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

Monday, March 30, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 142: A leaving and a returning

Bishop’s next 1963 letter to her aunt is dated 16 May. By this time, Joanne Ross Eartly’s wedding had happened and Bishop began with the hope that Grace “had a gay time” and “that you’ll write me all about it.” It appears that Elizabeth Ross Naudin and her family did not actually make it back in time for the ceremony, which led Bishop to wonder if Grace would “still be there” when her niece arrived. Bishop was still not sure how Grace got to Montreal from Florida: “Fly? Not more bus trips?” Grace’s toing and froing was so regular it caused Bishop to ask: “How are you? Where are you –and are you going to stay put for a while now, I wonder?” Her title for Grace: “The Flying Grandma.”

Bishop reported that “E sailed on the 11th.” She had seen her cousin “about a week before they left but not again because I had that horrid ‘flu’ or whatever it is that everyone has here.” Whatever it was, “a bad cold – I’m not sure” (not covid-19!!), she stayed away, of course, so as not “to give it to the babies.” After weeks, if not months, of agonizing over a wedding present, Bishop finally settled on “a luncheon set … mats & napkins,” which would have been light and easy to pack. As promised, too, she also sent small gifts for Grace and Mary, “two boxes of soap,” which she left “at the hotel” before the Naudins departed. She admitted that they were “not a very thrilling present,” and moaned once again that it was “so hard to find things here.” For Bishop, the best part of the gift was not the “nice soap,” a kind “I like myself”; but rather the “wooden box, old-fashioned, with hinges,” in which she place the “three cakes each.” Bishop loved these little boxes, useful “for odds & ends, sewing things etc.”

Then Bishop reported that she had spoken “to E on the telephone to day goodbye” and was told by her cousin that “she’d unwrapped everything and mixed them up with her clothes, because of customs.” Bishop was flabbergasted, concluding “the poor girl is absolutely nuts.” She explained to Grace that one was “allowed to bring in $100 worth of shopping, each, to begin with.” She noted she had “never had a bit of trouble with customs coming from here – taken all kinds of groceries, antiques, jewelry.” I was puzzled by these observations, and perhaps Grace was, too, because one of Bishop’s complaints about Brazil was its slow customs process. In any case, she averred, “Lota even took all her own flatware – silver – once!” To where, she does not say. Bishop wondered if “E thinks Canadian customs are tougher, I don’t know.”

The end result of this dismantling was, Bishop assumed, that Grace and Mary “won’t get the little boxes … the only nice thing about my gift,” a feature for which she “even paid extra.” Bishop was exasperated, declaring to Grace that she was “somewhat fed up with my cousin, as you can see,” a feeling she quickly added was “no doubt mutual.” Bishop felt that Elizabeth Naudin “is just too aggressive, really.” One can hear the sigh as Bishop typed: “Well – I certainly tried – all along, I mean since she came to Brazil.” These last few words were scribbled in the right-hand margin in her tight, indecipherable scrawl.

She was not entirely without sympathy and compassion, though. She reported to Grace that “they had had a bad night before they left because Patricia had another attack of asthma.” Bishop understood al about this condition and one can hear the empathy in her “poor baby,” who she described, curiously, as “like a little mountain.” Bishop hoped that once they got back to Montreal that “maybe Mary will be able to do something about her [Patricia],” and if nurse Grace was still there, she would undoubtedly be a help, too.

As if to shake off this generally frustrating, unsatisfying family subject and experience, Bishop suddenly declared: “Well – Cooper made it – I just heard on the radio – hurray.” Bishop was talking about Gordon Cooper. As Wikipedia reports: “In 1963 Cooper piloted the longest and last Mercury spaceflight, Mercury-Atlas 9. During that 34-hour mission he became the first American to spend an entire day in space, the first to sleep in space, and the last American launched on an entirely solo orbital mission. Despite a series of severe equipment failures, he managed to successfully complete the mission under manual control, guiding his spacecraft, which he named Faith 7, to a splashdown just 4 miles (6.4 km) ahead of the recovery ship.”
The rest of this rather short letter, which will comprise the next post, addresses a number of family matters and a couple more news-worthy subjects.

Click here to see Post 141.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pandemics: 1918-1919 / 2019-2020

With the coronavirus in just about every country in the world and covid-19 infecting tens of thousands and killing thousands of people so far, governments and medical authorities across the globe have been using words like “unprecedented” and “uncharted” to describe this pandemic. But this assessment is not true. Some historians and scientists are regarding this crisis in the context of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, a crisis that had immense impact just a century ago. In the Maritimes there is a small but still significant number of centenarians who might have some recollection of this crisis. Certainly, they lived through its aftermath, the major affects it wrought and the changes it triggered;* but for the most part this pandemic has been completely forgotten, except by a few specialists in the humanities and sciences.

As a student of Canadian history, I remember studying this event in undergrad and graduate courses, but the particular work that brought it more fully to my attention was my research and writing on Elizabeth Bishop, who was 7-8 years old when the pandemic raged. She and all her immediate family survived the sickness – no small feat since around 500,000 Canadians and over 679,000 Americans succumbed.** When I looked back to my accounting of this event in Bishop’s life in Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, I discovered that I gave it only a passing reference. Here are the few sentences I thought it warranted:

Bishop spent most of 1918 recovering from the serious illnesses of the past winter. In the later part of that year the world, and of course Massachusetts, was hit with a “terrible epidemic of Influenza.” Grace Bulmer, who had been living in New York, working for the Red Cross, returned to Boston at this time to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital and helped nurse Bishop back to health (the Shepherdsons’ apartment had three bedrooms and they often accommodated family and friends from Nova Scotia). It appears that Bishop did not contract the Influenza. Ironically, her illness probably protected her, isolating her from the outside world.***

When the current pandemic really began to register with me, I immediately thought about the 1918-1919 event and started reading a few things online about it. I quickly realized that Bishop’s survival might be seen as miraculous. Bishop had been removed from Nova Scotia in October 1917 by her paternal grandparents and taken to live with them in Worcester. By the winter of 1918 (the winter of her famous poem “In the Waiting Room”), she was seriously ill with what she described in “The Country Mouse” as “eczema, and then asthma,” as well as a host of allergies. By May, the Bishops realized they were not the people to care for her, so she was taken to Revere, MA, to live with her Aunt Maude and Uncle George Shepherdson.

The first wave of the influenza, a relatively mild strain, washed over the US in the summer of 1918 (some historians, such as John Barry, trace its origins to Kansas). The second wave, more like a tsunami, hit in October-November. By this time the virus was spread across the globe and was killing millions. There was a third, less lethal (though still severe) wave in January 1919, after which the virus, having used up so much human fuel, petered out.

(Bishop in 1916, a year before her removal
from Nova Scotia. Photo by J.E. Sponagle.)
Bishop slowly recovered during this same stretch (she was taken back to Nova Scotia in August 1919), but Massachusetts, and Boston especially, were hot spots for the virus. Because World War I was still underway for a good part of the pandemic (ending only on 11 November 1918), government censoring meant the truth about what was happening was suppressed. Indeed, newspapers everywhere except in neutral Spain reported that things were fine and under control, only adding to confusion and distrust as the evidence in front of people was the opposite.

Bishop was cared for by the adults in her family, particularly Maude, but also by Grace. As I mentioned in passing in Lifting Yesterday, Grace was nursing with the Red Cross in New York City. (I remember Phyllis Sutherland telling me that her mother had wanted to go overseas immediately after graduating as a nurse in 1914, but her parents objected, so she and her Great Village friend Una Layton, settled for service with the Red Cross as their war effort.) When Bishop was taken to Maude’s, Grace left New York City and returned to Boston to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital (from where she graduated in 1914), to be nearer Bishop and help with her care. Well, Maude, George and especially Grace would have been exposed to influenza. Yet, they survived and brought Bishop through this terrible pandemic, too.

*Note: Writer Gerry McAlister published a short piece about the pandemic in New Brunswick in NB Media Co-op on 21 March 2020. In 2018, Dr. Alan Marble delivered a lecture about the 1918-1919 pandemic and its impact in Nova Scotia to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.

**Note: The estimates of how many died as a result of the influenza – and H1N1 virus -- and corollary diseases range anywhere from 20 to 100 million. It will never be known exactly how many died because of poor recordkeeping in that era. Even so, at the lowest end of the range the death toll was profound and one of the worst, if not the worst, pandemic in human history, rivalling or surpassing the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages.

***Note: One of my objections to Thomas Travisano’s characterizations of Bishop’s early childhood in Love Unknown: The Worlds and Life of Elizabeth Bishop (2019) is his repeated assertion that it was isolated – the word he uses most often to describe it in general. His implication is that she was essentially alone, bereft and confined until the age of 13 or 14. Bishop’s childhood was highly complex, not only one unrelenting state. However, during her illness in 1918-1919, she was probably more or less confined in her aunt’s home. And thank goodness for that because, in all likelihood, it helped to save her life.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 141: Doughnuts and Roosters

Bishop’s letter of 19/21 April 1963 finally wound down with two long paragraphs containing miscellaneous chat. Her first point was to report that on a “cold & foggy” Saturday “in the country” (that is, at Samambaia), she “made doughnuts.”  She told Grace that she had “never made them before coming to Brazil.” But now, “about once a year,” she got “the urge to.” She “gave Monica one of the holes – not very good for babies, but of course she adored it.” The clever toddler “kept coming back and saying – ‘Nina wants more’.” Nina, if you remember, was “the 12-yr old who takes care of her.” It was Nina “or ‘Grandma (Lota!)’,” who wanted “more.” You can see the smile on Bishop’s face when she observed, “lying like a trooper!”
This precocious child also had “a sense of humor,” according to Bishop: “when we arrived she looked at Lota very mischievously and said ‘You aren’t grandma! No!’ – a joke she’d thought up all by herself.” Bishop thought such funny stories were “promising” for a child of “2 yrs.” Monica was “so tiny – about as big as Patricia [Elizabeth Ross Naudin’s youngest child] at 11 months!” Monica’s mother, Mary Morse, was “a tall, rangy American,” so the pair looked “funny together,” in Bishop’s view. And now there was another baby due to arrive – Martha. Bishop wondered what she “will be like – maybe I’ll go look her over today.”

This domestic paragraph shifted to another about more social subjects, though still in the family. Bishop expressed her admiration for Grace’s bravery in taking “all your bus trips,” and quickly added that she was “glad you had such a nice time in Alabama,” a place she reiterated she had “never been.”

Grace’s peregrinations brought up the wedding of her young cousin Joanne Ross: “I must find a present,” a task she had been pondering for a while. She had just received “the invitation – very classy.” Frustratingly, Bishop couldn’t “think of a thing” to get the couple. She also wanted “to send you something, too.” Once again she moaned, “It is so hard here.” She did note that “E[lizabeth Naudin] is going by boat,” so that made it easier as “a plane is harder.” Apropos of this kind of search, she then reported that “an American I know just took me out to see an old Brazilian couple she’s discovered.” These elders made “their living, apparently, by making hensand roosters, rabbits, chickens, guinea hens, out of paper,” meticulously it seems, “each feather separate – and exactly like life.” Bishop’s assessment that it was “Not ART,” seems a slight, but she quickly added, “but amazing.” This couple, “aged 81 and 82” were, in Bishop’s view, “cunning.” They lived in “a little house neat as a pin, with huge holy pictures and statues (one Christ is as big as the old lady, I swear).” Besides the creatures, there were “artificial flowers all over the place.”
Bishop told her aunt that she “bought a rooster for Monica – for 50₡.” She told the old woman that she “liked the ‘animals’ better than the flowers.” To which the elder said, “I agree with you – they are more interesting.” The lady continued, clearly buttering up Bishop, “All Americans are intelligent.” Bishop supposed this woman “meant because we come & buy her roosters!”

The final few sentences of this letter were typed vertically in the left margin and across the top of the page. She reported “a big storm at sea a few days ago,” which had caused waves to come “right up around our [apartment] building” in Rio. So powerful was this water that workmen were “still steam-shovelling away the sand, just like snow in N.Y.”

This long, discursive letter ended with a couple quick addenda: “Love to one & all – I am sending [Aunt] Mary a note too. Don’t get too tiddly at the wedding!”

Bishop’s next letter was written about a month later. The next post will pick up at 16 May 1963.

Click here to see Post 140.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 140: Stoneware

The next subject in Bishop’s 19/21 April 1963 letter connected her to the past, to her childhood. She enclosed “this card” (now missing), sent from “a friend.” Perhaps it was a postcard because it contained a picture of “salt-glazed stoneware (as it’s called),” which Bishop was sure they “used to have a lot of … around at Gammie’s” – not only dishes, but “even a churn of it?” The Great Village stoneware was “perhaps not this beautiful, but the same sort of thing.” She sent the picture because she wanted to know if Grace had any: “whatever you’ve got – please hold onto it for me!” Bishop then declared, “I love it.” She observed that if she was able to “get back to N S and can come back here by boat I’d like to pick up some things to remind me of my northern origins.” She informed Grace that “they’ve even started making it again in a place near Boston.” Bishop knew this to be so because their friend Mary Morse, who had visited the U.S. recently, “went there … and bought back a pot for herself with a spray of blueberries on it.” But, for Bishop, “the old is still better.”** 
(Vintage American Stoneware butter churn.)
A new paragraph was begun at this point because, as Bishop reported, “We have just this minute heard that the little illegitimate baby has at last been born, and it’s a girl.” That is, the second child that Mary Morse was going to adopt. Bishop noted that they had “Mary’s travelling basket for the baby here [in Rio] all ready & waiting.” Bishop continued that this infant would first be examined by their “own doctor … of course.” She observed that “if all is OK,” then she and Lota “will be taking a four-day old baby up to Petropolis next week-end.”

Bishop suspected that “little Monica is going to be awfully jealous, I’m afraid.” Monica knew about the addition because, as Bishop noted, the child “shows you the baby’s room and bed, etc.” And every time Bishop and Lota arrived, Monica “says ‘Did you bring the baby?’” The child’s name was Martha because “Mary wanted names that sound well with Morse, and also are more or less alike in Portuguese & in English.” She wrote that “Monica is exactly the same,” but Martha was pronounced “Marja, since they have no t-h sound – but it’s close enough.”

Bishop wondered “HOW Mary is going to manage with no help.” But Morse insisted she could, even as she was “looking for a good maid, but they’re hard to find, off in the country.” Scribbled in Bishop’s nearly indecipherable scrawl: “(No washing-machines, etc. – no stores near – well – you managed!).”

Another gap and a quick return to the stoneware, with Bishop just having “noticed – it says this picture – the jug – is a ‘Water-color rendering’.” So real was the effect that Bishop thought it was “a color photograph, didn’t you?”

Yet another gap and a quick update about a family matter – Bishop had “heard from Aunt F[lorence]’s lawyer,” who told her Florence “left whatever she had to the 4 nieces,” of whom Bishop was one. The thing was, Bishop still didn’t “know if she left anything yet.” Bishop suspected that there couldn’t “have been much, certainly.”  She assumed Florence “was just struggling along on that annuity that reverts to Aunt Ruby.”

This long letter was slowly coming to a close, but still two hefty paragraphs covering a range of things remained. The next post will offer the conclusion.


**Note: The only stoneware item that is part of the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University is this soup bowl, part of a set, which is marked on the bottom, “Stoneware J[ohn] T[ams],” which was most likely British in manufacture and of a finer type than the more primitive version Bishop was likely remembering – not that Gammie didn’t have the more primitive type, which was entirely possible, too. 

(Bulmer family stoneware. AUA.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Permit me a slight indulgence: An Elizabeth Bishop precedent

I have just finished reading The Dolphin Letters, 1970—1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2019), edited by Saskia Hamilton. The correspondence presents the story of the breakdown of Hardwick and Lowell’s marriage and Lowell’s use of some of Hardwick’s letters to him in his collection The Dolphin, a still controversial book. The crux of the issue, as I read it, was, in part, that Lowell used passages from Hardwick’s letters without her knowledge (initially) and permission. As Lowell was writing The Dolphin poems, he was living with Caroline Blackwood in England. They had a son together and eventually married, after Lowell and Hardwick, who had a daughter, divorced.

This story is complex and riveting as it unfolds in these letters, not only between Hardwick and Lowell, but also among various friends (e.g., Mary McCarthy, Stanley Kunitz, Blair Clark, Frank Bidart and Elizabeth Bishop). One of the most famous letters in this saga was written by Bishop to Lowell on 21 March 1972, after she read the manuscript of The Dolphin and discussed it with Bidart. Bishop was deeply troubled and upset by what Lowell had done and her admonition to him has become almost legendary. It has been quoted in a number of scholarly books and essays. The kernel that usually appears is thus: “One can use one’s life as material – one does anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.” (252) She then paraphrased a passage from a Hopkins’s letter “about the idea of a ‘gentleman’ being the highest thing ever conceived – higher than a ‘Christian’ even.” (252) Bishop thought that what Lowell had done was “cruel.” Lowell was unsettled by Bishop’s sharp critique, but he declared to Bidart, in a letter of 10 April 1972, that “her extreme paranoia (For God’s sake don’t repeat this)” was “a wildness.” (272) For a long time, Lowell remained, more or less, unrepentant.

I was mesmerized by this trans-Atlantic back and forth between Hardwick and Lowell, and among “their circle,” in this well edited book. A fascinating story made all the more riveting because we the readers know what happened, while they, living in their moment in time, did not. They can’t fully see the ironies, the surprises, the consequences of their actions and words. The “untidy activity” of life, as Bishop concluded in “The Bight,” was “awful but cheerful,” and sometimes not so cheerful.

I have my own views about Lowell’s actions, which closely mirror Bishop’s and probably I would go even further because I do not have the decades-long friendship with Lowell that tempered Bishop’s objections, at least somewhat. In my opinion, Lowell betrayed Hardwick because, as Bishop pointedly and emphatically observed, “Lizzie is not dead, etc.” and “there is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction’, and you have changed her letters.” (252) Lowell’s actions seem irrefutable and inexcusable.

What struck me most, however, about Bishop’s letter is what this post is really about. As I mentioned, only specific, short passages from this letter, which is actually quite long (running from page 251 to 259 in the book), are quoted, which means they are out of context, considerably. Bishop clearly thought about her response for some time and felt strongly enough to write at length and in detail. What delighted me most about this detail was not the larger “moral” objections (as well-presented and important as they are); but after going through these serious concerns (which Lowell by and large dismissed and ignored), Bishop offered Lowell a list of what she called “very petty comments” about “small mistakes” (255), or “trivialities.” (258) What followed was a dozen or so issues that go on for well over a page, some complex enough to warrant a paragraph of explanation. I won’t repeat all of these issues, but will offer one example, my favourite:

“31. I am pretty sure it’s Ernest Thompson Seton – he used to be my favorite author. (I saw ‘Rolf in the Woods’ at the Coop – so I’ll check on it.)” (257)
Hamilton’s footnote for this item reads, in part: “2. Lowell: ‘What were was the lessons of the wolverine, / the Canada of Earnest [sic] Seton Thompson’ …. The poem was removed The Dolphin and added to History as ‘Wolverine, 1927’.” (257)

I do not recall ever seeing this list of issues mentioned in any reference to or discussion of Bishop’s letter/response to Lowell’s poetic actions. Lowell received her list much more positively than her moral objections (he acted on them), which reinforced, it seems, the certainty of his prerogative, about which he wouldn’t budge, much: Hardwick’s letters to him were for him to use.

On a number of occasions on this blog, I have offered my own lists of “comments,” “mistakes,” “trivialities” for various books about Bishop (by Alice Quinn, Megan Marshall and Thomas Travisano, etc.). When I read Bishop’s list about nothing less than Robert Lowell’s poems, I felt reassured by my own practice. Here was my precedent from no less than Bishop herself. Somehow, I didn’t register the significance of this letter when I first read it in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008). But that book presented a very different context for it and in 2008 there was no blog and I had not written much by way of reviews of the voluminous literary criticism and biography about Bishop being churned out in the first decade of the new millennium. Since that time, I have written more critique, mostly located on this blog. Perhaps somewhere at the back of my mind, I remembered the letter and felt my own modus operandi justified, though occasionally I felt petty, pointing out things like Bishop’s “Ernest Thompson Seton.” Reading the letter again, over a decade later, in an entirely different context, was a reassuring surprise.

As for Hardwick and Lowell: The passage of time blunted the sharpest edges of the hurt for Hardwick. One can’t tell from the letters if she actually forgave him, but with the immediate bond of their daughter, Hardwick’s determination to move on with her life, and Lowell’s increasingly poor health, Hardwick seemed to let bygones be bygones, and Lowell himself eventually managed a qualm. In a letter of 2 July 1976, he wrote to Hardwick, “I regret the Letters in Dolphin.” (435) Hardwick had the last word though, in her autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, begun while Lowell was still living but published in 1979, two years after his death. Her achievement is best described by Mary McCarthy in a letter to Hardwick on 4 June 1979:

“When I read the first bits in the New York Review, I couldn’t see how you were going to cope with the huge fact of Cal [Lowell]; it didn’t occur to me that you could do it by simply leaving him out. That’s a brilliant technical stroke but proves to be much more than that. He becomes a sort of black hole in outer space, to be filled in ad lib, which is poetic justice: he’s condemned by the form to non-existence – you couldn’t do that in a conventional autobiography. In any case, he couldn’t patronize your book by appearing to be generous about it, though I suppose he might try.” (456-7)

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A Conversation about Elizabeth Bishop

On 2 March 2020, I had the honour and privilege to participate in a public conversation about Elizabeth Bishop, held at the marvelous Central Library in Halifax, N.S. I joined Rita Wilson, author of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop, Emma FitzGerald, illustrator of this book, Nova Scotia poet Alison Smith, and Nova Scotia writer, academic and scholar Alexander MacLeod, who acted as moderator for what, from my perspective, felt like a lively chat. I hope that the over 100 people who turned out to listen found the same to be true. I was delighted and a bit surprised that so many folks gathered for a poetry chat on a damp Monday evening.

I want to thank Rita and Emma for having this idea and for their effort to organize it, along with the folks at the library, Nimbus Publishing (who published A Pocket of Time – in particular Whitney Moran), Dalhousie University for providing much practical support, and Mike Hamm from Bookmark and Lisa Doucet from Woozles, who are two of the greatest supporters of writers in Halifax. Here is a photograph of the panel “in action” taken by Marlo MacKay from Dalhousie. The image projected behind us is one of EB’s own paintings, a Nova Scotia scene.
(Left to Right: Rita Wilson, Sandra Barry, Alison Smith,
Alexander MacLeod, Emma FitzGerald.)
The conversation continued afterwards at Field Guide, a wonderful restaurant and cocktail bar in the north end of Halifax. Field Guide co-owner Ceilidh Sutherland is the granddaughter of Phyllis Sutherland, first cousin of Elizabeth Bishop. Ceilidh, her head bartender and Emma FitzGerald conspired to create three cocktails in honour of EB. Alas, I was not able to attend this more informal element of the evening, but Emma has sent me several photos, which I share below. How I wish I could have tried all three!! EB would have been intrigued by these poetic, liquid creations.
With deepest gratitude for all those who made this event possible.
(Lovely atmosphere)
(The second gathering)
(Rita and Emma, the instigators!)
(Making those cocktails!)
(Click to enlarge to see the titles and recipes!)

(This photo just in from Alexander MacLeod --
The cocktails in question!! They look so elegant. thanks Alexander)