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

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Photographs of the Elizabeth Bishop House: an exhibit

During my tenure as steward of the Elizabeth Bishop House (2004-2015), many wonderful photographers spent time exploring the space-time of that dear old place. Two of these were Halifax photographers Roxanne Smith and Kathleen Flanagan. They took quite different approaches to this subject and some of their intriguing and beautiful work will be exhibited in Halifax at ViewPoint Gallery in July. I am thrilled about this exhibition and urge you to go see it if you live in Halifax or happen to visit the city during that month. Bishop herself was interested in photography – an interest she came by honestly, because her maternal family took to picture-taking early on. Indeed, several Bishop scholars have explored her connection to this old technology and artform. Most recently U.K. scholar Sophie Baldock was in touch to tell me that she is writing an essay about the exchange of photographs in the letters between Bishop and Robert Lowell. I look forward to reading Sophie’s take on thisexchange. In the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University Archives, there are a handful of photos that Bishop sent to her aunt and cousin over the years. Bishop often had her portrait done by professional photographers, something that started in her childhood at the instigation of her mother and grandparents. Well, one can imagine that Bishop would be interested in this upcoming exhibit, exploring her grandparents’ home, where so much happened that would affect the rest of her life. Here is the poster Roxanne sent about this exhibit.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop at the ALA, by Kay Bierwiler

The 2019 American Literature Association annual meeting was held in Boston in late May.  Several sessions were devoted to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose.  Most of the sessions were in a panel format. Presenters and attendees were from Canada, the United States and England.

The first session focused on research done at the Bishop archive at Vassar College.   Bethany Hicok moderated, and each panelist presented a paper.   The papers were:  “Too Shy To Stop:  Elizabeth Bishop and the Scene of Reading” presented by Heather Tressler; “I Miss All That Bright, Detailed Flatness: Bishop in Brevard” presented by Charla Hughes; “All The Untidy Activity: Travel and the Picturesque in Bishop’s Writing” presented by Yael Schlick; and the” Matter of Bishop’s Professionalism” presented by Claire Seiler. This was one of my favorite presentations.
The second session was titled “Bishop and Humor.”  Sponsored by the Elizabeth Bishop Society, it focused on humorous and witty aspects in Bishop’s writings.  It was chaired by Angus Cleghorn of Senaca College in Toronto.
Panelists included Thomas Travisano who highlighted humorous examples from Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell. Jonathan Ellis focused on “Humorous Elbowings:  Funny Turns in Bishop’s Poems and Stories.” Rachel Trousdale discussed “Love and Comical Inadequacy.”
The third session was titled “Swenson and Bishop:  Influence, Intimacy, and Empathy.” Joel Minor discussed “In the Bodies of Words: Curating the Swenson and Bishop Letters.”  The second paper by David Hoak discussed “Swenson and Bishop in Conversation: Efforts of Empathy and Intimacy.” The last presentation by Paul Crumbley focused on Swenson’s “Attitude and Questions of Influence”.
The poet Frank Bidart was celebrated with a roundtable discussion of his works.  Later in the evening he gave a poetry reading. Bidart was a friend of Bishop and one of her literary executors. His latest book is “Half-Light:  Collected Poems.”  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2018.
(Kay Bierwiler on left, with Sandra, at EBSNS 2018 AGM.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 113: Gatherings

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 18 January 1962 letter settled into their recent domestic activities. Before this update, however, Bishop hoped Grace would “get away to Florida, too, if you really want to go.” Grace occasionally spent time with her sister-in-law Mabel, who often spent time with her daughter Hazel, who lived in Hollywood, FL. Bishop assumed that was where her aunt would stay, though she couldn’t help but add, “I think you need to get somewhere restful, too,” knowing well that time with Mabel was not likely to be restful. 
(Grace and Mabel in Florida, 1960s. AUA.)
She wished “to goodness this [place] weren’t so far away – or that I was living in the country all the time and not all this going back & forth.” Yet having said that, Bishop suspected that Grace would likely be “bored there” (in the country) because “there is so little to do and it is SO quiet.” If a visit was not possible, Bishop was also at a loss how to “help with this trip” financially, because she was “still waiting to get paid finally for my job.” She suggested that perhaps when Grace was done with her visiting, and if she got “stuck or anything,” to “let me know.” She felt that she “could certainly help” Grace, at the very least “get back home again!” Grace had been visiting Mary in Montreal and was next off to visit with her son Rod, all before going to Florida. Bishop wondered: “How do you get from Montreal to Brantford, and where is it.” She wished she “had an atlas handy.” Bishop hadn’t seen Rod for years and wondered how many children he had, “two, hasn’t he – or just one?” This subject brought up Miriam again, Phyllis’s daughter. Grace had clearly been giving Bishop updates about the child’s progress and Bishop declared herself “feeling hopeful” about “little Miriam,” saying that “maybe all will go well” in any case. Echoing something the always-loving Grace said, Bishop wrote, “And as you say – loving care makes an awful lot of difference.” She also noted the benefit of the “attention of other children,” meaning Miriam’s older brothers, noting “they do develop faster when there are older children around.”

Bishop’s characteristic “//” signaled her shift, finally, to “Monica,” who Bishop declared “is a darling.” She was already starting to talk: “she says ‘Mama’ at last.” And Bishop noted that this doted on child “loves to give kisses,” particularly when they were all driving together: “she will suddenly lean forward to Mary,” and say, “ʻMama, Mama.’ and give her lots of smacks – mostly in the air.” Bishop echoed a word she’d used previously to describe this child: “cunning” – quite an adjective for a person who was “about 15 months” old.

Another “//” shifted things to Elizabeth Naudin, who “is spending six weeks up in Teresopolis.” This proximity meant that “they are all coming to lunch with us in Petropolis this Saturday – if it doesn’t storm again.” Bishop had visited her cousin “before she left.” Elizabeth Naudin was pregnant with her third child and Bishop, “thinking she was lying down, housebound, etc.” was surprised when she “walked in on a bit feijoada – a black-beans-and-rice-party – for three or four couples, children, etc.!” This signaled to Bishop that her cousin was “feeling a lot better.” Clearly, Elizabeth Naudin had settled into her life in Brazil.

Yet another “//” signaled an account of a gathering of their own: “We gave a luncheon last Saturday for Lota’s co-workers on the park.” Bishop observed that this gathering was “about time.” She also reported that she had done “all the cooking,” moaning the fact that “our Maria can’t cook and never will learn anything.” As an aside, she noted that they were “finally giving up and looking for another couple” to help at the Samambaia house. Even though they liked “them pretty well still in other ways … they spoil so darned easy!” By which she meant that with Lota and her away so much all they had “to do is air the house and feed the cats and water the garden most of the time.” When Lota and Elizabeth returned, she noted, “they think we’re expecting too much” when they “want[ed] a little cooking and washing done.” Bishop reminded Grace about Maria’s miscarriage and observed that “although we … did everything we possibly could about that poor little baby – (and if we hadn’t been there what would she have done? – died, probably,” Bishop reported that “they are so ignorant that now they are sort of blaming us because it died.” Bishop’s response to all of this was “Oh dear.” Bishop not only described them as “ignorant,” but also as “babes in the woods,” which, she noted “they don’t even see … of course.”

After that digression she returned to the gathering of Lota’s colleagues, with Bishop cooking “all Saturday” for “18 people … and it was hot as hell.” The menu included “iced cucumber and mint soup.” Main course was “Beouf Bourguignon – a sort of de-luxe stew of steak, mushrooms, all kinds of things – cooked for two days, almost.” 
(Beef Bourguignon)
In addition, there were “little carrots and onions fresh from the garden.” To top it all off, “Brazilian style – two desserts – or three,” including “a huge chestnut pudding, all decorated with nuts and cream.” As well as “sliced pineapple with liqueur.” And, finally, “a large chocolate cake.” In Bishop’s view it was “much too much, I thought, but it vanished like snow.” To accommodate all these people, they “set up four card-tables.” And as if Mother Nature was collaborating (during a time of stormy weather), “the rain held off until they had left.” The gathering dispersed “about 6 o’clock.” And Bishop concluded this account with, “we were all naturally exhausted by then.”

No more “//s” but Bishop shifted gears again. The next post will conclude this newsy letter.

Friday, June 7, 2019

EB-inspired hooked rug exhibit in Great Village

Truro artist Penny Lighthall is creating a series of hooked rugs inspired by Elizabeth Bishop poems. Some of these rugs have been hung in the Echoes of EB Art Gallery in St. James Church in Great Village. The EBSNS will be unveiling them at our Annual General Meeting on 22 June. EB board member Laurie Gunn helped Penny with this exhibit and took these photos. We hope to see you at the AGM when we'll also be celebrating our 25th anniversary. Other special guests include Rita Wilson, Margo Wheaton and Harry Thurston. See you "In the Village" on 22 June. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Cookies — the kind you eat: an update

If you remember, in the Letter to Aunt Grace #111, I wrote about a cookie recipe Bishop found in Life magazine, which she highly recommended to her aunt. I found the issue from which that recipe came and posted the cover, but didn’t pursue the matter further. John Barnstead, however, located the recipe in that issue and send me a copy of it, which I included as an addendum. John also took it upon himself to make the cookies and he promised me he would send me some, which he most kindly did, along with a delightful tray that displayed the Brazilian and American flags. John was not the only person to try their hand at these cookies. My Utah friend Laurel Cannon Alder also made these cookies and sent me some photos of the results. Her mother, my dear friend Helen Cannon, reported that they are delicious (Bishop certainly thought so, too) and now that I have tasted them, I can say first hand that they are delightful, not too sweet but very flavourful. I have always thought that there should be an Elizabeth Bishop cookbook, based in part on the recipes she shares with her aunt in her letters. I suspect Grace sent Bishop a few recipes of her own, even though Bishop didn’t regard Grace as a good baker!

I thought you might like to see photos of the two batches of actual (not electronic!) cookies, well worth the effort to bake them.
Laurel’s cookies.
John’s cookies artfully displayed on the tray.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 112: Worst and First

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was dated 18 January 1962, just over two weeks after the first one for the year. It was not as long, but offers a glimpse of their split domestic life, the “back and forth” between the house as Samambai and the apartment in Rio, as Lota’s job with the park intensified.

This epistle started off, however, with a concern over Bishop’s previous communication. After they had got “back to P[etrópolis] for the weekend” (Bishop had mailed the 3 January letter in the city), Bishop reported she had “got your note of the 3rd.” They had written to each other on the same day (space-time is an interesting phenomenon). This note told Bishop that her aunt was gallivanting again, that she was “off to Montreal.” This made Bishop wonder when Grace would receive “that BOOK I mailed you,” by which she meant, as she scribbled above “BOOK”: “(big letter).” Bishop had sent that long letter “registered mail, one day last week, from Rio,” but she was “afraid it had to be forwarded to you at Mary’s.” That was where Grace was headed, “‘by car’ you say.”

Driving from anywhere in Nova Scotia to Montreal at any time of year is no small trek (according to Google the distance is 1,128 km and takes 10 hours and 46 minutes on the Trans Canada Highway — in 1962 there would not have been much of this highway built, if any); but doing so in the dead of winter was adventurous, to say the least. Bishop wondered if Grace was “driving with someone” and hoped “the roads are good — better than here, certainly.” Since, as far as I know, Grace did not drive, she was surely being driven there by someone.

Grace’s road trip triggered one of Bishop’s lively stories about her and Lota’s own recent “trip down to Rio Tuesday,” from which they were “just recovering.”

They set off in a “terrific storm,” which had started Monday, “the worst every recorded, I think.” [Note: I went looking for such a storm and found mention of it on a blog which listed natural disasters in Rio de Janeiro. According to this site, 242 mm, nearly 100 inches, of rain fell during this storm. No wonder they encountered what they did on this trip.]

Bishop recounted that rain made the roads “almost impassable.” She conceded that they “really shouldn’t have” gone “in the little Volkswagon.” They encountered “rocks almost as big as the car,” which were “scattered over the mountain road.” In addition, there was “thick fog — stranded trucks all along the way.” They made it “down” the mountain but found “the highway into the city was flooded.” They “had to wait about two hours” to do the final leg into Rio. Needless to say, there were “many accidents.” One in particular was slightly surreal: “one load of cotton had been upset — we saw all this white stuff through the fog, and a crowd, and couldn’t imagine what it was.” It was “the bales burst open — the truck wrecked, of course.”

After having survived that treacherous trip, “that night there was a small earthquake — the first ever recorded here — very slight.” Bishop reported that they were “reading in our beds” when they felt something. Bishop, who had “felt worse in Massachusetts!” immediately “said to Lota, ‘That’s a quake.’” Lota “pooh-poohed the whole thing,” but the next morning “the papers” reported it. Bishop was “glad” to have her sense confirmed, the proof that “it hadn’t been just my poetic imagination but a real tremor.”

Again, I attempted to find something online about this minor seismic incident, but couldn’t. Still, we can trust Bishop and the papers in both these accounts of the worst rainfall recorded to that date and the first tremor ever detected. An eventful day.
(It is hard to find images of torrential rain and rock slides
or minor earthquakes!Instead, I offer a poor scan of a photo
in Carmen Oliveira's Flores Raras e Banalisimas,
of the beginning of Lota's park in the early 1960s.)

After this dramatic beginning, the letter turned fully to family updates and Bishop’s report about their own domestic issues. These will be taken up in the next post.

Friday, May 31, 2019

EBSNS AGM and 25th Anniversary celebration on 22 June 2019

All are welcome to attend the EBSNS Annual General Meeting and 25th Anniversary celebration in Great Village, N.S., on 22 June 2019. We've got some wonderful guests to share in our festivities and there will be great food and refreshments, too. The EB House will be open for viewing. Looking forward to seeing you there! (click on the poster to enlarge)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Story and Song for the EBSNS

On 26 May 2019, Halifax storyteller Claire Miller presented her “Swan song” gathering with a group of musical friends, in her gracious south-end home. After years of offering highly successful, well-attended storytelling salons, Claire has decided to turn her creative energies to other activities.
 (The performers performing. Photo by Janet Maybee.)
The free-will offering that Claire requested at this event was designated for the EBSNS, a most generous gesture.
 (Photo by Janet Maybee.)
EBSNS Board member Janet Maybee attended and reported that the event was “marvellous.” She noted that “35 devoted listeners” were present and “Claire made a point at the beginning to tell them why they should contribute to preserving the Bishop legacy.” This lively gathering garnered $380 for the society. Thank you so much Claire, and all your wonderful guests. The EBSNS is deeply grateful for such generosity.
(L. to r.: The performers: Margo Carruthers, Claire Miller,
Clary Croft, Heather-Anne Pentz, Vanessa Lindsay-Botton.
Photo by Shannon Chisholm.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 111: A bit of gossip, finally

Bishop was slowly getting to the “gossip” she wanted to share with Grace in her 3 January 1962 letter. She was almost at the end of the fourth page of this densely typed letter and the penultimate paragraph of that page, which focused on the holiday just past: Christmas. But before that description, she had to express her sympathy to her aunt: “I am so sorry to hear about the ribs, are they getting better?” Grace must have injured herself as the letters that had recently come to hand must have reported. Then, without a pause, Bishop wondered, “where you did spend Christmas finally?” Grace would have had several options.

Then came the account of Elizabeth and Lota’s holiday, which was not their usual visit to “Cabo Frio, that beach place we like.” The friends who lived there “had other visitors,” and, after all, they had just returned from their slog in NYC. So, they “just went home for three days and ate roast pork,” meaning they went to the house at Samambaia, the Brazilian place that was “home” for Bishop.

To mark the festive season, Bishop told her aunt that they had “set up a toy village just for our own amusement.” The child in the household, Monica, was “much too young to enjoy it.” This decorating happened because “Lota bought a lot of little figures, etc in N Y — lovely.” They arranged this village “on the hall chest of drawers,” putting “green stuff in the back.” When I first read this account, I was surprised, as Lota seems to be the last person one would think of liking such Christmas kitsch, let alone collecting a whole scene of it.

To augment this activity and the “roast pork,” Bishop reported that she “made a batch of something called Dutch Christmas cookies,” a recipe she found in “LIFE magazine,” one perhaps Grace had also seen, the issue “with Xmas recipes in it.” In the margin Bishop scribbled a further description of these cookies, “Butter Slices.” She noted that they were “marvellous, I must say!” because they were “full of poppy-seeds and filberts (or do you call them Hazel Nuts). “On Christmas Eve,” she reported, “we had a traditional Brazilian dish — French Toast!” This delicacy was served with “your maple syrup. I still have almost a quart.” Bishop surely made that most welcome gift from her aunt last a long time.
(The cover of the 8 December 1961 LIFE magazine cover.
It is probably the issue to which Bishop refers as there is
a section on holiday recipes.)
Finally, Bishop reached the point where she revealed, “I wanted to gossip about Mary and her family … horrid of me!” But if we can’t talk about family, who can we talk about? Her first statement was that “They all seem so RICH to me!” She wondered how they got that way. Mary had spoken about “going to Europe!” That reminded Bishop about her “fellowship,” which  had “to be used for travel,” and told Grace she would go to “Peru and Bolivia” and “another trip to N Y,” echoing what she had been saying for some time: “this time I’ll really get to N S.” To that end, she asked Grace to suggest “the pleasantest place to visit?” And “(while I think of it),” Bishop asked her aunt to “give me Aunt Mabel’s address.” Declaring with a bit of exasperation, “I do hope you get all this now!”

Then back to Mary and her family. Bishop noted that she “didn’t really have much chance to talk to Joanne.” Bishop got the impression that this young woman was “the athletic type” and saw that “she really loves animals.” The former would not have mattered much to Bishop, but the latter inclination gave them something in common. Bishop then mentioned “the little monkey” about which “she was crazy to take back.” If she had “known sooner,” she noted, “I could have arranged it, probably,” meaning she could have got all the papers in place. In any case, it didn’t happen, but the monkey had found a home, which Bishop had reported earlier in the letter.

Clearly, though, Bishop was fondest of Mary’s son John: “I love his looks and that nice grin.” This brief account was the warmest of all her observations about these young people.

When they had been given the opportunity to talk without the Naudins present, Bishop reported that “we all agreed that Ray shouldn’t complain about Brazil the way he does all the time.” Bishop had made this observation before to Grace, so would have been pleased that his in-laws could see the issue themselves. Bishop found this habit “very annoying.” She realized that he was “undoubtedly a clever young man at his business, but I don’t think he has a very nice character.” To her he was “kind of mean,” though quickly she said, “not to E or the children — he’s a good father.” Still, she found him “petty, and always grumbling.” He behaved like “he knows more than he does,” and made “tactless remarks.” Bishop assured her aunt that she “never attempt[ed] to argue with him about anything,” partly because “he knows it all — or so he thinks.”

Then a real piece of gossip: “I got the feeling that Mary wished E had married someone else — although she never said so.” Mary was nothing if not “very polite and discreet.” But, as Bishop suggested, nothing else by way of confessions could be expected because “after all we hadn’t seen each other for thirty years!” (Perhaps the last time Bishop had seen Mary was in 1930 when she and Maude and George went to Montreal to visit the Rosses because Elizabeth Bulmer was there, recently widowed and unwell.)

All this said, Bishop declared that “it was fun having her — she seemed to be interested in everything and enjoys things and that’s what makes a good guest.” Wistfully, however, Bishop noted that “all the time I wished it were you, I’m afraid.” Which made her turn to that next prospective visit to N.S. and them “meet[ing] in Halifax and spend[ing] a few days there” in a hotel.

Suddenly, after over four pages of letter, Bishop declared, “Now I must rush.” She had to “call up LIFE here to cable N Y and ask them where the hell are the proofs they promised for ten days ago.” That dreadful job was still plaguing her. She confessed to her aunt that she thought “they are double-crossing me and the thing is going to appear without any corrections — any last ones, I mean.” Again she wrote, “I spent five weeks doing nothing but fight with them in N Y over their idiotic changes — Not one of them had ever seen Brazil,” Yet these “17 people” believed they “all knew more than I did, — and I’ve lived here ten years and they hired me, after all!” Her final declaration: “They’re mad.”

The well-known story about this book, when it finally was published, is that she made those “last” corrections in green ink in those copies she received and dispersed.

This rambling letter concluded with an extra measure: “Much much love” and an admonition for Grace to “please take care of yourself and forgive me for not getting there.” It seems that it was Bishop who had to forgive herself. She pleaded that she “wasn’t really in my right mind that N Y stretch.” Concluding finally with the fact that she “couldn’t remember anything or see anything, just that damned little book.”

Bishop didn’t wait quite so long to write again to Grace. Her next letter is just over two weeks later and will commence with the next post.

Addendum: 23 May 2019. Leave it to John Barnstead,who found the precise recipe EB mentions in that issue of LIFE.
And a photo of the cookies, which are on the bottom tier of the plate on the right.
John tells me he is going to make the cookies and send me some in the mail!! When I get them, I'll take a photo and post it!!!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 110: Gifts

Bishop began the ”just for you” part of her 3 January 1962 letter to Grace with a declaration, “Oh dear, I am dying to have a good gossip with you.” Even though she had finally received letters from both aunts, she still wondered if Grace had got “my check safely?” that is, her Christmas gift. And she admonished her aunt, “Please spend every penny on  yourself.” Then, without even a pause, she shifted to, “I do hope that Miriam [Phyllis’s daughter] may turn out to be all right.” Grace had clearly updated Bishop on this new member of the family, now about six months old, which prompted Bishop to respond, “what you say sounds quite hopeful.” Phyllis had also been in touch and Bishop asked her aunt to let her cousin know the “card” came “last week — and I’ll write her soon.” Having been so busy in December meant that Bishop “didn’t send out any cards” because she “didn’t have time.” She paused and clarified, “no I did send two,” which she “stole” from “my friend Loren’s supply” (she and Lota stayed in Loren MacIver’s apartment in New York). One of those cards went “to [Aunt] Mary and one to Aunt Florence.”

She returned to the subject of Phyllis about whom she felt “sorry … so much work” with Miriam. In contrast, Bishop wrote, “this poor little illegitimate baby our friend Mary [Morse] adopted — Monica — is so bright.” In Bishop’s mind, the whole thing “just isn’t fair.” She continued describing Monica as “so gay … always grinning and laughing.” She noted how much she had “missed her … while I was in N.Y. — I never remember missing a baby before!” She wished Grace “could see her — you’d love her.” Monica was “about 14 months and can sing (a little).” She was getting active and mobile, able “almost [to] climb out of her play-pen.” Bishop described her acrobatics, hanging “over the top” of the bars, and feared that “in a few days she’ll fall out and break her nose.”

This doted on child still “isn’t very pretty — big mouth, big teeth — and her ears stick out — but she has lots of curls.” The latter feature was “a pleasant surprise to everyone because … as a baby” her hair “was straight as a string.” Clearly, Monica was a delight in Bishop’s life at this time.

Another shift back to the vagaries of communicating had Bishop declare, “I am so sorry about my presents” — meaning gifts Grace had tried to send to her niece. Just what happened is unclear, but somehow they were returned. In any case, Bishop quickly said, “I’d love to have the table linen” (perhaps some of her mother’s. Grace had sent Bishop some of her mother’s embroidery one other time.) Bishop asked her aunt to “please keep it for me.” And suggested that Grace “Just send me the book, sometime.” She noted that “Books do come safely” and advised her aunt to “Leave an end a little open so they can see it’s a book,” and to improve the odds of delivery to “write BOOK — LIVRO — on it, good and big.” Doing so meant it would come “book rate — slow, but cheap.” Whatever the book was, Bishop assured Grace, “I’d love to have it.”

Then she made a request: “if ever you happen to see a cook-book of Nova Scotia recipes — if there is such a thing — I’d like to have one — and I’ll pay for it, of course.”*

Going back to the table linen, Bishop noted there was “an old lady near us in the country who earns a little money by doing some embroidery.” She could “get her to finish the set” because she does quite nice work.” Unfinished table linen does sound like it could have been something of her mother’s work, never finished. “In the Village” refers to Gertrude’s beautiful embroidery, some of which was incomplete, still in the embroidery hoop.

Grace had also offered a “pitcher and basin and soap dish,” which Bishop remembered “very well — save them, too!” Mailing such items was not possible, but Bishop once again said, “I really think we may be getting back next year.” If that happened, they would “have another five or six weeks” and if she was “not earning money,” she could “stay even longer,” at least so she thought. She trailed off this part of the letter wistfully, “I’ll really get to see you —”

This “just for you” part continues on for quite a bit longer. The next post will finally get to the core of the “gossip.”

*Note: The most famous Nova Scotia cookbook was Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens by Marie Nightingale, but it wasn’t published until 1970. It went through dozens of printings. Bishop surely would have loved it.
The Nova Scotia Archives has a wonderful site containingdigitized versions of over a dozen old N.S. cookbooks and also digitized images of hundreds of hand-written recipes found in various collections. Bishop for sure would have loved this site.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 109: Rio in 1962

Bishop began winding down the joint part of her 3 January 1962 letter to Aunts Grace and Mary with a brief account about the state of things in Brazil. She first noted that “Lota is hard at work again,” on the big park project, though Bishop also observed that “nothing much happened while she was away.” Then “Poor Brazil” comes into the equation. Bishop described it as “in awful shape.” The best way she felt she could convey the situation to her aunts was a rather indelicate joke, revealing that as fastidious as Mary was and as respectable as Grace was, Bishop felt that both women wouldn’t mind a bit of off-colour, though she presents it in as discreet a way as possible.

Bishop began this “favourite joke at present …. a very Portuguese joke,” in a classic way: “two men talking to each other about the situation, very gloomy.” Finally, one of them “says to the other — ‘Well, times are so bad — we’re all going to end up eating sh-t.’” Of course, the punch line is: “The other replies, ‘Yes — and there isn’t even enough sh-t to go around.’”

{Check out this link to a wonderful b&w, 8 minute film about Rio in 1962. I was fascinated by the whole thing. This profile of Rio hardly make it looks “awful,” but rather shows quite a glamorous city. Watch to the end, and you will see why I’ve chosen the more recent images below. Great to get a sense of the atmosphere there in that year.}
 (Iconic Rio in 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
After having been in Samambaia for Christmas, Bishop told her aunts that they can gone “to Rio — Jan 2nd — and I got 2 letter from Aunt Grace.” This explains how Bishop learned that Grace had feared she had been on the airplane that crashed late the previous year. One of these letters was “dated Dec 10th and one on the 17th.” That she was only now getting them proved “how slow the mails still are.” However, she defended her adopted country by noting, “I really think that’s YOUR ‘rush’ not Brasil’s fault for once.” She had also received one from Aunt Mary “dated the 27th,” which was a more “normal time” coming.

One of Grace’s letters revealed something Bishop did not know: “I didn’t think you had a telephone, Aunt Grace, in G V.” So she had missed not only a trip to Nova Scotia, but an easier chance to talk to her aunt, on the phone. All this made her wistful again about not following through on the one thing she really wanted to do: “I am so terribly sorry not to have got there [Nova Scotia].”  Wishing she had had “a little more time,” and second guessing herself, she continued that if she “hadn’t gone to see Mr Blum,” she “bet he could have fixed it up with the income tax people afterwards!” But in the moment, in the context of the book work, Bishop did not have time to think out the all possibilities.

The final short paragraph of this joint part of her letter ended with a few final updates. After asking her aunts to “please give my love to everyone,” she noted that she was “going to call on Elizabeth [Naudin] this afternoon, I think.” Then she reported that she had been sick for “three days … last week” with “bronchitis, coughing my head off.” But she was planning to go out anyway, even though it was “fearfully hot.” In the midst of all the domestic troubles and struggles, she finished her joint letter on a positive note, telling Mary particularly that “at least I earned enough money to paint this apartment … we’re going to start right away.” Mary would know first hand how much the painting was needed. Her “much love to you both and Happy New Year” was typed vertically on the thin left margin because the next page was for only Grace. As she “add[ed] a bit more just for” Grace, she noted that her favourite aunt would now understand “why I am sending you the carbon — it is clearer than the 1st copy.” Before getting to the real reason for the separate Grace-only part, Bishop explained that the carbon was clearer than the original letter because “I need a new ribbon.” It is apparent even in the photocopy that the addition is more faded in the photocopy of the carbon, clearly revealing the ribbon issue.

Further more, Bishop reiterated that she “must hurry out to pay the gas and light bills before the office closes down.” This office was “away on the other side of the city.” It was a “special office, because no one paid” the bills while they “were away, and now they are threatening to cut off the service.” One of the practical issues was that they could  not use “checks,” which would have made “life so much easier.” Checks were used “for some things, but just between friends, apparently — not for bills or utilities.”

Ultimately, Bishop’s reason for the separate section was to “gossip about Mary and her family.” But before she got to that subject, she got side-tracked with more reiterations and catching up with things Grace had written. These diversions will comprise the next post.
(To prove I was actually in Rio in September 1999,
here is me standing beneath that breath-taking statue with
N.S. poet Brian Barlett, left, and Bishop scholar Gary Fountain, centre.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

New book about Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop scholar and editor Jonathan Ellis has sent word of a new book of essays about EB published by Edinburgh University Press, which he has edited: Reading Elizabeth Bishop. Congratulations Jonathan!

Suzie LeBlanc singing Bishop songs

We are excited to share the news that renowned soprano Suzie LeBlanc (EBSNS Honorary Patron) will perform some of the EB poem settings she commissioned in 2011 for the Bishop centenary, and two new settings by Alberta composer Stephen Smith, along with other repertoire, at a concert on 4 May in Vancouver with the Elektra Women’s Choir.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 108: Domestic matters

The next part of Bishop’s 3 January 1962 letter to her aunts shifted to being back home, to domestic matters, in particular to their cook at the house at Samambaia. Elizabeth and Lota returned to Rio, but as Bishop noted, they “went up to the country for the 24th& 25th of December. On Christmas Day night their “cook began to have her baby… — two months too early.” Before the actual birth, they “got her off to the hospital” in Petrópolis on the morning of the 26th, where “the baby was born.” Bishop noted that in the midst of this “great excitement,” their friend “Mary Morse was on hand and helped give it [the baby] oxygen.” Even though it was put “in an incubator and had the best care,” this tiny infant, “about 6½ months,” did not survive, “but only lived three days.”

The cook was married to their “butler,” who was, as Bishop observed, “broken-hearted.” This tragedy was the most recent in a long line of “seven or so miscarriages.” Truly sad. Elizabeth and Lota were, on the other hand, “relieved.” Bishop uncharitably noted that “the poor girl is so dumb,” adding parenthetically to Aunt Mary that she “will remember her — Maria?” Bishop felt that Maria “couldn’t possibly take care of a normal baby, much less a premature one.” Being an obstetrics nurse early in her career, Grace would have known her share of premature babies.

Elizabeth and Lota’s relief was tempered by the fact that this couple were “going to keep on trying.” In the face of such determination all Bishop could ask was, “what do we do in the meantime?”

Bishop tended the unwell Maria, “spent all last week-end up there cooking.” This thwarted mother spent her time “in bed eating chicken and refusing to comb her hair, etc.” Part of the reason for this behaviour was “Superstitions.” One of these, as Bishop related, was “the lard she ate (just the thing, of course — should be from a male pig, not a female, nor a castrated pig ….)”

Ever the cosmopolitan modernist, “Lota just  blows up.” Having come from a rural childhood with devout grandparents, superstitious ancestors and an abundance of community folklore, Bishop noted that she was “more patient, but it is pretty hopeless.” She also conceded that even with these troubles on both sides, “they have their good points,” which included “never leav[ing] the place, even for an afternoon.” Elizabeth and Lota were less and less often in Samambaia and the cook and butler “take good care of the cats.” And what was more, “they both can shoot — in case of burglars!”

After this saga, Bishop shifted again, assuring Aunt Mary that she “got the snapshot of Pouchie [Mary’s cat] and have it right here on my desk.” She had to admit that this feline was “handsomer than Tobias,” one of their three cats, the other two being Suzuki and Mimosa. All the cats “were so glad to see” them when they returned on the 24th. On Christmas Day they “all rushed to have breakfast in bed” with Bishop.
Elizabeth Bishop and Tobias. Source:
Carmen Oliveira, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas 
(Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1996), between pp. 64–5.
Then Bishop declared that she had also written Aunt Mary, “a long letter just after [Mary] left” in October, and “before I went to N.Y.” Bishop seemed to think her aunt has not received that letter in which she had related “how we found a good him for the little marmoset,” that had so charmed Mary’s younger daughter Joanne. Bishop observed that she had “loved him, too,” but could not “keep a monkey in the house” because “he was giving me asthma.

The next part of this long letter winds down the joint part of the epistle, after which Bishop added over a page just for Grace. To be continued in the next post.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

John Scott's documentary film about Elizabeth Bishop: Update

This "one sheet" just in from producer Walter Forsyth, who is working with film-maker John Scott on his documentary about Elizabeth Bishop, "The Art of Losing." Delighted to share it.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 107: More family and friends

Bishop’s flying sagas were not yet over as she shifted to the next paragraph in her 3 January 1962 letter. She had just declared flying to be “greatly over-rated,” but began the next saga by reminding her aunts that she had flown “to Worcester to see Aunt Florence.” She did this visit on “a Sunday,” in one day, thus flew back in the late afternoon during which “there was another sleet storm and we were late, too.” She just couldn’t seem to catch a break with planes. In spite of this distressful commute, Bishop told her aunts that she was “glad I went, though.” Poor old cranky Aunt Florence was “so glad to see me, all dressed up for the occasion.” It would have been years since they had seen each other, so this elderly relative had to try “hard to remember where I live and what I do.”

Florence had diminished, of course: “she can walk a little,” but “her left hand and arm are paralyzed,” and “she is awfully weak and ga-ga, poor thing.” This state was the very old age Bishop feared the most, perhaps the kind of  old age we all fear most: the loss of our faculties. This was, perhaps, the last time Bishop saw her father’s last surviving sibling.

Bishop then recounts “another trip, by train, to near Baltimore to see my old friend Jane Dewey.” Though the mode of transportation was likely easier on Bishop’s nerves, the state she found Dewey in was deeply distressing. Bishop reported that her friend “has had so many catastrophes during the past two years I can’t bear to think about them all.” Dewey was much younger than Florence, “about 60, I think, or a little over.” So, her troubles were harder to “bear” because by rights she had much more life left to live and deserved to live it well.

One of the catastrophes was “a bad automobile accident last winter that hurt her ribs, etc.” Bishop noted that Dewey herself “never tells me anything like this,” so Bishop got the news from “her sister … or friends.” This sister was “living with her, with her hopelessly paralyzed husband, for six years now,” who was “dying by inches.” Bishop felt “Jane is just being kind to them,” accommodating them as much as she could, to the point of having “an elevator put in her house, etc etc.” Bishop had seen Jane at some point during this previous six years, remembering that the “beautiful big farm — she raises Herfordshire cattle as well as her army job … was [this time] terribly gloomy.” Bishop found “the sister very boring and drinking too much,” a practice about which she should not have offered any judgement.

Apropos of nothing, but simply to inject a bit of levity into this sad story,
an image of Great Village Guinea hens taken at the EB House
by Allison Akgungor in June 2011.
Bishop recounted to her aunts that recently Dewey went “to Mexico to give lectures to the Mexican army chemists,” a task initiated by “the army.” During this trip, another catastrophe: “she broke her knee-cap — and didn’t know it or do anything about it.” As a result she fell again “a few times.” She finally “went to a Mexican Dr who took X-Rays and told her to go home to bed,” and return to the US as soon as possible. The army flew her back two days later, but before that “she got out of bed, fell down again, and broke her right arm.” One wonders the car accident was, perhaps, a reason for all this falling. She reached “her farm on a stretcher, or course.”

Bishop paused in this rather sad tale to scribble in the margin, “I told you some of this before.” But, in fact, she hadn’t, at least not in any letter that survives.

The troubles continued when in July 1961 “the brother-in-law died at last,” and then “the sister had a hernia operation.” We all experience this kind of clustering of troubles, making me wonder if there is not some law of physics or force in the universe — a kind of electro-magnetic force perhaps? — that causes it. Dewey underwent treatment as a result of all her falls, spending “two or three months … in Johns Hopkins having nerve-blocks or something awful on her arm,” because of “crushed nerves.” Well, that sounds beyond painful. Her knee healed, “but her arm and hand are completely paralyzed,” an example of the cure being, perhaps worse than the injury or illness. Bishop noted with no irony and obvious frustration that “she needs them [her arm and hand] in her work, badly.”

The troubles continued. Dewey’s sister returned “home from her hospital” and surgery, only to fall down and break “her left ankle.” In the midst of this relentlessness, a grim litany, Dewey and her sister “drove to meet me — the sister can drive again.” They travelled “40 miles in a snowstorm.” When Bishop saw them, they were “both limping away on the platform.” Not surprising, Bishop observed that her friend had “aged so I scarcely recognized her.” In the face of all this trouble, Bishop quietly described Dewey as “very brave,” noting that she “just jokes about how they had to use that elevator.”

All Bishop could say to her aunts was: “Have you ever heard such a tale of woe?” She wasn’t sure “why I am telling you all of it,” but in part to reassure her aunts “that we all have no broken bones, as far as I know.” (Though Grace has some sort of issue with her ribs that gets mentioned later.) Bishop concluded that she was “glad I got to see her.” There had been a plan for Dewey “to visit me here this year,” as she was “dying to come to Brazil.” Sadly, such plans were off, of course, she “can’t now.”

After having got out of her system the final parts of her time in the US, Bishop turned to being back in Brazil, which wasn’t without its issues either. The next post will pick up that thread.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 106: Flying

The next subject Bishop took up in her 3 January 1962 letter had occasionally come up before: flying. She did not like flying and the accounts she now gave her aunts explain in part the reason for her dislike and discomfort. Before her detailed story of how she and Lota travelled to NYC, she first noted, “I am so sorry Aunt Grace was afraid I was in that plane crash,” declaring that Grace should have known otherwise because, as she reiterated, “I did write, as I said, from N.Y.” The only crash in late 1961 that I found that could be the event to concern Grace was: “AerolíneasArgentinas Flight 322 … a scheduled Buenos Aires-São Paulo-Port ofSpain-New York City international passenger service, operated with a Comet 4 …crashed during climbout on the early stages of its second leg, when it collidedwith tree tops shortly after take off … on 23 November 1961. Therewere 52 fatalities, 40 of them passengers.” This flight, however, was going in the opposite direction, that is, towards NYC, and happened long before Bishop and Lota returned to Brazil.
Bishop had written her last 1961 letter to Grace on 12 December and reported earlier in this first 1962 letter that she and Lota left New York on 17 December, well after this crash happened. Just when these letters reached Grace is unknown, but she perhaps had heard about this crash before any of them arrived. One can understand her worry. Air travel in the 1960s was a risky business. Indeed, on 18 September 1961, a Douglas DC-6B, carrying Dag Hammarskjöld,second Secretary-General of the United Nations, crashed near Ndola. All on board died.

(How Bishop knew on 3 January that Grace had thought Bishop might be on this plane is explained later in this long January epistle.)

After this preliminary comment, Bishop noted that they travelled to NYC on “Pan-Am.” Perhaps to divert her aunts from further worry, she launched into a story about that journey northward, back in early November. She said they flew that particular airline “because of our friend the pilot, Page Smith.” I have tried to find such a person online, but have had no luck. Since they were friends of such an important person, Bishop noted that there was “a lot of fuss at the airport.” They got VIP treatment: “we were taken specially out to the plane in a car,” no plebian walking out “like everyone else.” Before boarding “we had our pictures taken several times — with Page in the middle with his arms around our necks.” In spite of what we might regard as a lot of aviation accidents, 22 in 1961, for example, flying was clearly an event with some glamour attached to it.*

The amusing aspect of all of this ado was, as Bishop described, that “the effect … was rather spoiled because we were carrying so many bundles and baskets, etc.” The friend who was “seeing us off said he was ashamed of us — we looked so countryified [sic] — as if we had taken along picnic lunches to eat on the plane.”

This “grand send-off” was short-lived because they “had an awful trip” — clearly, even knowing the pilot only went so far. But, as Bishop noted, “we never do seem to have much luck with planes” (perhaps the reason Grace jumped to her conclusion and worried). For starters, the trip was not direct, but included a first leg to Brasilia, “supposedly for fifteen minutes,” which turned into “six hours — something wrong with the brakes.”**

Because of Lota’s stature with her work on the park in Rio, they “were given a guided tour” of a city they both “hate[d] like poison.” They had “dinner at the hotel” and “waited and waited.”

All this unpleasant delay meant they “got to N.Y. in the middle of the night.” When they got to Perry St., they had to “wake up our friends who live across the street at 4:30 AM to get the keys.”

After such an experience, even their friendship with the pilot didn’t deter them from changing airlines for their return trip: “we decided to switch back to Varig.” It turned out one airline was as bad as the next in this instance, and “even worse.” Even before getting on the plane, “the flight had to be cancelled two or three times because of” Bishop’s work schedule and “because of sleet storms.” Of course, by the time they actually did leave in mid-December, “closer to Christmas, the planes got crowded.” In the end, the “Varig put us on the Argentine Airline — a smaller English Cometjet,” which was in fact the airline and type of plane that had crashed in November 1961!
All Bishop could say about the final return journey home was that “the trip was all right, but several hours late, the food lousy, etc.” It was an overnight flight and Bishop reported that “in the morning just before reaching Rio,” she “started to faint — I didn’t know one could faint, sitting down.” Without missing a beat, “the stewardess immediately hitched me up to an oxygen mask that all passengers seem to have — it cured me in no time.”*** One can only imagine what the cabin pressure and air quality was like then (we know what it is like now!), and Bishop concluded “the air must have been bad to begin with.” Indeed, on 8November 1961 … a Lockheed Constellation L-049, crashed on landing at ByrdField near Richmond, Virginia; all 74 passengers — mostly new US Army recruitsbeing flown to their base for training — died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation,along with three crew members; the captain and flight engineer survive byescaping the burning wreckage.”

No wonder Bishop didn’t like to fly.

Not only did the travellers have their issues, but also the person waiting for them to arrive, “our friend Mary [Morse],” who “had been waiting … at the Rio airport with her baby, Monica, for three hours or more, poor things.” To add insult to injury, Bishop left her “wristwatch on the plane and couldn’t get it back!” Bishop readily confessed all was made worse because “of course I’m always petrified, anyway.” To deal with what was a clear phobia, she resorted to being “heavily drugged … Well, I think flying is greatly over-rated!” I think so too.

The next chunk of this long letter returns to the trials and troubles of family and friends and will be taken up in the next post.

* Note: Even in my youth I remember taking my first flight from Halifax, N.S., to Sydney, Cape Breton, on a class trip. I was 12, so it was 1973. The whole class walked out to the plane and stood outside, some of us even on the steps going into the aircraft, and had our picture taken. I still have the newspaper clipping that covered our excursion.

** I remember in the late 1990s (before 9-11) being on a plane in the airport in Miami waiting to taxi out to the runway, but there was a delay that stretched out for some time: well over an hour and more. I had a window seat and I could see workmen trying to do something under a wing. Well, I began to get quite upset and the crowded plane was starting to get tense. In the end, they had to take us all off because the plane could not be fixed. I was flying from Cancun to Miami to NYC to Halifax. In the end I went from Miami to Toronto and the next morning to Halifax. I don’t fly a lot, so all this stuff was quite unsettling; but I suppose for seasoned travellers, it is par for the course.

*** I remember another trip back from Cancun with my sisters when I had serious issues with pain in my head (one of the reasons I don’t like to fly is because of the air pressure changes, which affect me greatly, even in a pressurized cabin). I, too, had a flight attendant who stepped right up (I could not lift my head off my lap, I was in such pain) and put moist, hot towelettes into two plastic cups and told me to hold them over my ears. It did the trick somehow. The pain quickly began to ease.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 104: 1962 & Back in Brazil

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 3 January 1962, from Rio. The fraught, exhausting time in New York City was past and with the start of another year, Bishop settled herself at her typewriter and began what would be one of her longest letters to her aunt. Actually, it was a long letter to “My dear Aunties.” As Bishop explained at the top, she was “going to do something I really think is very impolite — write you both a letter at the same time.” The other auntie in question was Mary. Bishop used “carbon paper.” (Does anyone remember this device? One had to be a good typist to manage it, as making corrections was difficult. I wonder which one got the carbon copy.)

Bishop reasoned that since she had “the same things to tell both of you, more or less” and since she owed “you both letters,” she opted for this less than ideal approach. She also noted, perhaps with a bit of frustration, that she had not “written any [letters] to speak of since last October,” at least since she and Lota had arrived in New York. In addition to all of these circumstances, she returned to Brazil to find “stacks of mail.” Everything combined caused her “shortcut methods,” for which she wrote, “please forgive me.”

Her claim that she had not written any letters was not actually true, at least in terms of her aunts (and perhaps for others as well), which she corrected at the start of the next paragraph: “I DID, however, write you each a letter shortly after I got to New York.” Upon that arrival, Bishop still believed she might “still make it to either Montreal or Nova Scotia.” Quickly, the amount of work on the Brazil book made her realize that plan was unlikely. Bishop tried to recall just when those letters were written: “around November 15th, I think” (It was actually 10 December for her last letter to Grace in 1961.) As if she needed to defend her claim, she added, “I’m positive about this.” As a rule, Bishop did not make copies of her letters, which went off into space-time never to be seen by her again. With all the frustrations and the need to leave the US quickly in December, it is little wonder Bishop lost track in her mind about when she had written.

After all this avowing, Bishop got to the crux of her frustration, the fact that she had not heard from her aunts, “Apparently neither of you received these letters.” Bishop’s endless complaints about “the Brazilian mails” being “the worst,” had to be rethought in light of these missing letters. But in fact, Grace had received her letter. Perhaps her own busy “Christmas rush” prevented her from writing. Having been told they would be immediately returning to Brazil, perhaps Grace felt it best just to wait until Bishop was settled again. Bishop speculated on what could have happened to her letters: “maybe they still haven’t got to you,” because of that “Christmas rush”; “maybe they got lost”; “or, even more likely — they are there somewhere in that apartment on Perry Street, under the table or something.” Bishop was sure she had given her aunts the Perry Street address, more than once. She clearly had an expectation that she would hear from them at some point while in the US.

When she arrived in NYC, she fully intended to try to see one or both of them, that she would be done with the “Time, Life, Inc.” book by “the end of November.” She never did finish the work on the book and the IRS forced her out earlier than planned, “December 15th or was it 17th, finally.”

Those final weeks and days in the US were rather chaotic for Bishop and she came back to Brazil with the book unfinished: “and I am STILL working on” it. One can hear the exasperation when she moaned, “I don’t think it will ever end.” If Bishop learned anything in this process it was that she “wouldn’t work for them again for $50,000.” She had “never worked so hard in my life” on something that she felt, in the end, “was an absolute waste of time.” The stress had taken a toll physically. She reported she had “lost ten pounds and have had bronchitis ever since I came back!” She was so exhausted by the experience, she also reported that she “slept from the time we got back until Christmas, I think.” Well, an exaggeration, but to make a point.
This “poor little book” was still filling her mind, even as a new year was getting underway. She was sure it “isn’t going to please anyone — me, LIFE, nor the Brazilian friends I did hope to please.” She stated again that both aunts would receive copies. As displeased as she was, she needed her family and friends to see the evidence of all that hard work, fraught and unsatisfactory as it was. She reiterated that even as relentlessly ongoing as the process felt, there was an end in sight: “it will be out around the end of February I think.” She pleaded with her aunts not to “judge my prose style by it, for heaven’s sake.” Bishop was even “awfully disappointed in the photographs.” The Time-Life editors had, apparently, boasted about this part of the book, but Bishop reported that “they had almost none [photographs] when I got there.” She concluded this final chapter of a dreadful saga declaring that she “fought a blood fight for every one you will see,” ending this long paragraph with a hand-written scribble, “— that is any good at all.”

This long letter is just getting started and will require many posts to work through. Before getting to new topics, there was yet one more long reiteration about their time in NY and its impact on her and why she was unable to see either of them, as she so desperately wanted to do. It will comprise the next post.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 103: Reiterations

Bishop’s final letter of 1961 (12 December) began to wind down with a few more reiterations of the things that were on her mind. The remaining three short paragraphs are a bit scattered, giving a sense that she had to go but still wanted to stay connected to Grace, from whom she had not heard in awhile; but considering Bishop’s trip to NYC and Grace perhaps not knowing where to write, this silence was not surprising.

The first final subject she broached was to reiterate how much she “did enjoy seeing Mary and the children in Rio” — this “did” seems slightly defensive, as if somehow Bishop thought Grace might have been told otherwise. Immediately, she asked if her aunt and cousins had told Grace “about the marmoset — little monkey — we had that Joanne was so crazy to take back with her?”
One of the aspects of her life at Samambaia which Bishop appreciated and enjoyed was all the creatures, domestic and wild. It reminded her of her grandparents’ home in Great Village with its menagerie of critters. I have no idea where they got the marmoset (to go along with the cats, dogs and birds they had), but Bishop noted that “we found him a nice home before we left, thank goodness.”

After this brief reflection on a visit that had happened in October, Bishop returned to her now, “This has been a short nightmare trip.” The Time-Life Brazil book had dominated their stay and caused Bishop deep frustration, which she had alaready vividly conveyed to Grace in previous letters, so Bishop didn’t have to reiterate the particulars of that “nightmare.” She did somewhat wistfully observe, “We are hoping perhaps to get back next spring or fall.” That “perhaps” would have said it all to Grace, who could likely see that Bishop would not return any time soon. And the certainty of it was Bishop’s proviso, “if I save enough of this money …. IF I leave now!” (Remember, the IRS was forcing her out sooner than she thought she would have to leave, if she wanted to prevent paying hefty income tax.)

After this scattered moan, Bishop isolated in one line (perhaps like a line in a poem) her regret: “Please forgive me — I really feel awful.” Grace would know this to be true, that the disappointment would really have been deep on both sides. Still, to add a bit of salt to the wound of this disappointment, Bishop jumped right back to “my Worcester cousins,” whom she had taken time to see. They had been “very nice” and Bishop felt some need to reiterate, “I think they are all really doing their best for Aunt Florence.” She told Grace that having seen them and Florence made her “feel a little beter {sic}.” Expanding on this topic, she felt that her cranky paternal aunt was “relatively happy there,” and thought that it would be “wrong to move her again,” because “places she can afford are hard to find,” by which it seems she means that Florence’s financial resources were depleted. Knowing that Grace had her own experiences caring for the elderly, Bishop noted that “one nurse she does like,” a bit of a surprise, clearly: “the nurse calls her ‘honey’ and Aunt F asked her to call her ‘Florence’,” obviously a breakthrough from Bishop’s perspective, but something that “scandalized Priscilla,” one of the cousins. Bishop noted this cousin was “always on the snobbish side!” From Bishop’s point of view, that her aunt actually “likes someone, at least” was “nice.” This “nurse seemed the one civilized person around, I thought.” Knowing Aunt Florence’s nature, however, one might suggest this nurse was more saintly than civilized.

At this point, Bishop had to stop herself from going on, and she was running out of room on the page. What she really wanted was to “see you and have a long conversation.” One last weak reiteration, “well — maybe we’ll make it in the spring or fall.” But all those qualifiers reveal the dim hope of it happening. Fearing that Grace had “been sick or something,” Bishop signed off “With much love to you as always.” And so ended an eventful year for Bishop. The next post will commence 1962.