They paid  “for her bus fares, just what we used to pay her for a month’s wage when we hired her two years ago.” All of this meant “you have to keep raising, raising wages all the time.” Bishop knew that because she had American “$$” she was “lucky,” and the rampant inflation “doesn’t effect us too much,” but she also knew she was “a very rare exception, of course.”

Bishop’s next subject was also a perennial favourite, the sandal-wearing, two-year-old “Monica,” Mary Morse’s adopted daughter. The next post will attend to that lively update and close this gossipy epistle to Bishop’s “favorite relative.”

Click here to see Post 134.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Elizabeth Bishop as inspiration

Poets, painters and composers have been responding to, inspired by Bishop’s work perhaps from the time North & South was published in 1946. Since her death, that response has been steadily increasing and intensifying. Now and then, something truly special materializes. I think of the amazing settings of Bishop’s poems done by Canadian composers Christos Hatzis, Alasdair MacLean, Emily Doolittle and John Plant in 2010-2011, to mark the Bishop centenary. Last fall I was the recipient of three special publications in which Bishop figures as inspiration, revealing that the engagement continues apace. This post is intended as only a mention of these works in the hope that it will prompt readers to seek them and their authors out. The foundation of these brief accounts is my keen admiration for the works and their creators. These notes come with my highest recommendation.

The first publication I received was Nova Scotia artist Basma Kavanagh’s In Its OwnTongue: Tools for Reading the River, a letter press folder containing poems and images about a river Basma and I know well, the Annapolis River in the Annapolis Valley. Lines from Bishop’s poem “The Riverman,” about the Amazon River, serve as entrees into Basma’s own deep meditations on space-time-memory-dream. Basma created this text on every level, including its elegant physical structure. In Its Own Tongue is a limited-edition, multi-dimensional, hand-made elegy to moving water, something which also fascinated Bishop. It is an honouring of Bishop’s own fascination with the way thought, feeling, language, text and texture exist on a continuum. I received this unique publication (#10 of 25 created) from Nova Scotia poet Janet Barkhouse, an overwhelming gesture for which I am deeply grateful.
~~~~~~~~~~
The second gift I received was Irish poet Anne-Marie Fyfe’s No Far Shore: Charting UnknownWaters (Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 2019), a profound, poetic memoir of past, place and pilgrimage that ebbs and flows like the tides on the shores of the great Atlantic beside which Fyfe grew up. Fyfe’s explorations of her own memories are woven through journeys to places significant to writers and artists whose work resonates for Fyfe. One of the many artists who appear in this elegant, eloquent, evocative book is Bishop, whose life and work speak directly to Fyfe, so much so that she visited the EB house in Great Village and travelled around Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, finding echoes everywhere. Bishop appears many times in this book, filled with essential elements that also fascinated Bishop: lighthouses, shipwrecks, islands, harbours, distant horizons, both real and imagined, and mothers.
(Anne-Marie Fyfe on the verandah
of the EB House, Great Village, N.S.)
~~~~~~~~~~
The third gift came from Irish writer Seán Street, The Sound Inside the Silence: Travels in Sonic Imagination (Palgrave 2019), the third in his series of books on Sound Poetics. Bishop does not figure much in this book, but her masterpiece “In the Village,” a text filled with sound, receives its own section (25-7), so there is a lively and appropriate engagement with one of the finest pieces in her oeuvre. I include this book because this detailed, textured, scholarly exploration of the profound importance and meaning of silence and sound is one that would have fascinated Bishop herself, especially Seán’s meditations on the sound inherent in visual works of art. Seán has also visited the EB House in Great Village and has other strong interests in Nova Scotia, having done BBC Radio documentaries on the Halifax Explosion and on Sable Island, two subjects that held abiding significance in Bishop’s own life and work.
(Sean Street.)
I have been moved, inspired and edified by all these works and appreciate each author’s connection and response to Bishop and her art. I highly recommend them.