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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Learned Ladies

I was recently contacted by Scott Guy; who is producing a musical webseries called The Learned Ladies. It is focused on featuring stories, songs, poems and essays from under-represented women composers and forgotten women authors of the past. Award-winning actress Elise Dewsberry plays southern belle Ann Reeves Jarvis as she welcomes us into her pre-Civil-War music room, introducing us to women authors and composers, like an antebellum “Masterpiece Theatre.”  Upcoming seasons will focus on “The Women of Boston,” “The Daughters of the American Revolution,” and we’re contemplating an entire season dedicated to The Lowell Offering.

I thought some of our readers might be interested in this fascinating and ambitious project.

(Elise Dewsberry as Anne Reese Jarvis)

Friday, November 22, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 132: Catching up to Grace

Bishop’s next 1963 letter was dated “Rio again – January 7th,” only a few days after the previous long missive. She reported that she “did get a letter from you in Petrópolis.” Since she hadn’t yet managed to mail the 3 January letter, she decided to “add a note, and send this to Florida.” She had wondered if Grace was going there, but didn’t know for sure and had “addressed [the previous letter] to G.V.” So, this addition was by way of yet another postscript. Grace had sent a photo of herself with the letter and Bishop was “delighted to have the picture.” Scribbled in the margin in Bishop’s almost indecipherable scrawl was the comment: “You don’t look a [speck?] older than in 1957—honestly.” With clear sincerity, Bishop wrote: “I’ll cherish it.” She added that she would reciprocate next time she wrote, “a couple of snapshots of me taken recently,” which she observed were “less bad than usual!” 
(Perhaps it was this photo of Grace Bulmer Bowers,
circa 1963. AUA)
Then she remarked how glad she was that her aunt “can get away from the cold – although at the moment I wouldn’t mind a bit.” She reported that “it has been, probably, about 98 in Rio today – and is going higher.” With this kind of heat (and undoubtedly lots of humidity, too), Bishop declared enthusiastic thanks for “our AIR CONDITONERS.” She noted that she just “stayed in and worked.”

Bishop then reported in real time that “Lota just called to say she was on her way home (7;30).” The semicolon was likely on the same key as the colon (as it is still on most keyboards). Lota indicated that she was “so hot & tired” that Bishop didn’t need to “cook anything.” This request didn’t mean they would have nothing to eat, but rather, as Bishop noted, that they would “settle for mangada – that is lots of mangos,” which she noted were “wonderful now.” 
(Mangos and mangada)
Bishop explained further that what they did with this fruit was beat it “up in the Waring Mixer with ice & lemon juice and sugar.” The result was “a sort of soupy sherbet and is delicious.” She also said that the “figs are wonderful now, too – huge – and I made some ‘Greek’ jam with them.” Bishop was clearly still doing lots of food preparation, even if not cooking a meal that particular night.

Then Bishop provided her aunt with a list of other fresh produce, to which they had access: grapes, pineapples, and the last of our strawberries.” These were brought with them from Samambaia, as well as: “leeks, the last artichokes, string beans, baby carrots, and onions – by the yard.” She noted that “they hang them in strings – the dried stalks woven together.” This cornucopia of fruits and vegetables was “enough of all to give away,” too.

Lota had a “tenant farmer” who planted, tended and harvested this produce, and though Bishop noted that he “is cheating us like crazy,” they still “do get a lot of fresh vegetables!” I wonder if this fellow as still “Manuelzinho.” Bishop also had access to a long list of herbs: “parsley, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, and dill,” which she noted were “all flourishing at the moment.” Additionally, she had “rosemary all the time,” and noted an item that was rare for Grace, at least fresh: “we have a laurel tree so we always have fresh bay leaves at hand.”

Bishop’s additional letter was nearly finished. Two more short paragraphs were left. The next post will turn to them, two quite different subjects.

Click here to see Post 131.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019




Cast your second stones,
accursed sooty sonnets!
Haiku missed their mark.



The sonnets rend me
limb from limb, like Osiris
the netmender's son.


In memory of Elizabeth Bishop

Fraught with art and creed
handcrafted, aught, Writer, but
your sonnet. Caught. Freed.


μηδὲν ἄγαν

Nothing to excess,
be it gothic sonnets, sex,
or slightly soiled love.



Leave no stone unturned:
all routes through poetry cross
unleavened sonnets.



Ormolu sonnets
decay into bronze haiku,
many-coloured stones.



Seventeen syllables long —
tankas require thirty-one —
even one word wrong
vitiates all that we've done.
Echoes mate the song,
not to mention the odd pun,
with a multilingual strong
Narr-ative's sheer fun.
I imagine a volta
entangling our wrists,
lifting both our spirits here:
some fandango no Travolta
engaging in twists
need blame on a sonneteer.



Summon, dead sonnet,
words of memory, of fame --
monuments and odes.



Hurl, wretched sonnet,
your eight-and-six-make-fourteen
into air-air-air.



Does the hen create
the sonnet or the sonnet
create the hen's egg?



If I blow softly
this sacred sonnet blazes
from a just struck match.



No fable, good sonnet,
enables the Son of God
not to judge you now.



Sonnet, Song of Songs,
thank you, dream catcher, for birthdays,
each celebrated
verse by verse through your goodly
even though quaint offices.
Now memories fade,
whether seven-syllabled
neumes or high-fived psalms
in their pentatonic fronds,
eliding the desert winds,
letting their cool sands
slip through our fingers, our palms
evening the moist
night air like fresh-laundered sheets.


in memory of Joan Murphy

Mama's is still here.
So many mothers' sonnets
still there forever.

19 November 2017
[From Year of the Rooster]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 131: Postscripts

The first postscript in Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was short and typed upside down on the verso of the letter proper, as if she had flipped the page and added it quickly. The first item referred to that most useful cookbook Grace had sent to her niece for Christmas. Bishop noted that she “found several agreeable drawings of houses and what looks like the score of a game of Canasta.” Clearly, the book was not new, but that didn’t make Bishop appreciate it less. Indeed, perhaps it made her value it more.
The next subject was Elizabeth Naudin and her daughters (still awaiting their Peter Rabbit books, even if they didn’t know it). Bishop declared that she thought her cousin “should have named this last daughter E[lizabeth], too – don’t you?” It might have been her own name, but Bishop still liked it, “and it has been in the family a long time now.” She noted that “Patricia means ‘of noble descent’!!” Bishop concluded at this point that she thought her cousin didn’t “have much of an ear.” She thought “Diane, Suzanne Naudin all those an sounds are very ugly,” though she “wouldn’t mind Susanna, or Diana, nearly as much.” Then with what seems like a silent sigh, Bishop noted, “But then, I suppose I am a poet.”

The next postscript received an official “P.S.,” which was immediately followed by a short sentence, “I’m sending a card to Ruth now.” I am not sure who this person was, but perhaps it was Ruth Hill, one of her mother’s oldest friends from Great Village.

Then the postscript begins in earnest and takes up most of the page. The first item was an acknowledgement that she had “just re-read” her aunt’s letter and hoped “the flu shot works.” I was surprised to read about this shot – I thought flu shots were relatively recent vaccines, not existing as far back as the 1960s. I remember getting booster shots or vaccinations for various things when I was a child in the 60s; but I don’t ever remember getting an annual flu shot until I was an adult. Clearly, Bishop hadn’t had one either because she offered her “theory that living outdoors a lot keeps one from having colds!” At least if she and Lota were any proof. She knew her aunt was headed back to Florida, so further hoped that Grace would “escape the germs better there” in the sunshine and warmth.

The next paragraph returns to one of Bishop’s favourite subjects: Monica, again by declaring this child to be “adorable … just talking, but all in Portuguese.” Bishop confessed that she liked best children “from 8 months to 3 [years].” Monica liked music and “tells us when she wants to listen.” When she and Mary were “up to dinner Saturday night,” they “were listening to Brazilian samba music.” Monica “wriggles in her seat just the right way,” even though “no one ever showed her.” This seemingly innate aptitude caused Elizabeth and Lota to “tease Mary by saying Monica is a ‘Carnival Baby’ – probably true.” Bishop noted that “nine months after Carnival every year there’s a crop of little bastards.”

Monica clearly had Mary, Lota and Elizabeth wrapped around her little finger. Bishop related that when she “wanted us all to lie on the floor and wave our legs in the air with her … we did.” Bishop observed this request came about because she had “just learned the verb ‘lie down’.” As these “three spinsters and little Monica” were “all in a row on the carpet waving our legs,” their “‘butler’ walked in – of course no one heard him knock.” Needless to say, “he looked rather surprised.”

Bishop’s next declaration was a discovery about which she was clearly pleased, concerning “how to keep small children happy on a long drive.” The trick was to “give them one of those little boxes of dry cereal – rice krispies or something.” She discovered that “it takes at least an hour to eat, one by one!”

Back to Elizabeth Naudin, who Bishop noted was “going to Canada in June, I think – or May.” This trip meant an opportunity to send “something light” to her aunt, though she despaired that “there was so little here.” She would also send “a wedding present,” for Joanne, Elizabeth Naudin’s sister – clearly the reason for the trip back to Montreal.

Apropos of nothing, Bishop’s final postscript paragraph was a dash of local colour and culture. She noted that she was just back from going “to the corner to buy some limes.” This errand offered a strange encounter: “hot as hell, and everyone still hanging around in bathing suits, although it is dark.” The truly strange part was that “on the corner [was] a big Christmas tree, a real one, not the N.S. kind, but some kind of fir tree.” It had been “thrown out – losing its needles fast but still smelling a little.” Back to her dislike of the commercialization of Christmas, she noted that “they put up a HUGE figure of Santa Claus here in Copacabana.” This figure was “three stories high – 3 dimensional – awful.” Unequivocally, she declared, “We hate it.” So much so “that last night coming down from the country we seriously thought of shooting it full of bullets,” a definite possibility since “Lota carries a gun in her car.”!!

Adding a bit more context, Bishop wrote that “the ‘Strangers’ Hospital’ (where E had the baby) is right across the street.” She and Lota could see the newspaper report: “Santa Claus badly wounded. Taken to Strangers’ Hospital. He is in rooms number 1o3, 104, 1o5. End of Christmas Foreseen!” (The zeros were made with the lowercase letter o.) They “thought it would be funny.” Bishop was never fond of Christmas and Santa Claus, but this is the most murderous expression of her dislike I have ever read! Poor Santa Claus!
So concluded Bishop’s first letter to her aunt for 1963. Her next letter was written only four days later, prompted by a letter from Grace. The next post will pick up the story.

Click here to see Post 130.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop's house in Key West bought

The Key West Literary Seminar has just announced that it has bought the house Elizabeth Bishop owned with Louise Crane, the house where she lived off and on for a decade. Learn more about this acquisition and the plans the organization has for restoring the house and making it the base of its activities and operations by clicking here.

(Elizabeth Bishop's House in Key West, 1938. Yale.)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 130: Monica, Florence, Roger and Zephyrino

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was full of family observations. It began with a report that she had “ordered ten of the ‘Peter Rabbit’ books for E’s daughters,” that is, Suzanne, Diane and Patricia Naudin The books “didn’t get there in time,” but rather reached her “in Cabo Frio instead.”

(Cover of one of the early editions of this
much beloved Beatrix Potter classic.)
Without pause or segue, Bishop then wrote that at the latter location (that is, Cabo Frio) there was “a big pointer dog … huge, named ‘Roger’,” a creature “adored” by Monica, Mary Morse’s daughter. They had gone to Cabo Frio, too, over the holidays for some fun. Bishop reported that at one point they found Monica “on the floor turning over pages for him to see the pictures in Peter Rabbit – very close to his nose.” The Naudin sisters were not the first to enjoy these Christmas presents. Bishop continued with Monica, who she noted again “adores the ocean” and who “only cried all ten days when we had to drag her away from the water.” Bishop described Monica as “very tiny – the dog could eat her in one gulp.” She reported, however, that Roger “seemed to like her.” Tiny Monica also loved to sing “Brazilian children’s songs at the top of her lungs – without words – but excellent pitch and rhythm.” Bishop claimed that she had “never seen a happier baby.” Bishop was clearly glad for this “little waif,” who she declared was “saved from the orphan asylum by pure luck.” Bishop did have a tender spot for all orphans, and she clearly “adored” this one. When people learned Monica’s story, she noted, they “take to her because of that.” Then Bishop reported that Mary Morse was planning on “adopting another one – as soon as she can find a white and healthy one.”

Another abrupt switch was signaled by her characteristic “//” The new subject was “the latest story of poor Aunt Florence.” This now quite elderly relative, with whom Bishop had such fraught experiences and memories (yet continued to stay in touch with and hear about), was “quite bed-ridden and pretty gaga.” One of Bishop’s cousins, “Priscilla[,] asked her what she wanted for Christmas.” This poor old woman declared: “A SCREWDRIVER!” The reason for this response was because there was “a thermometer on her wall, and it was hers, and she wants to take it off to take it back to Worcester with her.”* Poor old Aunt Florence indeed! There but for the grace of countless unknown forces and factors go each of us, especially these days, now that so many of us are living so long.

Another “//” signaled Bishop’s return to the here and now and her hope that her aunt was “well and that the weather is good there” (wherever Grace was). Bishop noted that they were “going to Samambaia tomorrow,” which meant she might “have a letter from you – I hope so.” She reported that Elizabeth Naudin was “in Teresopolis for 3 weeks, I think,” so the Peter Rabbit books would be even more delayed in reaching their intended recipients.

As her letter began to wind down, she said she had to” go out marketing to get ready for tomorrow.” Then another quick shift of subject, signaled by only “ – “ She told her aunt that she had just received a canary from “a man who works with Lota.” This fellow “raises them.” Said canary was “a very pretty one, orange, from Holland.” Undoubtedly, this little bird reminded her of Gammie’s and Aunt Maude’s canaries. To name him, Bishop “asked Lota what the man’s name was … it turned out to be Zephyrino.” This little creature was “very young, but sings quite a lot.” (Does this remind you of someone?) She noted that in the country they had cats, in the city, the canary, “well separated.” Again, like Roger, the cats could eat the canary in “one gulp.”

The last couple of sentences were typed on the vertical in the left margin. She quickly signed off “With much love, and thank you again Elizabeth.” This closing was not, however, the end of the letter. On the back of the page Bishop typed two postscripts, one quite lengthy, which filled the whole page. The next post will take up these addenda.

*Note: Florence was clearly suffering from dementia of some sort, at an advanced stage. I have had enough experience with dementia – my mother suffered from vascular dementia and my father has Alzheimer’s – that I cringe when I read Bishop’s tossed-off term “gaga.” With her own mother’s mental and physical sufferings, Bishop was terrified she would lose her faculties. The understanding of serious cognitive impairments and illnesses have improved greatly since the 1960s, but even now, most people don’t understand dementia and are just as terrified of it as Bishop.

Friday, November 1, 2019

New book about Elizabeth Bishop's childhood

I am excited to share the news of a new book about Elizabeth Bishop for young readers. Written by Rita Wilson and illustrated by Emma FitzGerald, Nimbus Publishing will be launching this book early in December. I’ll be posting information about the launches when it is available. As far as I know, there is no other book about EB for young readers. It is especially important for young Nova Scotians to learn about her deep and abiding connection to Great Village and how it shaped her artistic sensibility and development. Both Rita and Emma have strong connections to the EBSNS, so the society is especially happy to support this important project. You can read more about the book on Nimbus’s website.