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

Monday, July 29, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 119: Eely Slickness (!?)

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, dated Rio, 23 March [1962], just over a month after the previous epistle, is a short, hand-written scrawl that accompanied a clipping from the 9 March 1962 issue of Time. 
(This cover shows writer Tennessee Williams.) 
(Page one of the article in question. Click image to enlarge.)
The clipping was the article “Poetry in English 1945‒62,” in which Bishop was featured, along with a host of other contemporary poets, almost all male (Adrianne Rich gets a passing reference). Reading this piece now makes one cringe because of its sexist tone and tenor.
(Page two of the article in question.)
In this context, it is surprising that Bishop got a section of her own, especially since her work is described as having an “eely slickness” that is “sometimes repellent”! Her work has “little human warmth, no specific temperature.”*
(Page three of the article in question.)
Perhaps what the writer objected to was the fact that she did not have what he identified elsewhere as Rich’s “feminine charm … coupled with a feminine shrewdness.” Well, one must laugh out loud reading that observation, in light of what Rich became for the women’s movement. The critic did concede that Bishop had “a gift of imagery” and “a woman’s eye as keen as any since Virginia Woolf’s,” but how that makes her work “eely” and cold seems is puzzling and perhaps something of a contradiction. Even in 1962, Bishop was an enigma.

Bishop began her letter wondering “Maybe you didn’t see this …?” Sending it to her aunt wasn’t “very modest of me!” But considering the lukewarm, even negative critique of her, it is a wonder Bishop wanted to send it at all. Still, there she was in Time, about as mainstream as you could get in 1962. Perhaps she was included because of her work on the Time-Life Brazil book, the subject of which comprised most of the rest of the letter.

She noted first that she hadn’t “heard from you for a long time now.” Grace was in Florida with her sister-in-law and niece, so perhaps she was busy. Bishop thought “maybe a letter got lost?” She couldn’t remember the date of Grace’s last letter and she couldn’t “find it,” but remembered it was “some time ago.” In any case, she assured her aunt: “I answered it.” She had “heard from Mary last week,” who herself was “just leaving for Florida, too.” Clearly, a reunion between the sisters was in the works.
Then Bishop asked if Grace had “got the BRAZIL book?” This tiresome project was still plaguing Bishop and she was finding it hard to let go of the trauma. She observed again to Grace that “It is so full of LIFE.” And reiterated that there was “so little left of what I wrote.” Even though “I hate to look at it,” she still wanted her aunts to see it. She clarified that she was “NOT responsible for any titles, chapter-headings, what it says under the pictures, etc.” As a result, she said it was “full of mistakes, although I did my best.”

As she wound down this scribbled note, she finally explained that “my typewriter is being repaired again.” She concluded by asking Grace to give her “love to Aunt Mabel [and] Hazel” and declaring in a way that is familiar to all Bishop fans: “Write me!” (one can’t help but think of her late poem “One Art” in this emphasized admonition). Closing, “with lots of love.”

The last section of the Time article was about Robert Lowell. Below his photo (with its caption of “Vigor, not melody.”), Bishop wrote: “This is my old friend.” She noted that “he & his wife … are coming to visit me … the month of June.” (A fateful visit for them all, especially Lowell himself.)

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was barely two weeks later and announced the arrival of a new member of the family. The next post will convey this advent.

*Note: The image of Bishop used by Time in this photo was taken at Samambaia. She sent this same image to Grace, signed. Grace framed and hung it in her home. It ended up in Phyllis Sutherland's possession and is now at Acadia University Archives.

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