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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 11: Another Postcard

The next extant communication from Bishop to Grace in 1956 is a postcard dated 3 July, clearly in response to a letter from Grace. Indeed, the continuation of a series of lost back and forths, since there is a big gap from the previous letter of January. What happened to all the letters in between? What we get in this postcard is a glimpse of the continuum, their ongoing dialogue, but like listening to only one side of a phone conversation.

Bishop packed as much as she could on the verso of this card. It is amazing how much she managed to type, filling the small space to the edges. Remember, she did so on a manual typewriter.

She began by instructing Grace to send “some maple syrup” directly to their post office box in Petrópolis, because “Mr. Liberal has left customs.” — perhaps someone who helped smooth the way for gifts from the north. (One wonders what sort of person this fellow was with a name like that!) While it took longer for mail to reach that destination, Bishop noted that it still seemed to get through.

Anything “maple” was eagerly and gratefully received by Elizabeth and Lota. Indeed, Aunt Mary had recently sent “a pound of Red Rose tea” and some maple sugar. The shipment from Grace was a business transaction, as Bishop indicates she will be sending a cheque. Grace, however, also begifted such northern treats on many occasions. And they always triggered vivid memories for Bishop. July was well past the maple syrup season in Nova Scotia (which is February/March), but maple products are available year round. Two producers of maple products in Colchester County are: Sugar Moon and Maple Mist.

The verso of this postcard was a view of Glória, Rio de Janeiro

“Poor Aunt F” is invoked again. It appears that Grace had finally seen her at some point during this year. Indeed, visited long enough to be part of a “dinner party.” Grace was gallivanting again. Bishop conceded, surely based on more reports from her Bishop cousins, that Florence was “getting worse.” Bishop confessed that she had always stayed away from her “as much as possible,” even as she “felt rather sorry for her.” Bishop’s biggest objection, declared emphatically, was that her aunt was a “snob…putting it mildly.”

The item mentioned most briefly in this brief communication concerned a big subject, Bishop’s health. The correspondence between them contained many discussions about all things medical and health-related (sadly, we see only one side of it). This shared interest was of long standing between them, for all sorts of reasons.

In this particular instance, Bishop tells Grace, “I have a BOIL, or boils,” one large on her kneecap and “some little ones.” Bishop’s reason for mentioning this infirmity was: “what do you suggest?” It is easy to imagine that Grace’s advice was practical and germane, even at a distance. Ever the person to make a joke, Bishop wrote that she new understood the old saying, “sore as a boil.”

“How was your trip?” Bishop asked, and promised that she would “write soon,” asking her aunt where to send her next letter. Bishop did write very soon after sending this postcard, a long letter dated 5 July 1956. The next post will begin a pondering of subjects in this epistle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

EBSNS AGM, 18 June 2016

Join the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia on Saturday, 18 June 2016, 1:30 p.m., at “In the Village” Café in Great Village, N.S. Our guest speaker is Halifax-based visual artist and architect Emma FitzGerald, who will be speaking about her artist residency in Brazil in the fall of 2015, when she visited Bishop’s houses. Her best-selling book Hand-Drawn Halifax (Formac) has been turned into a colouring book. See the EBSNS Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/EBSofNS) to learn more about the society’s activities and interests. Hope to see you in June!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 10: Work in progress

"I’m glad you liked the little poem about Pa,” wrote Bishop in her 18 January 1956 letter to Grace. This poem, “Manners,” appeared in the 26 November 1955 issue of The New Yorker. It doesn’t appear that Grace had a subscription to TNY, so somehow Bishop was sending them to her aunt. She told Grace that she had “done some more, 3 or 4,” that is, poems about childhood and children, and hoped “eventually, in a couple of years, to publish a little book of children’s poems.” She added that another poem had come out in the 10 December 1955 New Yorker, “Filling Station,” which she would also send, “you may think it’s funny. (At least it’s supposed to be.)”
(26 November 1955 cover of The New Yorker)
Bishop never collected and published a book of children’s poems, but she continued to work on poems that might have fit such a collection. The poems she directly mentions here, and the 3 or 4 others not named (likely including “Sestina,” which was published in the 15 September 1956 issue of TNY; “First Death in Nova Scotia,” which was published in the 20 March 1962 issue of TNY; and “Sandpiper,” published in the 21 July 1962 issue of TNY) ended up in her 1965 Questions of Travel.

As busy as Bishop was helping Henique Mindlin with his book about Brazilian architecture, and working on new poems, Bishop was, at this time, well into one of the biggest projects she ever undertook, the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, a Brazilian classic. This book is the diary of a young girl who grew up in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil. It had captured Bishop’s imagination and though she knew very little Portuguese, she embarked on the translation project with enthusiasm. It took her several years to complete.
Bishop wanted to title this translation “Black Beans and Diamonds,” but it eventually came to be called The Diary of ‘Helena Morely’, published in 1957.
The author of the diary was Alice Dayrell Caldiera Brant(1880–1970), still very much alive when Bishop began the translation

In letters to friends, she wrote about meeting Dona Alice and the introduction to the translation is a lengthy essay, which describes some of her encounters with the latter-day “Helena.” So committed was Bishop to this project, that she took a trip to Diamantina. She was disappointed by the mediocre reception of the diary in the US.
 (Dona Alice)
Bishop had already told Grace about this project, because in the letter Bishop notes, “The translation of the girl’s diary is almost done — about 3 weeks’ more work now.” She told her aunt that a publisher in England was on board, but she hadn’t “decided on a U.S. one yet,” noting how different the language in America was from England, which meant “a lot more work” to make sure idioms were correct: “in the U.S. one[,] I say ‘a can of candy,’ for example; and in the English one, ‘a tin of sweets,’ etc. etc.”

Bishop eventually went with Farrar, Straus and Cudhay as the American publisher, agreeing to give them her next poetry collection if they published the diary.

Bishop was always eager to hear what Grace thought of her work — poems, stories, reviews and translations. She made sure Grace and her family had all her books and sought their responses, especially her beloved aunt’s. She sent Grace a copy of the diary and asked her on a number of occasions what she thought of it. Grace’s response is, of course, lost. Mina Vida de Menina resonated with Bishop on so many levels, and she drew directly on her own childhood experiences to help her translate. She told Grace later on, that when it was too hard to translate Helena’s grandmother’s sayings into English, she thought about what Gammie (her maternal grandmother) would have said in a similar situation, and it worked just fine. In a small way, Bishop’s translation of the diary was an homage to her own childhood. 
 (Pa and Gammie, circa 1920s)

In Part 10, I will write about another postcard, which introduces a major subject of interest to aunt and niece: health.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace — Part 9: The Babies

One subject that Bishop knew would keenly interest her aunt was children, particularly babies and toddlers. In the mid- to late 1950s, the house as Samambaia was a veritable nursery, with several children present on a regular basis.

In Bishop’s letter of 18 January 1956, she gives an account of “Lota’s ‘granddaughter’,” Helena, who was the daughter of Lota de Macedo Soares’s “adopted” son Kylso. Kylso and his wife had several children in close succession (Helena, Paulinha, Roberto, Lotinha and Patricia). At this point, it was just Helena and her younger sister. During the late 1950s, these children spent time with their “granny” on a number of occasions, partly because Kylso and his family lived in a very small apartment in Rio, where, Bishop speculated, “they just never go to bed.” January 1956 appears to have marked Helena’s first visit, because Bishop is introducing her to Grace.

Bishop observed that she thought Lota was “causing a slight social scandal” when, in Petrópolis she told anyone who asked, that Helena was “My grandchild.” “So I imagine,” Bishop wrote, “people are asking each other when Lota had a child, and if the family hushed it up, or what!” This kind of speculation was familiar to Bishop because local gossips in Great Village had said of Arthur Bulmer, Grace's brother, that he “had” to marry Mabel Pigott, though it was decidedly not true, as their first child was born nearly two years after their wedding. Being from a small community, Grace would have appreciated Bishop’s observations on a number of levels, after all, Grace herself had eloped with the widower William Bowers, a “slight social scandal” in its day.

Bishop told Grace that Lota “would spoil Helena in no time,” thus proving to be “a real ‘granny’.” Bishop was quite intrigued by Helena, who “is barely three, and so good.” Yet, “she’s too clean for a child that age — always washing her face and hands, folding up her clothes and putting them away.” This behaviour made Bishop worry “a little.” On the trip to Petrópolis, Lota bought Helena an ice cream: “I came out of a store,” wrote Bishop, “& saw nothing but Helena’s little bottom sticking up in the air as she leaned over the side of the car to eat it.” Bishop observed, however, that this spoiling was doing the child good, as she “is already much fatter and sleeping much more than when she came.”

Helena was not the first baby to arrive in the household. Lota’s cook had a child on 7 February 1955, the day before Bishop’s birthday. She was named Maria Elizabeth. As Brett Millier notes, the cook wanted Bishop to be the child’s godmother, but because she was not baptized, the church would not allow it (Life & the Memory of It, 265). It is clear from this letter that Bishop had already told Grace about “Betty” (Millier says she was called “Bettchy”), because she mentions her without much background, and notes that at just under a year “she already has two teeth…and is walking a little…pretty good, isn’t that?”
Millier writes, “Elizabeth and Lota supervised the raising of Bettchy, relying heavily on Dr. Spock.” (265) In the letter to Grace, Bishop remarks that Lota had studied “child-psychology,” so she had a lot of theory to draw upon.
(Benjamin Spock himself, 1970s)
Sadly, Bettchy and her parents were gone by 1960 and Bishop never saw her again. Bettchy’s place was filled in 1961 when Mary Morse (Lota’s previous partner, who still lived nearby) adopted a baby, Monica. But the bigger gap was the loss of Kyslo’s family, around this same time, caused by a rift between Lota and her adopted son. (Millier 266) By 1960, however, preoccupations with children were quickly replaced by preoccupations with the creation of Parque do Flamengo, a huge project which became Lota’s true “baby.”
(Mary and Monica Morse. Source:
http://www.institutolotta.com.br/index.html )
The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the most conventionally domestic time of Bishop’s life, and also one of the most creative. Bishop told Grace, “It’s probably good for us to have babies around.” Elizabeth and Lota seemed inclined and suited to the roles of aunt and grandmother. They certainly had definite ideas about child-rearing, which is rather amusing considering they were never mothers. Grace, on the other hand, was the veteran in this field, already with a first grandchild and a second one due to arrive that year. It is sad that Grace’s responses to Bishop’s many stories and theories about these children are lost. Undoubtedly, they would have been amusing, practical and insightful. Grace had been such an integral part of Bishop’s own childhood, right from birth, that it is not surprising Bishop was eager to share details about their “babies.”

With all these children around, Bishop was thinking a great deal about her own childhood, and she had begun a translation project directly connected to the childhood of a famous Brazilian. In the next post, I will look at the work Bishop was engaged in at this time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 8: Ushering in 1956

How long does it take you, in January, to remember to write the new year, rather than the old one? In January 1956 it took Bishop well into the first month to make the switch. On the second letter to Grace in the Vassar folder for 1955 (EBP I, 25.3), Bishop typed “January 18th, 1955.” What she meant was 1956, as the letter clearly continues the back-and-forth narrative of the 19 December 1955 letter already discussed in this series. That Bishop didn’t ink in a correction suggests that it might have been even longer before she made the switch.

As will be my general method, again, I am going to pick out various elements of this letter and ponder them in some detail in the next few posts. Bishop introduces several new subjects (or, rather, continues with ones that were not mentioned in the December letter — though clearly they are familiar and on-going topics between niece and aunt). In this post, however, I follow up with subjects already discussed in previous posts. Bishop ushered in the new year by updating Grace about these various matters.

This letter was not the first communication written and sent by either Bishop or Grace. Bishop mentions having written “a hectic little note the other night,” which she had mailed to Brookline. But a letter from Grace, written on 9 January and just arrived, informed Bishop that she was back in Nova Scotia, staying with her daughter Phyllis: “I am somewhat relieved to hear!” Bishop wrote, “I didn’t like to think of you off galivanting [sic] with the roads the way they’re apt to be this time of year.” (One thing clearly evident from their correspondence is that letters between Bishop and Grace often crossed in the mail, so there was a certain expectation of delayed reaction. We have forgotten this kind of rhythm in our instantaneous communication when we are expected to know things before they happen!)

There was a holiday tradition, still in effect when I was a child, of showing visitors one’s gifts, which were kept under the tree well into the New Year (on my paternal side, it was until Epiphany). Since Bishop and Grace were so far apart, Grace did her show and tell in her letter, a list of the gifts she had received. Bishop responded to this list with, “I read your last present as ‘two bottles of urine’ the first time.” Perhaps someone can suggest what this gift might actually have been! Two bottles of wine?
(Not so distant from Bishop and Grace’s 1955
Christmas is this one from my family in 1959,
with my older sister amid the family’s gifts.)
Bishop also updated her aunt about progress on the architecture book with Henrique Mindlin. This “enormous undertaking” still entailed “a staggering amount of work,” for which Mindlin was totally responsible, “with my ‘editorial’ assistance,” as Bishop described it. She reported, with relief, that they were “finally getting it into shape.” She said she had lost eight pounds “so far” and declared “NEVER AGAIN.” She also noted that the book would be “very de luxe,” and would sell for $12.50 “or even $15.00” and was “going to be translated into four or five languages.” Bishop concluded this update with “I’m sure you’re bored to tears” by this subject, with the defense that she hadn’t been able to think about “anything else for five weeks now.”

The next update was about Aunt Florence. Bishop had received a letter from her cousin Kay Orr Sargent, informing that Florence had been difficult over Christmas. The new apartment was comfortable and spacious, but Bishop felt a nursing home would have been “better all around.” It wasn’t clear if Grace would be going back to Massachusetts to nurse, but Bishop advised that if she did Grace should limit exposure to “Bishop family fights.” Calling now and then on Florence would be the best approach. Prompted by Grace’s own declaration, Bishop concluded, “I hate Worcester, too, and don’t blame you for not wanting to go there — I’ve always thought it was a depressing city, but maybe just because I have depressing associations with it.”

For good measure, Bishop urged Grace to report the treatment she had received from Crotched Mountain Hospital to the American Medical Association, and hoped that she would “get that pay out of them.” Perhaps Grace did so. I can’t remember now if future letters refer to this matter. Time will tell.
 (The myth of air travel in the 1950s-1960s)
Finally, Bishop told Grace that Marjorie Stevens was still “planning to come in March, probably.” Air travel in 1956 was still rudimentary, and the flight to Brazil took 24 hours. When Bishop and Lota had visited the US in 1952, their return trip was “16 hours late, so you can imagine what that was like.” Bishop coped by drinking all her and Lota’s allotment of champagne and cocktails. The myth of glamorous air travel in the 1950s and 1960s did not make its way into Bishop’s narrative at any point. Indeed, she maintained a dislike of and remained afraid of flying her whole life.

In the next post I will ponder Lota’s “granddaughter” and the other children in the household at Samambaia at this time.