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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 26 – Jam

Bishop’s 10 January 1957 letter dwelt on food more than any other that she had written so far (at least of those letters that survive). After telling Grace about Lota’s preference for crêpe suzettes, Bishop wrote that over the Christmas holiday she “made some Dundee cakes — that white fruit-cake — and thought of Gammie [her maternal grandmother] — remember how much she liked it?”
This traditional Scottish cake, a kind of signature for the country, is in the midst of proprietary aspirations by the Scottish government. Heaven forbid someone attempts to claim this confection for another nation! Gammie (Elizabeth Bulmer) was a Maritimer born and very English, but the Yorkshire Bulmer ancestors were close enough to Scotland to have, perhaps, acquired the taste for it. Or, perhaps the general culture of Nova Scotia imprinted this preference on Bishop’s grandmother.
A good portion of this long letter was devoted to jam. One of Bishop’s delights in living in the house at Samambaia was being able to cook again, to learn how to make Brazilian dishes and teach the cook Maria how to make North American dishes. Brazilians have a sweet tooth, and no less so Lota, so Bishop’s eagerness to make jam was welcomed by all in the household. The main jam under consideration in this letter was apricot and coconut. It is a question whether Grace, in 1957, could get access to this produce; but since she was in the US working, perhaps it was easier to do so (easier than in Nova Scotia!).

Here is Bishop’s summary of her “DRIED APRICOT & COCONUT” jam recipe:
 “Crack the nut, collect the milk, peel off the brown rind (it handles more easily if immersed for a moment in hot water) and put the white flesh twice through the grinder. [I grate it.] Cut up a half pound of apricots and soak them, with the coconut and its milk, in a quart of water overnight. Next day simmer very gently for about an hour, until tender, and weigh. Add weight for weight of sugar and the juice of one lemon and cook fast but watchfully (keep stirring) until setting.” She noted that you could also use “dried coconut but it isn’t as good.”

Bishop had described the process of making this jam in even greater detail earlier in the letter, clearly wanting to make sure Grace knew all the tricks: “It should be soupy, but not liquid, if you know what I mean!”; “or two limes”; “warm sugar”; two coconuts and a pound of apricots yielded “6 pints,” but her “pots aren’t any known standard size.” She acknowledged that while “jam with coconut is delicious,” it was likely “hard on false-teeth wearers!” While she was “not quite one yet,” she worried that she might soon be “if I don’t get to that dentist.”

In addition to the apricot and coconut jam, Bishop also sent recipes for apricot and almond jam, which she said was “better than the above, but apricots are too expensive to make it often”; lime and pineapple jam; and, finally, rhubarb and orange jam. The apricot and almond jam was quite involved but Bishop assured Grace it was “a real delicacy, if you want to be very fancy!” The lime and pinapple was “excellent” but it required a long cooking time for the limes. The rhubarb and orange was “easy and good.”

As an afterthought, Bishop noted that there was “a wonderful way to make strawberry jam by cooking it in the sun — do you know it?” She doesn’t elaborate, saying only, “I never can get enough strawberries here, but I’ve made it,” and when Grace got back to Nova Scotia, Bishop promised to “send the recipe” to her.

To reinforce all this instruction about preserves, Bishop also promised to send Grace “a copy of the little English book of jams & jellies.” And she actually did send this book: Jams, Jellies and Preserves: How to Make Them, by Ethelind Fearon, published in 1956 in London by Herbert Jenkins. Bishop also sent Ambrose Heath’s Biscuits and American Cookies: How to Make Them (1953). Grace kept both of these tiny volumes for the rest of her life and they are now at AcadiaUniversity Archives.
If jam was not enough, Bishop also provided a little treatise on pickles, which “are dreadful here,” she observed. She told Grace that “occasionally” she made “watermelon rind pickle, and pepper relish (that’s so easy I can get Maria to do most of the work!).” Bishop’s relish had a reputation. She gave “a pot to our friend Oscar at Christmas” because “he loves pickles.” He liked it so much that “he asked Lota if she thought I’d mind giving his cook the recipe, or if it was a secret!” Because it was difficult to get some of the ingredients, Bishop was limited in the kind of pickles she could make, but told Grace that “an American friend is coming to visit in February — and I am asking her to bring us tumeric and ginger and celery seed.”

The next post will wind up 1957’s inaugural letter.

Monday, October 3, 2016

EBSNS fund-raiser to create an Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit in Great Village, N.S.

In 2014 the St. James Church Preservation Society provided the EBSNS with a temporary space in the sanctuary of the church to set up an exhibit about Elizabeth Bishop. The EBSNS put together an ad hoc display, which was seen by the many visitors to the café and attendees of various events, including the Elizabeth Bishop Arts Festival in August 2015.
When the Preservation Society took over full responsibility for the church, the EBSNS would receive a new location to set up a proper permanent exhibit/gallery space. That new location was offered in August 2016: at the front and on the east side of the sanctuary. The Great Village Historical Society has a permanent Marine Museum exhibit on the west side of the sanctuary. The Preservation Society will also set up an exhibit about the history of St. James Church.
(The area in the sanctuary of St. James Church where
the EB exhibit/gallery will be located. Photo by Laurie Gunn.)
This project has two components: 1. an exhibit called “Elizabeth Bishop’s Beginnings,” which will complement the panels about Bishop that are displayed on the pergola near Wilson’s Gas Stop; and 2. a gallery called “Echoes of Elizabeth Bishop,” where art created by Nova Scotia artists, inspired by Bishop, will be shown.

The Elizabeth Bishop Exhibit/Gallery Patron fund-raiser:

The EBSNS will invest its own funds, time and expertise in the exhibit. The society is also applying for a grant from Nova Scotia Arts. However, the cost of this project is such that the society needs to raise additional funds. All funds will go directly to upgrading the space and creating the exhibit.

The EBSNS seeks donations from members and anyone interested in supporting this permanent public place honouring Elizabeth Bishop and her connections to Great Village and Nova Scotia, and showcasing contemporary Nova Scotia artists.

If you would like to be an Exhibit Patron, there are two levels of support: $100 (Gold Sponsors) and $50 (Silver Sponsors).

Two ways to donate:

1. Click the Donate button on the EBSNS website: http://elizabethbishopns.org/events-projects/
2. Send a cheque, payable to the EBSNS, to P.O. Box 138, Great Village, N.S., B0M 1L0

Please indicate your donation is for the permanent exhibit.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
The EBSNS is grateful for your support.

The society will unveil the space at its AGM
on Saturday, 17 June 2017,
with guest speaker Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod. 

Watch for updates on the EBSNS Facebook page.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 25 – Accounting for Christmas Past

Being the first epistle after Christmas, Bishop gave Grace an account of their holiday in the 10 January 1957 letter. “We had a very quiet Christmas,” she reported. Part of the reason was “it rained all day.” And they had only “two guests.” Lota’s gifts to Bishop were multi-cultural. They included “a beautiful red sweater (from Argentina).” Bishop noted that the “woolen things” from that country were “almost as good as English ones.” Then there was “an elegant gray silk umbrella (from Italy) and a cigarette lighter (from the U.S.).” Bishop’s main gift to Lota was far more practical: infrastructure, that is, “the shower-bath for the guest bathroom!” Clarifying a bit, Bishop noted she would be paying “for the booth, of chrome and glass.” In spite of their few guests over Christmas, Bishop observed that since they were “having so much company,” generally, Lota was “feeling desperate” about the bathroom, “other things, like floors, always seemed more important,” Bishop explained.

The other gift Bishop gave to Lota was “a bottle of brandy.” Lota loved “to make crepe [sic] suzettes (one of the few things she’ll cook — for Sunday night suppers),” so the brandy was for this culinary treat, as Lota was not much of a drinker (unlike Bishop).
Bishop then got to “the best part of our Christmas,” which was “giving presents to Betty,” the cook’s daughter and Bishop’s namesake. Even though she was still too young to understand “what it was all about” (“she’ll be 2 in February,” Bishop scribbled in the margin in her nearly illegible hand), she “opened everything very carefully and slowly, stared at it, and then looked at us with the most beautiful smile.” The gifts included a doll from Lota and “a dress and watering-pot” from Bishop. It seemed that Betty followed “the gardener around doing everything he does.” Betty also got “an adorable blue wool bathing suit” from “our friend Mary [Morse].” This suit had “white smocking and a white ruffle.”

Even their Rio friends sent along gifts for Betty because “they’ve all seen her and think she’s so cute.” This much doted on child “even went in the brook, finally, with two of her young aunts,” the day before Bishop’s letter was written. So familiar was she with Lota that whenever Betty saw her drive up in her car, she yelled “Totta! Totta!”

The only responses Bishop made to Grace’s account of her own Christmas (which, it appears, she spent in the U.S.) was to commend her for the thoughtful act of sending “poor Uncle George … a present” and to note that “your Christmas box sounded wonderful” (a gift which would have been sent from Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland, as immediately after Bishop asks, “How is David Alexander?” Phyllis’s newborn son.)
(Wallace, Phyllis and David Sutherland, 2006)
Bishop told Grace that she had heard from Aunt Florence just the day before, on 9 January, and reported that she had been “in the hospital a few days, at Christmas time, with what she says was a ‘Gaul bladder attack’.” Bishop assured Grace, who clearly had wondered why she had not heard herself from Florence, “she certainly isn’t mad at you …. this time she’s been sick.” Bishop reiterated that Florence “always speaks of you with the greatest admiration, honestly.” Bishop was noticing that Florence’s correspondence had become more erratic, “sometimes she writes to me twice a week, and sometimes she forgets and doesn’t write for weeks at a time — and then blames me, usually — or the Brazilian mails!” Bishop suspected that she would hear from her cousin Kay Orr Sargent with an update.

It is not too strong to say that for much of her early life, Bishop hated Christmas, a time when immediate family gathers and celebrates. While she had extended family (and even some beloved maternal relatives), Bishop found this holiday season lonely. Even in early childhood, Christmas in her maternal grandparents’ home generated one of her most unsettling memories (“brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years”), which she wrote about in vivid detail in “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” her complex word-portrait of Arthur Bulmer. Undoubtedly, this memory came from the first Christmas after her mother was hospitalized, so Bishop was particularly fragile and vulnerable. The gist of this memory was Arthur dressed improbably as Santa Claus “cavorting” in the parlour, “terrifying” her and making her cry. Through her sobs, she suddenly recognized that this “dreadful figure … was only Uncle Neddy.”
(Arthur around the time of his “cavorting,” circa 1910s,
with his wife Mabel, their daughters Eleanor and Hazel)
As an adolescent and young adult, Bishop often spent Christmas alone, just trying to get through to New Year’s Day. It was only when she settled in Brazil did this holiday lose some of its darker aspects, at least during the 1950s, when her relationship with Lota was strong and reinforcing.

A good portion of the 10 January 1957 letter was about food. Post 24 described a remarkable outing in Rio focused on food, but the rest of the letter referred to more domestic fare. The next post will offer up some of this fare.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Our Bedford Correspondent Writes --

-- sending us these... these... well, one supposes the most fitting word would be imposing.... these imposing photographs from the most recent meeting of the EBSNS Board, held last Sunday, September 18:

                                         Board members                                  
                                           discussing matters of High Policy                                  
"Do Not Bind the Mouths 
of the Kine that Tread the Corn..."
 Insalata Caprese 
complected later in the week 
from Great Village tomatoes 
(gift of President Sharpe)
A Great Village Pumpkin
(gift of President Sharpe)
flanked by Daruma (right) and 
Faithful Amanuensis and General Factotum (left)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 24 – 1957 Begins with Stones and Shrimp

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1957 was written on 10 January, in response to a “lovely long letter” from her aunt, “writen [sic] in the middle of the night.” The 68-year old Grace was back nursing somewhere in the US and doing night shifts. Bishop picked up this letter on the way to Rio, “early Monday morning,” so she “read it out loud to Lota en route.” Bishop always asserted that Grace was a good letter-writer and “so taken with it” was Lota “that she said ‘We must take her a nice present when we get to Boston!’” Bishop had mentioned in her last letter of 1956 their plan to go to the US in 1957. As things unfolded, that is just what she and Lota did at the end of March.

The plans were seriously in the air at this time because she and Lota spent some time puzzling over what to take Grace “from here, where the choice is so limited.” Bishop thinks perhaps an “aquamarine.” “Would you like a pin, a ring, or earrings?” She tells Grace that there is “rather nice jewelery [sic] made of all the Brazilian stones put together — aquamarines, beryl, a pink one, etc. — rather pretty.” [Ed. Note: Bishop sent Grace jewelry on a number of occasions. A few of these pieces are in the collection at Acadia University Archives. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland also inherited some of this jewelry, including one of the beautiful brooches Bishop sent to her aunt, one of those with several “Brazilian stones put together.”]
The run to Rio was to “attend to various duties.” But in the end it was “so damned hot” that they “did scarcely anything at all … I simply couldn’t face the dentist. It was too hot to move.” Even a welcome invitation “to dinner and a night club (something I almost never do, but adore when I get the chance)” was declined because “it was too hot to get dressed up and go.”

Instead, the two nights they were in Rio saw them going “way out along one of the beaches to a funny little place that sells fried shrimp — at least it was cool there.” These excursions were so interesting that Bishop wished she “could take you there — I’m sure you’d like it.” What follows is a lively description of the sights and sounds and the food they encountered.

First, there was a spot “along the road where they have set up a lot of little sheds.” Though “primitive” (with just oil lamps or torches), each shed had “a little saint inside, with flowers and a light in front.” The fare at these spots was: “hot corn on the cob, grilled bits of meat stuck on sticks of bamboo, slices of melon or pineapple stuck on bamboo.” And the piéce de resistence: “a strange Brazilian sweet made of corn meal and sugar and herbs, cooked in folded up corn-husks.” To Bishop, these looked and tasted “exactly like hot poultices … but Lota likes them!”
(Pamonha, a paste made from fresh corn and milk,
boiled wrapped in corn husks, turned into dumplings)
Continuing along the road was another “encampment of sheds where they sell fresh oysters and crabs.” The oysters were “delicious — small, just caught.” These shellfish were opened “as fast as you can eat, and you just stand up and suck them out of the shell, squeezing a little lime-juice on top.” To Bishop, the taste was far superior this way, rather than “being iced.” They had gone on this excursion with friends (whom she does not name). “One of the men with us ate 4 dozen [oysters].” But he claimed this was no real feat because “once he’d eaten 12 dozen!”

Believe it or not, these stops were merely “preliminaries.” They continued along the road, “right along the beach,” arriving at “two or three little restaurants where they sell hot shrimps, fried in the shell.” All this consumption generated a good thirst, too. And at the end the reward was beer: “The Brazilian beer is wonderful, much better than the U.S. — as good as the Canadian!” But, Bishop avers, “alas I never touch it any more because of my figger” (that is, figure).

After this mouth watering description, Bishop turned again to saccharine (which she spelled correctly this time), to clarify for Grace that the “liquid” variety she had mentioned before was a product of Park-Davis. The SWEETA was Squibb. She was trying to get their cook to use it. Maria, who clearly enjoyed her own cooking, was “getting fat and complains constantly.” But she refused to use the sweetner because “it tastes bitter! (It doesn’t at all).” In a somewhat superior tone, in light of the excess she had already described to her aunt, Bishop noted that “the Brazilian diet of black beans and rice …. cook[ed] with lard … and potatoes, usually),” along with “black coffee with about half a cup filled with sugar each time” wasn’t “exactly thinning.” Indeed, some might suggest that beans, rice and potatoes is quite a good diet, in contrast to grilled meat, oysters and shrimp! Well, everything in moderation!

During my visit to Brazil in 1999, my favourite meal was breakfast. The little inn where I stayed in Ouro Prêto laid out a lovely buffet with all sorts of delicious breads (I particularly liked one with cheese in it) and fruit. I steered clear of the North American fare that had been thoughtfully added to the menu for the gringos. I am no coffee drinker, but I’ve never tasted better coffee anywhere else. For lunch (if not provided by the conference), we usually went to a place that offered a salad buffet. I’ve never seen so many vegetables and fruits in my life, as well as more lovely breads. Dinners were always some sort of well-prepared meat. I never had Brazilian beer, but certainly tried cachaça (in a wonderful, potent drink called a caipirinha).
One of my most vivid memories of that trip was on the drive back to Rio. We stopped at a roadside BBQ (the equivalent to an North American truck stop, but in Brazil done up in a big way). It was a huge establishment and the sight that was most memorable was the half-dozen fellows in crisp black and white carrying big skewers of barbequed meat around, and slicing off what you wanted right into your plate.
(A feast in Brazil, 1999)
This first letter of the year was a long one, so there will be several more posts about its contents. The next post will be about Christmas Past.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mark your calendar -- And book your tickets now!

A Pocket of Time 
Elizabeth Bishop Tribute 

Suzie LeBlanc, Soprano
 Blue Engine String Quartet
 Robert Kortgaard, Piano

November 13, 2016 – 7:00PM

 A musical tribute to Pulitzer Prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop. Suzie LeBlanc reprises her captivating homage, reflecting the poet’s fascination with time, her travels, her life in Brazil and in the place she called home: Nova Scotia. 

Concert Location:

 Lilian Piercy Concert Hall 
6199 Chebucto Road 
Halifax, Nova Scotia 

Book Tickets:
[Scrolling down may be needed]


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 23: The usual updates

Bishop’s 2 December 1956 letter was her last before Christmas and the end of the year. It contained what was Bishop’s usual practice, a “small Xmas present now because I know how the mails get in the U.S. at this time…I wish it were much more.” As well as the usual updates. Even with only one side of the correspondence, even taking into account the amount of time between responses, it is clear from Bishop’s letters that she and her aunt were having an active conversation. Bishop wanted continuous updates (often asking for them), and she sent them. This wasn’t mere courtesy between them, it was essential communication.

Below are the updates about regular subjects covered in this letter:

First. Aunt Florence, who Bishop observed sounded “awfully feeble these days — vaguer than ever, poor thing.” Grace had been in touch with Florence, who had written to Bishop about this kindness: “she wrote me she’d heard from you and added, as she always does, ‘She’s a fine person’.” This was not the first time Florence had praised Grace to Bishop. Bishop regularly praised Grace to Florence, so it was a good thing Aunt Florence concurred, otherwise it would have been a tedious declaration to hear again and again.

Second. The baby Betty was “adorable, & talking. I left her playing in bed with Lota — jumping all over her, like a kitten.” Lota’s grandchildren were due to “visit for a month soon.” To help entertain them, “Lota is building a toy house, a playhouse, back of the kitchen.” Bishop provides the specs: brick and stone, “like everything else here”; with window frames, door frame, wooden shutters “with stars cut in them”; “1 door, 3 windows — about 5’x7’.” Bishop’s conclusion: “very cute.” And a drawing.
(Bishop's drawing of the playhouse.
Apologies for the hole-punch in the centre of this photocopy.)
Third. Weather and its impact, of course. The rainy season had been so abundant that their “flower garden is the best it’s ever been.” She also reported, “Lota’s 500 trees have all grown eight or ten inches.” She told Grace that the climate was too tropical for maples; the planted trees were “Australian pines,” which were common in Florida (so Grace would have encountered them), along with a native pine. Think about this reforestation for a moment: 500 trees!
This vast acreage required a gardener, but Bishop reports that “the first good gardener we’ve ever had is now leaving,” because they couldn’t “afford to pay him any more and he can’t live on what we pay him (this is real inflation).” So he had to move “back to the interior.” Bishop observed, “I don’t know how the poor people here are living now, really.”

Finally, Bishop introduced a new plan. Having been in Brazil steadily for four years, Bishop was thinking about visiting the U.S., an idea she mentions for the first time in this letter: “I am hoping so much that I’ll be able to get to the US for a long stay next year.” Bishop mentioned “the fellowship” (from The Partisan Review), noting that she had managed to save part of it, to pay the air fare. That she didn’t need to explain the details of this award, meant that she had already told Grace about it (so, clearly, some of her letters have gone missing).

As much as she would like to do the trip in the spring of 1957, she realistically observed that probably it would not happen until the fall. One of the main reasons was because the house at Samambaia was a long way from being finished. To give Grace an idea of why, Bishop wrote, “it has no front door, so far — and is open to the world all around.” Finding someone “reliable as a care-taker…is a big problem.” So, this trip remained in the realm of a wish and a hope for sometime in the not too distant future.

With all the updates checked off the list, Bishop typed an afterthought at the top of the first page of the letter: “I’ve written a long poem about N.S. — it’s dedicated to you — when it’s published I’ll send a copy.” This poem must be “The Moose.” It was triggered by her bus ride from Great Village to Boston in 1946. A decade later she’s telling Grace it is written, but in fact it wasn’t completed and published until the 1970s. Bishop lived with “The Moose” a long time.

Here are links to several readings of “The Moose”:

The next post will usher in 1957.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 22: Politics and Property

Bishop tends to be seen as an a-political or non-political artist. Perhaps hard-core “politics” and the ideologies and activism around it are relatively absent from her poetry; but she does speak of subjects, such as poverty and war, property and prejudice, class and commerce, which have deep political elements and implications. Bishop wasn’t much of an “ism” person or poet. She tended to steer clear of overt ideologies (e.g., feminism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism). Even in her art, she is difficult to place in any “ism”: modernism, post-modernism, confessionalism, surrealism. In spite of this elusiveness where labels are concerned, most critics identify a strong moral centre in her work. If there is any “ism” that might identify her, perhaps it is a kind of “humanism.” Being a very private person, Bishop practiced whatever beliefs she held (and much ink has been spilled trying to identify and describe these beliefs) in a low-key, gradualist sort of way. The work she released to the public was, in essence, her primary statements. Being art, they hold and express these beliefs in highly complex, often puzzling, always affecting ways.

Yet Bishop could also be an opinionated person, about all sorts of things, including politics. In her Brazilian letters generally, and also in her letters to Aunt Grace, Bishop often made comments on and observations about “P”olitics, meaning governments and politicians and world events that involved public actions. In her 2 December 1956 letter to Grace, she mentions several such subjects and offers brief assessments.

First, she declared she was “very disappointed” that Adlai Stevenson lost the US election; he “would have made a fine President, I think.” She supposed that Grace had been able to get “all the excitement on your T.V.,” noting “that kind of thing is fun to watch — for a while at least.” All that Bishop could do was listen to world events on “our friend and neighbour” Mary Morse’s radio. Bishop was still waiting, she said, to get “a small battery one from the U.S.” [Ed. Note: One wonders what she would have thought of the current election campaign in the US!]
 (Adlai Stevenson)
Even with these communication restrictions, Bishop was aware, for example, of the dramatic events unfolding in Hungary, which was in the midst of a revolution against Communist oppression. “At least we get the latest fearful news from Europe….Aren’t those Hungarians magnificent and brave.”
(Hungarian Revolution of 1956)
Turning her world events commentary to Brazil, she remarked, “Everything is an awful mess, here, too.” Though just what she meant by “threats of a new dictatorship” are curious because in 1956 Brazil elected Juscelino Kubitschek President. His Presidency brought in a period of economic development and increased relevance for Brazil on the world stage. Bishop reassured Grace, lest she think her niece was in danger of being caught up in some violent coup, that “Brazilians aren’t very blood-thirsty, thank goodness.” The last “‘revolution’ was all over in a few hours” and the joke was “how no one saw it, because it was a rainy day and no one went out.”
 (Juscelino Kubitschek, President from 1956-1961)
Having succinctly dispatched current events, Bishop tells Grace that her local “business” venture “hasn’t got under way yet.” Her “partner” was due that day “to discuss developments.” She felt quite sure that in six months, “I should think, I’ll really know more what my prospects are here.” Grace must have mentioned that she was now receiving an Old Age pension from the Canadian government and might even be eligible for some Social Security in the US for all her years working there. Bishop noted that “‘writers’ just became eligible for it two years ago.” But in her estimation, because it was based on “earnings or something,” she would “probably be able to collect about $2.50 a month in my old age!”

Finally, prompted by Grace’s inquiry, Bishop wrote that she had “decided to let the land — near Providence — go” because “it was over $300 back taxes, and worth less,” This decision was made after her old friend Dorothy Coe had kindly gone “to see it [the land] for me, called the tax-collector, etc.” It isn’t clear if Bishop actually recouped the $300, but she concludes this update by saying, “For $300 I could buy a piece of land here that would be worth ten times that much in ten years probably — so I let it go.” Perhaps her “business” ventures involved real estate.

One has to wonder why Bishop would be involved in business ventures in Brazil if the political and economic situation was a “mess,” as she had declared. It really is a rather curious aspect of her life, these dealings, especially for someone who claimed to have no head for business.

The next post will be wrap up 1956.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 21: Uncle George Shepherdson

I drafted the post below before 17 August 2016, when there appeared online an article for the Boston Review, “One Long Poem,” by Heather Treseler, about some of the troubling contents in recently surfaced letters that Bishop wrote to the psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Foster: revelations of abuse Bishop suffered while living with Maude and George Shepherdson. George is identified as the abuser.

Coincidentally, the final letter that Bishop wrote to Grace in 1956, 2 December, contained the first mention of George Shepherdson in this correspondence (at least in what is extant). I try to have a couple of posts ahead, and this is one of several that I’d been deferring as I worked through other subjects.

When I read the Treseler piece, I was dismayed but not surprised. I had suspicions about such experiences and who the perpetrator might be, but had no concrete evidence (if you read between the lines of Bishop’s work, it is a reasonable speculation — but until direct evidence surfaced, it remained only speculation). It is, sadly, no longer speculation.

No one (biographer, literary critic, fellow poet, general reader) will ever be able to understand fully the impact and ramifications of these experiences on Bishop’s life and art. We can imagine and speculate, and can see some of their impact in the writing. But most of the impact is now lost. Over the years as I researched the life of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, the more I learned about her circumstances the more I realized how little I could ever really know. I could only guess, trying to be reasonable and respectful in those guesses. What I did come to understand better was that Gertrude remained a powerful force in her daughter’s life. The nature of the influence was highly complex and most of it, too, is now lost; but I felt I could make that general claim with reasonable certainty.

I thought about scrapping this post and avoiding George Shepherdson entirely, but Bishop’s references to him in her letters to Grace (and there are a number of them over the years) are fascinating in light of his unforgivable actions. That she speaks of him at all, so many years after the abuse and while he is still alive, is remarkable, considering what he did. I have opinions about what that means, but they can only be that, in the end: opinions.

The draft of my post before I read Treseler’s article:

Bishop’s last extant letter to Grace for 1956 is dated 2 December. She had received a letter from her aunt “a month & a day” before, but Bishop declared, “I thought it was about 2 weeks!” — a sign that Bishop’s life was busy and that she experienced what we all do, that persistent sense of time flying by.

Grace’s letter had clearly updated Bishop on health matters, in particular a visit to a doctor for “a check-up (what Lota calls a ‘shake-up’ — and I think it’s a pretty good word for it, sometimes).” Grace had expressed some concerns about the doctor not doing a “cardiogram” to test her heart, but Bishop, in a sagacious tone reassured Grace, “if your blood pressure is normal that’s a fine sign — particularly when you are slightly on the stylish stout side!” One wonders what Grace, a nurse since 1914, thought of Bishop’s assessment that unless Grace’s heart was “ringing like a gong, or something” the doctor wouldn’t need to do such a test. “No doctor these days,” Bishop writes with authority, “lets a patient go without a heart-test if there’s the faintest symptoms of anything wrong.” Since he hadn’t seen a need to do so, Grace’s heart must be just fine.

But just to make sure, Bishop suggests that perhaps Grace, if she is worried, should switch from sugar to saccarine [sic], something she herself had done. No sacrifice was made by doing so because, to Bishop, it didn’t “make a bit of difference in the taste” of her coffee (she took “only…a little sugar in black coffee). She used a brand of liquid saccharin called “SWEETA” and even put it in iced tea and lemonade. She also used a small saccharin pill, but it took longer to dissolve. The pills were convenient to carry in one’s purse, “I always carry a little pill box now,” she told her aunt.

Grace had also brought her brother-in-law George Shepherdson into her letter, into the discussion about heart health, because Bishop also responded: “Uncle G talked about his heart for years & years before there was anything the matter with it, I’m sure.” In Bishop’s estimation, “he probably brought it on by talking about it.”

George Shepherdson married Maude Bulmer in 1908. It was Maude and George who raised Bishop. She went to live with them in the spring of 1918. At that time, they lived in Revere, Massachusetts. Bishop’s relationship with this uncle by marriage was likely fraught. [Ed. note: An understatement, of course.] George was an imposingly tall man, who was known universally as a teaser. [Ed. note: Well, he was, sadly, much more than that; but this is how Phyllis Sutherland, who knew him much less well, described him to me.] Bishop remembered going to museums in Boston with him. Maude took her to art galleries. In his early days, he was an adherent of the Sons of Temperance in Great Village. By the time Bishop was with them, this giant of a man, who didn’t seem able to hold down a job, enjoyed a drink or two with his Irish neighbour (whom he disparaged behind his back) out on the porch in the evenings. Bishop’s strongest characterization of him in her writing (an unfinished story called “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs”) was that he was a hypocrite. When Bishop went to Key West in the 1930s, Maude and George went too and took up residence nearby.

By 1956, George was an elderly widower living in Amherst, N.S. Maude died in 1940. He re-surfaces in Bishop’s letters to Grace in the 1960s, at the time of his death. But in the December 1956 letter, Bishop tells Grace that she “wrote to him twice, you know, but he didn’t answer.” In spite of her gallivanting about and working in the U.S., Grace still maintained some sort of contact with him. [Ed. Note: It appears that she, or the rest of the Bulmers, did not know what he had done.]

Before the saccharin subject is abandoned, Bishop advises Grace to tell “Poor Uncle George” about this wonderful substitute and ventured the opinion that “if he’d cut out sugar and white bread he’d lose [weight], I bet.” “Remember how much bread he eats? and sugar in everything, ‘for flavor’.” Even with their fraught relationship, and with a “housekeeper” who “certainly sounds pretty dreary,” Bishop was far enough away in space and time to be able to “feel sorry for him.”

Until Treseler’s article, I could only go so far as “fraught.” I probably did not want to believe my suspicions. But when they were confirmed my first response was questions: How is it that Bishop could stand to mention George Shepherdson’s name? Not only that, she was able to label him, diminish him, and pity him. Abusers are failed human beings who wreak havoc. The abused often can never reclaim their lives after such trauma. But somehow Bishop, at least in some part, on some level, took her uncle’s power away from him and reclaimed her own. Was it art? Was it Ruth Foster’s help? Was it Bishop’s own inner strength? It was likely all of these and more. How could Maude have allowed this abuse? My opinion, based on what I’ve read (between the lines), is that Maude was likely an abused spouse.

It seems that abuse is the last trauma (the last “dark secret” — and it is the biggest one, the one that always remained utterly hidden and unspoken) of Bishop’s childhood. Her list is long: the death of her father when she was eight months old; the loss of her mother to mental illness when she was five; this newly revealed violation beginning (so the letters to Foster say) when she was eight. Part of the impact of these traumas were: her adult alcoholism (though she came by it honestly, as men on both sides of her family were alcoholics); her thoughts and attempts of suicide; her troubled relationships and affairs. That Bishop not only survived but also persevered is heroic. It bespeaks some outside goodness, which in some way counter-balanced the trauma: kind and caring family (her maternal grandparents and beloved Aunt Grace); once she began school, supportive teachers and friends; and loving partners. But Bishop’s survival must have come, primarily, from her inner resources (her imagination, curiosity, precocious understanding of and deep belief in beauty, sense of humour and irony). These things needed to be fostered by the outside world, but mostly they needed to exist in the first place. Bishop struggled her whole life, but she also lived a creative life. These revelations will be written about at length, I am sure. Hopefully, they will be treated as respectfully and carefully as Treseler has done, as she has brought them to light.

The next post will be about politics.

Click here to see part 20.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 20: Rainy Season

One of Bishop’s loveliest evocations of her time in the house at Samambaia is her poem “Song for the Rainy Season,” describing the fog and flowers, the “magnetic rock” and “giant fern,” the clouds and waterfalls surrounding the “open house.” This poem appeared in The New Yorker on 8 October 1960. The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the happiest time of Bishop’s adult life, when her days amid the abundance of the sub-tropics, in the countryside away from the city, were as domestic and creative as she needed and wanted. Her letter of 19 October 1956 was written well before “Song for the Rainy Season” emerged, but Bishop’s descriptions of her surrounds to Aunt Grace clearly foretell the poem.

Bishop was indeed deep into the domestic at this time, all aspects of it, including medical matters, some of which connected to the very flora and fauna of her surrounds. “We give ourselves shots, when we need them,” Bishop reported “even penicillen [sic].” Bishop was giving herself all her “allergy shots,” as well as administering them to “the cook, the workmen, etc.” Bishop was being nurse, just like Aunt Grace had been for her decades before. She even noted, “we have anti-snake serum on hand all the time, just in case,” because “there are a few deadly ones around.” Since Bishop had arrived, however, it hadn’t been needed, “thank goodness.”

Just for good measure, Bishop explained, “Lota and I are taking something called Geri-Caps — Park Davis,” Bishop declared, noting that this medication was for “old ladies,” and asking Grace if she gave them to her patients, “blue capsules with yellow stripes.” Bishop assured Grace that she was feeling fine taking them, along with some vitamins, though she observed in her good skeptic’s manner, “maybe I’d feel fine without anything!”

All of this medical activity was happening amid the onset of the rainy season: “It’s pouring rain,” Bishop stated, observing that “in fact there was scarcely a dry season.” As a result of all the rain, the flowers were busting forth: agapanthus, “huge blue or white lilies …all up the hillside.” These could reach “3 or 4 ft high.” There were also azaleas, allyssum [sic], phlox, sweet william [sic] and irises: “all over the place.”
(Agapanthus in full flower)
With all this flowering, they had decided “to keep bees. I’ve always wanted to.” They were awaiting four hives of “Italian bees,” to be brought by a man, who would “install them and care for them when you need him.” Much of the motivation for this important ecological action was the honey, “friends of ours got about 50 pounds” of honey from the hives they had installed. The hives had to be built in a special way to prevent ants from moving in and taking over. “The ants here would eat US, I think, if we didn’t watch out.”
(Perhaps this is the kind of Brazilian bee hive Bishop writes about.)
The image of Brazilian bees from my childhood is that of “killer bees” and the great fear that they would reach North America. Clearly, these continental bees were safe and beneficial.

Also in the midst of all this domestic preoccupation, Bishop told Grace that she’d not heard from poor old Aunt Florence “for about a month, or more.” She noted that she’d had a letter from someone named Fulton, who worked for her grandfather’s company (which still existed though her grandfather and uncle were long gone), “about a piece of land I own but have never seen.” She doesn’t elaborate about this property, but rather tells her aunt that Fulton could “scarcely write, poor boy …. I was rather shocked.” As she signed off this letter filled with all sorts of domestic subjects, she urged Grace to “write again” and tell her about the new job and “your building plans.”

There were just as many flowers and trees at the Samambaia house in 1999, such as this amazing “blood-red” bromelia.
Ed. Note: In light of the revelations that are discussed in the news item posted on this blog on 17 August, I can't post this "Letters to Grace" without acknowledging them. I only just today read about them. Until Bishop's letters to Dr. Foster were made public, the tragic experiences of Bishop's childhood, could only be speculation. Some might say these things are too private to be discussed by strangers, but such is the way of the world, these days (reality and talk show television have transformed our world). And perhaps Bishop would be relieved that they are no longer secret. Bishop's cousin, Phyllis Sutherland, who was a dear friend of mine, only very obliquely hinted at secrets; but she was a whole generation younger than Bishop and such things were kept so well hidden that perhaps she didn't even try to speculate herself. I suppose it is now inevitable that a whole raft of writing will happen in the academy about these revelations and it will come to define Bishop as lesbianism and mental illness have done at various times. We are the sum of all our experiences and Bishop was about as complex a person and artist as they come. My feeling about all of this, as someone who has explored deeply Bishop's childhood and her maternal family, is profound sadness. Perhaps I will have more to say about it sometime, but I am not sure. If these letters are ever published (and I suppose they are at least amply quoted in the upcoming biographies about her), they will really say that can be said. What else can we say in the face of such sorrow, but how sorry we are.

Click here to see Part 19.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 19: Television

Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956 begins with the birth of her cousin Phyllis’s second son, David Alexander, and also the birth of a new grandchild for Aunt Mary, by Mary’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. But with these dutiful acknowledgements dispatched, she turns to a quite different subject: “If you really enjoy having TV like that, why not get one?” Television technology had been around for some time, and during the post-war baby boom years, televisions were becoming more common and the broadcast industry expanding rapidly. Even so, these “devices” (as we now call such things), this “platform,” remained expensive enough that they were still subjects for serious discussion. And in Brazil, television was “just in its infancy,” as Bishop observed. (Now our discussions are about television’s irrelevance, with expanding, exploding electronic social media and online broadcasting. One wonders what Bishop would have thought of YouTube!)

Bishop declared to her aunt, “I have seen so little television that I really don’t know anything about it.” There was television in Rio, she notes, “but I’ve never even seen it.” Her friends judged “the sports things … the best,” but “they say the programs are dreadful.” A few people “have sets in Petrópolis,” some with “big enough aerials” that could pick up Rio broadcasts.
 (1956 cabinet tv)
Bishop noted that Lota was trying to convince a neighbour “to get one [a television] for himself and his elderly sister — 4 elderly people living together, and he has plenty of money.” But he was balking at the idea of this new-fangled technology. Lota’s motive was not entirely disinterested because, as Bishop observed, if these neighbours got TV, “then we could go to see things on it we wanted to see!” Lota’s house at Samambaia was “up against enormous steep high stone mountains,” meaning that they would “probably never be able to get it, even when Rio gets more powerful stations.” (This sounds like the kind of talk you still hear in rural Nova Scotia, and many rural areas, where high-speed internet {don’t even think about “fibreop”} is still not yet available.)
(View of the mountain at Samambaia, 1999. I think I took this photograph.)
For some reason, writing about television and sports made Bishop think of Marianne Moore: “My friend the poet, Miss Moore, lives in Brooklyn and is a great Dodger [sic] fan.” Moore was 69 in 1956 and had become a fixture at baseball games. Bishop tells her aunt that Moore had recently “written a song for them! — I can’t quite imagine it being sung, but anyway.” Bishop undoubtedly refers to the poem Moore wrote in 1956, “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reece”  — which was set to music.
Even in my childhood (the 1960s), television was a particular luxury. We had a black and white television set, one of those big cabinets that took up a lot of room, and got two channels, if I remember correctly. We never missed our favourite shows. I remember my parents faithfully watching Don Messer’s Jubilee and the Red Skelton Show and as my sisters and I got older, we never missed The Carol Burnett Show or Canadian Bandstand. We also grew up watching The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, both much beloved (long before the dominance of Sesame Street, a show which Bishop did watch when she returned to the US in the 1970s).
(Yours truly beside our television, 1967. Looks like the news is on.)

The next post will be about flora, fauna and weather.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 18: (Re)Construction

On of the last things Bishop tells her aunt in the 28 August 1956 (besides the fact that she’d written “a long letter” to Aunt Mary, but had heard nothing) was that the “cook Maria had a miscarriage.” With what for some might sound like callousness, Bishop observed, “we were awfully glad, I’m afraid.” Maria recovered quickly. Remember, there was already one baby, Betty, who was “trying so hard to talk — she uses all the gestures already — and is adorable.” Just before signing off “With lots of love, and please write,” Bishop wrote, “I do hope Phyllis is well.” Grace’s daughter Phyllis was just about due to have her second child.

This subject, important to Bishop, was taken up at the beginning of her next extant letter dated 19 October 1956: “I got the little announcement about David Alexander.” Bishop thought it a good name, “nice and Scotch.” Bishop didn’t meet Phyllis’s children until 1970, when she was finally back living in Boston and taking annual trips to Nova Scotia. Her first gift to the then 14 year old David Alexander was a Grateful Dead album!

Grace had obviously filled Bishop in on the activities of her cousin’s family. “Ernie is doing very well, isn’t he.” Ernest Sutherland was a World War II veteran who became a contractor and builder after the war. He was one of the first North American contractors to build wooden, pre-fabricated houses in Palestine during the late 1940s. The post-war boom also saw much housing construction throughout Nova Scotia and Canada, and the Sutherland family moved numerous times during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in Balfron, N.S. Bishop was always interested to hear where they had gone and what they were doing, and Grace was always keen to tell her.

“Ernie’s” construction work intrigued Bishop because the house at Samambaia was still under construction. She told her aunt that Lota was hoping to finish the house “inside another year.” There was some delay because “costs have gone up here about five times since she started,” meaning that Lota was “paying exactly five times as much for a bag of cement, for example.” (Construction issues in Brazil seem perpetual — one of the biggest issues for the Brazil Olympics, which begin today, is the state of the athletes’ accommodations, conditions which have made the news around the world. But, then, such colossal international events put a strain on all the cities in which they are held. In Canada, Montreal’s 1976 Olympics are still notorious for “the Oval,” a monstrous building that never really got finished and was a kind of blight on the cityscape for decades, or, as Wikipedia characterizes: a white elephant.)
(Patio of the house at Samambaia, 1999,
taken by yours truly during my trip.)
Grace was also preoccupied with housing. Clearly, she’d been thinking out loud to her niece in a recent letter, as Bishop responds: “I think it is a very good idea for you to have a small house of your own.” Bishop urged her aunt to plan for her “retirement” and commiserated with Grace about living “with all those other people” (meaning the big Bowers family at Elmcroft). “The older one grows the more privacy one needs (I find).” Bishop mentions that Marjorie Stevens had “remodeled a little old place in Key West for herself,” having secured a “government building loan” to do so. Might it be possible for Grace to get such a loan? Bishop remembered a small house on the Elmcroft farm and asked, “Have you considered remodelling that little house down the road where you & I stayed, or is that too far from the big house?”

Grace’s living arrangements remained fluid for some time, as she continued nursing work, sometimes going back to the US. In any case, Bishop was concerned enough for her aunt’s future that she offered to help, eventually: “either with the down-payment or with the installments,” if Grace chose to buy or build a house. This support could not be immediate because she was paying back the loan she had taken from a US bank to invest in a “real-estate enterprise” in Brazil, “that should start paying off in three years, until then I have to pay a big interest every month, of course.” She hopes she will “get rich,” but also acknowledges that she might end up “just as poor as ever to the end of my days.”

Besides the investment scheme, which clearly was the long view, Bishop told Grace that since she’d finished the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, she was working on “some stories and if all goes well — and I sell the translation, too (2½ years work) — I should have more money pretty soon.”

Bishop urged her aunt to “tell me the details” of her hopes and plans so she could “day-dream about your house — I adore planning houses,” and to keep her informed about her “pension situation” and assured her aunt that she wanted to help, “My idea all along.” These hopes, ideas, plans unfolded over the course of the next several years, though it appears Bishop couldn’t or didn’t need to provide Grace with this kind of on-going support, when Grace reached finally retired in the late 1960s. Besides, Grace was a feisty and independent woman, whose children faithfully supported her in her retirement years.
(Pilgrims, many who trekked up the mountain,
to visit Lota’s house at Samambaia, 1999.
Photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
The next post offers a glimpse of Bishop’s opinions about the television and the perennial subject: weather.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace: Part 17 – House Guest

Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, as well as to her writer friends, were often populated by the guests who were fairly common at Lota’s house in Samambaia, especially in the 1950s. Bishop’s vivid descriptions of these people are highly entertaining. One of them even ended up in a poem, “House Guest,” which Brett Millier says was “based loosely on … the sister of one of Lota’s aristocratic friends.” (411) This funny poem rarely receives attention (Millier gives it a sentence), but its existence comes from a fairly constant experience of Bishop’s Brazilian life. Though “House Guest” is a kind of caricature, still, it is entirely sympathetic toward “the sad seamstress,” who might actually be “one of the Fates … Clotho, sewing our lives.”
(Bishop's studio at Samambaia, where
she wrote "House Guest" -- photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
In the 28 August 1956 letter, Bishop offered her aunt a lively word portrait of another house guest, “an old friend of L’s.” This guest had been with them for two weeks, “resting up from her husband and mother and general debility.” She was “a beautiful Rio ‘society lady’,” who was so “delicate” that she made her hosts “feel like peasants.”

Whereas “the sad seamstress” was obsessed with sewing, the society lady was obsessed with “deciding what she can eat and can’t eat,” opting for “tea and dry toast and baked apples.” The rest of her days were spent “taking a bath, putting on make-up, taking a short walk, [and] taking a nap.” Bishop’s conclusion is that she was a “hypochondriac.” But “in spite of it all she’s really a very nice creature, with nice manners.”

Elizabeth and Lota tried to entertain her and persuade her to do other things: “we’re getting really tough and taking her to a movie in Petrópolis — I hope she doesn’t collapse on us!” (I wonder what was playing at the cinema in Petrópolis in late August 1956!)

After all this background, Bishop finally describes this person, physically, to Grace: “tall, blond, sort of grizzled hair [rather like Bishop’s], big perfect teeth (I envy my Brazilian friends their teeth …) and — one blue eye and one brown eye.” Curiously, Bishop never tells her aunt the name of this striking person.

Bishop’s life-long struggles with asthma, allergies and other illnesses would perhaps make her a little impatient with a relatively healthy person believing she was ill, wasting “so much of her life being sick like that,” with her “five bottles of medicine at her place at the table.” Even so, Bishop wasn’t entirely unsympathetic.

This house guest was a good Catholic, too, and asked to be taken to mass. “Lota — who is very anti-church — tried to get out of taking her.” In the end, other friends provided that service, but Elizabeth and Lota were required to fetch her at “a little church” near them. They arrived and “went in and got her off her knees.”

Bishop then tells Grace an interesting fact about their guest and about the history of Brazil: “She had a Scotch governess for 27 years.” As a result, “she speaks beautiful English with a slightly Scotch accent.” Bishop met other Brazilians who had had this kind of education: “There used to be lots of these brave Scotch and English governesses here.” One of the remnants of this pedagogy and upbringing was that “their ex-pupils all still eat oatmeal every morning!”

In “House Guest” the seamstress confessed that “she wanted to be a nun / and her family opposed her.”

“Perhaps we should let her go,
or deliver her straight off
to the nearest convent — and wasn’t
her month up last week, anyway?”

Tucked in this letter, long vanished, was a sprig of jasmine, which grew outside on her studio. Scribbled in her nearly indecipherable hand, Bishop wrote: “Smell this — if it has any smell left.” Brazilian Jasmine blooms are red, unlike the more commonly thought of white jasmine flower. Perhaps it was not coincidence that Bishop included a sprig of this exotic flower after describing their delicate, beautiful, nice house guest.
(Brazilian jasmine blossom)

The next post will introduce Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 16: The Voice

The first time I heard Elizabeth Bishop’s voice was in the early 1990s. I went to Special Collections at Dalhousie University in Halifax and borrowed an lp record done at the Library of Congress (you could take things out from S.C. at that time). The lp was translucent red! I took it home and listened to a young Bishop reading “Jerónimo’s House” and a couple other early poems. Bishop made this recording at the invitation of Robert Lowell, then Poetry Consultant, in October 1946. It was, however, not her first recording. Brett Millier notes that Bishop made a recording at Harvard University in September 1945, but it wasn’t very good. (194)

For someone as shy as Bishop, there is a remarkable archive of audio recordings of her reading, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. So many are there that Random House included her in its “Voice of the Poet” series, which is still available, if one is able to play cassettes.
The Library of Congress has recently launched an online digital archive of many of its recordings of poets. Bishop is included, but interestingly, the 1946 recording is not listed. The recordings are of events at which Bishop read with other poets in 1969 and 1974

It appears that Bishop made another recording at Harvard in1947. You can hear it on Harvard’s “Listening Booth” website. Along with a number of other recordings connected to Bishop.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 28 August 1956. Bishop noted, “I’ve been very busy the last few weeks.” She had made a number of trips to Rio, mostly to see the dentist and the doctor; but one thing she did during the previous week’s visit was spend “a horrible day making a recording of poems” in a recording studio at the U.S. Embassy. The recording was for “a commercial company in N.Y.” — what would that have been and why? Bishop doesn’t say. She says that the embassy let her use the studio and her friend Rosinha went with her “and held my hand, figuratively speaking….Lota couldn’t get away.” The recording took all day, “10 to 5, with lunch out.” Bishop’s assessment: “I record abominably, but sort of felt I had to [do the recording].” This commercial outfit did “make a little money,” but Bishop couldn’t “imagine anyone buying them, really.” By the end of the day, she, Rosinha and the sound-engineer were “exhausted.”

One of the Rio trips took her to see the young allergy doctor, whom she had mentioned to Grace a number of times. It is in this letter we learn what gift Bishop decided to give him, since he would not take any money from her: “so I gave him a copy of my book, and now I’m trying to get someone in New York to buy me some sort of very elegant brief-case.” Such items were not easily bought in the Rio of the 1950s. She was quite determined to find some way to repay him for all the “tests and serums etc.,” which he had been giving her for a couple of years. “I hate to think what I would have paid a doctor in N.Y. for it all.” It was this young doctor who had “hit on the infection or whatever it was.” And she happily declared to her aunt that she hadn’t had “asthma for months, for the first time in 15 years or so.”

In Rio she also was getting some clothes made: “a suit and two dresses” because of her weight loss. These new outfits were tailored with such precision that if she gained “an ounce” she wouldn’t “be able to get into them; they’re like the paper on the wall.”

One of the wonderful things about these letters is the way Bishop writes to her aunt as if she is simply talking to her, as if they were chatting over coffee and not thousands of miles apart, with weeks, even months between the letters. Clearly, Grace was a vivid presence in Bishop’s mind, and staying connected was a priority between aunt and niece.

The next post will introduce a house guest.