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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 20: Rainy Season

One of Bishop’s loveliest evocations of her time in the house at Samambaia is her poem “Song for the Rainy Season,” describing the fog and flowers, the “magnetic rock” and “giant fern,” the clouds and waterfalls surrounding the “open house.” This poem appeared in The New Yorker on 8 October 1960. The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the happiest time of Bishop’s adult life, when her days amid the abundance of the sub-tropics, in the countryside away from the city, were as domestic and creative as she needed and wanted. Her letter of 19 October 1956 was written well before “Song for the Rainy Season” emerged, but Bishop’s descriptions of her surrounds to Aunt Grace clearly foretell the poem.

Bishop was indeed deep into the domestic at this time, all aspects of it, including medical matters, some of which connected to the very flora and fauna of her surrounds. “We give ourselves shots, when we need them,” Bishop reported “even penicillen [sic].” Bishop was giving herself all her “allergy shots,” as well as administering them to “the cook, the workmen, etc.” Bishop was being nurse, just like Aunt Grace had been for her decades before. She even noted, “we have anti-snake serum on hand all the time, just in case,” because “there are a few deadly ones around.” Since Bishop had arrived, however, it hadn’t been needed, “thank goodness.”

Just for good measure, Bishop explained, “Lota and I are taking something called Geri-Caps — Park Davis,” Bishop declared, noting that this medication was for “old ladies,” and asking Grace if she gave them to her patients, “blue capsules with yellow stripes.” Bishop assured Grace that she was feeling fine taking them, along with some vitamins, though she observed in her good skeptic’s manner, “maybe I’d feel fine without anything!”

All of this medical activity was happening amid the onset of the rainy season: “It’s pouring rain,” Bishop stated, observing that “in fact there was scarcely a dry season.” As a result of all the rain, the flowers were busting forth: agapanthus, “huge blue or white lilies …all up the hillside.” These could reach “3 or 4 ft high.” There were also azaleas, allyssum [sic], phlox, sweet william [sic] and irises: “all over the place.”
(Agapanthus in full flower)
With all this flowering, they had decided “to keep bees. I’ve always wanted to.” They were awaiting four hives of “Italian bees,” to be brought by a man, who would “install them and care for them when you need him.” Much of the motivation for this important ecological action was the honey, “friends of ours got about 50 pounds” of honey from the hives they had installed. The hives had to be built in a special way to prevent ants from moving in and taking over. “The ants here would eat US, I think, if we didn’t watch out.”
(Perhaps this is the kind of Brazilian bee hive Bishop writes about.)
The image of Brazilian bees from my childhood is that of “killer bees” and the great fear that they would reach North America. Clearly, these continental bees were safe and beneficial.

Also in the midst of all this domestic preoccupation, Bishop told Grace that she’d not heard from poor old Aunt Florence “for about a month, or more.” She noted that she’d had a letter from someone named Fulton, who worked for her grandfather’s company (which still existed though her grandfather and uncle were long gone), “about a piece of land I own but have never seen.” She doesn’t elaborate about this property, but rather tells her aunt that Fulton could “scarcely write, poor boy …. I was rather shocked.” As she signed off this letter filled with all sorts of domestic subjects, she urged Grace to “write again” and tell her about the new job and “your building plans.”

There were just as many flowers and trees at the Samambaia house in 1999, such as this amazing “blood-red” bromelia.
Ed. Note: In light of the revelations that are discussed in the news item posted on this blog on 17 August, I can't post this "Letters to Grace" without acknowledging them. I only just today read about them. Until Bishop's letters to Dr. Foster were made public, the tragic experiences of Bishop's childhood, could only be speculation. Some might say these things are too private to be discussed by strangers, but such is the way of the world, these days (reality and talk show television have transformed our world). And perhaps Bishop would be relieved that they are no longer secret. Bishop's cousin, Phyllis Sutherland, who was a dear friend of mine, only very obliquely hinted at secrets; but she was a whole generation younger than Bishop and such things were kept so well hidden that perhaps she didn't even try to speculate herself. I suppose it is now inevitable that a whole raft of writing will happen in the academy about these revelations and it will come to define Bishop as lesbianism and mental illness have done at various times. We are the sum of all our experiences and Bishop was about as complex a person and artist as they come. My feeling about all of this, as someone who has explored deeply Bishop's childhood and her maternal family, is profound sadness. Perhaps I will have more to say about it sometime, but I am not sure. If these letters are ever published (and I suppose they are at least amply quoted in the upcoming biographies about her), they will really say that can be said. What else can we say in the face of such sorrow, but how sorry we are.

Click here to see Part 19.

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