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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 17 – House Guest

Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, as well as to her writer friends, were often populated by the guests who were fairly common at Lota’s house in Samambaia, especially in the 1950s. Bishop’s vivid descriptions of these people are highly entertaining. One of them even ended up in a poem, “House Guest,” which Brett Millier says was “based loosely on … the sister of one of Lota’s aristocratic friends.” (411) This funny poem rarely receives attention (Millier gives it a sentence), but its existence comes from a fairly constant experience of Bishop’s Brazilian life. Though “House Guest” is a kind of caricature, still, it is entirely sympathetic toward “the sad seamstress,” who might actually be “one of the Fates … Clotho, sewing our lives.”
(Bishop's studio at Samambaia, where
she wrote "House Guest" -- photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
In the 28 August 1956 letter, Bishop offered her aunt a lively word portrait of another house guest, “an old friend of L’s.” This guest had been with them for two weeks, “resting up from her husband and mother and general debility.” She was “a beautiful Rio ‘society lady’,” who was so “delicate” that she made her hosts “feel like peasants.”

Whereas “the sad seamstress” was obsessed with sewing, the society lady was obsessed with “deciding what she can eat and can’t eat,” opting for “tea and dry toast and baked apples.” The rest of her days were spent “taking a bath, putting on make-up, taking a short walk, [and] taking a nap.” Bishop’s conclusion is that she was a “hypochondriac.” But “in spite of it all she’s really a very nice creature, with nice manners.”

Elizabeth and Lota tried to entertain her and persuade her to do other things: “we’re getting really tough and taking her to a movie in Petrópolis — I hope she doesn’t collapse on us!” (I wonder what was playing at the cinema in Petrópolis in late August 1956!)

After all this background, Bishop finally describes this person, physically, to Grace: “tall, blond, sort of grizzled hair [rather like Bishop’s], big perfect teeth (I envy my Brazilian friends their teeth …) and — one blue eye and one brown eye.” Curiously, Bishop never tells her aunt the name of this striking person.

Bishop’s life-long struggles with asthma, allergies and other illnesses would perhaps make her a little impatient with a relatively healthy person believing she was ill, wasting “so much of her life being sick like that,” with her “five bottles of medicine at her place at the table.” Even so, Bishop wasn’t entirely unsympathetic.

This house guest was a good Catholic, too, and asked to be taken to mass. “Lota — who is very anti-church — tried to get out of taking her.” In the end, other friends provided that service, but Elizabeth and Lota were required to fetch her at “a little church” near them. They arrived and “went in and got her off her knees.”

Bishop then tells Grace an interesting fact about their guest and about the history of Brazil: “She had a Scotch governess for 27 years.” As a result, “she speaks beautiful English with a slightly Scotch accent.” Bishop met other Brazilians who had had this kind of education: “There used to be lots of these brave Scotch and English governesses here.” One of the remnants of this pedagogy and upbringing was that “their ex-pupils all still eat oatmeal every morning!”

In “House Guest” the seamstress confessed that “she wanted to be a nun / and her family opposed her.”

“Perhaps we should let her go,
or deliver her straight off
to the nearest convent — and wasn’t
her month up last week, anyway?”

Tucked in this letter, long vanished, was a sprig of jasmine, which grew outside on her studio. Scribbled in her nearly indecipherable hand, Bishop wrote: “Smell this — if it has any smell left.” Brazilian Jasmine blooms are red, unlike the more commonly thought of white jasmine flower. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Bishop included a sprig of this exotic flower after describing their delicate, beautiful, nice house guest.
(Brazilian jasmine blossom)

The next post will introduce Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 16: The Voice

The first time I heard Elizabeth Bishop’s voice was in the early 1990s. I went to Special Collections at Dalhousie University in Halifax and borrowed an lp record done at the Library of Congress (you could take things out from S.C. at that time). The lp was translucent red! I took it home and listened to a young Bishop reading “Jerónimo’s House” and a couple other early poems. Bishop made this recording at the invitation of Robert Lowell, then Poetry Consultant, in October 1946. It was, however, not her first recording. Brett Millier notes that Bishop made a recording at Harvard University in September 1945, but it wasn’t very good. (194)

For someone as shy as Bishop, there is a remarkable archive of audio recordings of her reading, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. So many are there that Random House included her in its “Voice of the Poet” series, which is still available, if one is able to play cassettes.
The Library of Congress has recently launched an online digital archive of many of its recordings of poets. Bishop is included, but interestingly, the 1946 recording is not listed. The recordings are of events at which Bishop read with other poets in 1969 and 1974

It appears that Bishop made another recording at Harvard in1947. You can hear it on Harvard’s “Listening Booth” website. Along with a number of other recordings connected to Bishop.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 28 August 1956. Bishop noted, “I’ve been very busy the last few weeks.” She had made a number of trips to Rio, mostly to see the dentist and the doctor; but one thing she did during the previous week’s visit was spend “a horrible day making a recording of poems” in a recording studio at the U.S. Embassy. The recording was for “a commercial company in N.Y.” — what would that have been and why? Bishop doesn’t say. She says that the embassy let her use the studio and her friend Rosinha went with her “and held my hand, figuratively speaking….Lota couldn’t get away.” The recording took all day, “10 to 5, with lunch out.” Bishop’s assessment: “I record abominably, but sort of felt I had to [do the recording].” This commercial outfit did “make a little money,” but Bishop couldn’t “imagine anyone buying them, really.” By the end of the day, she, Rosinha and the sound-engineer were “exhausted.”

One of the Rio trips took her to see the young allergy doctor, whom she had mentioned to Grace a number of times. It is in this letter we learn what gift Bishop decided to give him, since he would not take any money from her: “so I gave him a copy of my book, and now I’m trying to get someone in New York to buy me some sort of very elegant brief-case.” Such items were not easily bought in the Rio of the 1950s. She was quite determined to find some way to repay him for all the “tests and serums etc.,” which he had been giving her for a couple of years. “I hate to think what I would have paid a doctor in N.Y. for it all.” It was this young doctor who had “hit on the infection or whatever it was.” And she happily declared to her aunt that she hadn’t had “asthma for months, for the first time in 15 years or so.”

In Rio she also was getting some clothes made: “a suit and two dresses” because of her weight loss. These new outfits were tailored with such precision that if she gained “an ounce” she wouldn’t “be able to get into them; they’re like the paper on the wall.”

One of the wonderful things about these letters is the way Bishop writes to her aunt as if she is simply talking to her, as if they were chatting over coffee and not thousands of miles apart, with weeks, even months between the letters. Clearly, Grace was a vivid presence in Bishop’s mind, and staying connected was a priority between aunt and niece.

The next post will introduce a house guest.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 15 Odds and Ends

Following is the final post about Bishop’s letter of 5 July 1956. Bishop didn’t write only about finances, health and world events to Grace, she was also eager for Grace to learn about her literary successes. At this moment in time that included the Pulitzer Prize, which she received in May for her collection Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring.
(Pulitzer Prize medal)
Bishop had informed her aunt about this prestigious award (which, she said helped convince Lota’s many friends that she {Bishop} really was a poet) in an earlier letter; but that letter is no longer extant. She asked, “I don’t think you got the funny clippings about the Pulitzer P that I sent you from here, did you?” Bishop noted that she had sent the same package of clippings to Aunt Florence, “and she never mentioned them either.” Resignedly, she observed that a batch of eight letters sent at the same time seemed to have “got lost.” But just as well, she added, as the photos of her were “far from flattering, but Lota’s library came out pretty well.” She sent them not only to “amuse” Grace, and to let her aunt see “what a sylph I am…118 lbs — 115 is my goal”; but also because it deeply  mattered to Bishop that her favourite aunt know of this success.

Grace’s most recent letter must have contained a response to a poem of Bishop’s that she had recently read. Her niece replied, “The poem you saw must have been ‘Manuelzinho’ — about L’s kind-of-a-gardener — wasn’t it? It’s all completely true.” So, Grace was keeping track of things on her own, too.
("Manuelzinho," published in The New Yorker on 26 May 1956)
Bishop recounts a few stories about Betty (the cook’s daughter): “She’s almost 18 months old now, has 10, almost 12 teeth, and is ‘into everything’.” Bishop offers another lengthy disquisition about child-rearing to her expert aunt (“but they say NO all day long, when it’s much easier to put the carving knife where it belongs…”), concluding, “Well, all this about babies isn’t exactly news to you, I’m afraid.”

She gets around to Aunt Florence, too: “Your dinner party with Aunt F sounds rather grim!” One can only imagine the things Florence said to Bishop during her childhood and adolescence to make Bishop observe over and over that “she is really absolutely impossible, poor thing,” because she always managed to “say the most unkind thing of all.” One of those things, as Bishop remembered was: “One of her favorite cracks to me is that being a writer makes a woman coarse, or masculine…!”

In spite it all, Bishop continued to correspond with Florence, and when her aunt died in the early 60s, she left her niece a bequest. It would be interesting to know what Bishop did with this money.

This letter also mentions several of her cousins: 1. two Bishop cousins, Kay and Nancy, who had the unenviable task of dealing with Florence; 2. Phyllis, Grace’s daughter, who was about to have her second child; and 3. Elizabeth, Mary’s oldest daughter, who ended up living in Brazil for several years. Family (that is, relatives) were not distant abstractions for Bishop. She kept in continuous contact with her aunts and cousins, and seemed genuinely keen to hear about their activities, especially Grace’s children. As Ellie O’Leary recently wrote in an essay about Bishop and her childhood, Bishop was an orphan but not abandoned. No one can replace parents and siblings, of course, but Bishop’s ties with family were complex and enduring (just like they are for most of us).

As solitary as Bishop was, like her “Sandpiper,” on many levels, she adhered quite persistently to her family, even as they were difficult to deal with, even as they were far away when she lived in Brazil.

The next post will look at a letter Bishop wrote in late August 1956.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

From Our Correspondent in Minsk --

-- comes this delightful visualization of an incident that occurred when EB was complecting the marvellous Cornell Box which in fractal transmogrification graces our masthead.  Natalia Povalyaeva quotes EB:

«The pacifier was bright red rubber. They sell them in big bottles and jars in drugstores in Brazil. I decided it couldn’t be red, so I dyed it black with India ink. A nephew of my Brazilian friend, a very smart young man, came to call while I was doing this. He brought two American rock-and-roll musicians and we talked and talked and talked, and I never thought to explain in all the time they were there what I was doing. When they left, I thought, "My God, they must think I’m a witch or something!"» (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, p. 120).

Thank you, Natalia!