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

Monday, September 30, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 10

This rug is inspired by Bishop's late poem "The End of March," set on a beach in Duxbury, MA. Littoral spaces were generative for Bishop, places between the mysterious ocean and the enigmatic continent. In this poem she is walking the beach looking for a perfect place to rest, to "be," which she knows to be "impossible." I like how Lighthall has rendered the most famous images of this poem, the kite string and the "big, majestic paw-prints" of "the lion sun."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 127: Medals, Money, Markets

After her lengthy account of the disastrous end to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick’s visit, Bishop turned to other matters in her 22 September 1962 letter. The next news to report concerned Lota. Bishop noted that she and Lota were finally “going up to the country this weekend” (the last word was crossed out and scribbled above it was “afternoon”). They had not been there for “a month.” Bishop wanted to “stay longer” than just the weekend, “but Lota has to work and I think I have to be here with her.” The work on the park was “going awfully well,” so much so that “last week she was given a medal.”* This honour was something of a big deal, something Bishop “knew about beforehand.” Her task was to ensure Lota got “off to work well-dressed that day.” She boasted in a scribbled line in the margin, “she didn’t suspect anything.” In bestowing this medal, Bishop noted “there were photographers … speeches.” Further celebration was “a cocktail party for all her work-group, in the big shed in the park where they work.” This shed had “two rooms, like a barn, full of draughting boards.” Bishop reported that this event gathered “thirty or more people.” Once again, Bishop was responsible for the fare: “I made all the food and drinks.” She “acted as barman.” She had taken along “our maid, and another friend brought a maid,” someone Bishop unkindly described as “useless but decorative”). The work-group’s janitor, “a Negro man,” also helped and Bishop “taught him now to shake cocktails, etc!” She declared this event “quite successful — at least the last people didn’t leave till almost ten.” Afterwards, “we had to carry everything back and forth.” Bishop and Lota finally “fell into bed about midnight and ate the last of the hor d’oeuvres [sic] in bed, for dinner!”

A break in this account so that Bishop could declare, “Next week I must take up my normal life somehow or other.” She had to go to the dentist and visit “Elizabeth [Naudin] and her baby.” She noted that Patricia was now “over four months old.”

The next subjects Bishop tackled were politics and the economy. She had been writing about “coups” and other unrest and noted that likely Grace had “seen in the papers” that “Brazil has been through crises after crises lately.” On that front at least, “things seem pretty calm at the moment.” The bigger issue was that “the country is bankrupt.” Bishop was hoping that the calm atmosphere would continue as there were “elections October 7th.” She noted that “there was supposed to be a big general strike last week,” but it appears it didn’t happen. She observed that they got prepared anyway, laying “in supplies.” Though in those days, this effort wasn’t exceptional, as Bishop observed that as a rule “I always keep stocked up with coffee, sugar, biscuits in tins, flour, etc.,” because “one never knows when” such staples might “vanish from the markets completely.” Bishop also confessed that she kept “some $$$ hidden away all the time — in case of any real emergency.”

She quickly added, to reassure her aunt, that they were “all right, of course.” She noted that it was really “the poor people who are suffering.” She described them as “incredibly patient,” wondering “why there isn’t a revolution every month, really.” She concluded this account with an observation that rings true nearly sixty years later: “And all the politicians except one or two are knaves and fools.” Her go-to description kicked in: “Poor Brazil!”
(Macumba worshippers gather in Rio, 1962.)
But, as bad as things were in that beleaguered country, she felt that “things look even worse elsewhere.” Take, for example, the “U S A [which] may be awfully rich — but their problems are worse, really, then [sic] any here.”

This letter was beginning to wind down, but there was still some news to report, which will comprise the next post.


*Note: I don’t know exactly what medal. Carmen Oliveira reports it in her book, but only notes that “it wasn’t the recognition this woman wanted.” Lota wanted “Carlos [Lacerda, Governor of Guanabara] to take a bigger interest in the Aterro [the park]. (p. 73)

Friday, September 27, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 9

We know from Bishop's letters that the poem that inspired this rug, "The Owl's Journey," was one that Bishop lived with for a long time. She believed the idea came to her in a dream when she was a child, but she wasn't sure. She tried for decades to finish it, but could never find the path to that conclusion. She shared versions of it with friends, including Katharine White, her editor at The New Yorker, but she never published any during her life. Her university friend, the artist Margaret Miller was the first to render the image of the owl riding on the rabbit's back. Alice Quinn finally put it into print in Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke Box (2006). Lighthall's rendition of this fable-like idea and poem is faithful to what Bishop imagined, and looks wonderfully child-like, like an image from a child's dream.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 8

This delightful rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Cape Breton," which begins by invoking the Bird Islands (Hertford and Ciboux). Countless puffins nest on these islands during the summer. Bishop visited Cape Breton in 1947, spending some weeks there. She went for the landscape, of course, but also because her mother had taught school in Cape Breton. I visited the Bird Islands once, myself, in the early 2000s, with friends from Texas. The ride out on the tour boat was choppy and I was queasy. Unlike Bishop, I am no seafarer!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 7

This charming rug is inspired by Bishop's poem "Manners," which is a memory of riding with her maternal grandfather William Bulmer on his wagon. Bishop believed deeply in courtesy, in daily life and in her art. She gave her readers a good deal of credit in their ability to understand her work and felt she didn't need to spill out all the emotions inherent in her poems. Some critics felt this made Bishop aloof or reserved, but she might have said, in the spirit if this poem, that she had "good manners," a rather old-fashioned practice which we seem to be losing more and more in our fast-paced world. William (Pa) Bulmer was a kind, genial, gentle, courteous man and Bishop was an apprentice to his philosophy of interacting with family, friends, and strangers. And my manners require me to once again thank Susan Kerslake for taking the images I am using in this series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 6

One of the things I like about Penny Lighthall's choice of poems is that she doesn't always pick the most famous ones. This adorable rug is inspired by "Lullaby for a Cat," an homage to Bishop's cat Minnow. Bishop had a number of cats during her life, starting with cats at her grandparents' home. She especially mentions Nanny. Her most famous cat, however, was her Brazilian cat Tobias. Below are two images of Bishop with Tobias from Carmen Oliveira's book. She seems to have preferred black and white cats.

Monday, September 23, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 5

This Lighthall rug is quite different from all the others and was inspired by Bishop's poem "The Reprimand," which I have argued is about her relationship with her mother. Bishop's mother struggled with various illnesses and ended up spending eighteen years at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S. This poem is about the damage overwhelming grief can exact on one's mind. It was said Bishop's mother never recovered from her grief over losing her beloved husband when Bishop was only eight months old. Tears are a central motif in the poem. Lighthall will be giving a talk about her rugs at the Central Library on 7 October. To find out more click here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 4

This rug is inspired by Bishop's early poem "The Imaginary Iceberg," which appeared in her first collection North & South. Brett Millier notes that Bishop had never seen an iceberg at the time of writing the poem in the early 1940s, but I wonder if she had not heard stories about encountering them from her grandmother, who would have heard them from George W. Hutchinson, who spent a lot of time on board ship travelling between England the Nova Scotia. He spent time in Newfoundland and Labrador, the best place in Canada to see icebergs. I love this vibrant image, Lighthall's own imaginary rendering of what Bishop imagined in her poem.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 3

This vivid rug is Lighthall's interpretation of "The Fish," which for years was Bishop's most anthologized poem, to the point that she got rather tired of it. Bishop learned to fish from her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, who could more or less pull trout out of puddles. This poem was triggered by a large fish she caught while living in Florida. I love how the water and sky are more or less of a piece, and she's even got some of that rainbow hue floating around the outboard motor.

Friday, September 20, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 2

This delightful image is inspired by Bishop's "Poem," a late work that responded to a painting done by her Great-Uncle George W. Hutchinson. I like the fact that Lighthall has given us a nice sky. Bishop writes in that poem that skies were her uncle's specialty. (Again, photo by Susan Kerslake.)

Here is the original painting, which is a view of Great Village looking east-northeast from the river, or so we think (there is some debate). It would have been painted probably in the 1890s or earlier. It is now owned by Rachel Jacoff, who happens to live in Lewis Wharf in Boston -- at least the last time I heard about her.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

From Pen to Hook: a must-see exhibit in Halifax

At the EBSNS AGM on 22 June 2019, Truro fabric artist Penny Lighthall opened an exhibit of eight delightful hooked rugs inspired by Bishop poems, designs that Lighthall calls her “interpretations.” This exhibit hung in the Echoes of EB gallery in St. James Church until late August. Now, these eight, along with a dozen others, are part of her “From Pen to Hook” exhibit at the Halifax Central Library, in Pavia on the top floor. Lighthall was supposed to have a launch, but Hurricane Dorian interfered with this plan. The rugs will remain, however, on exhibit until 28 October. I urge anyone who lives in the city (or who is visiting) and is a Bishop fan or a fan of hooked rugs to go have a look. These rugs are charming, whimsical, colourful, uplifting. EBSNS member and friend Susan Kerslake took photos of the rugs and I am going to post these images over the next month and a half – one at a time – with a comment or two. For now, I offer these images of the context of the spatial and artistic context of this exhibit.
(Some of the rugs in situ at Pavia, Halifax Central Library.
Photo by Susan Kerslake.)
(Penny’s artist statement. Photo above and
below by Susan Kerslake.)

Of the eight exhibited in GV, this is my favourite, though it is hard to pick a favourite. This rug was inspired by Bishop's poem "Sestina," set in the kitchen of the EB House. this poem begins, "September rain falls on the house." An appropriate way to begin this September/October exhibit and my brief commentaries. Note the wonderful hooked rug on the floor -- a hooked rug inside a hooked rug: "It was to be, says the Marvel Stove..." Bishop's grandmother and aunts all hooked rugs and Bishop vividly remembered "hooking bees" that happened at the house. Lighthall's inspired exhibit makes total organic sense in terms of the kinds of artisanal creativity Bishop experienced as a child. I must add that these rugs are also for sale. Lighthall tells me that she's already sold several of them.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 126: The Lowells, Part 2

Bishop’s final extant 1962 letter to her aunt is dated 22 September, from Rio. Nearly two months had passed since the previous epistle and she acknowledged right at the top that “it is ages since I wrote to you.” It was so long that Elizabeth Naudin “even telephoned this week saying that [Aunt] Mary said that you said you hadn’t heard from me!”  The family kept tabs, of a sort, on each other. Bishop confessed the silence had been caused by “lots of reasons.” The principle one, however, was the most complex, the visit of “my friend Robert Lowell his wife (also named Elizabeth), his 5½ year old daughter, Harriet, & a Radcliffe girl named Tony, to look after Harriet.” She couldn’t remember what she had already told her aunt about them, but noted that they had come “for one month, supposedly.” In the end, “they stayed on for two months,” because “apparently [they] had a good time.”

Bishop quickly observed that she was “awfully fond” of Lowell “of course,” but she had to “be frank with you!”: “it was pretty much of a strain.” She declared that she and Lota were “worn out.” Lota managed to get “off to work every afternoon” (the job with the park), “but I was right here.” Bishop took the brunt of their need to be entertained.

The Lowells had “stayed at Copacabana Palace,” where they “had a big apartment.” She and Lota had hosted them at Samambaia, “but only one week-end in all that time” (in addition to three trips to Cabo Frio, where they went “out on a boat”). This outline of accommodation and itinerary was not, however, what mattered to Bishop, as tiring as it was. She described her friends as “very bright, and ‘intellectual’,” positive enough attributes; but not sufficient qualities for parenting: “they have no more idea how to manage a small child, how to treat a small child, than a couple of fish.” 
(Copacabana Palace, circa 1960s)
“Poor little girl!” was Bishop’s take, because she was “about the worst child anyone has ever seen.” Bishop felt she and Lota were “pretty tough, and used to having children around,” but even these two seasoned babysitters “could only take one week-end.” Bishop quickly added that “no one blames the little girl,” describing her as “miserably unhappy.” But even conceding these assessments, “no one can stay in the room with her for more than ten minutes at a stretch.” Poor Harriet indeed! 
(Robert and Harriett Lowell)
When the one-month stay stretched into two, Bishop reported that they “sort of ran out of entertainment.” Bishop knew Lowell better than she knew Hardwick, but she “knew” enough to anticipate that this wife “wouldn’t like things here very much,” and that she was a “nagger.” Makes one wonder why the Lowells extended their stay.

If all of this was not difficult enough to navigate, Bishop paused briefly with “Well —” and then declared she would tell Grace “the worst,” adding immediately, “but please don’t repeat it to Mary because it would get back here, probably.” That eventuality was real enough from the opening of this very letter. Word got around, even across vast stretches of space-time. Bishop told Grace that she was trying to keep this “worst” as “quiet as I can,” even though it was really “no secret.” She just didn’t “want to talk about it here.” Upon reflection, she conceded that “everyone in N.Y. probably knows already!”

This worst involved “Lowell — Cal that is,” who Bishop declared “is my dearest friend, just about.” She assured Grace that she regarded Lowell as “a magnificent poet — but alas, he is schizophrenic,* and has breakdowns — every two or three years.” Bishop explained to her aunt that the “one reason why I only wanted them to stay for a month” was her knowledge of Lowell’s mental illness. And not too far into their visit, Bishop “could tell he was working up to one [a breakdown].” She noted with some incredulity that if she could see such a thing happening, “surely his wife must have realized it.” Even Lota could see it.

Perhaps Hardwick did realize it because after a quick ellipsis, Bishop noted that she and Harriett “went off by boat to N.Y. the 1st of the month,” leaving Lowell to go “off to Argentina for four days, supposedly — on the verge of a breakdown.” As one might expect, in such a state, Lowell “wouldn’t listen to anyone at that point.” Barely arrived in Argentina, the inevitable happened: “Of course he went to pieces.”

It was left to Bishop “to call in the U S embassy, etc — his doctor in N.Y. (fortunately we remembered the name).” Those who did the hands-on, managed to get him “locked up in a sanatarium [sic] in Buenos Aires” Bishop reported that “the latest idea is to send him back to NY on a U S Army plane — the airlines won’t take anyone in that condition, of course.” As Bishop was typing her letter, she noted that she was “expecting to hear from the Embassy here at any minute.”

Bishop’s summary terms for this situation were “an awful mess and an awful strain.” She told her aunt that she wouldn’t “feel much better until I know he’s back in N.Y. in a hospital there and with his own doctor.” As problematic as Lowell was, Bishop, perhaps unkindly, though perhaps understandably given the circumstances, observed: “I really think his wife is as crazy as he is” — or worse, in her view. Lowell was “perfectly sane most of the time and behaves sensibly, etc.” Elizabeth Hardwick, on the other hand, in Bishop’s opinion, was “just sort of crazy all the time!” She had to ask again, incredulity bursting forth, “How could she go off and leave him here?”

One of Bishop’s main aims was “to keep it out of the papers here if I can.” Scribbled in the margin with an “→” was, “they love gossip so.” Just like “poor little girl,” Bishop declared “Poor guy.” She averred that he “is a darling when he’s himself.”

Sounding weary, Bishop ended this saga with another “Well —” and the reiteration, “all this is why I haven’t written any letters, or done anything much, for the last six weeks, at least.”

This letter was only just getting started. Bishop had other things to update. The next post shifts focus to other stressful matters.


*Note: Lowell was bipolar, something quite different than schizophrenia. In a 14 June 1970 letter to Dorothee Bowie, Bishop applied this term not only Lowell, but also to her mother and Lota! Neither of these women suffered with this mental illness. Nor were they bipolar. Why someone as intelligent as Bishop used such a specific term incorrectly is odd. Perhaps she was using it in a common parlance way, like saying someone is “insane,” a kind of general label. Kay Redfield Jamison’s study Robert Lowell: Settingthe River on Fire: A study of Genius, Mania, and Character explores his mental illness in great depth and with deep compassion. I have tried to explore Gertrude’s illness in a similar way in my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. Carmen Oliveira writes about Lota’s illness in Rare and Common Place Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, translated by Neil Besner. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Elizabeth Bishop biography due out this fall

Bishop scholar Thomas Travisano's new biography is imminent. Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, by Penguin/Random House/Viking will be published this fall. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Special event in Great Village on Friday 13 September

(Click image to enlarge)
If you are anywhere near Great Village on Friday, take in this evening event, featuring two artists from the U.K. I certainly wish that I could attend! Heather Tookey tells me that their project will have an electronic life, so if it is at all possible to share it online, I will pass on the way to do so. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for making such opportunities possible.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 125: More about babies

After the account of their recent company, Bishop turned to her cousin in the 31 July 1962 letter. And after having just praised Elizabeth Naudin’s daughters for being better behaved than Harriet Lowell, Bishop embarked on a rather critical account of her cousin’s parenting.

She began this critique with a positive, reiterating again that the “new baby is adorable,” describing her like “a pink doll, really.” But then she reported something alarming, “she had pneumonia, at 3 weeks.” She wondered if Grace had heard. “E spent several days in the hospital with her” because “she was in an oxygen tent.” Bishop suspected she had “caught a cold from one of the others, poor infant.” Bishop had seen Patricia last on 4 July “I think!” and “she looked fine.” Catching something from her sisters seemed inevitable to Bishop, “(grandma E know all!),” because they “have too damned many colds — one right after the other.” “Grandma E” believed it was so because their mother “never opens her window!” She also kept her daughters “indoors much too much of the time,” as least in Bishop’s opinion.

Having blurted all this out, she added a caution, “Of course I never breathe a word of this — so don’t you ..!” Bishop knew she shouldn’t “criticize … but when I go there I nearly stifle.” Frustratingly, for Bishop, her cousin’s home “has one of the most magnificent views in the world, honestly.” But rather than basking in it, “she stays indoors with all the venetian blinds drawn tight.” Bishop couldn’t understand this modus vivendi, wondering, “do you suppose it’s to spare the carpet?” Or, perhaps, it came “from having lived in a cold northern city all her life.” For Bishop, “one of the advantages of living here — where there are so many disadvantages — is that you can really live out-doors all year round.” To prove her point, she noted that it was “why I think L & I almost never have colds, grippe, etc.” Even though two previous letters had reported bad colds, first for Lota and then her.

After all this venting, Bishop concluded, rightly, “But it’s none of my damned business I know very well.”

She then shifted to a child much farther away: Miriam. She reported to her aunt that she had not “had a chance to see Decio (that doctor),”* who had caused Phyllis some offence. She was hoping that when she got “back to Samambaia,” where she hadn’t been “for 3 weeks now,” she would see him because he was “up there for a vacation,” so he would have “more time” to talk.

Bishop clearly thought a great deal about Phyllis’s daughter and observed, “I suffer whenever I think of poor little Miriam.” She felt her situation was “a cruel thing” and declared in characteristic parlance that “life can certainly be awful.”
(Grace and Miriam, 1961. Source: Acadia University Archives.) 
Another “//” signaled a shift to more baby news, this time for Grace: “I think you must have still another grandchild now, and hope all went well.” This baby was the first child of Bud and Lois Bowers. I never met Bud and Lois’s children, who all lived in Ontario. Bishop quickly noted that they were going to have “some mail sent down [from Samambaia] today,” so she was hoping “to hear from you.” Perhaps with news about theses new additions. Grace’s family was expanding quickly.

As her hurried letter began to wind down, she noted that she had “so much work to do I don’t know where to begin.” The apartment in Rio was too chaotic a place for her to work (undoubtedly, she missed her estudio): “the phone rings too much … too many interruptions … Lota is too busy.” She had decided to rent ‘a room from a friend,” a place to work. She would “go out every A M from 8 to 1.” They had decided that it was “the only solution.”

Another “//” began the final wind-down with a plea for her aunt to “forgive this confused and gossipy note.” She promised to “write more lucidly in August!” Their friends would “be off to Argentina & Peru by the 10th, I think.” She was sort of wrong about this prediction. The fact that “there are revolutions in ALL the countries here,” something of a “speciality [sic]” the continent provided “for distinguished guests,” perhaps spoke to the disaster that was about to unfold for Robert Lowell.

She signed off with “much love to you as always,” and turned back to the chaotic life she was leading at that moment.

The next post will take up Bishop’s final extant letter to Grace for 1962, accounting for the happenings with the Lowells and other news.

*Note: I have since discovered who the doctor Decio is: Decio Soares de Sousa.