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

Friday, February 22, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 101: In New York City

There was a substantial gap between Bishop’s 10 October 1961 letter and her next, dated “New York — December 12th 1961.” Bishop and Lota had left Brazil early in November, “We got here the 10th, I think it was,” she wrote to Grace, “I’m not sure of that now.” Then, in mid-thought she recalled, “no the 8th.” She knew she hadn’t “written to you in ever so long,” couldn’t remember if she’s written “after [Aunt] Mary left Rio.” Since that time, “so many things have been happening.”

They were in New York City so Bishop could work on the Time-Life book about Brazil, which was supposed to take about three weeks to complete, but “it’s four now and I am still working like mad and don’t see much hope for ending it ever.” Things with this fraught project were not going well. Bishop moaned, “I have never worked so hard in my life and never been so tired.” The work itself would have been the main fatigue factor, but being back in the US in winter would also have brought some culture shock and even disorientation, along with excitement.

Even with all the effort she was giving it, Bishop concluded, “the book about Brazil is still going to be awful!” She noted that “it has been an interesting experience — but never again,” at least not for the current outfit. Her long distance view from Brazil had not been overly confident, but upon meeting the editors, she declared, “they are incredible people and what they know about Brazil would fit on the head of a pin.” In spite of this ignorance, they still had “gall … arrogance … general condescension!” All characteristics Bishop could not abide. She did tell her aunt that she felt, even with all of this, “I’ve saved some of the book, and it does tell the truth, more or less.” She noted weakly that “some of the pictures are pretty — but not nearly enough.” She also reported that Grace would “be getting a copy — I’m not sure when — March, maybe.” Grace did receive her copy in due time. It is housed at Acadia University Archives in Wolfville, N.S.

After this frustrated update, Bishop turned to other matters, even though she had “scarcely seen or done anything.” She had managed to see “friends in the evenings a few times,” but she had to get “up at six to start work (they give me chapters to bring home every night!).” She reminded Grace, “Lota is with me,” and that they were “staying at a friend’s studio in Greenwich Village” (Loren MacIver’s apartment), not too far from “where my old garret used to be.” They had this comfortable accommodation because Loren and her husband Lloyd Frankenberg “are in Europe.”
(Bishop lived at 16 Charles St. in Greenwich Village
in the mid-1930s. This is her painting of 41 Charles St.,
not too far away. The McIver abode was in this neighbourhood.
From Exchanging Hats, p., 2-3.)
Bishop was typing Grace’s letter on Lloyd’s “typewriter — vintage 1920, I think.” This instrument was “a huge old Underwood I can’t see over at all.” In addition, there was “no lamp to type by.” This letter, on a piece of air mail stationary, is very faint in the photocopy I received from Vassar, quite unlike the regular letters Bishop typed in Brazil.
(The sort of typewriter of which she speaks.
We can't even imagine such a machine these
days when all we do is touch a screen and
presto, something appears.)
Bishop’s usual “—//” signalled a shift of subject. Bishop reported that the previous week she had gone to Worcester, “my only day off and not a very gay one, as you can imagine.” She flew there in the morning and returned in the evening, “(in a snow storm).” She went to see Aunt Florence, of course, but first connected with her cousins “Nancy and Kay [who] met me.” After the visit with Florence, Bishop had lunch with these cousins, plus another relative, “Priscilla Coe.” Grace would have known who all of these people were. Still more relatives were visited, “the Fultons to see his many children.” Not quite sure who this latter person is, but perhaps he had been married to one of Bishop’s paternal aunts. After all this reunion, Bishop told Grace that she “called on Aunt F again,” on her own. She reported that “the nursing home is NOT good — it has recently changed hands and gone down hill.” In spite of this deterioration, somehow Florence “has been much better — at least she seems much happier, doesn’t make scenes, etc., etc.” She noted that her aunt “is terribly frail and seemed sadly changed to me.” Surely this could not have been surprising to Bishop. How many years had it been since Bishop had seen Florence, perhaps decades?

Also not surprisingly, Florence “doesn’t remember much — just in spots — but I’m sure you know all about it,” meaning that Grace would understand such diminishment from her nursing of elderly patients. Bishop felt that her aunt had tried “hard for my sake, poor old thing.” She even “asked about ‘politics’ in Brazil.” Then she “asked my age and when I said 50 she said, ‘Oh no dear — you must be wrong — Auntie is only 48 so you can’t be 50’.”

Having had such a fraught relationship with this paternal aunt, one wonders why Bishop made the effort to see this frail elderly woman, with whom she had very little bond. Still, she made the effort, probably out of a sense of duty. Florence was the last Bishop, the last of her father’s generation.

Bishop dropped this sad subject and turned to other activities she had managed in the midst of her exhausting slog on the Brazil book. The next post will turn to those activities.

Thursday, February 21, 2019



Unwashed and naughty 
poet, teacher, and good man — 
Wystan Hugh Auden. 

 *     *     * 

 Today is W. H. Auden's one hundred twelfth birthday. 

 *     *     * 

 "In the prison of his days 
Teach the free man how to praise."

Friday, February 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 100: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part IV

Bishop’s letter of 10 October 1961 was starting to wind down. After the detailed account of her visits with Aunt Mary and her cousins, Bishop remembered that things were going on with Grace, too. There had been a wedding (just whose, I can’t quite figure out, but I think it might have been Bud & Lois Bowers’s wedding). Bishop limply observed, “Your wedding sounds fine (but I really don’t like weddings!).” Bishop had not been forgotten for this family ceremony, noting that she had “received the nice invitation a while ago.” She assured her aunt that “if ever I get  to N S I’ll bring them something from N.Y.” But even more than this gift, what Bishop really wanted was to bring her aunt something, “And what would you like from N Y?”

Grace had also, clearly, given Bishop more information about Miriam Sutherland in her most recent letter, which prompted Bishop to say, “I feel absolutely awful about that poor little Miriam.” Whatever Grace had reported, it made Bishop “hope she just dies quickly.” Well, that is an extreme hope and, fortunately, Miriam did not die “quickly” – but lived for decades bringing joy to her family. Bishop knew that it was “tough for Phyllis and Ern,” that it was “rotten luck” and that “Nature can be so cruel.” And while all these observations have some truth to them (it was a challenge to raise Miriam and keep her healthy), Miriam was an integral part of her family, something Bishop saw for herself when she finally did get to Nova Scotia in the early 1970s and met Miriam for the first time. Miriam always vividly remembered “cousin Elizabeth,” even from the relatively brief time they spent together. Indeed, Miriam Sutherland had one of the best memories of any person I have ever met (how many of us can say that!?)

The final paragraph of this long letter continued on with family matters. Grace was with “Phyllis and Ern” while they got things confirmed and sorted out with Miriam; her job was “watching over [the] small boys,” that is the Sutherland sons Wallace and David. It made Bishop worry and urge her aunt not to “work too hard.” Such care-giving would be “strenuous.” Bishop did know something about that sort of tending, from all the children who had spent time with her and Lota. But Grace’s idea for a break didn’t appeal to Bishop, either: “But I don’t think a winter with Aunt Mabel sounds like much fun, either!”
(Mabel Bulmer, left, and Grace Bulmer Bowers, right,
with Mabel’s dog, in Hollywood, Florida,
where Mabel often wintered with her daughter
Hazel Bulmer Snow, circa late 1950s. AUA.)
Bishop suggested an alternative: “How would you like to stay a week  or so in that nice old hotel in Halifax, and just be waited on? The one on the park?” The hotel in question is the Lord Nelson Hotel, east of the Public Gardens, which is still a going concern. Bishop noted, “I always liked it a lot.” Her suggestion was not just an idea but an offer: “I’ll treat you to a week there for a Christmas present if you’d really do it and not spend the money on your family!” (Bishop understood well enough Grace’s selflessness.) Such a week away meant, “breakfast in bed,” going “to the movies,” seeing “the sights.” But then Bishop wondered: “or would you get too bored?” What Bishop really wanted to do was take time off herself and go there with Grace, when she was in “N Y,” “but I’m afraid I won’t” have the time, she sighed, “I have to work every day for at least three weeks in N Y and maybe longer.” And then she noted what was no small issue, “and as you know N Y is expensive” — certainly compared to Brazil and Nova Scotia.
(Lord Nelson Hotel by W.R. MacAskill.
Not sure of the date, but this image shows
the tram lines that used to run on Spring Garden Road.
And to the east there are trees, rather than the wall
of buildings that now line this busy street. NSA.)
A “— //” signalled a shift in her train of thought, returning her to Miriam, a subject she clearly was sort of obsessed with, urging her aunt, once again (how many times?) to get “Dr. SPOCK — PLEASE buy a copy — read it — give it to Phyllis.” Part of her argument was that it wasn’t expensive, “only $1.00 — paper-back.” Since it “sells all over the place,” she was sure “they must have it in N S, too.” It was even “on the newstands in Brazil.” Bishop was certain Grace would “find it fascinating reading — (I do without a baby to my name) — and awfully good.”

This repeated urging had sort of spilled over to her cousin, who did have some babies to her name, but “Eliz[abeth Ross Naudin] won’t read it,” with Bishop avowing, however, that she had not “urged her.” Bishop also had to concede that Grace would “know a lot of it already, with all your vast experience with babies and small children.” Even so, Bishop felt that Dr. Spock “was so damned sensible.” She was sure that “a lot of what he says would help Phyllis and cheer her up a bit, too.”

Finally, she let go of this hobby horse, and with another “//” she turned to one of the other children, “I think it is wonderful Wallace [Phyllis’s oldest child] is going to take up bagpipes.” With her love of Robert Burns, perhaps it is no surprise that she declared, “I do like them!” Well, you either love bagpipes or you don’t.

The letter truly began to wind down, with the final closing wishes: “If you’re with Aunt Mabel, give her my love.” Bishop reiterated, yet again, that she “did write [to Mabel] — but it must have got lost.” And promised she would again “when I get through this book,” though “heaven knows when that will be!”

“As always,” Bishop sent “much love to you,” and made one last pitch, “think of my idea!”

Bishop’s next letter was written over two months later from New York. The next post will take up this final epistle of 1961.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Great Village School photo

(Click this image to enlarge. Courtesy of Michael Colbourne.)

While I’ve been writing about Mary Bulmer Ross’s visit to Brazil in 1961, the photo below of the students and teachers of the Great Village school, 1914–1915 (which building was brand new at that time) came to me from EBSNS member Michael Colbourne. He is the grandson of Maynard Brown Archibald who is seen in this image in the back row, far left. Archibald who taught at the school for a year before he enlisted to fight in World War I. He was not much older than some of the oldest students he taught. Archibald is the father of well-known Nova Scotia writer Budge Wilson. Many years ago, Budge sent me a print of this charming image. While I am very careful with all my Bishop documents and materials, somehow over the years, I lost track of this print. So, I was delighted when Michael sent me a digital version. He has given me permission to share it. Part of the reason I want to share it is that Mary Bulmer is included. She is sitting on the steps, second row (behind the three boys), on the right, in a dark dress. She is holding hands with Una Layton, a very close family friend to all the Bulmer daughters, who sits directly behind Mary, in a white dress. I would love to know who some of the others are in this image. If anyone from Great Village sees this picture and can tell me, that would be greatly appreciated. Archibald became a lawyer and then a federal judge.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

From Our Key West Correspondent

Key West Celebrates Elizabeth Bishop’s
108th Birthday on February 8, 2019

Members of the Key West Poetry Guild and others celebrated Elizabeth’s 108th birthday in style. Sixteen Key West poets read selected poems by or honoring Elizabeth Bishop to a rapt audience of 50 to 60 people. Malcolm Willison gave a short history of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and introduced each poet.

Elizabeth Bishop lived in Key West on and off for ten years. She captured the unique atmosphere of Key West in such poems as “The Bight,” “The Fish” and “Roosters.”

During the intermission all attending had helpings from the huge and delicious birthday cake.

Kay Bierwiler
(click to enlarge)

(The birthday cake!)
Alas, I cannot identify these folks, but it looks like a lovely time. Thanks, Kay, for sharing these images and letting us know how things went. I am sure Key West was much warmer than Nova Scotia on the 8th!!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

EB appears is the strangest places

I took my elderly father out for coffee yesterday afternoon to a local eatery called The Big Scoop. Every Friday they have a stack of a little local newspaper called The Reader, which covers the area from Annapolis Royal to Middleton. Imagine my surprise when I saw a thumb nail photo of EB on the front page and then read the "On this Date" -- acknowledging that 8 February is special because it is her birthday. Here are the pages in question. Today is my elderly father's birthday. He is 88. Happy birthday dad. And all others whose birthday is in the deep mid-winter.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 99: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part III -- and Happy Birthday Elizabeth

If EB were living today, she would be 108. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Elizabeth. Folks in Key West are having a birthday celebration in her honour today. Our Key West correspondent has promised an account of the festivities, so stay tuned! For now, the next installment of Letters to Aunt Grace.

The next couple of paragraphs of Bishop’s 10 October 1961 letter shifts focus to the arrival of “the other Mary,” that is, their friend Mary Morse and her adopted daughter Monica. They had been in the US for several months and their return coincided with the visit by Aunt Mary and cousins John and Joanne. After sending them back with the Naudins, after a successful family visit, Bishop reported to Grace that “Lota and I got up as 4 [a.m.] Sunday.” This early rise was because they too had to get to Rio in time to meet Mary Morse’s “7 A M” flight, “Same flight as AUNT M [the week before] — the jets” from the US all arrived at the same time.

This run to Rio included “our cook and ‘butler’ …. Maria & Alberto.” They “had never seen the ocean, never seen a city — never seen an airplane except away up in the air.” Bishop reported what was to be expected, “you can imagine the excitement — hysteria almost.”

As it turned out, “we had to wait over an hour at the airport” (some things are timeless and universal). Not surprisingly, “Maria had to go to the bathroom.” This was when the trouble started: “poor Alberto, innocent lamb, went in with her.” Bishop reported that “before we could get there a policeman was shouting at him ‘Lack of respect! Indecency!’ etc etc.” Even as they explained that Alberto “couldn’t read” signs such as “Ladies & Gents,” it made no difference. Bishop’s conclusion, “they are such stupid brutes, policemen — the world over, I suppose.”

After that upset, Mary Morse arrived and they all returned to the “tiny apartment” in Rio, prompting Bishop to report, “It has been rather hectic [with] Lota, me, Mary (the friend Mary, that is — all these Marys and Elizabeths are confusing) Monica,” and “the couple.” Bishop noted that Monica “is walking now, like a drunken sailor.” And Maria and Alberto “are so excited by everything,” clearly putting the run in with the law behind them. Bishop confessed, “we send them out to see the sights, just to get them out of the way.” Their excursions were a mixed blessing, Bishop noting that they “then get scared for fear they’ll get lost, run over, etc.” Alberto appears to have been more adventurous because he “bought himself a pair of bright yellow bathing trunks and has just taken his first ocean swim.” Maria preferred to watch this “from our terrace — sure he’s gong to drown, in waves up to his knees.” Bishop perhaps would have enjoyed their discoveries more if things had been a bit less chaotic.

After this digression, she returned to family reports, noting that Elizabeth Naudin’s little daughters, “Suzanne & Diane behaved very well Saturday.” She noted that Diane was “a little better than Suzanne,” and judged that Diane’s “disposition” was “sweet … anyway.” She confirmed that their parents “are very good with them” (being so keen about child-rearing, Bishop had much to say about parenting!).

She felt the Naudins and the Rosses, one and all, didn’t “care much for our house! (Although they’re all very polite about it!)” Bishop concluded this dislike was because “it’s too modern for them, I’m afraid.” Lota’s architecturally prize-winning house was, Bishop thought, “not much like a cozy house in Montreal!” Bishop presumed that for them  “it probably seems like a barn … big and bare.” But her defense of it was the climate: “one wants space, cool floors, and no upholstery.”
(John Ross, jr. and Mary Bulmer Ross at her home
in Montreal, circa late 1960s. AUA.)
Even so, John Ross Jr. “said he’d like to come to live in Brazil.” So some aspects of the place appealed. And Bishop reiterated that she “showed Mary absolutely everything in the house … except the china-closet.” She hoped that Mary would be able to return at least once more before she departed, so that her niece could “fill in everything she missed!” Mary was clearly curious about “everything.” And it appeared to Bishop that they were all “have a pretty good time, and Ray is taking time off and they’re going up to Teresopolis,” where his family lived. This place was “higher in the mountains.”

Even if Mary could not return to Petrópolis, Bishop said she would “see her whenever I can get a chance,” and she was planning “to take them to lunch at one of the nice outdoors [sic] place I like.” Whatever else was possible had to be fit in between work, “I just wish I weren’t so DAMNED busy on this book.” Having visitors did not stop the “political events — that keep right on happening.” One consequence of the volatile political situation was it meant Bishop had “to re-write” parts of the book “two times, at least.” You can hear the sigh when she wrote, “I feel as if I were going made.” And wound down this dense paragraph with, “at least we did have a couple of days.”

This long letter was starting to wind down. The next post will conclude with another call from Bishop for Grace and Phyllis to read Dr. Spock!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop House Residency accepting applications

The Elizabeth Bishop House hosts an artist residency for two weeks each September. The application process is now open. The deadline is 15 April. Below are the particulars if you want to submit an application. The inaugural artist in residence was Canadian poet Claudia Radmore. September is a lovely time to be in NS! Good luck. You can click the image to make it larger.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 98: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part II

I left off Bishop’s account of Aunt Mary’s visit, in her letter of 10 October, at the point where she and Lota drove Mary to Samambaia in their “tiny car.” Bishop then described the scene they saw when they arrived. Because of the “terrible drought here — not a drop of rain in four months,” the landscape was feeling the affects. One consequence of this aridity was “bush-fires,” so “all around the house … everything is black.” To Bishop, “it looked like HELL!” But she was used to the lush green and vibrant colours. Mary, other hand, “seemed to like the scenery all right, anyway.”

Mary also liked the cats, who were starved for attention. Bishop’s own “Tobias took a great fancy to her, and ate breakfast in bed with her,” though Bishop observed in what was likely a wry tone that Tobias couldn’t “compare to Pouchie!” Mary’s own cat.

Having arrived in the mountains, Bishop reported that both Mary and Lota (who was working hard on the park) “took long naps (I think she [Mary] was really awfully tired,” not surprising after the long trip and the intensity of the reunion. After this refresher, Bishop noted that they then “stayed up till after mid-night gossiping.” I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. A lot of catching up to do.

“The next day we took her to Petrópolis and back.” I remember the grandeur of some of the buildings in this mountain city, where the Portuguese emperors lived and ruled their empire for a long time. Mary would have been impressed by the palace, cathedral, opera house and massive museum, among many other imperial buildings.
(Palácio Rio Negro, the President's summer home.
One of the many ornate buildings in the city.)
After this outing, “then all the rest of the cousins arrived for lunch.” Before the meal, they went for “a swim in a friend’s pool.” The drought had made the water level in their brook “so low that for the first time in all these years our little swimming-hole is too low to swim in.” Afterwards they all sat down to “a big Brazilian style lunch.”

This visit would have been really important to Bishop and she reported to Grace, “I think it was all pretty successful.” She found her youngest aunt to be “a good guest — she is interested in absolutely everything and remembers the names of the flowers and trees, etc.” They had had plenty of guests who “pay no attention at all to anything in the country,” but, after all, Mary was a born country girl, even if she’d transplanted to the big city of Montreal after her marriage. As pleased as Bishop was to have this engagement from her aunt, she added a brief addendum at this point, signalled by an asterisk: *But I wished it had been my favorite aunt,” meaning, of course, Grace.

That said, Bishop still “wanted to keep her over to go back with us Sunday P M or Monday morning,” when they usually made their way back to Rio. The obstacle to that plan was “a cable saying that our friend Mary [Morse] (with the adopted baby Monica)” would arrive Sunday morning. This anticipated return was one of the reasons Bishop “wanted everyone that Saturday,” or there would have been “just too many people to handle!”

As a result, “Mary (our Mary) went back” with the Naudins Saturday afternoon. Though “a short visit,” Bishop concluded that it was “very nice.”

You can sense not only the relief in her report but also her pleasure that she could host her relatives so graciously, offer them a memorable visit, even if the drought had turned the landscape into a kind of wasteland.

The next part of the letter veers away for awhile from familial matters and towards their own concerns. The next post will take up these other concerns.