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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 118: Lots of water

The second half of Bishop’s 20 February 1962 letter was focused on water in various forms. Before getting to this subject, Bishop asked her aunt if she had “got my last note with the check in it?” That is, the cost of living bonus she’d got from The New Yorker, which she had signed over to Grace to help with her Florida trip. Bishop wondered if her aunt was “there” yet and, if so, how she got there, “by train?”

Bishop had a direct connection to and interest in Florida, and in good Maritimer fashion, she then asked about the weather: “Are you having storms there the way we are?” Bishop had been writing to her aunt about the severe, at times record breaking, weather in Rio and the problems it had been causing; she wondered if Floridians were experiencing the same. She noted that she saw “by this morning’s paper that maybe Glenn will at last take off today so Florida must be clearing up, at least.”

The Glenn she refers to is, of course, astronaut John Glenn, who did indeed take off on that very day and became the first American to orbit the earth on the Friendship 7 mission.* 
The weather had definitely not cleared up in Rio where “the storms” were “terrific.” In her decade living there, Bishop had “never seen anything like them.” The bad weather, especially the rain, had been going on long enough that “we are awfully sick of being wet.” This kind of weather was more than uncomfortable for Bishop, it exacerbated her asthma, which she had “been having … all the time … because of the mildew.”

Not only was water falling in great quantity outside. Bishop continued her water tale with what was falling inside. She told Grace that she and Lota had returned “to Rio on Sunday late P M — broiling hot — and found the plumbers who are completely re-piping the place had left everything looking as though a bomb had hit us.” Bishop’s word for this discovery: “mess.” The only place they could “get cold showers” was in “the maid’s bathroom,” a facility that had been designed by some “devil” because it was basically a “little hole,” a feature that was common enough across the board, prompting Bishop to declare: “poor maids.” The maids had no choice but to use such cramped spaces, but Bishop reported that “yesterday we went to a friend’s down the street to bathe, make pee-pee, etc.” Not only was the plumbing disrupted, they had to do this external toilette “through howling storms all day, too!”

The plumbing inconvenience was but the start of a process to “overhaul” the apartment. Bishop noted, “Next comes the wiring.” One problem for them was timing, for they commenced this necessary work as “prices are soaring,” making her wonder “how we can ever finish it, even paint it, I don’t see.”

The apartment was not without running water, exactly. Bishop told her aunt that she “was awakened by the rain coming in on my face.” She explained that the apartment was on “the top floor and there are awful leaks.” She had complained about this issue before. The leaks were “the management’s responsibility, but they won’t do anything about it.” Scribbled vertically on the left side of the page, to reflect her observation, Bishop wrote: “The bedroom wall is running with water! All the paint peeled off.”

One thinks of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “water, water everywhere…”

Bishop dried off her face and hands and turned to a more interesting use of water. She reported, “Yesterday at the worst of the storm we saw the winning sail-boat — 80 feet — arrive from Buenos Aires.” This boat, Stromvogel,** won “the annual race from B.A. to Rio,” a 1200-mile route. Bishop declared this boat “beautiful” and noted “how I’d like to be on” it or one of the other boats in the regatta. The second-place boat “was the U S one from Annapolis.”
Wet and asthmatic as she was, Bishop closed her letter with “I must get to work.” Her final words were for and about her beloved aunt (“How are you”?), her hope that when she went “up next week-end” to the country, she would “get a letter” from Grace. In addition to Grace, Bishop sent her “love to Aunt Mabel and Hazel.”

I can’t help but observe here that while academic scholars and biographers focus on the “work” Bishop mentions at the end of this letter, very often Bishop was much more focused on daily life. And when she does report working to Grace, the focus is often about the practical and logistical side of it. It is not wise to ignore all this quotidian matter, which filled most of Bishop’s days, weeks, months, years. Her poetry and prose were conceived and created amid the press and push of tasks, travels and troubles. And Bishop often wasn’t able to write the formal stuff, blocked or busy or both at any given time; but she wrote a mind-boggling number of letters, and one can see in them all the poetic force that ended up in the poems and stories she did complete.

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is a brief hand-written note accompanying an article that came out in Time, written and sent a little over a month later, the subject for the next post.

*Note: Mid-July 2019 marks the fiftith anniversary of the first person to set foot on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong (along with Buzz Aldrin). The moon landing was the culmination of years of efforts, which began with Glenn’s orbit.

**Note: Bishop did not know or report the name of this vessel, but the New York Times reported the win which happened on 19 February.

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