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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 70: Lota’s house and family

The next subject of Bishop’s letter of 18 October 1960 was a packed paragraph about Lota’s Samambaia house, with a few observations about Lota’s family, in this case, her sister.

Bishop began this paragraph by reminding Grace about their recent trip to “Paratí,” adding they had also recently returned from a second trip: “then we went away for a week again to Cabo Frio, where we go Christmases.” Bishop had regaled her aunt about these holidays on a number of occasions, a place where they could “stay in a friend’s beach house.” The reason for this trip, so outside of their usual routine, was because “Lota was very much in need of a rest, having such troubles with her family, her lawsuit, etc.” Bishop didn’t elaborate, except to say that “Lota’s sister” was “now here, (arguing!).” The tensions with this sibling came in for more comment at the end of this long letter, but other matters dominated this paragraph.

The week away had been pleasant, even if it “was a little too soon in the season, and windy.” They had gone “swimming every day and had an awfully nice time.” But “the minute we got back people started arriving” and not just siblings, but “friends of friends, from São Paulo” and then “a bus load of German architects.” The reason for this group was Lota’s house: “it is a famous piece of ‘modern’ architecture, you know.” What Bishop did not tell her aunt, but which she told Robert Lowell in a letter written at the same time was: “Their bus driver mutinied at our mountain road and Lota made trip after trip — but a good many of them came up on foot, straight up, for about a mile, and arrived panting and red and bowing and heel-clicking and hand-kissing — fascinating long hair-dos — about 3 female architects among them — I lost track in the hubbub. Some were very nice.” (Words in Air, 344)
(Lota's house at Samambaia.)
When I read this account in the letter to Lowell, it immediately took me back to September 1999, when I and a busload of Bishop fans reached the foot of that same mountain in a tourist bus. Our bus driver “mutinied” too, refusing to take the vehicle any further. Our host, Zulieka Borges Torrebla, drove the few who couldn’t walk up that steep incline, but the rest of us walked, just as these architects had done 39 years before.
(Bishop scholars beginning the walk to the house
under the mountain, September 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
Word had clearly got out because not only were the Germans arriving, but also “another bus load, American architects this time, coming this week.” One wonders if they performed the same ritual of shuttling and hoofing.
(Poet Jeffrey Harrison (left) and Bishop scholar Gary Fountain (right)
part way up the road to the house under the mountain,
September 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
A guest of a different sort was also expected: “tomorrow an unknown young American poet” was due to arrive for lunch, “and I think his poetry is so bad that I’m rather dreading that!” Bishop discreetly does not offer his name. Nor did she yield it in the letter to Lowell. What she does tell Lowell is that this “young man who sent me the bad poetry” had “called up to say he couldn’t come.” (Words in Air, 344) Undoubtedly, they did connect, as he was a “Fulbright, teaching at the University,” so he would be around for awhile. Brett Millier does not identify him in her account of October 1960. His pending visit had triggered in Bishop a kind of existential weariness in the face of “so much adequate poetry all sounding just alike and so boring …. And no one really feeling anything much.” (Words in Air, 344)

Part of the reason why they were beset by company was because “‘Summer’ is beginning and there are always too many people coming and going.” But competing with all this activity, and offering some solace, was the fact that “the flower garden has never looked better.” The list of flowers was impressive: freesias (“absolutely beautiful … all colors of the rainbow”; lilies; agapanthus blooming “all up the hillside, about three feet tall, white or blue.” Bishop could always find relief in the natural world around her.

Along with the flowers, the vegetable garden was producing: “for the first time in my life I am sick of artichokes” because they had “been eating [them] every night for dinner.”

Finally, the last report in this dense paragraph declared that the beehive oven they had been constructing was finished: “it is very picturesque and in a day or two I’ll try it — and probably burn the break black the first time.” The fellow who had done the actual construction produced “some of his wife’s bread” because “when Lota showed him mine he said ‘Too much yeast!’” Bread making clearly has a competitive element., even though Bishop was confident enough in her newfound bread-making skill to dismiss this critique: “because it isn’t the size or kind of bread they use.” To each his or her own.

Winding down this particular track, Bishop observed that if they stayed home over Christmas (having had their Cabo Frio trip early), “I think we’ll try roasting a suckling pig” in the oven. Ever the pragmatist and economist, she noted however that  “food, particularly meat, is getting so expensive here now maybe we can’t afford such luxuries.”

Bishop then turned back to her own family, not an ancestor, but her cousin Elizabeth, who was still very much nearby. This subject for the next post.

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