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

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.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 50: Jelly

Having dispatched the lizards in the opening paragraph of her 12 November 1959 letter, Bishop shifts a major gear, returning to one of their favourite subjects: food — more specifically, the making of it. Before settling into the serious details, she remarks on a technical matter about the letter Grace was holding in her hands: “I am so delighted to have these new black typewriter ribbons.” The quality of the type of this letter is significantly clearer than the previous one, so many months ago. It is easy for us with our computers, tablets and devices to forget how “manual” Bishop’s typing was. The new ribbons were brought back by “our friend Mary Morse,” who had returned from time in the “U.S. and brought us presents.” The new typewriter ribbons were a boon to her letter writing, but “another friend” (perhaps May Swenson) had sent an even more prized gift, via Morse: “a pair of binoculars — I’m quite overwhelmed,” something she had longed for, but didn’t think she “could afford.” She would use them “to watch birds here [that is, at Samambaia] and ships in Rio.” Bishop noted that they were “Japanese and very good.”

After this introduction Bishop signalled the real shift: “—//” and introduced the next subject of this paragraph with a query: “I had an English bookshop send you two little cookbooks a while ago — I wonder if you got them yet?” Bishop is referring to two little volumes that Grace had in fact received. Bishop had sent them sometime in early 1957 (she mentioned her intention to do so in a letter dated 10 January 1957, which I discussed in blogpost, #26 of this series).

Clearly, Grace was remiss in not only letting Bishop know she’d received them, but in thanking Bishop for them. No matter. Bishop brought them up because she wanted to talk about jelly: “the jelly one is the one I use all the time and it is awfully good.” The second one, she noted, “I haven’t seen myself yet, but it sounded good!” These books are located in the Bulmer family archive at Acadia University and are described in the finding aid for this collection thus:

I.v.33. Jams, jellies and preserves: how to make them / Ethelind Fearon. – London: Herbert Jenkins, 1956. – 96p. Dust jacket slightly torn. – Gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Grace Bulmer Bowers.
I.v.34. Biscuits and American cookies: how to make them / Ambrose Heath. – London: Herbert Jenkins, 1953. – 96p. Dust jacket slightly torn. – Gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Grace Bulmer Bowers.

Bishop then launched into a technical aspect of jelly-making, as if she and Grace were in medias res of a serious discussion: “I made jelly for years without using the alcohol test for pectin — now find it is so easy and makes the whole thing so fool-proof I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.” Bishop then goes on to explain how to do this test: after “extracting the juice,” “put a spoonful in a cup and cover it with another spoonful of alcohol — rubbing alcohol is good enough.” If the juice “jells, more or less, or at least sticks together, in 5 minutes — it’s ready to add the sugar.” Bishop noted that the little book she’d begifted her aunt “tells this” test, but referred to “alcohol as ‘methylated [sic] spirits’ in the English way.” She didn’t know if this term would confuse Grace, or if “in Canada” such a term was also used.

After this little treatise on fool-proof jelly, Bishop boasted to her aunt that she had “made 34 jars of JABOTICABA jelly last month.”
I guess you would want a fool-proof method when making that kind of quantity! Undoubtedly, Grace had no idea what Jaboticaba was, but Bishop writes as if her aunt did, noting that it was “a wonderful year for them,” meaning the fruit of this strange tree.
As if all this production wasn’t enough, she also wrote, “and a few more of PITANGA,” yet another exotic fruit that Grace would never have seen. Well supplied with jelly, Bishop was also “trying Jaboticaba liquer [sic],” but the results of that experiment were not yet known. This beverage “comes out rather like grape,” she observed, whereas “Pitangas are bright orange, semi-transparent, like little six-sided lanterns, lovely things — we have one tree.”
When I went to Brazil in 1999, I had one meal at a rather posh restaurant in Oscar Niemeyer’s Grande Hotel in Ouro Prêto. I don’t remember the main course, but I do remember the dessert. My companions and I chose a plate of various preserves and conserves (with cheese and biscuits, I think), including jaboticaba jelly. It was an almost black purple, vibrantly sweet with a real zing to it. At least that is how I remember it. I suspect there was Pitanga preserve, too.
(Grande Hotel, Ouro Preto)
Bishop’s November letter shifted gears again in the next paragraph, this time to sorrowful news about the death of a friend, someone Grace also knew. More of that in the next post.
(Jaboticaba tree!)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 49: Lizards

"The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as a red-hot wire."
            “Brazil, January 1, 1502”

Brett Millier says that the above poem was part of a “second-wave of poems about her adopted country” (300), which Bishop began to write in 1959. “Brazil, January 1, 1502” appeared in The New Yorker on 2 January 1960. (Millier 301)

I start this post about Bishop’s next letter to Grace with these lines and facts because this letter, dated 12 November 1959, commences with a lively account of lizards at Samambaia.

As I mentioned last time, this November letter breaks a long gap, the previous letter being dated August. It is clear that the letters between them had continued, but what happened to them is unknown. Bishop begins this one with a declaration, “I’m not sure who owes whom a letter now.” This bespeaks of a steady exchange, not a three month silence, because Bishop also thought that their last epistles “crossed.”

Without any more preliminaries, Bishop launched right into her exotic account, one I’m sure she knew would make Grace laugh.

She started with a brief weather report: “a quick rain and hail storm with the sun shining at the same time.” One result: “everything looks dazzling.” Another result: “the lizards have started to come out again.”

It is her account of the lizards’ activities that relate directly to what she was writing at the time. “Watching the lizards’ love-making is one of our quiet sports here!” She tells Grace about the ritual: “the male chases the female, bobbing his head up and down and puffing his throat in and out like a balloon.” One wonders if Grace could imagine this courting display (the only place she might have seen it was on the pages of a National Geographic). Bishop observed that the males were “much larger and uglier” than the females. In this chase, Bishop notes, “the female runs ahead and if she’s feeling friendly she raises her tail up over her back like a wire — it is bright red, almost neon-red, underneath.” All this chasing was often for naught, as Bishop reported: “He hardly ever seems to catch up with her.”

These shenanigans were not always confined to outside. Bishop informed her aunt that “sometimes the cat will pursue a huge one right through the living-room.” Imagining that might be even harder! This pursuit “usually” happened “when we have squeamish lady guests, who shriek.” The main instigator of this race was Bishop’s cat Tobias, whom, she thought, probably did “it on purpose, really.”

When you Google lizards and Brazil, you get hundreds of possibilities and thousands of images. Even when I narrowed it to mating rituals, I could find nothing to match Bishop’s description. I asked Carmen Oliveira, the author of Flores Rares e Banalíssimas, if she had any idea which lizard Bishop described. She sent me the photo below and told me that in Portuguese, lizard is legarto. Even if it is not exactly correct, it is a nice lizard that looks like it has attitude!
The 12 November 2018 letter is as wide-ranging as all the others Bishop wrote to her aunt. The next paragraph, and next post, brings in one of their favourite subjects: food.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 48: Concluding Miscellany

The final few paragraphs of Bishop’s letter of 25 August 1959 offered a wide range of topics. First, there was the usual observation about the weather: “It is starting to get hot again; ‘winter’ seems to be over already,” at least, she said, in Rio. It was still “cold up in the mts.”

As concerned as Bishop was about Grace’s health, not all the news had been bad. Bishop congratulated her aunt “on losing 15 pounds — that’s a good bit.” There was no segue to the next comment: “Isn’t it surprising about the Queen?” What could she mean? Undoubtedly, she was thinking of Her Majesty’s pregnancy. That summer Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were in Canada, on the longest royal tour to this country in its history. By this time it was known she was pregnant again, with the baby who would become Prince Andrew. Andrew was born on 19 February 1960, so the Queen was in the early stages of her pregnancy by this time. Perhaps Grace’s declaration of weight loss made Bishop think of the Queen, who would be gaining weight (perhaps there was an announcement while they were in Canada?).
 (The expecting Queen Elizabeth, 1959.)
All this thought about weight led Bishop to her next leap: “There is a bad meat shortage here.” This statement was accompanied by a brief story of her going out that very morning at seven a.m., and standing “in the line with all the maids, and managed to get a pound of liver for the cat!” She explained further that she and Lota would “manage on eggs, or buy a chicken,” but the little cat, who was about to have kittens, needed the meat.

The food shortage might have been connected to inflation, which Bishop noted “is terrific,” observing the huge rise in the cost of “beans and rice — the national diet of the poor here.” The price of these staples had risen “500 percent since last year — if you can believe it.” Then Bishop editorializes with the comment that this development “might change the food habits,” which she felt was “a good idea”; but she did not elaborate on this observation.

Keeping on the subject of food, though not for the poor, she told Grace that they “went to a dinner-party last night — buffet, which they call here ‘American style’.” The ten who gathered at this repast included “a couple of dull scientists, one of them a friend of mine from N.Y., in town for a congress.” The main course was roast loin of pork. Clearly, no meat shortage here. One of the desserts at this buffet was “Angel’s crops”: “the kind of crop a hen has — at least I think that’s more or less what it means!” Bishop knew how much Grace enjoyed hearing about desserts, though perhaps not quite as much now with her successful effort to lose weight. Bishop described this sweet delicacy: “wet little cakes, very sweet and full of eggs, floating in syrup.”

The next segue was more logical. Bishop wrote that she would send her aunt the recipe for another Brazilian dessert, “Blessed Mothers,” assuring Grace that they weren’t hard to make “if you can get a coconut?” She was sure that if Grace attempted them, they “would impress Mrs. Max L[ayton] very favorably!”

Still not done with desserts (Bishop clearly had a sweet tooth), she asks Grace if she made “baked custards?” A Brazilian twist on this common dessert was “orange custard — made exactly like any baked custard except instead of milk you use orange juice.” Further instructions were offered with the added hint to bake it “slowly” and “caramelize the mold first.”

Turning back to Grace’s letter, Bishop wrote, “Your garden makes us envious.” Bishop noted that all they had in their garden at the moment was “too much lettuce.”

Having run the length of her time and subjects, Bishop concluded: “Now the housekeeping column will come to an end.” She concluded with her usual regards to Phyllis, “if you are with her,” and signed off “With much love.”

Then there is a significant gap before a letter dated 12 November 1959 takes up the narrative. That will be for the next post.