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

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop Re-imagined: a novel approach

Recently, a friend gave me a copy of Liza Wieland’s new novel, Paris 7 A.M. (Simon & Schuster, June 2019), her re-imagining of Elizabeth Bishop’s life during a sojourn in France in the mid-1930s. 
Wieland’s is not the first fictionalized rendering of an important time and place in Bishop’s life. Michael Sledge’s The More I Owe You (Counterpoint), his version of Bishop’s life in Brazil and relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, was published in 2010.
Sledge’s novel is by and large a linear narrative with flashbacks, its 328 pages span Bishop’s Brazil years in a comprehensive manner, offering his take on the personal intimacies and political intrigues of this transformative time in her life. It has been years since I read it and I can’t in all honesty remember much of it, that is, remember Sledge’s version of the events, personalities, relationships. What I do remember is that early on he lost my willingness to accept his fiction, on page 49 with the following (a moment when Bishop remembers something about her mother): “How many evening meals had they endured with forced cheer while Gertrude lay on the couch emitting little squeaks and gurgles, one arm over her eyes while the other dangled to the floor, the fingers of her white hand moving as slowly as the claws of a dying crab.” “Squeaks and gurgles”; “the claws of a dying crab”? Really?
I have spent many years encouraging artists of all disciplines to read and respond to Bishop (filmmakers, photographers, painters, musicians and, yes, poets and novelists). These artists needed little prodding. Bishop is one of those gifted creators who quickly gets under one’s skin and almost compels a response. She often gets incorporated obliquely or directly into the art created in that response. In principle, I am all for artists offering their versions of Bishop, or their response to something Bishop has written. Indeed, as a biographer of Bishop, I have my own version of her too. And Bishop has influenced some of my own poems.
After the above quotation in Sledge’s book, a substantial narrative unfolds, rendering not only a view of Bishop and the people in her life, but also ample invisibles: emotions, ideas, memories, dreams. Should I judge this substantial effort by one unfortunate description? I’m afraid that I did and even after all these years, I can’t quite get past it.
Sledge is, however, in good company. Many Bishop scholars and biographers have taken the easy and/or sensational path where her mother and their relationship are concerned. I have written about these liberties on this blog and elsewhere. It is not that I believe I know better, but any careful reading of Bishop’s work (all of it: poems, memoir stories, letters, journals) reveals that Bishop’s understanding of her mother’s life and its impact on her daughter was nothing if not complex and shouldn’t be summed up in the one word that attracts so many scholars: “mad.”
Wieland’s novel is a different kettle of fish. Its focus is a very specific, finite period in Bishop’s life: a couple of years during her early adulthood, when she ventured forth into the world for the first time. Wieland’s style is also markedly different. Her novel is comprised of many short chapters, vignette-like glimpses or “tableaux” (a term that appears at one point). The word that kept coming to me was “impressionistic,” not relentlessly narrative, as Sledge’s story. There is a forward trajectory, a plot; but the novel is not rigidly anchored to it. Moreover, Wieland leaves as much out as she puts in (unlike Sledge who packs in as much as possible). It strikes me that this modus operandi bespeaks a brave novelist.
When I opened the book for the first time, I was not inclined to like it, just on principle. But I found myself intrigued immediately because the prose is deeply poetic (the right approach, it seems to me, for the subject: a profound poet). Indeed, I might argue that each of the chapters is a prose poem: elegant, precise, densely associative, self-contained.
Wieland weaves many allusions from Bishop’s work carefully, cleverly and often seamlessly into the lines. One thing I began to do instantly was identify from which poems and stories the allusions came.
Being a Bishop biographer, however, makes it difficult for me to read Wieland’s novel as fiction. That is, I resist reading it as fiction, which isn’t fair, I suppose, to the writer. The biggest fiction in this novel is a dangerous adventure the young Bishop gets caught up in: helping an older woman, who echoes her mother in many ways, to save two Jewish infants from the looming wave of Nazi oppression and violence overtaking Europe in 1936‒1937, an effort to which she is sworn to secrecy. In the midst of all this intrigue, Bishop has a brief affair with a German woman, who is also fleeing this intensifying, expanding oppression. If you are going to create events in Bishop’s life, these two are certainly interesting and have a logic about them.
These two fictions take place amid actual events: for example, the suicide of Robert Seaver (though that happened before Bishop’s first trip to Europe) and the car accident that resulted in Margaret Miller losing her arm, both profoundly traumatic events for all concerned. It seems to me Wieland handles these tragedies well and the thoughts she gives to Bishop (some of which come from journals and letters) feel authentic.
Overall, I actually enjoyed reading this novel, primarily because of Wieland’s style and form, her often exquisite language. You had better be adept at metaphor and turn of phrase if you want to write artistically about Bishop, and Wieland clearly has a gift.
All this said, I still come back to “mother” — I can’t help myself.
Gertrude Bulmer Bishop appears in this novel entirely as memory; her life and illness torqued out of its factual trajectory. Wieland did a lot of research for this book, but clearly, she didn’t read a lengthy manuscript about her mother (which later got compressed and transformed into “In the Village”) that Bishop worked on in the early 1930s. While Gertrude does have some substance as an actual person in these pages, Wieland does what nearly everyone else writing about this relationship does, reduces Gertrude to a caricature. How sensational it is to latch onto (and repeat, p. 14, 56) something Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell: that she was told her mother had wanted to kill her, something Bishop knew was not true. In the end, Wieland, can’t help but bring in that word all scholars believe so thoroughly applies to Gertrude: mad. She concentrates “that truth” on page 219, writing it five time, equating this madness with Clara, the most important character in the novel besides Bishop. I thought this paragraph was a hammer, a tool Wieland rarely uses to craft her refined prose. Even in her early 20s, Bishop knew that things with her mother were more complex than they seemed. Bishop was working through a great deal at this time of her life, exploring the shadows in her dreams, journals, poems and stories. The open-endedness Wieland affords the mysterious fictional characters and relationships seems denied to Gertrude and Elizabeth.
I have thought more than once of trying to write a novel about Gertrude. I won’t, however, because I have tried to explain things in biography, a limited enough genre, for sure. Still, the urge to reclaim Bishop’s mother (someone the poet endeavoured to understand her whole life) is strong.
Being a biographer, I suppose it is clear that I find fact more interesting than fiction. The truism that fact is stranger than fiction does have validity. All this said, I somehow felt I could overlook this same-old characterisation in Wieland’s novel because it is so well written. At least I tried to. But I do wish Americans would stop calling Halifax Harbour a “bay” (page 13)! And, sadly, no passenger train would have passed “one hundred yards to the north of the psychiatric hospital in Dartmouth” (p. 13; a provincial institution, not a “state” facility). And if there was ever a “pier” at Economy Point, it would have been a wharf and existed in the Age of Sail (19th century), not during Bishop’s childhood. Such infelicities (and there are others) made me smile and sigh.
Then, Wieland incorporates Bishop’s poem “A Drunkard,” which describes her memory of the Great Salem Fire in 1914 after which Gertrude reprimands her three-year-old daughter for wanting to pick up a piece of detritus on the beach. Wieland transports this fire to Nova Scotia: “There is a fire in Great Village. Many people have lost their homes.” Bishop described a fire in Great Village in “In the Village,” but all that burned was a barn. I think Great Village would remember a conflagration as severe as that which claimed Salem, Massachusetts. Would Bishop, even a fictional Bishop, make or mix up such events? Wieland’s Great Village fire is evoked a couple of times (pp. 253, 258) and allows Wieland to intensify Gertrude’s sinister quality, describing her “scolding voice” as “cruel” and “vicious and desperate,” strong adjectives given the wider context of Europe in 1936 — Gertrude as Nazi. She turns Gertrude into a “wounded animal,” to explain Bishop’s state of mind and choices made.
I had to keep repeating: this is fiction. But the fact is, more people will learn about Elizabeth Bishop by reading this novel than those who read the literary criticism and biography, which continues to be published. People will take this fiction to be fact because the novel is about a real person in a historical context and contains many real people as characters.
And to be really nit-picking, I found a few typos: “paying” for playing (p. 139); “though” for through (pp. 145, 222); one too many “a”s (p. 266). I did wonder why Wieland chose “1953” as a chapter title describing an encounter Bishop had with her old friend Clara at Grand Central Station in New York City. Bishop was living in Brazil at that time. Her visits to NYC happened in 1952, 1957 and 1961. Why not just write: “1952” instead? Finally (I have made my point), I wondered about the following: “I’m jealous of how peaceful she looks. Here they’d say she was comfortable in her skin. In Canada, you would say she was in her skirt.” Never in my life have I heard that latter phrase, but perhaps it is an Upper Canadian saying?
Wieland’s penultimate chapter/vignette/prose poem is, appropriately enough, a list of losses (echoing “One Art,” of course, the poem that has become Bishop’s signature, a sort of anthem for our age). The things Wieland states that Bishop has lost have inner logic for the novel, but it struck me as a rather sad conclusion. Bishop surely suffered many losses, but she persevered and wrote poetry and stories that haunt people forty years after her death, so much so that novelists write novels about her. The final chapter, entitled “1979,” the year Bishop died, is another list of things that remain in Bishop’s final home, Lewis Wharf in Boston. This list is also logical and poignant, yet it left me at a loss. Where was the literary legacy of this young woman involved in serious events in Europe in the 1930s, during the lead up to war? Well, Bishop did believe objects were sentient, so perhaps I’m being too demanding in my expectations. And perhaps Wieland intends her compressed, quiet list, the form itself, to be the answer to my question. Bishop’s death was sudden, unexpected, a great loss for all who loved and knew her. So perhaps in the end what is left of her, of any of us, is this kind of list of small objects, with all their secrets and silences.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Reminder about an exciting exhibit in Halifax

Next week is the opening of an exciting exhibit at ViewPoint Gallery in Halifax, N.S. Photographs of the Elizabeth  Bishop House in Great Village, N.S., by photographers Kathleen Flanagan and Roxanne Smith. Check it out!

Monday, June 24, 2019

EBSNS hosts successful Annual General Meeting

On a cool, rainy Saturday afternoon, 22 June 2019, the EBSNS hosted its Annual General Meeting and 25th anniversary celebration in St. James Church, Great Village, N.S. We welcomed several wonderful special guests: Rita Wilson, Penny Lighthall, Margo Wheaton and Harry Thurston. After the business and program concluded, the assembled removed to the Great Village Legion to enjoy refreshments provided by the Fire Brigade Auxiliary. These refreshments included an anniversary cake. Thanks to all the folks who attended, from near and far. The EBSNS is deeply grateful to all who continue support the work of telling Nova Scotians and the world about Bishop's deep and abiding connection to Great Village. Here are some photos of the event.

People begin to gather in St. James Church. Photo by Sandra Barry.

"Sestina," my favourite EB-poem inspired hooked rug in Penny Lighthall's exhibit.
Photo by Sandra Barry.

John Barnstead looking at Penny Lighthall's exhibit. Photo by Sandra Barry.

The assembled in St. James. Photo by Susan Kerslake.

Fabric Artist Penny Lighthall. Photo by Susan Kerslake.
Writer Rita Wilson spoke about her upcoming book:
A Pocket of Time: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetic Childhood,
due out with Nimbus in the fall. Photo by Susan Kerslake.
Our wonderful readers: NS poets Harry Thurston
and Margo Wheaton. Photo by Susan Kerslake.
The Anniversary Cake! With opening lines
from "The Moose." Designed and made
by Cheryl Slack. Photo by Susan Kerslake.

The reception at the Legion. Photo by Susan Kerslake.
Outgoing President Patti Miller (r) and new Vice President 
Laura Sharpe (l). Photo by Susan Kerslake.

Bishop scholar Vicki Harrison and her husband Peter, 
all the way from California. Photo by Susan Kerslake.
Painter Joy Laking and photographer Roxanne Smith. Photo by Susan Kerslake.

Three of the founding members of the EBSNS:
left to right -- Sandra Barry, Meredith Layton and Lois Bray.
Photo by Joy Graham.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Another EB society in Nova Scotia

The Elizabeth Bishop Society is not the only "EB" society in Nova Scotia. The Ernest Buckler Literary Event Society in the Annapolis Valley, centred around Bridgetown (where I grew up). It has been around for a decade or so. A week after the EBSNS holds its Annual General Meeting and 25th anniversary (on 22 June in Great Village), the EBLES is hosting a literary and musical evening, "Reading Where We Live," in Bridgetown. Bob Maher, a member of the EBLES organizing committee writes a most interesting blog and he has given the EBSNS AGM a shout out in today's post. Thanks Bob! So I want to return the favour and share the wonderful poster the EBLES has created for what will be a lively gathering on Saturday 29 June (click on the image to enlarge it). Lots of local writers will be participating and the two special guests are John Demont and Whit Fraser. I think it is pretty close to sold out already, but there might be some tickets left.

I also want to thank Bob Maher for his always interesting blog posts that look closely at the idea of local and rural and how important these ideas are to those of us who have left city life for the country.

Monday, June 17, 2019

EBSNS AGM on Saturday 22 June 2019, 1:00 p.m. at St. James United Church

The EBSNS and its special guests hope to see you in Great Village this coming Saturday to help us celebrate our 25th anniversary. Everyone is welcome! (Click to enlarge image.)

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Photographs of the Elizabeth Bishop House: an exhibit

During my tenure as steward of the Elizabeth Bishop House (2004-2015), many wonderful photographers spent time exploring the space-time of that dear old place. Two of these were Halifax photographers Roxanne Smith and Kathleen Flanagan. They took quite different approaches to this subject and some of their intriguing and beautiful work will be exhibited in Halifax at ViewPoint Gallery in July. I am thrilled about this exhibition and urge you to go see it if you live in Halifax or happen to visit the city during that month. Bishop herself was interested in photography – an interest she came by honestly, because her maternal family took to picture-taking early on. Indeed, several Bishop scholars have explored her connection to this old technology and artform. Most recently U.K. scholar Sophie Baldock was in touch to tell me that she is writing an essay about the exchange of photographs in the letters between Bishop and Robert Lowell. I look forward to reading Sophie’s take on thisexchange. In the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University Archives, there are a handful of photos that Bishop sent to her aunt and cousin over the years. Bishop often had her portrait done by professional photographers, something that started in her childhood at the instigation of her mother and grandparents. Well, one can imagine that Bishop would be interested in this upcoming exhibit, exploring her grandparents’ home, where so much happened that would affect the rest of her life. Here is the poster Roxanne sent about this exhibit.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop at the ALA, by Kay Bierwiler

The 2019 American Literature Association annual meeting was held in Boston in late May.  Several sessions were devoted to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose.  Most of the sessions were in a panel format. Presenters and attendees were from Canada, the United States and England.

The first session focused on research done at the Bishop archive at Vassar College.   Bethany Hicok moderated, and each panelist presented a paper.   The papers were:  “Too Shy To Stop:  Elizabeth Bishop and the Scene of Reading” presented by Heather Tressler; “I Miss All That Bright, Detailed Flatness: Bishop in Brevard” presented by Charla Hughes; “All The Untidy Activity: Travel and the Picturesque in Bishop’s Writing” presented by Yael Schlick; and the” Matter of Bishop’s Professionalism” presented by Claire Seiler. This was one of my favorite presentations.
The second session was titled “Bishop and Humor.”  Sponsored by the Elizabeth Bishop Society, it focused on humorous and witty aspects in Bishop’s writings.  It was chaired by Angus Cleghorn of Senaca College in Toronto.
Panelists included Thomas Travisano who highlighted humorous examples from Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell. Jonathan Ellis focused on “Humorous Elbowings:  Funny Turns in Bishop’s Poems and Stories.” Rachel Trousdale discussed “Love and Comical Inadequacy.”
The third session was titled “Swenson and Bishop:  Influence, Intimacy, and Empathy.” Joel Minor discussed “In the Bodies of Words: Curating the Swenson and Bishop Letters.”  The second paper by David Hoak discussed “Swenson and Bishop in Conversation: Efforts of Empathy and Intimacy.” The last presentation by Paul Crumbley focused on Swenson’s “Attitude and Questions of Influence”.
The poet Frank Bidart was celebrated with a roundtable discussion of his works.  Later in the evening he gave a poetry reading. Bidart was a friend of Bishop and one of her literary executors. His latest book is “Half-Light:  Collected Poems.”  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2018.
(Kay Bierwiler on left, with Sandra, at EBSNS 2018 AGM.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 113: Gatherings

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 18 January 1962 letter settled into their recent domestic activities. Before this update, however, Bishop hoped Grace would “get away to Florida, too, if you really want to go.” Grace occasionally spent time with her sister-in-law Mabel, who often spent time with her daughter Hazel, who lived in Hollywood, FL. Bishop assumed that was where her aunt would stay, though she couldn’t help but add, “I think you need to get somewhere restful, too,” knowing well that time with Mabel was not likely to be restful. 
(Grace and Mabel in Florida, 1960s. AUA.)
She wished “to goodness this [place] weren’t so far away – or that I was living in the country all the time and not all this going back & forth.” Yet having said that, Bishop suspected that Grace would likely be “bored there” (in the country) because “there is so little to do and it is SO quiet.” If a visit was not possible, Bishop was also at a loss how to “help with this trip” financially, because she was “still waiting to get paid finally for my job.” She suggested that perhaps when Grace was done with her visiting, and if she got “stuck or anything,” to “let me know.” She felt that she “could certainly help” Grace, at the very least “get back home again!” Grace had been visiting Mary in Montreal and was next off to visit with her son Rod, all before going to Florida. Bishop wondered: “How do you get from Montreal to Brantford, and where is it.” She wished she “had an atlas handy.” Bishop hadn’t seen Rod for years and wondered how many children he had, “two, hasn’t he – or just one?” This subject brought up Miriam again, Phyllis’s daughter. Grace had clearly been giving Bishop updates about the child’s progress and Bishop declared herself “feeling hopeful” about “little Miriam,” saying that “maybe all will go well” in any case. Echoing something the always-loving Grace said, Bishop wrote, “And as you say – loving care makes an awful lot of difference.” She also noted the benefit of the “attention of other children,” meaning Miriam’s older brothers, noting “they do develop faster when there are older children around.”

Bishop’s characteristic “//” signaled her shift, finally, to “Monica,” who Bishop declared “is a darling.” She was already starting to talk: “she says ‘Mama’ at last.” And Bishop noted that this doted on child “loves to give kisses,” particularly when they were all driving together: “she will suddenly lean forward to Mary,” and say, “╩╗Mama, Mama.’ and give her lots of smacks – mostly in the air.” Bishop echoed a word she’d used previously to describe this child: “cunning” – quite an adjective for a person who was “about 15 months” old.

Another “//” shifted things to Elizabeth Naudin, who “is spending six weeks up in Teresopolis.” This proximity meant that “they are all coming to lunch with us in Petropolis this Saturday – if it doesn’t storm again.” Bishop had visited her cousin “before she left.” Elizabeth Naudin was pregnant with her third child and Bishop, “thinking she was lying down, housebound, etc.” was surprised when she “walked in on a bit feijoada – a black-beans-and-rice-party – for three or four couples, children, etc.!” This signaled to Bishop that her cousin was “feeling a lot better.” Clearly, Elizabeth Naudin had settled into her life in Brazil.

Yet another “//” signaled an account of a gathering of their own: “We gave a luncheon last Saturday for Lota’s co-workers on the park.” Bishop observed that this gathering was “about time.” She also reported that she had done “all the cooking,” moaning the fact that “our Maria can’t cook and never will learn anything.” As an aside, she noted that they were “finally giving up and looking for another couple” to help at the Samambaia house. Even though they liked “them pretty well still in other ways … they spoil so darned easy!” By which she meant that with Lota and her away so much all they had “to do is air the house and feed the cats and water the garden most of the time.” When Lota and Elizabeth returned, she noted, “they think we’re expecting too much” when they “want[ed] a little cooking and washing done.” Bishop reminded Grace about Maria’s miscarriage and observed that “although we … did everything we possibly could about that poor little baby – (and if we hadn’t been there what would she have done? – died, probably,” Bishop reported that “they are so ignorant that now they are sort of blaming us because it died.” Bishop’s response to all of this was “Oh dear.” Bishop not only described them as “ignorant,” but also as “babes in the woods,” which, she noted “they don’t even see … of course.”

After that digression she returned to the gathering of Lota’s colleagues, with Bishop cooking “all Saturday” for “18 people … and it was hot as hell.” The menu included “iced cucumber and mint soup.” Main course was “Beouf Bourguignon – a sort of de-luxe stew of steak, mushrooms, all kinds of things – cooked for two days, almost.” 
(Beef Bourguignon)
In addition, there were “little carrots and onions fresh from the garden.” To top it all off, “Brazilian style – two desserts – or three,” including “a huge chestnut pudding, all decorated with nuts and cream.” As well as “sliced pineapple with liqueur.” And, finally, “a large chocolate cake.” In Bishop’s view it was “much too much, I thought, but it vanished like snow.” To accommodate all these people, they “set up four card-tables.” And as if Mother Nature was collaborating (during a time of stormy weather), “the rain held off until they had left.” The gathering dispersed “about 6 o’clock.” And Bishop concluded this account with, “we were all naturally exhausted by then.”

No more “//s” but Bishop shifted gears again. The next post will conclude this newsy letter.

Friday, June 7, 2019

EB-inspired hooked rug exhibit in Great Village

Truro artist Penny Lighthall is creating a series of hooked rugs inspired by Elizabeth Bishop poems. Some of these rugs have been hung in the Echoes of EB Art Gallery in St. James Church in Great Village. The EBSNS will be unveiling them at our Annual General Meeting on 22 June. EB board member Laurie Gunn helped Penny with this exhibit and took these photos. We hope to see you at the AGM when we'll also be celebrating our 25th anniversary. Other special guests include Rita Wilson, Margo Wheaton and Harry Thurston. See you "In the Village" on 22 June. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Cookies — the kind you eat: an update

If you remember, in the Letter to Aunt Grace #111, I wrote about a cookie recipe Bishop found in Life magazine, which she highly recommended to her aunt. I found the issue from which that recipe came and posted the cover, but didn’t pursue the matter further. John Barnstead, however, located the recipe in that issue and send me a copy of it, which I included as an addendum. John also took it upon himself to make the cookies and he promised me he would send me some, which he most kindly did, along with a delightful tray that displayed the Brazilian and American flags. John was not the only person to try their hand at these cookies. My Utah friend Laurel Cannon Alder also made these cookies and sent me some photos of the results. Her mother, my dear friend Helen Cannon, reported that they are delicious (Bishop certainly thought so, too) and now that I have tasted them, I can say first hand that they are delightful, not too sweet but very flavourful. I have always thought that there should be an Elizabeth Bishop cookbook, based in part on the recipes she shares with her aunt in her letters. I suspect Grace sent Bishop a few recipes of her own, even though Bishop didn’t regard Grace as a good baker!

I thought you might like to see photos of the two batches of actual (not electronic!) cookies, well worth the effort to bake them.
Laurel’s cookies.
John’s cookies artfully displayed on the tray.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 112: Worst and First

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was dated 18 January 1962, just over two weeks after the first one for the year. It was not as long, but offers a glimpse of their split domestic life, the “back and forth” between the house as Samambai and the apartment in Rio, as Lota’s job with the park intensified.

This epistle started off, however, with a concern over Bishop’s previous communication. After they had got “back to P[etr├│polis] for the weekend” (Bishop had mailed the 3 January letter in the city), Bishop reported she had “got your note of the 3rd.” They had written to each other on the same day (space-time is an interesting phenomenon). This note told Bishop that her aunt was gallivanting again, that she was “off to Montreal.” This made Bishop wonder when Grace would receive “that BOOK I mailed you,” by which she meant, as she scribbled above “BOOK”: “(big letter).” Bishop had sent that long letter “registered mail, one day last week, from Rio,” but she was “afraid it had to be forwarded to you at Mary’s.” That was where Grace was headed, “‘by car’ you say.”

Driving from anywhere in Nova Scotia to Montreal at any time of year is no small trek (according to Google the distance is 1,128 km and takes 10 hours and 46 minutes on the Trans Canada Highway — in 1962 there would not have been much of this highway built, if any); but doing so in the dead of winter was adventurous, to say the least. Bishop wondered if Grace was “driving with someone” and hoped “the roads are good — better than here, certainly.” Since, as far as I know, Grace did not drive, she was surely being driven there by someone.

Grace’s road trip triggered one of Bishop’s lively stories about her and Lota’s own recent “trip down to Rio Tuesday,” from which they were “just recovering.”

They set off in a “terrific storm,” which had started Monday, “the worst every recorded, I think.” [Note: I went looking for such a storm and found mention of it on a blog which listed natural disasters in Rio de Janeiro. According to this site, 242 mm, nearly 100 inches, of rain fell during this storm. No wonder they encountered what they did on this trip.]

Bishop recounted that rain made the roads “almost impassable.” She conceded that they “really shouldn’t have” gone “in the little Volkswagon.” They encountered “rocks almost as big as the car,” which were “scattered over the mountain road.” In addition, there was “thick fog — stranded trucks all along the way.” They made it “down” the mountain but found “the highway into the city was flooded.” They “had to wait about two hours” to do the final leg into Rio. Needless to say, there were “many accidents.” One in particular was slightly surreal: “one load of cotton had been upset — we saw all this white stuff through the fog, and a crowd, and couldn’t imagine what it was.” It was “the bales burst open — the truck wrecked, of course.”

After having survived that treacherous trip, “that night there was a small earthquake — the first ever recorded here — very slight.” Bishop reported that they were “reading in our beds” when they felt something. Bishop, who had “felt worse in Massachusetts!” immediately “said to Lota, ‘That’s a quake.’” Lota “pooh-poohed the whole thing,” but the next morning “the papers” reported it. Bishop was “glad” to have her sense confirmed, the proof that “it hadn’t been just my poetic imagination but a real tremor.”

Again, I attempted to find something online about this minor seismic incident, but couldn’t. Still, we can trust Bishop and the papers in both these accounts of the worst rainfall recorded to that date and the first tremor ever detected. An eventful day.
(It is hard to find images of torrential rain and rock slides
or minor earthquakes!Instead, I offer a poor scan of a photo
in Carmen Oliveira's Flores Raras e Banalisimas,
of the beginning of Lota's park in the early 1960s.)

After this dramatic beginning, the letter turned fully to family updates and Bishop’s report about their own domestic issues. These will be taken up in the next post.