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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 59: Family and world affairs

The next extant letter Bishop sent Grace is dated “May 22nd? — 1960.” It is nice to know that Bishop blurred her days and weeks sometimes, living up in the mountains. In any case, this letter was written two months after the previous one. It appears that there had been only a few exchanges in the interim and Bishop had lost track of the back and forth. She started off, “I’m not sure whether I owe you a letter or not but I am wondering where you are and how you are.” If she had not heard recently from Aunt Grace, she had heard from Aunt Mary, a letter informing her of the death of Mary’s husband, John Kenneth (Jack) Ross. Jack had died late in 1959, so there had been some delay in Bishop hearing this news.

Mary and Jack were married in June 1928 in Montréal. Bishop had met him at least once, when she visited her grandmother there in 1930 (Elizabeth Bulmer stayed with Mary for awhile after William Bulmer’s death; she herself dying in 1931). But direct contact with the Rosses after that was intermittent, if at all. [You can see a lovely photo of the young Mary and Jack Ross here.]

After “wondering” about Grace’s logistics, Bishop immediately confirmed to her aunt that she had received news of the loss, “I was awfully sad about Jack — yet perhaps it is better to die of something that is still pretty incurable like that, than of pneumonia or something that one thinks might have been cured.” The “that” was leukemia, as Bishop then observed, “I’ve known a couple of much younger people who died of luekemia  [sic].” Even so, Bishop knew little about the disease itself, “What does cause it, anyway? Do the doctors know?”

The news had come directly from Mary, “a remarkably calm-sounding letter.” This epistle had been written shortly after Jack’s death, but the long transit meant Bishop had to put herself back in time, “I imagine she wouldn’t feel really exhausted until a week or so later.” Mary must have indicated that Grace was with her, thus accounting, perhaps, for a delay in Grace herself writing to Bishop: “Perhaps you are still with her,” Bishop wondered, but she decided to send her letter to Great Village, knowing it would eventually reach her aunt (if Grace was still with Mary, Bishop assumed the letter would be forwarded because she noted, “If you are [still with Mary], give her my love.”)

Then Bishop declared, “I haven’t any news at all.” At least not compared to this sorrowful family news and the situation in the world: “In fact,” Bishop wrote, “all we can think about is world news.” May 1960 was an eventful, troubling month, with tensions between the US and Russia at a high level, prompting Bishop to “hope and pray for nothing to happen” — that is, nothing worse than what had already happened. On 1 May the Russians shot down a US plane which had crossed into its air space. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers survived the crash and was taken prisoner. The rhetoric of the time sounds mild compared to the rhetoric that gets spewed by politicians and fanatics on social media these days, but it was ominous enough.
(Gary Powers)
Bishop explained the origin of their information: “We have to go to town for the papers, but we listen to the news on the radio.” For Bishop, the latter was a bit frustrating because “they never give much … and usually the Portugese [sic] goes too fast for me to get it all.” As a result “Lot has to tell me afterwards what they said.”

Even so, they learned enough for Bishop to editorialize: “The U.S. certainly put its foot in it, didn’t it — and that damned Krutchev [sic] certainly took advantage of it.” In the face of this succinct and astute commentary, one can only say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

The next paragraph, for the next post, shifts to Bishop’s inner circle and reveals that she did actually have some news, of a domestic kind.

An Elizabeth Bishop Archive in Indiana

The Wylie House Museum
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

The Wylie House Museum contains the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Bradley (1908 – 1979), a friend from Camp Chequesset on Cape Cod.  For further information on the contents of this archival holding, click this link: 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 58: A strange list

The final major subject of Bishop’s letter of 25 March 1960 related to one of her maternal cousins, Elizabeth Ross Naudin, the daughter of Bishop’s youngest aunt, Mary Bulmer Ross. Elizabeth was married to a Brazilian, Ray Naudin, who had attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Grace had clearly informed Bishop in one of her recent letters that Elizabeth, Ray and their daughters were going to Brazil to live. Bishop had never met this cousin and in the concluding paragraph of the letter, she offers some advice for Grace to pass on, about what they should bring with them.

She starts this “advice column” with the first and only weather report of this epistle: “It rains and rains and we’re sick of it.” Bishop told her aunt that it was “our big marketing day” and she would be heading to Petrópolis to do the shopping, where she would post the letter in question. Apparently, there was enough lead time for the slow boat to deliver the advice to Grace, and from Grace to Elizabeth, before the latter reached Brazil. There had already been some sort of exchange between Grace and Elizabeth Naudin about what her aunt wanted to send along for Bishop, as Bishop notes: “don’t bother about the chocolate unless E is coming by boat or isn’t going to use up her weight limit, etc.”

Then Bishop offered an odd list (perhaps one of her strangest lists) of essentials that it was best to bring: “if she likes tea … bring a good supply”; “Also Tampax (if she uses that! — the Brazilian substitute is no good)”; “enough shoes for the three years wouldn’t be a bad idea either.” Bishop explained further about the shoes: “You can get them made to order but the price is going up all the time, and the ones you buy are apt to be not too good and they rarely seem to fit ‘northern’ feet.” After this curious assortment, she gets to a more usual item: “If they smoke they can each bring in two cartons of cigarettes I think.” Both Bishop and Lota smoked and in the margin of the letter, in her awful scrawl, Bishop made a request, “Lota would love some Canadian cigarettes Players — her favorite kind — just 1 pkg as a surprise —?” Typed at the top of the page, Bishop noted that during the February trip down the Amazon, she had made her own attempt: “I went to the smugglers in Belem trying to get her some [cigarettes] — found 2 packages at 50¢ each.”

Following the cigarettes, Bishop quickly added that she would “certainly adore a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey but they’d better bring it for themselves if they use it.” The list continued: “any prescriptions from the doctor they’d better bring all written out.” This segued into what Bishop and Brazil could offer them: “Tell her I am acquainted with excellent doctors, pediatricians and 2 dentists in Rio [where they would be living] … an allergist, and a whole set of psychiatrists”[you never know what you might need!], which Bishop quickly qualified, “who happen to be friends of ours!”
After this who’s who of professionals, Bishop returned to the material, literally, “Extra needles and good cotton thread — the thread is lousy here.” Bishop concluded: “just about everything in the way of toilet articles, common medicines, etc you can get here now — plastics [whatever that means?] — cornflakes,” and finally, “good milk, at last — pasteurized.”

Fearing she had left something out of this truly diverse congregation of needs, Bishop signed off with “Ask me for all information!” and “Much love.”


I met Elizabeth and Ray Naudin in 1995, when they visited Nova Scotia for an Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia event, when Tom Travisano gave the one and only Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture at St. James Church in Great Village. The Naudins also reconnected, after many years, with Phyllis Sutherland.
(L. to r. Tom Travisano, Elizabeth Ross Naudin,
Phyllis Sutherland, Sandra Barry, 1995. Photo by Ray Naudin.)
I again encountered the Naudins in Worcester in 1997, at a big Bishop conference hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It was during this conference when a gathering was held in Hope Cemetery to unveil the new inscription on Bishop’s gravestone. Elizabeth spoke at the graveside that day. The daughter of one of Bishop’s paternal cousins, Judith Sargent, also attended this ceremony.
(L. Judith Sargent; r. Elizabeth Naudin,
in front of EB's gravestone, 1997. Photo by Sandra Barry)
I stayed in touch with Elizabeth Naudin, by correspondence, for many years. She was in possession of a collection of paintings done by George W. Hutchinson and his son Benjamin Hutchinson, as well as by George’s friend and colleague Bertram Knight Easton. Most of these paintings are small water-colours, but they also include the painting that is the subject of Bishop’s poem “Large Bad Picture.” Elizabeth and Ray Naudin died in 2008. The paintings were inherited by their three daughters.

Another gap follows the March letter, the next one picking up the narrative on “Sunday morning, May 22nd?”

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 57: The cook saga

The next major topic in Bishop’s letter of 25 March 1960 was an update on the cook situation. When Bishop came to live with Lota, she joined a household that had a number of servants. It was not the first time, however, that Bishop interacted with domestic help. Her most famous housekeeper was Hannah Almyda, who helped Bishop and Louise Crane when they lived in Key West, Florida, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bishop was so fond of and devoted to Hannah, that she tried to write a poem for her, “Hannah A.,” which remained unfinished:
… who cared for, much too long,
the one ungainly young
who couldn’t learn his song
or one stupid mate
whose only active thought
— to flap his wings, & fight —
kept quarrelling half the night
for rotting meat … (Edgar Allan Poe, 53)

Bishop’s conceit in this abandoned poem turned Hannah into a sacrificing swan. The “ungainly young” and “stupid mate” must have been the son and husband indicated in the 1940 census for Key West.

Interesting to note that Hannah died just a few months before Bishop, at the ripe old age of 86 (almost as old as Grace when she died in 1977). One wonders if Bishop knew.

In Lota’s household, the “help” generally consisted of a cook and a gardener. Over the years, these positions were sometimes filled by a married couple and, as a result, a number of babies were born to the cooks, one of whom, in the 1950s, was named after Bishop. The exact reason why they had lost their most recent cook, as mentioned in Bishop’s previous letter, is not clear. But the new one came in for a detailed account.

This new cook was a “country girl,” who was “so primitive, poor dear,” by which Bishop meant inexperienced and in need of a lot of training (one perhaps thinks of her use of this word in relation to Gregorio Valdes, the artist she and Louise Crane supported in Key West). Perhaps it was not so much that the cook was chosen as was her husband, who “is an excellent worker — and they’re neat and quiet.” So, another package deal. Apparently, it was mainly Bishop’s task to teach the young woman (generally speaking, Bishop’s purview was the kitchen, Lota’s was the house and yard) how to prepare the food they preferred (though the previous one also taught Bishop how to make Brazilian food.

Bishop felt this cook-in-training had potential, but, as she told Grace, “she knows nothing at all and what’s more she thinks everything we do is funny.” Bishop offered an example: “I was stuffing some green peppers with various leftovers, to show her how, and she was absolutely convulsed by that — and called the husband, ‘Albertinho’, to come to see what the crazy American was doing.”

Even if food preparation/instruction was left to Bishop, Lota also put her oar into the mix regarding household chores: “…when Lota tells her not to stack the plates, to take them from the table two at a time, she giggles some more and says innocently ‘But that would take all night!’ — and of course her logic is perfectly good and we’re just fearfully fussy and conventional.”

Bishop admitted to her aunt that “by paying a little more” they could get a better cook from Rio. The problem with doing that, however, was this person “would be lonely in the country and want to go to town all the time, etc.” So, they had opted to take on the “hard work” of training this young woman, who certainly had the capacity to see the humour in the domestic, something Bishop should have appreciated, since much of her own work highlights the vagaries, foibles and ironies of this realm.

It appears that the training was moderately successful, because the rest of the letters for this year do not have any more teaching tales to relate, though it is clear that Bishop remained the kitchen supervisor, perhaps because the lessons continued for some time.

The final subject of this letter introduces another member of Bishop’s maternal family, Mary Bulmer Ross’s daughter Elizabeth Ross Naudin, who Bishop met for the first time when she and her family took up residence in Rio later in the year.

Update: In Post 56, I mentioned a book Grace had sent Elizabeth, some sort of local history of Colchester County written by someone named Crowe. Ever faithful and all-knowing John Barnstead checked the holdings of Nova Scotia bookseller John W. Doull and came up with a possible candidate: Edwin M. Crowe’s The Town of Stewiacke. Although it was done for Canada’s centenary in 1967, it appears from the listing that parts of this work perhaps circulated separately in the late1950s and early 1960s. The new archivist at the Colchester Historeum, Ashley Sutherland (I wonder if she is any relation to Phyllis Sutherland’s husband Ernest), got back to me that she is investigating if the museum has any books like this one from that time. If she can solve the mystery, I’ll post another update.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 56: Gifts

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 25 March 1960. Nearly two months had passed, but this gap was not empty, because Bishop opened with an immediate and direct acknowledgement of her own steady correspondence and for gifts from her aunt. Bishop started, “I seem to be writing to you every day this week” (alas, it appears that these communications have vanished). She then explains that “this [the letter she was then writing] is just to say that your package did arrive, yesterday — Lota went to mail you my postcard and got it.”

As conscientious as Grace and Phyllis were in preserving Bishop’s letters, not all of them survived. Some were lost in transit. Some went missing because of Grace’s late-life peripateticism and Phyllis’s very busy household. It is a testament to how much these letters meant to both women that so many of them still exist.

A package was always most welcome. One of the items it contained was a book about Colchester County history written by someone with the last name of Crowe. I did an internet search to no avail. I also searched Elizabeth Bishop’s personal library listing at Vassar College, but found no candidate. I have sent a query to the archivist at the Colchester Historeum, who might be able to solve the mystery (if that happens, I will post an update). In any case, this book was a big hit: “Thank you ever so much,” Bishop wrote, “I read the book right straight through last night in bed (a cold rainy night and I was delighted to have something new to read).”

Those of us familiar with Bishop’s poetry immediately recognize a phrase in this sentence: “right straight through,” which recurs in her late poem “In the Waiting Room,” when a nearly seven year old Bishop sits in a dentist’s waiting room on a cold snowy February evening in 1918, reading a National Geographic “right straight through.” The poem was written many years after this unexpected encounter with Colchester County history: “so many of the names are familiar to me and of course I like anything about those ships.” As I have shown in Lifting Yesterday, Bishop’s poems and stories emerge from a vast, non-linear matrix: An original event was perhaps remembered in a later experience, which provided a phrase about the earlier event, which was then put in the poem many years later. Bishop was a recycling poet par excellence, with a phenomenal memory.

The other most welcome gift was something more ordinary: a petticoat sent from her cousin Phyllis. I had to go searching for just what this might be, and discovered all manner of images for such undergarments on the internet.
Essentially, it is what I grew up calling a slip, though they could be fairly elaborate. For me, this term is associated with a television show called Petticoat Junction, which ran from 1963 to 1970 (but set in an earlier time). Still, even in the early 60s, some women wore such clothing.

Bishop seemed quite pleased with this practical offering, assuring Grace that it was her size and to “thank Phyllis for me.” Scribbled in her indecipherable scrawl in the margin at this point was: “I’ll write when I find the address — no — here it is — I’ll write her.” This garment was “the kind I use here almost always (when I use any!)” — Bishop’s preference was slacks (even jeans). But she continued: “it is so much cooler under cotton dresses, in Rio — where it is so hot when we have to go there in the ‘summer’.” Then Bishop recounts a story, which could have applied to one of the “grandchildren”: “a friend made me one for Christmas and I ripped it all down one side climbing a fence to take a photograph, on my recent trip [Bishop took a trip “down the Amazon River from Manaus to Belém … in February 1960.” (Millier, 306)] … so at the moment I was petticoatless.” As other references in this letter show, Grace had already been told about this trip, perhaps in postcards. Bishop writes to Grace as if the knowledge and context were in place.

After the petticoat mishap story, Bishop again thanks her aunt and writes, “I wish I could send you things, but it is impossible unless I find someone going to Canada — which never seems to happen.”

Before shifting to her next major subject, Bishop returns to the book Grace had sent, wondering if her aunt knew “the Crowe man who wrote” it. She recognized so much: “All those names — Congdon, Crowe, etc — seem so familiar but I’m not sure I ever saw him,” meaning the author. As she started to turn away from the warmth of her response to this gift she concluded, “I do like it very much. And weren’t those females heroic?”

As the letter continues, Grace gets an update about the cook situation.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 55: A new decade begins

Bishop’s first letter of the new year, and another decade, was rather late in the writing and sending, 1 February 1960. She explained to her aunt the reason for the delay: “a bad case of bronchitis for quite a while — it has cleared up now, but I didn’t start the New Year very energetically.” She assured Grace that she had “had a nice Christmas at Cabo Frio,” but this sickness and some other domestic activities had postponed a letter.

For the first time in ages, this brief letter was hand-written. Bishop gives no explanation why, only an acknowledgement that she was “sure you can’t read a word of this so I’ll stop.”

The stationary was also unusual and appears to have been a sort of hand-made affair. Bishop starts the letter with an explanation of the image at its beginning: “Isn’t this lovely? It says LOVE CONQUERS. I think servant girls here must still use this paper — and their boy-friends.” Bishop explained that it could be purchased “in all the stationary stores” and it cost “4¢ each + envelope.”

Bishop knew that she hadn’t “written for a long time” and as a result had forgot “what was going on when I wrote last.” So she caught her aunt up on her news. First was the weather: “the rainiest summer I ever remember here.” As a result, “the roof sprung a leak over the head of my bed.” The occupants of the house had increased: “We now have 3 cats.” One of them was a “Siamese kitten” Lota had acquired. “After awful scenes of jealousy they are all getting along beautifully, giving each other baths.”

As usual, “whenever the weather allows, we have the ‘grandchildren’ up for a swim.” Bishop acknowledged the oddness of two middle-aged women hosting such a brood: “You should see L. & me, each with a small child strangling us from behind, splashing around …[the] swimming hole .... it is very exhausting.” The grandchild who got a story in this letter was one nicknamed “KEEKA,” who was being taught how “to play hide-and-seek”: “He can seek very well, but every time he hides (in L’s bedroom) he runs out & shouts ‘I hid under grandma’s bed!’ We told him it had to be a secret — so finally he would go & hide, rush past us all, & go & shout where he’d hidden … out the door.”

Bishop promised her aunt that “photographs will eventually appear.”

Having given her news, she concluded with a few usual questions: “How are you & are you still working at the Home? Is there lots of snow? Is it very cold?” She signed off with “Lota sends her regards” and “much love,” but then in popped a final bit of news: “We are losing our cook, after 7 years.” While this severing was “more or less mutual, since she has been getting pretty impossible,” they were at a loss, not knowing “what to do next.”

This rather hastily penned epistle was an unassuming start to a new decade, one which would see tremendous change in Bishop’s life, a decade that held the greatest tragedy of her adult life (Lota’s death in 1967). But in the first months of 1960, Bishop was perhaps still preoccupied with and weary from being sick to pay much attention to this temporal shift. It appears that she was slow getting started on much of her correspondence that year. Her first letter to Lowell was written two weeks later, 15 February. One Art’s first letter for this year is to Lloyd Frankenberg, on “22 March (I think),” and she doesn’t get back in touch with Howard Moss, her New Yorker editor, until “May 10?” (seems she was having some trouble keeping track of what day it was).

This somewhat mundane commencement to what will prove to be a momentous decade only goes to prove, we cannot predict the future based on today’s events.

Bishop’s next extant letter was almost two months later, though it appears once again that not all the letters survived. The next post will take up the cook saga and other matters.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 54: Aging

Having introduced a lighter tone in her letter of 15 “— or 16th —” February (good to know Bishop could lose track of the days), she continued to offer some entertainment. She admitted directly to Grace that she was offering something “to cheer you up after the gloom of my letter of the other day.” That something was the words to “a new Christmas carol” she had “just learned.” She explained that it was set “to the tune of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ and urgently requested that Grace not “sing it to Aunt Mabel! (or any genteel friends).”

Uncle George and Auntie Mabel
Fainted at the breakfast table.
This should be sufficient warning:
Never do it in the morning.
Ovaltine will set you right,
You can do it evr’y night.
Uncle George is hoping soon
To do it in the afternoon.
O what joys Aunt Mabel’s seen
With the help of Ovaltine.”

Typed beside this offering was “(I didn’t choose the names,” then scribbled in her scrawl, “that’s the way I was taught it.)” Who in Brazil would teach Bishop such a song is a mystery. Bishop’s Aunt Mabel was married to Arthur Bulmer. George was Aunt Maude’s husband. Both were still living, but their spouses not. Clearly, Bishop thought this off-colour version that linked these two unlikely relatives would tickle Grace’s funny bone.

After this “laugh,” Bishop asked: “Do you think the G V home would be a good place to retire to in my old age?” This idea was not the first time Bishop broached such a subject with Grace. The trigger for this particular question at this particular time was the return of Mary Morse. Bishop finally told Grace why this friend has been in the States: Mary had spent “five months” taking care of “her aunt — 86 — and the aunt’s friend who lives with her — 83.” She had “an awful time.” These elderly women were “both semi-invalids and what is worse, almost, they forget everything all the time.” This memory crisis and the fact that “they’re rich, or the aunt is,” meant that “they are in danger of being robbed by their maid, doctor, or anyone who comes along.” Bishop reiterated that Mary “had a terrible time” and confessed, “I don’t think I could have stood it.” She knew her limits because “48 hours with Aunt Florence were more than I could take.” This is the first mention of Florence in some time. Even though it had been years since Bishop last saw Florence, the memory of her visit was clearly vivid.
(Mary Morse and her adopted daughter Monica, late 1950s.)
Bishop continued: “Mary tried to get them into various nursing homes, etc — finally left them the way they were.” I think those of us who tend to elders find these words resonant with our own experiences. Even though Mary had departed, she was still trying to figure out how to help these women. Bishop reported that Mary “brought back a lot of ‘literature’ on nursing homes near N.Y.” and again confessed that she (Bishop) was “reading it with morbid fascination — ‘Where you get loving care’ — etc — or ‘have your own furniture’ — and all so fearfully expensive.”

Bishop, who spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals, sometimes even seeking them out, admitting herself, is expressing an odd aversion to the nursing home idea. But such institutions are rather different from hospitals, which by nature are transient places. Nursing homes speak to the end of one’s life and the fact that one’s family is no longer able to provide care. A different kind of gestalt.

Bishop jumped back to her own and only paternal aunt: “Sometimes I think of poor old Aunt Florence — and no one can possibly love the poor woman.” Bishop’s cousin “Nancy does go in every day, I think (not that that would comfort me much!)” — poor Nancy, too!

Grace knew Florence fairly well and knew how difficult she was, but Bishop persisted in providing proof: “she gets drunk once in a while and calls up her lawyer and tells him he’s ‘ruined’ her and she’ll ‘expose’ him, etc. (not a word of truth in it, of course).” Bishop added, with proper honesty, “I don’t blame her for drinking”; but she knew what could happen as a result: “I’m afraid of accidents.”

Such states of affairs with these women were distant in space and time for Bishop, but hearing Mary’s tale of woe clearly unsettled Bishop and got her thinking of the future. Bishop was just shy of her half-century. Grace was 70 and still working. But neither of them was getting any younger.

After expressing her concerns, Bishop added one of those exasperated sayings, which was actually an oddly prescient declaration (for her, not Grace, who died at 88): “Well, heaven preserve us — and kill us off quick.”

Having got all of that off her mind, she quickly concluded, “I must get to work — If only poetry made more money.” Perhaps realizing that these thoughts and worries, offered with dark humour, might make Grace worry about her, she also quickly assured her aunt: “I am happy and that’s the main thing — even if I don’t deserve to be.” And indeed, she and Lota were still mostly at the house in Samambaia, their relationship still in full bloom. We know what the future was, but Bishop did not, so she signed off without too much care: “Lots of love and take good care of yourself.”

The next post will bring us to the beginning of a new decade.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 53: The Rhinoceros

Bishop’s next letter to Grace followed quickly on the heels of her last because “Lota went to town and mailed my letter [of 12 November 1959] to you — brought home one from you to me.” In the previous letter Bishop had mentioned that a planned trip to the U.S. had been cancelled because of inflation; but Grace must have been under the impression from previous letters (perhaps one that is missing from the big 1959 gap) that her niece was going to be visiting the States because Bishop immediately re-confirmed the abandoned plan: “I am so awfully sorry we aren’t going to be able to make that trip, at least not when we thought we were going to.” The main reason, as Bishop had mentioned before, was the economic situation in Brazil, and Lota’s business activities.

Bishop explained that “the dollar is away up.” For Bishop with her U.S. currency, this situation was not so dire, even if “prices have gone away up too.” For Lota, however, the situation was more problematic because “the exchange rate is so bad.” In addition to this money matter, Bishop elaborated on what she had mentioned in passing in the previous letter, that Lota “has just made a contract for her last big hunk of land — to be developed — and it is much better to stay on hand and see to it that things start off right, at least.”

Bishop noted that she didn’t “mind too much not getting to N.Y. now … but Lota feels very badly.” Lota loved New York City, far more than Bishop did. Bishop had hoped she could have written and published enough to earn “enough money … to take her [Lota] to N.S. even if just for a few days,” but clearly Bishop wasn’t as flush as she expected. She concluded this explanation in the same way she ended the previous letter, trailing off with “Well, sooner or later —”

She wasn’t done, however, with the subject of inflation. To reinforce her argument for why she and Lota had to stay put, Bishop offered more details about the economic and political situation in Brazil, reiterating that “inflation here is so bad I don’t really know what is going to happen next.” She had already mentioned the meat shortage” to Grace (“meat prices have gone up to about half of U.S. ones”), which was causing “great hardship” because “even poor people eat beef every day, with their black beans and rice.” This diet was a national staple, partly because, as Bishop noted, “there isn’t anything else, no variety, such as we have” in the U.S. The shortage meant long lines, even “people sleeping on the sidewalks all night to get in the meat lines early in the morning.” The situation was particularly bad in Rio, “our Rio friends’ cooks get up to start getting in line at 4 A M.”

Bishop noted that she could get “along perfectly well without meat,” and the situation in Petrópolis wasn’t as serious as further south, “we even send meat down by bus to our friends.” But the tensions generated by this shortage had resulted in “bombs thrown etc.,” which would surely not reassure Grace. People were blaming the politicians, of course. More evidence of this discontent: “maybe you even saw (it was on television in N.Y.) how a rhinoceros got elected to be a city councilman?” This candidacy, in a municipal election in São Paulo in 1958, “started just as a joke, then people took it up and actually voted for him [sic: her], just to show what they think of their crooked politicians. He [sic] got over 20,000 votes — then they stopped counting them.” Actually, the “famous rhinoceros in the zoo here” received over 100,000 votes. Check the internet for Carareco. Bishop observed, “I think it is a very nice — and very Brazilian — gesture.”
According to Wikipedia, this successful run for office inspired the Canadians who set up The Rhinoceros Party of Canada in 1963. I wonder if Bishop ever heard about the latter, when she moved back to the U.S. in 1970.

This electoral success gained some international coin. Bishop recounted that Mary Morse, who had just returned from a trip to the U.S., “went to a musical show and one of the jokes was ‘Well, I see that Macmillan got elected in England and a rhinoceros got elected in Brazil’….”

After the sad news of the previous letter (telling Grace about the death of Marjorie Carr Stevens) and confirming to her aunt that once again they were prevented from the much longed for trip to New York (and even Nova Scotia), Bishop seemed intent on imparting the funnier side of things in this letter. The next post will conclude with another dose of humour, this time at the expense of the relatives.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 52: An update and a conclusion

Bishop’s letter of 12 November 1959 ended as many of them did, with a mish-mash of subjects, though this time it was as if she was filling in to divert herself from the death of her old friend Marjorie Carr Stevens. In the midst of the final updating that concludes this letter, Bishop interjects (set off again by dashes): “Maybe I shouldn’t burden you with my sad news, but you did know Marjorie and I thought you’d like to know.” Bishop quietly adds, “I was awfully fond of her and feel dreadful about it.” From the accounts she had received, she knew that Marjorie’s death had been difficult, so Bishop says what we all say in the face of such information: “I hope and pray she didn’t suffer very much.”

The biggest diversion Bishop offers is an account of Lota’s grandchildren, “five, now,” who had visited “several times” recently to swim, because “it is getting hot again.” The grandchild who got most of Bishop’s attention was “Lotinha, not quite two.” This toddler was “the best swimmer of all — she is amazing.” Bishop observed that she “bobs like a cork.” Fond of water and swimming herself, Bishop admired this innate ability. She observed, “she’d walk right into, or onto, six feet of water if we didn’t hold onto her.” Not only did the wee one want to go into the water, “she refuses to come out, even after her teeth are chattering.” Bishop then tells Grace a little story about this natural-born swimmer, one that her aunt undoubtedly appreciated fully: “She wore a bathing suit for the first time the other day — a small rag of her brother’s — but didn’t like it — screamed ‘Take off my bikini! Take off my bikini!’ — so went as naked as a cherub, as usual.” The spot where they were swimming was the pool Lota had created near the house at Samambaia. Bishop noted that “the water is deep and icy cold.” It came out of the mountain that loomed behind the house. Bishop told Grace that she had some “snapshots” of the children, and would send some to her aunt “when I get copies made.” Bishop sent her aunt a number of photos from Brazil, but if she followed through on this promise, the photos to not survive.
(Lota's house at Samambaia in the early stages of its construction.)

Even though it was only early November, Elizabeth and Lota were already thinking about the Christmas holidays: “We hope to get to the beach, again — Cabo Frio — for Christmas but haven’t been invited yet!” They had gone to this beautiful spot a number of times. I wrote about one such visit in Post # 38.

In the end they did go, but at this point, it was uncertain, so Bishop observed that if an invitation was not extended, “we’ll try to go to another famous beautiful old beach place and stay at a hotel for a few days.” Just where this was she doesn’t say. However it would unfold, Bishop said that she and Lota needed to get away because “it is getting just too complicated here, with servants, ex-servants, Lota’s (boring) relatives, [and] ‘grandchildren’.” In the face of this ménage (menagerie?), “It’s easier to give them all a little something and then go away.”
The conclusion of this letter was interrupted by “Lunchtime,” but upon returning Bishop began to wind down in earnest: “I hope you are all well now — how is the leg?” This query prompted Bishop to bring up the subject of support hose: “I keep reading about those new stockings that look like nylons but seem to give SUPPORT at the same time.” But Bishop then wondered if such devices might not be “heavy enough for your needs?” Grace was an ample woman her whole life.

Then a zig back to the beginning of the letter: “Tell me if you don’t get the little books” — that is, the cookbooks about jelly and jam, and cookies — “or if you’d like any others” (books, that is). Being so far away, there was little Bishop could send her aunt by way of gifts, but she noted that books were “one of the few things I can manage to send to you.”

Then a zag back to Grace: “I do hope you are well and that the job is easy and that you are enjoying it.” Just what job the seventy-year old Grace was doing is not indicated, but she still had a few years of nursing left in her.

Having closed her letter with the usual “With love, Elizabeth,” a P.S. was added: “I’d intended to try to get Mary Morse to bring back the maple syrup for us!” Whether this was a gift Grace had hoped to send (she had sent it before), or just one they asked Mary to secure herself, is not clear. In any case, Mary had changed her travel plans and returned to Brazil sooner than expected. Not getting this gift, hearing about the death of Marjorie, wondering about Grace’s health: all these things prompted Bishop to write: “maybe I’ll get there myself.” A plan to go to the U.S. during the upcoming winter had been given up, Bishop writes, because “$ is absolutely impossible for Lota now and she has a big land deal on.” Bishop trails off this somewhat sad letter with “but sooner or later —” Isn’t that so for all of us.

Bishop’s next letter to Grace followed closely in the wake of this one, prompted by receiving one from her aunt.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 51: Marjorie

The disquistion on jaboticaba and pitanga jelly finished (and thanks to John for finding so many videos to augment Bishop’s words), Bishop turned to a much more serious subject in her 12 November 1959 letter: “I’ve had some very bad news — my friend Marjorie [Carr Stevens] died unexpectedly — at least to me, and most of her friends, I think — on October 21st.” All the dashes suggest the difficulty of relating this shock. It is as if the previous paragraphs were a means to avoid telling the most important thing she had to tell.

Marjorie and Elizabeth met in Florida in 1941. Marjorie was married but separated from her husband. They moved in together and were a couple for some time. They travelled to Mexico in 1942 and in 1947 to Nova Scotia. Even after the intimate relationship ended, they remained good friends. Marjorie met Grace in 1947 and when Grace spent time in Florida during the 1950s (with Aunt Mabel and her daughter Hazel), she and Marjorie saw each other again. I wrote about this connection in post # 35.
(Marjorie on the right, with Pauline Hemmingway, Key West, 1940s.)
Bishop knew that Grace would be sad about this premature death. Marjorie “was just 50, I think,” Bishop noted. The root of  this death was her “long history of tuberculosis,” a condition about which Grace knew. Bishop reported that Marjorie had “recovered — cured herself — several times.” This resilience had made Bishop decide “she was tough.” Marjorie had revealed to Bishop in letters that “she had been having ‘asthma’ … increasingly the last two years,” a condition Bishop was all too familiar with, and one that caused her concern. The immediate trigger for this death was, however, travel.

She told Grace that Marjorie had gone “to Guatamala for her vacation.” The problem was the “unpressurized plane & discovered it too late, and had a severe attack.” This attack “injured her heart badly.” Another reason for the asthmatic Bishop to fear flying (even modern airplanes offer health risks that we tend not to regard with much concern, so ubiquitous is flying).
 (Marjorie Carr Steven’s passport application, 1941.)
One of Marjorie’s brothers and their mutual friend Jane Dewey were the sources of Bishop’s information, so she knew that Marjorie was travelling with a friend, “an old lady who was taking her — it must have been hell for her.” After leaving Central America, they “went to Nassau, to try sea-level.” Sadly, it didn’t help, “Marjorie got worse.” Then she went into hospital “to try an oxygen tent and died a day later.”

Bishop reported that Marjorie “had planned” to visit Brazil that very April, “and she wanted to come so much.” Bishop summarized Marjorie’s situation for her aunt, saying that her friend “hadn’t really had much fun in her life, although she enjoyed things so much — a dreary husband (and I never could stand her family, either!).” Grace might not have felt as upset as Bishop, but she and Marjorie had clearly connected, “Marjorie liked you very much and always asked about you, almost every letter.”

Bishop had known so much loss by this time in her life, but there is something unsettling about losing a contemporary, a dear friend with whom one has shared a deep and abiding  connection, that is disruptive to one’s system. It haunts. Elizabeth and Marjorie had “been friends for more than twenty years.” Their friendship had been confined to letters for more than a decade, but for Bishop, correspondence was not a distant mode of contact, even if letters crossed thousands of miles. Even so, she confessed to her aunt, “I can’t seem to take it in very well yet — I suppose because I live so far away.”

After this sombre subject, Bishop quickly turned back to a more pleasant topic: a trip to Cabo Frio for the holidays. The next post will conclude this letter.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Con Spirito -- A New Short Film about Elizabeth Bishop Starts its Kickstarter Campaign

The makers of the film write:


 "Inspired by true events. 

 "At Vassar College in 1933, Elizabeth Bishop and Margaret Miller sneak around campus in the dead of night posting an anonymous call for submissions to their experimental, boundary-pushing literary newspaper, Con Spirito. Caught in the rebellious spirit of the mission, they wind up spending the night in a tree, discussing their radical venture, life at Vassar, writing, and loneliness. As the sun rises on Vassar’s campus, the two women leave their perch on the tree with a new, profound understanding of each other, and of the challenges ahead of them."

 Why make this film? 

"Con Spirito is a character study of one of the most important figures in American poetry; it is also a story of rebellion. In the era of Trump, #metoo, and a Hollywood finally ready to confront patterns of inequality and abuse of power, we need women telling women's stories. Stories about women finding their voice, as artists and as individuals. Stories about women pushing boundaries and discovering new ways to exist and create in the world. Stories about intimacy and connection between women, told in a way that's neither fetishized nor trivialized. We'd like to think that anyone who loves Elizabeth Bishop's poetry will be fascinated by the historical background of the film. We hope that the film will go beyond that to tell a powerful, universal story of youth, rebellion, and self-discovery."

For further information on the film, the team behind it, and to support the Kickstarter campaign:

First Encounters

Strange appearances,
full of serendipity
and charm. Newfoundland.
Awful but cheerful,
looking for something something
something. Then: the House.
Meetings, non-meetings
almost Akhmatovian
-- I mean my ego.
Ten years I lived here --
nobody had mentioned her
to me. Intriguing.
Newfoundland Journal.
Many generous people
invited us in.
I stand here, iron.
What you ask moves tormented
through my mind. Then. Now.
A green-covered book,
tiny, well-packed, straightforward,
-- Blueberry patches.
Like a child in Wonderland,
I came here to write. ---
Once a failed poet,
now failed collector of them,
I love how words sound.
As perfect a work
as any I have looked at,
a treasure within.
Now forever gone,
it hung on a bedroom wall
in the Poet's House.
As a choir member, --
"Song for a Rainy Season"
-- I could feel the damp.
Chateau Frontenac,
an old and ornate hotel,
knows our language well.
Completely gob-smacked
I have no recollection
no link letter left.
Under the window
new and abiding desire,
age-old saudade.
Less than meaningful
Dead White Protestant Males rule
and -- unknowing -- reign.
Vanadous, uranic,
bluebell tunicates blossom,
vain, but not raucous.
Where mint grows by brooks,
the Bay of Fundy's sheer tides
crumbling ribs of marl.
On the syllabus --
"Post-Modern American
Poetry" -- her name.
Who was this poet
becoming canonical
in America?
Find her reticence
grounded in Nova Scotia:
in burnt hawkweed.
I contributed
one poem to Canticle.
Being drawn closer.
Bike rides, afternoon
naps, silence, asparagus --
like so many things.
Printed distinctly
in black ink on the blank page --
the first one -- her name.
In my final year,
and then the summer after,
the sound of her mind.
Down shore is haunted.
"It's a racial memory --
something genetic."
Fear or loneliness --
detached otherworldliness
-- this separate life.
spoiled, quick to judge, insecure,
I grew my hair out.
Behind tall locked doors,.
wondering what it could mean,
The Manuscript Room.
Sable Island trip.
Maud's painting of Great Village.
A challenge. A spark.
Living the so-called
simple life, in an old home
amidst old patterns.
On a dim column
the image of a cock carved:
porphyry and bronze.
Lo que no sabe
una niña huérfana,
saben las olas.
A delicious chat,
wafting around my psyche,
tossed on Fundy tides.
Crossing hemispheres
as I have done to travel
perfectly at home.
Something more subtle?
Lupins, say, -- all pencil-thin,
prophetic, silent.
There's my confession,
but I've made up for it since:
wet red mud glazed blue.
Reaching for the Moon.
Deceptive simplicity
drawing the drawing.
Ask each sophomore
to memorize one poem.
The meadows unfold.
Enter the unknown
fascinated by the doors'
handles and latches.
"Reaching for the Moon"
(in German "Die Poetin") --
always out of place.

9 January 2018

И слабым голосом страданий и любви 
Шепнешь ли бедному творению: «Живи»?

(1.) XIII

Land lies in water.
Mendacious and envious,
it is shadowed green.

(2.) XVII

Tired Seawall Inn:
its sign maker knew too well
land lies in water.

(3.) XVIII

A wedding's theories
are like this old brass rubbing:
it is shadowed green.

(4.) L


Balcony breakfast
(thimble of coffee and crumb),
A scabby lakefront.

(5.) LI


Freighter. Towelette lef
t (the little we get for free)
moist on the tea tray.

(6.) LXII


Where it was, you meant
to travel: were it only
the wryest Athenaeum
still left in all Wyoming.



Its otherness ahead,
moonlight on a tidal pool,
the sea and its shore.

(8.) XCIII

If A cheats whomever,
B shares the consequences.
We have come this far.

(9.) XCIV


Another drab day.
This year our hats will need a
rotary headband.

(10.) CIV

The true Everglades
spread far beyond the bounds of
regulated verse.

(11.) CXVI


The sea level map's
netted surfaces, red as
the maple's leaves.

(12.) CXLVI


The Winter Circus,
elephant withers cinctured,
ends with its season.

(13.) CXLVIIIa


Occasional verse.
But aren't we all? Homemade.
Laconic. At sea.

(14.) CCLII


Bright faery hue: rose-
edged amethyst at dawn,
February eighth.


for M.A.D.

Was the day chosen?
Wound afresh with red birthday
ribbon, frozen creeks.



Valid otherness:
a white violet's hardness
over the islands.


in memory of Elizabeth Bishop

So many the hats
she exchanged for essentials:
asthma, honesty.



Quockerwodgers all,
hanging on words they dangle
from their tangled strings.

(19.) CCCXII


Zen gets you nowhere.
Poetry? No more than a
wheezy song en route.



The deft horned owl
sinks its talons in my back.
The end of the world.


Now the mourning doves,
renowned once for moving South,
return North unknown.

(22.) CD

in memory of Elizabeth Bishop

And here, or there... No.
One herder meets another,
their cattle mingle.

(23.) CDXVII

In memory of Elizabeth Bishop

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

(24.) CDLXIV


Puddles of moon fish,
an inch of dim smoke swabbing
the main deck gunnels.



Perfectly useless,
the amputee's shoemaker
doesn't give a fig.



Sand dollar bezels
scant steps from the horizon:
cold stars and planets.

(27.) DVII

for EAAB

Slow-witted, owlish
eyes half-veiled in the moonlight.
Wild white violets.

(28.) DVIII

for EAAB

Ale house. Weepy remorse.
Lying awake and knowing
somewhere you're asleep.

(29.) DXIV


How unlike Borglum's
narcosynthesis these rocks,
lichens, gray moonbursts.

(30.) DXVI


Helen's valley forge.
Golden apple smell once more,
lovely hell-green flames.

(31.) DXXXVI


Cockerel checklist
digged out of the bight's sea chest.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge.



The bromeliads
long gone, I don't dare write you
in herbalist mode.

(33.) DLVIII


(any verb very rigid)



This spring, too, is flawed:
now tumbling over itself,
now slinking forward.

(35.) DCXLVI


Bubbles intersect:
the sensible BBC
utters foxfire truths.

(36.) DCXCI


Solitary clouds,
each aware of the others
covering its sky.



Never to have heard
the sound of your heart beating —
surely a pity.



Putative doily,
all too thick with grey crochet —
Life is a taboret.



Jay North, Clint Eastwood,
Robert Southey, Adam West:
"Dear, my compass still — "

(40.) CMXLII


Gouts of Bishop's Weed:
ivory-edged, green-centred,



Ample-roofed bandstand,
shielding the politicians'
abandoned platforms.

(42.) CMLXXX

Дар ума

Life is a gömböc:
homogeneous, convex,



Ladders. Lattices.
Let us let ice floes crumble,
faceted within.

(44.) M


We have come this far:
the senses are five heartaches,
meadows mown too close.

(45.) MLXVI

World of our knowing
our knowledge tastes of window
sills, panes, and rain drops.

(46.) MCXXV


The cool damp night mist
leaves me gasping for my breath,
hanging on my words.



Just after breakfast
— book half-unread, coffee drunk —
a trail of bread crumbs.

(48.) MCLIII


One last narrative.
One final journey elsewhere.
Travel is an art.

(49.) MCLIX


The rain goes on and on,
but which inane waterfall
is it speaking of?

(50.) MCXCI


Questions of travel
fall — soft, stolen, aquiver —
by the wayside now.

(51.) MCCCXV

Три бабушки

"It is what it is."
"It has always been this way."
"What will be, will be."


A dim, acrid smell
of skunk in Ontario,
a Maritime laugh.


Après nous le déluge

Conjunction Junction
barely made the connection
between and and and

(54.) MCDIII


From all the dangers —
either/or and neither/nor
— in reason save us.



Buds and bells and stars:
whether or not we know them,
they know their own names.


О Благодати

At ten after ten
breakfast on the balcony.
Why am I so blessed?

(57.) MDXXIX


Sandra will be here soon.
Coffee with friends, Great Village,
lots to talk about.

(58.) MDXXXI

for Sandra Barry

Rude lattice of leaves,
their shadows the true Citadel's
true dialectic.

(59.) MDXL


Lighter ironies,
these fish lore elegances,
esprits d'escalier.

(60.) MDXLV


A myriad leaves
poets shiftless as ever
too lazy to count

(61.) MDXCIV


They have not changed much:
the moon, the stars, these poems —
Still, I look at them.



Making the music
entrance from inside the heart
two bronze lions flank.


Never to have pressed
an ear to chest to listen
to a heart beating.

(64.) MDCXLV

They are never real,
however they might wind up,
tangled or dangling.


for Tom Hastings

Who would not be pleased
as punch drunk from a haiku
plastered paper hat?



We have come so far:
"This you may not see or say."
Now we would give up
our eye teeth to hear once more:
"Look your infant sight away."



Scissors. Window pane.
A dazzling dialectic
facets tin-roofed sky.


Plus ça change
for Sandra Barry and Laurie Gunn

New old kitchen stove:
the power has been shifted,
the oil is ordered.

(69.) MCMLII


Flatfooted union
of pinion, wing, and beak —
sleeping standing up.

(70.) ENVOI


Birth and life and death:
wherever situated,
the same indrawn breath.