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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

First Encounter XLII: Alexandra Hirschel

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop was in 2014 when I watched the film “Reaching for the Moon,” which in German is simply called “Die Poetin” (The Poet). I found that title interesting, probably because I had started writing short stories myself in 2013. While I watched the film I didn’t even realize that it was about a real person. I thought it was a fictional story until I read the quotations of Miss Bishop and Robert Lowell at the end of the film. I had watched a lot of films about writers before but none of them haunted me like “Reaching for the Moon.” I thought about the quoted poems in the film for weeks until finally, in September 2014, I bought Bishop’s complete poems.
The first poem I read was “The Map” — I had some problems with “Norway’s hare” until I opened an atlas and found Norway looking like a running hare. The second poem I read was “A Cold Spring,” which has become one of my favorites and opened Bishop’s beautiful world of metaphors to me. Probably that is what I love so much about her poetry, that she describes everything so detailed. As I’m not a native speaker I sometimes have to look up quite a lot of words in the dictionary, but Bishop’s great descriptions are really worth having a close look on them.

It didn’t take long until I had read much more poems. At that time we had to do presentations in our English class at school and I decided that Miss Bishop’s poetry would be a great topic. I suggested to present Bishop as well as her poem “One Art.” Our teacher was enthusiastic because she hadn’t heard of Miss Bishop before. At that time I also found the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, where I got very kind answers to all my questions from Sandra Barry.

Some time after I had presented Bishop in class I read Remembering Elizabeth Bishop — An Oral Biography. I really could identify with Bishop in her early years, as I had always felt out of place in school. Living at the edge of the German Alps one usually does a lot of winter sports, but I never did like those things. That made me the odd one out at elementary school, I think. Especially in the last two years, Miss Bishop’s poetry and stories helped me a lot in finding my way. I struggled with the decision of what I would study after finishing my final exams. Unlike Bishop, who chose to become a writer, I chose to study veterinary medicine. I haven’t regretted my decision so far and find it quite funny that we seem to share an interest in medicine.

Recently — in February 2017 — I organized an Elizabeth Bishop evening with some of my texts and Bishop’s poems because I find it a pity that only few people here in Germany are familiar with Miss Bishop, who is such a great poet. Over the last years she really has become my favorite writer.
(Alexandra during her reading in February 2017.)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 45: Money matters

Bishop’s concluding paragraph in her 19 July 1959 letter to Grace is packed with updates and observations about life in Brazil.

In a couple of previous letters, Bishop had hinted that they were planning another trip to the US, with a hope of making it to Nova Scotia this time (their last visit to the US had been in 1957 to shepherd The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ into print).

But Bishop now had to admit to herself and her aunt that such a trip was not possible: “I DON’T think I’ll get to the U.S. or anywhere this year.” She admitted that this idea was
“a wild-day dream,” and she shouldn’t have tempted Grace with “that idea.” Bishop was pondering “applying for another fellowship of some sort for next year,” but since it, too, was just an idea, she didn’t go into details. She confessed to Grace that she would “love to get back for a while,” but the reason it was unlikely was money, “I am too broke and haven’t been earning anything for a long, long stretch, alas.”

She does report that she “just did sell one poem to The New Yorker, but poems don’t ‘bring in’ very much, of course.” This poem was “The Riverman.” Bishop received confirmation of this acceptance and payment for it two days before she wrote to Grace, in a letter from Katharine White, who wrote on 6 July: “Howard [Moss] took off just before he could put through for payment of your beautiful poem, “The River Man [sic].” At least he had the excitement and pleasure of reading and voting on it. It is your first poem since 1956, I believe, an I can’t tell you how happy we are — all of us — to have it. Worth waiting for! For me, it’s a magical poem that casts a spell — one of your very best.” (Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, ed. Joelle Biele. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010, 210.) Bishop responded to White on 18 July.

While it was nice to sell the poem, she told her aunt that she needed to “get my two stories done soon!” I am not sure what these might be, but Millier says she was writing a lot of Brazil pieces during 1959.

The subject of income triggered some observations about Brazil’s economy, which was still in a stretch of “bad inflation,” with “prices go[ing] up and up.” Because Bishop had US currency, “some things still seem very cheap to me, food for example, and my dollar has gone up some, too.” But overall, “general life is more expensive for me here than it was.”

Mentioning food triggered yet another observation: “They have started, last year, super-markets in Rio.” Today, we can’t imagine shopping any place else. We must have a movement (“Buy Local,” for example) to shift our buying patterns, but the 1950s was the surge to consolidation of the consumer, though probably in the US this kind of shift was well underway. Interesting that it was only beginning to manifest in Brazil.
(The supermarket phenomenon, 1950s style.)
Bishop told Grace that on the day they returned to Samambaia, “we went to one [super-market] and laid in a supply of groceries.” Bishop still preferred to shop at the traditional “big covered market” in Petrópolis, saying it was “more fun.” But the down-side was having to “go to ten or twelve different places for things, and from stall to stall.” She listed the vendors: meat, fish, egg, fruit, cheese men; a bakery; a coffee bean place, and so on. The benefit of having everyone in one spot was they had done their task “all in about half an hour in Rio.” The other matter about the “street markets” was that they were “wasteful and usually dirty.”
(A glimpse of the glory of supermarket produce in 1960.)
These observations triggered yet another thought: “Times are changing here very fast.” Since her arrival in Brazil, “so many things have changed.” In keeping with the food theme, Bishop mentions a change she’d noted before: “We have pasteurized milk in Rio now — not enough of it, but you can get it.” That change had yet to make it to Petrópolis, where they “still fight every day almost with our neighbor to please put a little less water in the milk,” a practice Brazilians called “baptizing.” Scribbled in the bottom margin was the coda, “ Then it has to be boiled & boiled.”

Bishop closed her letter with her usual: “With lots of love and please write again.”

Ed. Note: I am going to take a hiatus from “Letters to Aunt Grace.” I am not sure for how long, but it will be for at least several weeks or a month or so. When I return to this series (if I do), I will take up the narrative with Bishop’s next letter, dated 25 August 1959.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 44: Health and family updates

Having dispatched the “newsy notes” and recipes that opened her letter of 19 July 1959, Bishop turned to medical matters, those in Brazil and those with her aunt.

The first family member to be updated was Bishop’s “poor cat.” Was it Tobias? She doesn’t say, but most likely that is who it was. While they were in Rio, the cat had “developed two bald spots in front of his ears.” This development made their cook, who was holding down the fort, “frantic.” Bishop had mentioned in a previous letter how the cook had called “every day,” something that had made Bishop “wonder.” She was able to tell Grace, “however, he’s rapidly getting his hair back.” Bishop supposed that he had eaten “a poisonous lizard or something.”

In addition to the cat’s troubles, their car was still ailing. Bishop informed Grace that they had “arrived back with the car busted again.” Remember the story about pushing it down the mountain in Rio. As a result, they had not yet seen “the new baby,” who, Bishop reiterated is “named Patricia.”
(Bishop with Tobias. From Carmen Oliveira, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas:
A história de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop.
Rocco: Rio de Janeiro, 1996 (between 64–65).)
Bishop had seen her doctor in Rio and offered Grace a wry update: “The doctor’s final remark on my big little-finger joint was: ‘Post-forty degeneration.’ That’s a cheering thought! Let’s hope it doesn’t spread.”

But what concerned Bishop more was her aunt’s health. She knew Grace was having tests and asked her to “tell me if you’ve had x-rays and a cardiograph.” Bishop herself had undergone the latter test a couple of years before because her “asthma-doctor wanted one just on general principles.” Grace knew well enough Bishop’s “history of asthma, adrenalin-taking etc.” Bishop reported that the test showed only “thickened lung tissues, naturally, after all this time.” She assured her aunt, as if the practicing nurse wouldn’t know, that a cardiograph test was “no trouble at all, in fact I rather enjoyed it.” Grace was clearly having some “heart business,” which caused Bishop real concern. “Please don’t go taking digitalis unless you know what’s wrong exactly — it is dangerous.” Grace must have complained about “pains in the lower chest, suffocation feelings, etc.,” which Bishop observed could “come from other causes perfectly well, you know.”

Bishop and Grace shared, for many obvious reasons a fascination with all things medical. It was one of the main subjects in their letters. The irony was that Grace was far healthier than Bishop, even at her more advanced age, living to nearly 90 to Bishop’s 68. Grace’s decades of nursing and Bishop’s own bent towards medicine, because of her direct childhood encounters with it, made their shared interest a dominant theme.

Bishop concluded this short dense paragraph with another diagnosis: “‘Angina’ can mean so many things, or nothing at all, by itself.” — with a final question: “How is that leg?” Bishop’s questions to her aunt were not dutiful courtesy, but deep, even anxious concern. Grace was her direct link to all that was Nova Scotia and maternal family. Bishop needed to stay connected to that place and time and those people to such a degree that she even allowed herself to write the name of the one person on her maternal side who had betrayed her trust: George Shepherdson (Aunt Maude’s husband). It is clear that Grace never learned of the abuse he inflicted on Bishop. By this time, George, a widower of 19 years, was again living in Nova Scotia. Grace, the remaining Bulmer in the province kept in touch with her brother-in-law out of a sense of duty and had offered Bishop and update in her most recent letter. In spite of everything he did to her, Bishop actually allowed herself to respond (perhaps because she did not want to rouse Grace’s suspicions).

“Poor Uncle George — it is sad, all right.” Just what was sad about George’s life is not, of course, repeated. There was no need. Clearly, one of the issues was some sort of isolation: “Do you think he has any other friends there besides that housekeeper’s daughter?” Why would Bishop care if he was lonely? Bishop then offers yet another medical assessment: “Part of his troubles has always been due to one very simple thing, too — too much starch.” What is one to think of such a conclusion? Is Bishop serious? Ironic? George was a tall man and too much carbohydrate and age had triggered “weight” issues and even “exzema,” [sic] a condition Bishop knew well. The last time Bishop saw him was likely in 1940 in Florida, just before Maude and George drove home to Great Village, where Maude promptly proceeded to die.

The next relative to get the treatment was Aunt Florence. Efforts had been underway to get “her into that Episcoplian [sic] home,” and Bishop had written to her cousin Kay Orr Sargent to find out the status of this effort, which required the intervention of her aunt’s doctor; but she hadn’t “heard yet.” Florence and George were handfuls, “It is even worse than Uncle G,” Bishop noted, because Florence “fights with everyone and hurts their feelings in the cruelest way.” For all their disagreeableness, for all the ways they had hurt Bishop during her childhood, somehow she was able to cast her distant gaze towards these difficult people and wonder about their circumstances. She was safe from any lashing out that might have been directed to her, yet, still, she seemed to want to know.

With health and family issues tended to, Bishop concludes her letter with some observations about Brazil. The next post will address these.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 43: More recipes

A good chunk of Bishop’s letter of 19 July 1959 is taken up with food. After addressing a number of miscellaneous matters in the first paragraph, Bishop launches right into a detailed description of how to make “the Orange Spread” — “the” suggests that it is a subject they had discussed before (none of the surviving letters to date mention it, but clearly Bishop had promised her aunt the recipe).

Under Bishop’s hand, even the most mundane of subjects come off sounding like one of her poems. The long paragraph detailing all the tasks required to make the spread reads like a prose poem. I cannot quote it in full, but you will get the idea from some of the phrases.

The spread required what Bishop called a “liquidizer” — the British word for blender. For Bishop, the preferred appliance as “a good Waring mixer.” Musician and band leader Fred Waring is the name associated with the first modern electric blender, offered to overworked housewives in the 1930s.
Even as late as 1959, it was Bishop’s brand of choice, a small appliance for the serious cook.
She instructed Grace to choose “1 big orange (the softer the skin the better).” Bishop preferred “navel oranges.” This fruit had to be “cut up with all the skin, juice, etc.,” and, along with a lemon or lime, put in the liquidizer with water and sugar. Then “grind and grind and grind.” One thinks of “something, something, something.” Though the recipe instructed it all went in at once, Bishop wrote that she found it better to add the “1 pint of water and the 3 cups of sugar” gradually. Bishop said she had to remove “some tough pieces” because their “mixer isn’t too good” (clearly not a Waring!). The other issue for this process was that the electric current at the house at Samambaia was not as great as in Rio, “the current is stronger there!” Bishop and electricity could be a whole study in itself.

She assured Grace that “IDEALLY SPEAKING,” if all the elements were there (good fruit, good blender, good current) it would work “very well.” When the pulp was “very fine,” Bishop instructed Grace to “put it in a shallow pan and simmer until it jellies,” which should take “45 minutes or so.”

Remember, with a manual typewriter, the only way to offer emphasis was either all caps or underline. Bishop usually opted for the latter (in the above instance, she just needed to nudge Grace about the degree of cooking). All caps is a serious call to attention. Interesting she offers it regarding an aspiration, not an instruction.

At this point, Bishop interjects some alternatives: “half a grapefruit … and a cup more of sugar”; or a real twist, “about half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger.” Bishop knew Grace would not be surprised by this last option, as Bishop reminded her, “I have a passion for it — of course.” When Bishop tried the latter, she cooked the ginger first because it was “not good — tough.”

Bishop alerted Grace that these limited number of ingredients “strange to say … make quite a lot.” She said that she would make more the next time they went to Rio where the current was stronger and where she had “a big electric frying-pan, a wonderful gadget for jelly-making, I find, because it’s easy to control the heat, and very shallow.”
Mãe Benta
The next disquisition was a solid paragraph about desserts. Bishop regularly reminded Grace about the Brazilian sweet tooth, which gave her an opportunity to do a fair bit of baking. She and the cook exchanged lessons on respective north and south desserts. In this instance, Bishop reports, “I am learning to make my favorite Brazilian cake.” This dessert was a “cup-cake-like thing called Mãe Benta (Holy Mother, I suppose!).” Bishop noted the Brazilian penchant for giving their desserts religious names, “I imagine because they were all originally  made in the convents by nuns.” One example was “Angel’s Kiss” and then one Bishop surely knew would make Grace laugh: “and Nun’s (excuse me, but it’s true) Little Fart.” Clearly, nuns have a sense of humour.

Bishop describes the latter as “awfully good” (Bishop’s use of the word awe and all its variations is another study in itself, one I write about in Lifting Yesterday): “just cream-puff batter, fried in deep fat, in tiny balls, and sprinkled with cinammon [sic] and sugar.”
As for the Holy Mother cake, Bishop told Grace they are “made with rice-flour, eggs, and coconut cream,” the latter derived from “grating the nut and then squeezing the pulp.”

To complete the trio, Bishop described Angel’s Hair as “thin bright yellow threads, just egg yolks and sugar.” Such a decadent treat was, Bishop writes, made for Lota’s grandmother’s birthday every year, using “50 dozen eggs”! Bishop didn’t try to learn to make this confection because it was “very complicated.”

Earlier, Bishop sent Grace a couple of tiny British cookbooks about baking. She concludes this baking lesson by saying she wished she could send her aunt “some of the wonderful little books about the various sweets,” but as they were in Portuguese, her own accounts would have to do.

The other reference to food in this long letter comes later when she notes that their strawberries were ripe, “although it is ‘winter’ this is the time for them” (the intensely hot Brazilian summers were too much for such berries). She knew that the strawberries would be at their height in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, “the birds are getting them faster than” than they could pick them. The plan was “to make a kind of scare-crow — only they are not crows — just about everything else.”

Then, as an afterthought, Bishop scribbles a P.S. at the bottom of the first page: “I’m delighted to hear about the maple syrup & I’m trying to think of someway of getting it here!” Figuring out how to get this flavour to Brazil was an ongoing topic between aunt and niece. Bishop said she hoped that “someone we know will be coming by boat.” This subject gets picked up again in future letters.

The next post provides updates about health and family matters.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 42: The Queen

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 19 July “home again.” She reported that they had got back to Petrópolis on the 17th and she found Grace’s letter of 5 July waiting for her at the post office. In response, Bishop wrote a newsy letter and sent some more recipes; but before getting to all of this, I want to comment on something Bishop scrawled at the top of the page (clearly an afterthought, but something of historic interest): “Did you see the Queen?”

In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II made a visit to Canada, her first extended tour as the reigning monarch; indeed, it remains the longest state visit/tour by any British monarch. She and Prince Phillip arrived on 18 June and stayed until 1 August. They visited every province and territory and opened the St. Lawrence Seaway on 26 June, with President Dwight Eisenhower (for great news footage of this event, click here).

Bishop kept up not only with the news from the US, she also clearly made a point to learn what was happening in Canada, this visit being one of the most significant events for the country in its recent history. You can see more footage (silent) of this visit here and here.

The royal couple arrived in Nova Scotia on 31 July, the last leg of their visit. They toured around a bit, were guests at a state dinner and left the next day. While in Halifax they stayed at the Nova Scotian Hotel, a place where Bishop herself had stayed in 1946.
Nova Scotia artist Earl Bailley in Lunenburg, N.S., NS Archives)

Grace was in Nova Scotia at that time, so perhaps she was able to travel to Halifax or the South Shore to catch a glimpse of the beautiful young queen and her attractive consort.

Back to the letter proper, Bishop begins with palpable relief that she had finally heard from Grace, declaring “now I am sure your other letters got lost,” reiterating that there has been “much trouble with lost letters the past year.” Her intention was just to send a quick note, “just to say I did hear,” but the letter got away from her a bit and ended up being longer than she clearly intended.

In the first paragraph, Bishop dispatches several things in quick succession. The first order of business related to Bishop’s Aunt Mary’s house, which her niece noted “sounds quite glamorous, from the advertisement!” Grace had obvious enclosed some sort of clipping in her letter. Most likely, Mary and John Ross had bought a new house in Montreal. Next, Bishop confirms that she would “like to see the book about the old sailing ships,” something else Grace had mentioned. Of course, no further description is given, though it is a book that must have appeared that year, and they must have discussed it before, because Bishop tells her aunt, “I’ve seen another review of it.” Next, Bishop informs Grace that she had received “a very nice fan letter from someone named Mrs. Winfield L. Corbett, from Wakefield, Mass.” It appears that Mrs. Corbett had poor handwriting, too, as Bishop had trouble deciphering her first name, “looks like Lalia, to me.” Bishop mentions her to Grace because “she’s apparently from N.S.” Mrs. Corbett had enclosed “clippings from the Dalhousie Review.” Bishop asks, “Does that name mean anything to you?”

Lalia Corbett is in the US Census for 1940, which indicates she is from “Canada.” Nova Scotia being a small place, it is entirely possible that Grace knew of or knew this person, Corbett being a Great Village and area name. Even if not directly, there are very few degrees of separation between people in the province, even when they ventured off to the “Boston States” to live and raise their families.

Having dispatched the preliminaries, Bishop shares some recipes with her aunt. The next post will share them with you.

Ed. Note: Permit me a slight indulgence — The only Royal I ever met was Prince Andrew, during a visit he made to the Maritimes in late June 1985. Andrew was 25 at the time, he being born in 1960, a year before me. I first encountered him in Fredericton when a friend and I joined thousands of others for a walk about he did that morning. Each clutching a single red rose (thorns removed), we positioned ourselves in a good spot and lo and behold, he stopped to speak and receive the roses. Believe it or not, I asked him if I could give him a kiss (by which I mean a peck on the cheek). He laughed and said, “If you did that, all hell would break loose.” He moved on. His walkabout took him along Queen St. to Officers’ Square, where there was a choking throng of people. My friend and I, after buying yet another rose each, bypassed that sea of humanity because we knew he would eventually reach the bank of the Saint John River, where a small boat would take him on a tour. In the spot just before the wharf, there was not one soul. I planted myself again (my friend had got diverted talking with someone she knew) and lo and behold, again, he appeared, almost alone, and walked right up to me. “How many roses must I give you to get a kiss?” Laughing again, he said, “Quite a few.” He shook my hand and headed off. My entire adventure was observed by several of the journalists who were covering the tour. My little escapade made several papers (I have the clippings), including, I am told, a British paper (I do not have that clipping).
(Prince Andrew, between mayor
and woman in navy, Fredericton, N.B.)
I returned to Nova Scotia later that same day. Prince Andrew’s next stop was NS, including a visit to Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal. With my sister and another friend in tow, I went to yet another royal event, attended this time by hundreds of people. It was not difficult to put myself in his way again. He actually recognized me and laughed out loud when I said, “You said it would take quite a few roses to let me give you a kiss. Is this enough?” as I handed him a dozen roses. He took the roses, shook my hand, and quickly said that it was nice to see me again. Then he was herded along by all the local bigwigs. Not one journalist observed this exchange.
(So many roses. No kiss. Fort Anne Historic Site,
Annapolis Royal, N.S.)
When you are twenty-four, you are susceptible to the romance of royalty. When I think about it now, I feel embarrassed, remembering such a girlish fancy, especially for a prince who has proved himself to have questionable beliefs as he aged. Ah, such is youth. I actually wrote a letter to Prince Andrew to tell him who I was, a serious graduate student not given to such behaviour. I received an actual letter (not a form response) from someone on his staff, my one and only epistle from Buckingham Palace!