"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.

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