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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 14 “These new drugs”

Bishop’s letter of 5 July 1956 contains an addendum dated 16 July. The first part got “mislaid” and she went to Rio for several days. The letter turned up again in her studio at Samambaia and Bishop finished and mailed it, with a cheque for $15, for the maple syrup Grace was commissioned to obtain and send (an amount which Bishop hoped would cover the postage — these days, that amount wouldn’t even cover a fraction of the postage!)

In the initial part of the letter, Bishop had updated Grace about her boils, giving her aunt an account of how they came to manifest. She had “an infected gum, first,” which infection decided to move to her knee, where erupted enough boils that walking was not possible. As always, Lota’s “tender care” kicked in and that with the help of “Antiphlogistine” and vitamin B, she began to feel better quickly, even though the boils persisted: “God knows what it is.” She noted that she would see a doctor in Rio about this situation, “as soon as I can.”

That consultation happened while she was visiting Rio in the days between 5 and 16 July, so Bishop was able to provide a second update in the same letter. As it turned out, the boils were “a bad reaction to penicillen” [sic] which she had taken for the gum infection (three shots of it). “Fortunately,” she noted, “I take metacorten [sic] all the time anyway, for asthma, and that’s just what I should have taken.” Once the penicillin was out of her system, the boils turned to red lumps, then to bruises.
 chemical formula for penicillin
“When someone is allergic like me, you never know what may happen, apparently,” she wrote to Grace, who understood well enough these causations. Just like the “ghastly” plane crashes she wrote about, Bishop observed what we all know (and even more so today, with even more reason), “These new drugs are fearful & wonderful, aren’t they.”

To further reassure Grace, Bishop noted that she had a good allergy doctor, “the best in Rio, a young man, a friend of a friend, and he won’t take a cent.” Even as Bishop argued with him about this generosity, he would not relent, so she told Grace that she’d now have to figure out some sort of present to give him. Stay tuned. Her next letter reveals what gift she chose, and I will let you know when we get there.

Fast forward over four decades: On 2 February 1998, I gave a talk to members of the History of Medicine Society in Halifax, Nova Scotia: “‘In the Waiting Room’: Elizabeth Bishop’s History of Medicine.” Like finances/money, health/medicine were foundational forces in Bishop’s life, affecting every aspect of it. In Grace, she had a correspondent who not only cared about her health issues, but also understood them deeply, having spent most of her early adult life tending to the sick and injured. Doctors and hospitals were present in Bishop’s life from the beginning and they played important roles in shaping her world view. And her letters to her aunt contain many references to all things medical (one of their main subjects).

Thus, it seemed logical to talk to a room full of doctors about Bishop’s close relationship with the medical world. After all, at one point, Bishop almost gave up poetry to become a doctor.

I don’t remember giving the talk, alas, at least not any particulars. But I do remember the q&a was lively and the doctors were surprised and impressed by Bishop’s knowledge of drugs and medical procedures. (If anyone is interested in this talk, I can send a pdf — just make a comment to the blog with your email address.)
 Nova Scotia Hospital (N.S. Archives)
I puzzled for awhile over an appropriate image for this post (how does one show “these new drugs.” But then I thought of the above image of perhaps the most important hospital in Bishop’s life: The Nova Scotia Hospital (a.k.a. Mount Hope), in Dartmouth, N.S., where her mother Gertrude spent 18 years of her life. If you start looking for hospitals, nurses, doctors and other medical elements in Bishop’s poetry and prose, you find quite a population of them, and no surprise. Medical and health issues were not just daily things that happened to Bishop, she pulled them into her art, too, and looked at them from all angles, transformed them into symbols, metaphors, emblems, which resonate for us all.
St. Elizabeth's Hospital
The image above is of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. One of Bishop’s official duties when she was Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress in 1949–1950 was to visit Ezra Pound, incarcerated there. Out of those experiences came “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” a somewhat controversial poem. What is fascinating and little known is that the woman responsible for establishing St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Dorothea Dix, also played an instrumental role in the creation of the Nova Scotia Hospital. I have written in detail about this connection in my book Lifting Yesterday. Bishop was quite aware of Dix’s involvement with both hospitals and said to her friend Dorothee Bowie that the only biography she ever wanted to write was about Dix because she had helped the mentally “insane.”
The next post will be the last for the 5 July 1956 letter and return to poor Aunt Florence and other matters.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia AGM, 18 June 2016

About thirty members and friends gathered at the "In the Village" Cafe in Great Village, N.S., on Saturday afternoon 18 June 2016 for the EBSNS Annual General Meeting. Our guest speaker, Halifax artist Emma FitzGerald, gave a lively talk about her artist residency in Rio de Janeiro, where she worked on a project inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's poems. Here are some images of that day, taken by EBSNS member Susan Kerslake.
(The business part of the day.)
(l to r) (Life member Lois Bray, our new
Vice President Judith van Duren,
and long-time member Barbara Bell.)
(Emma FitzGerald weaving her tales of Brazil)
(Tea, treats and talk)
Thanks to all who came out to help us celebrate Elizabeth Bishop "In the Village." Go to the EBSNS website to read the minutes of the meeting and the President's Report.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 13: Getting down to business

Even Elizabeth Bishop knew she was “no business-woman.” Her relationship with money was complex and fraught. She was a fortunate writer in some ways because she had inheritance from her father, mother and paternal grandfather. This inheritance provided at least some income for a good part of her adult life. But she had little interest in managing her finances, perhaps because she professed to have little ability to do so. Indeed, from her earliest childhood, until she came of age, her inheritance was managed by her mother, then her grandfather and then her paternal uncle.

Even with money in hand, and increasing success as a writer (being published, receiving awards, fellowships and other prizes), Bishop always seemed to worry about money, about having enough to live on. Her life-long health issues and their attendant costs were certainly enough to keep her at least concerned about finances. Though, as she admits in her Depression era memoir “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” she didn’t really have to work in a conventional way, until much later life.

Bishop disliked teaching, but in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, she taught because she needed the money. She did readings, an activity she disliked even more than teaching, for the money. She sold the Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore letters in her possession in the 1970s because she needed the money. She was always very direct about this motivation. In her letters to Grace in the early 1970s, worry about money is a regular theme, especially as she approached retirement.

Money is even a subject in her poems and stories. Perhaps her first awareness about money as a force in daily life came in Great Village during her early childhood. Her memoir “In the Village” contains several fascinating references to money.

For example, it refers to a five-cent piece Bishop receives as a gift, with the image of King George V on it. The above image is not of a nickel, but this gives you the idea. This coin dates 1916, the year of “In the Village.”

And much later in her life, one thinks of “Poem” where art and money are directly linked, the little painting having never earned any money in its life, even though it is the size of an old-style dollar bill.
The "old-style dollar bill" painting by Bishop's Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson.

In her own letters to friends and colleagues, money is a not infrequent subject. As much as artists want and need to be outside the crass realm of business and commercialism, unless they are independently wealthy, artists are often, reluctantly, obsessed with money, or the lack of it.

I have always thought a book, or at least an essay, about Bishop and money would be well worth the effort and quite revealing. It is a subject that directly touched every aspect of her life from birth to death; but it is a subject that seems to be somewhat taboo: too private? too uncomfortable? too crude?

In her letters to Grace, Bishop wrote about her finances and business transactions, especially in the 1960s, when Brazil was going through serious economic upheaval. Such subjects were not central in their dialogue, but they were present in ways that demonstrates how these issues mattered to Bishop.

In the 5 July 1956 letter to Grace, Bishop tells her aunt that she is “investing some money here.” She had borrowed from her bank in the US (I don’t know if anyone has ever figured out what bank(s) Bishop dealt with — perhaps not much of an issue, but it would be interesting to know) and invested it in Brazil. The nature of this investment is not revealed in the letter, but Bishop tells Grace that “interests are fantastically high.” Bishop had help in this endeavour from “a friend of mine who’s supposed to be a great money-maker.” The idea was to make “enough to live on here” and “send some more $$$ back to the U.S.” Bishop seemed quite sure this plan would work, even though she had “never thought of doing anything like that before.” She declared that it must be “the ‘Bishop side,’ as Aunt F would say, — the grandpa B side!”
 “Grandpa B”: John Wilson Bishop
The Bishop side of her family was decidedly all business. Her paternal grandfather, John W. Bishop, was a self-made man who had created a solid construction company in New England, building landmark buildings such as the Boston Public Library. Grace herself knew the Bishops well enough and understood their inclination. In her letter, Bishop declared, “Anything artistic I feel positive couldn’t come from there, even if my father did do well in high-school.” Bishop’s father, William, might very well have been the most “artistic” of this family, a well-read, gentle and thoughtful man, who clearly cared about more than just making one buck and then another.

Perhaps Bishop’s aversion to dealing with money and finances came from seeing these forces dominate her paternal side. But even as she lacked a business acumen, she did have to deal with her “living” at every stage of her life, and especially so as she aged. I do not know if Bishop's investment paid off as well as she hoped.

The next post will deal with more health and medical matters.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 12: The Fear of Flying

The next extant letter for 1956 is dated 5 July, the promised full response that Bishop mentioned in her postcard. This letter contains a number of ongoing and new subjects, and the next couple of posts will focus on them in turn.

Bishop’s dislike of flying was something she mentioned on more than one occasion to Grace. One of my previous posts introduced the subject of air travel.

Grace’s view of this mode of transportation is unknown, but it might have been similar to her niece’s because Bishop mentions a recent news event that clearly unsettled her, something she thought would interest Grace: “Weren’t those airplane accidents ghastly.” So upsetting were they that Bishop observed she would not have gone to Diamantina (a trip she took in April) “after them.”

Of course, I wondered what plane crash had happened, and thanks to Google and the internet, I learned about a tragic mid-air collision of two aircraft over the Grand Canyon, on 30 June 1956, only a few days before Bishop’s letter, so indeed a very current event. It was the first airplane crash in aviation history causing over 100 deaths. 128 people perished.

Commercial transcontinental, transatlantic/pacific flight was still in its early years, though expanding rapidly. This terrible accident clearly shocked the world. Bishop noted, trying to lighten what for her was a dark subject, told her aunt about a painter friend of theirs who had recently flown to Europe. When, upon arriving, he was asked how he liked the flight, his said, “It was the longest fright I ever had.”

Bishop is, of course referring specifically to the Colorado tragedy in her letter, though it is interesting that she writes “airplane accidents” (plural). As I searched online, I found a site that lists plane crashes that have occurred in each year, planecrashinfo.com, and discovered that there were over 50 plane crashes in the world in 1956, including one on 15 May, when a Canadian air force plane crashed into a populated area in Orleans, Ontario, and killed over two dozen people on the ground.

I myself am afraid of flying. Like Bishop, I have flown in spite of it; but never comfortably. We are told that flying is safer than driving in a car; but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like that. Well, humans are quite irrational on many levels. I wonder how many of these 50+ crashes Elizabeth and Grace heard about in 1956, multiple accidents each month, most not of the magnitude of the one in Colorado, but they all added up to a deadly year in aviation.

I am not sure when Bishop’s first flight occurred. From birth, she was a frequenter of ships and trains, which continued when she began to travel on her own in the 1920s and 1930s. Her first vivid description of flight that I have found appears in a journal she kept in August 1951, when she made a trip to Nova Scotia and Sable Island. For some reason, Bishop chose to fly, from New York to Boston and then on to Nova Scotia.

The trip journal begins with a description of this flight, which seemed to fascinate more than frighten her. On the New York to Boston leg, she wrote that they saw only one other plane, miles off, and commented in a way that invokes her poem “Manners”: “It seemed wrong not to hail it, for the 2 planes not to approach each other & talk over the strangeness of being there at all – It didn’t seem possible.” The plane landed at an airport in Dartmouth, “a clearing in the fir woods,” and she took a little ferry across the harbour to Halifax. For the Nova Scotia to Sable Island leg, she boarded the HMCS Cornwallis (a Coast Guard resupply ship) to make the journey. She approached Sable Island by sea.

In May 2008, I had the great privilege of going to Sable Island, thanks to a kind invitation from Zoe Lucas. Along with writer Janet Barkhouse, we went by air and I felt quite reassured because our pilot was a woman, Debbie, and very experienced. A regular trip for her. It might have been the least nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever taken. I wished Bishop had seen Sable Island from the sky. She would have appreciated its striking appearance way out there in the vast ocean.
 Sable Island by air, May 2008. Photo by Janet Barkhouse
Janet Barkhouse (centre), Sandra (right) and
Sable Island Station Manager Gerry on the South Beach
In her 1951 journal, she was fascinated by the geography beneath her (the plane flew only 11,000 feet up): “N.S. looked lovely from the air — fresh dark greens, red outline, glittering lines of rivers — more animated than Maine had looked — & that amazing cleanness that strikes me every time.” By 1956, flight was more common, but the skies were becoming more dangerous, too. The adventure was turning into an anxiety, at least for Bishop.

The next post will look at a subject for which Bishop had little acumen: business.