"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 103: Reiterations

Bishop’s final letter of 1961 (12 December) began to wind down with a few more reiterations of the things that were on her mind. The remaining three short paragraphs are a bit scattered, giving a sense that she had to go but still wanted to stay connected to Grace, from whom she had not heard in awhile; but considering Bishop’s trip to NYC and Grace perhaps not knowing where to write, this silence was not surprising.

The first final subject she broached was to reiterate how much she “did enjoy seeing Mary and the children in Rio” — this “did” seems slightly defensive, as if somehow Bishop thought Grace might have been told otherwise. Immediately, she asked if her aunt and cousins had told Grace “about the marmoset — little monkey — we had that Joanne was so crazy to take back with her?”
(marmoset)
One of the aspects of her life at Samambaia which Bishop appreciated and enjoyed was all the creatures, domestic and wild. It reminded her of her grandparents’ home in Great Village with its menagerie of critters. I have no idea where they got the marmoset (to go along with the cats, dogs and birds they had), but Bishop noted that “we found him a nice home before we left, thank goodness.”

After this brief reflection on a visit that had happened in October, Bishop returned to her now, “This has been a short nightmare trip.” The Time-Life Brazil book had dominated their stay and caused Bishop deep frustration, which she had alaready vividly conveyed to Grace in previous letters, so Bishop didn’t have to reiterate the particulars of that “nightmare.” She did somewhat wistfully observe, “We are hoping perhaps to get back next spring or fall.” That “perhaps” would have said it all to Grace, who could likely see that Bishop would not return any time soon. And the certainty of it was Bishop’s proviso, “if I save enough of this money …. IF I leave now!” (Remember, the IRS was forcing her out sooner than she thought she would have to leave, if she wanted to prevent paying hefty income tax.)

After this scattered moan, Bishop isolated in one line (perhaps like a line in a poem) her regret: “Please forgive me — I really feel awful.” Grace would know this to be true, that the disappointment would really have been deep on both sides. Still, to add a bit of salt to the wound of this disappointment, Bishop jumped right back to “my Worcester cousins,” whom she had taken time to see. They had been “very nice” and Bishop felt some need to reiterate, “I think they are all really doing their best for Aunt Florence.” She told Grace that having seen them and Florence made her “feel a little beter {sic}.” Expanding on this topic, she felt that her cranky paternal aunt was “relatively happy there,” and thought that it would be “wrong to move her again,” because “places she can afford are hard to find,” by which it seems she means that Florence’s financial resources were depleted. Knowing that Grace had her own experiences caring for the elderly, Bishop noted that “one nurse she does like,” a bit of a surprise, clearly: “the nurse calls her ‘honey’ and Aunt F asked her to call her ‘Florence’,” obviously a breakthrough from Bishop’s perspective, but something that “scandalized Priscilla,” one of the cousins. Bishop noted this cousin was “always on the snobbish side!” From Bishop’s point of view, that her aunt actually “likes someone, at least” was “nice.” This “nurse seemed the one civilized person around, I thought.” Knowing Aunt Florence’s nature, however, one might suggest this nurse was more saintly than civilized.

At this point, Bishop had to stop herself from going on, and she was running out of room on the page. What she really wanted was to “see you and have a long conversation.” One last weak reiteration, “well — maybe we’ll make it in the spring or fall.” But all those qualifiers reveal the dim hope of it happening. Fearing that Grace had “been sick or something,” Bishop signed off “With much love to you as always.” And so ended an eventful year for Bishop. The next post will commence 1962.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Film-maker Barbara Hammer dies at 79

This morning I heard that pioneering film-maker Barbara Hammer recently died. The EB world knows her from her 2015 film "Welcome to This House," her documentary about Bishop's life, focused mostly on Brazil. Barbara visited Great Village and the EB House to do research for this film and I had the privilege of meeting her. Her film screened at the Atlantic Film Festival in September of that year, and I had the honour of speaking briefly at that event. Barbara was a prolific and daring artist who championed many causes. Her legacy is lasting. My heartfelt sympathy and condolances to her family and friends who have lost a vibrant and expressive presence.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 102: Disappointment

Having left behind her sad account of frail, elderly Aunt Florence, Bishop turned to other things in her 12 December 1961 letter. Alas, these things were no cheerier. First, she told her aunt that she had gone “to see my old friend Jane Dewey who is sick.” She was the daughter of the famous philosopher John Dewey. Born in 1900, Jane became a well-known physicist. Bishop first met Jane and her father in the late 1930s in Key West. As Brett Millier writes, Bishop “always said that she understood nothing of [John] Dewey’s philosophy but had boundless admiration for the man. Dewey and Moore were, she said, the most truly ‘democratic’ people she knew — able to talk easily with people of any social, economic, or educational class.” (146) Bishop’s poem “A Cold Spring” is dedicated to Jane Dewey, who lived in Maryland. (I endeavoured to find an image of Jane Dewey on the internet — there are a number of her father — but she seems quite elusive.)
(John Dewey. From Wikipedia.)
Dewey had not only been “sick … for months with ulcer (probably cancer),” Bishop reported that she also had “a broken leg, and a broken arm.” Bishop could only imagine the “tough time” she had had “the past eight months,” but all these troubles made her feel she “just had to see her.” Bishop wrote that Jane was “recovering but her right hand is paralyzed because of a crushed nerve — awful.” Jane Dewey died in 1965.

Even though Bishop apologized for telling her aunt “this tale of woe,” undoubtedly, Grace appreciated the impulse to visit such an invalid and offer some cheer. But what Bishop wrote next might have made Grace wonder a bit.

Bishop began her next explanation with the preamble, “What I want to say makes me feel awful — breaks my heart, honestly.” Grace could have anticipated the next statement: “I don’t think I can get to see you,” something Bishop had been promising with gusto from the start of her report of a return to the US to work on the Brazil book.

The cause of this change of plans was money, something Bishop had not anticipated, declaring, “If only we had known ahead [of] time,” but a matter she had not even thought about. The culprit of this financial issue was the IRS: “I called up my income tax man last week,” who informed her that “as a foreign resident, if I stay only 28 days I can keep all the money I earn … on this job.” Overstaying meant she would “have to pay a whopping tax on it,” Her figure was $1,500.00. A tidy sum in 1961. If she had to cough up this amount, it “would make the whole six month’s job” (most of which happened in Brazil), “scarcely worth having done.” One more reason to regret taking on this project.

Losing that amount of money was “a big enough hunk … to mean a lot in my way of life next year.” As a result of this regulation, she said she now had “to leave the U S before next week.” Bishop was, most certainly, sad about this turn of events: “dreadfully sorry”; “I wanted to see you so much”; “Please believe me … I couldn’t be sorrier.” And having been out of the US so long, one can understand Bishop not knowing income tax rules. Still, Grace must have been disappointed in a way Bishop herself was not, having been promised a visit over and over again. Bishop wished she “were a little richer,” then she could “say to hell with the money and come anyway.” But it was not possible.

Bishop also noted that she had not “heard from you for so long” (Grace probably hesitated to intrude when she knew Bishop was working on such a big job), and Bishop was “wondering how you are and where you are and if everything is all right with you.” Her one suggestion to mitigate the disappointment a little was the possibility of calling, “tonight or tomorrow — no — it’s too late — 11 P M.” Clearly, Bishop is thinking out loud here, for this letter would be days, if not weeks reaching Grace, and Bishop would be well back in Brazil by that time.

She wondered “if Phyllis has a phone?” She also realized that she “shouldn’t have used  this paper,” because it meant she couldn’t include “a Christmas present in it.” But she did say that she would do so “in another envelop [sic].”

This rather frustrated and upset letter began a slow winding down, which the next post will present.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

EB House alumi have exhibition in Halifax

Elizabeth Bishop house alumni Heather Jessup and Claire Battershill have mounted an exhibit opening tomorrow at the Nova Scotia Archives, on University Avenue, Halifax, N.S. They will also be conducting workshops at the Halifax Central Library. Congratulations Heather and Claire.


(Here I am, left, with Claire, centre, 
and Heather, on the verandah of the EB House.)

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Great Village Preservation Society receives heritage award

At a ceremony in Truro, N.S., on 28 February 2019, the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society received an award recognizing its contribution to the heritage of Colchester County. Presented by the Colchester Historical Society, the award recognized the work of the society in preserving the Elizabeth Bishop House in the village. The EBSNS wishes to congratulate the society for its good work with both the EB House and St. James Church, both buildings of tremendous importance to Elizabeth Bishop. Laurie Gunn, Treasurer of the Preservation Society and steward of the EB House, received this award on behalf of the society. She sent along the photos below, which we are happy to share.
(Laurie Gunn receives the award.
Presented by Terry White. Photo by Dan Gunn.)

(The parchment.)
(The citation.)