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

Monday, March 1, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS III: "Is It Excess of Imagination?" --

-- or so I ask myself, when I cast my mind back over the past thirty years or so and all the tellings and re-tellings of the story of my first encounter with the work of Elizabeth Bishop, and of my all-but-Akhmatovian non-meetings with Miss Bishop herself -- is it excess of imagination that makes me indulge this queer retrospective urge I've so often felt to place myself in her proximity geographically and chronologically? Is it oddly-manifested gratitude (much too late for that, alas) for the words she left behind? Or (let's be honest now, shall we?) might it not be unrequited hope that, like a needle drawn across a lodestone or a knife against a whetstone, something would somehow rub off, and I'd become as magnetic a writer or as sharp a wit as she?

We were both at Harvard in 1972-1977. I was a graduate student in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and in my last three years there a Teaching Fellow. In the tale I tell when asked about it I have always stated that we taught in the same building, -- "albeit I was on the second floor, whereas she was in the basement," I usually add modestly. As I checked the facts in preparation for this slender contribution to the genre of the confessional, however, I discovered three decades' worth of what I'd prefer to believe are unintentional little white lies, told often enough to have replaced the truth even in my own recollection. It turns out I was in Emerson Hall, and she was in Kirkland House. I've generally added that we probably attended the same reading by Seamus Heaney -- in the Poetry Room on the second floor of the Lamont Library ("and may even have sat next to each other," I sometimes speculate in my more expansive moments), but truth, like a pebble of quartz lodged awkwardly somewhere between my sole and my stocking, now hurts me into the rueful admission that most likely that reading was later, in 1981-82, when I had returned to Harvard on leave of absence from Dalhousie University in a fruitless attempt to complete my dissertation. Her presence at a reading then would have aroused a certain amount of comment even amongst notoriously reserved Cantabrigians. I've always concluded my story by pointing out that Dalhousie awarded her an honorary degree in 1979, "and wouldn't you know that would be a year when I didn't attend Commencement." Well, that's true enough, I suppose. I seldom do.

There are other details I omit in the telling -- conceivable overlapping visits to a certain drinking establishment near Harvard Square where Bishop fell and broke her shoulder one icy second of January, for example: the Casablanca, with its man-moth single-letter slip away from the title of her poem about the boy who stood on the burning deck reciting "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" and towards the title of the film that most often played (continuously, morning, noon and night) at the neighboring Harvard Theatre (then going through one of its seedier periods). Or perhaps she went to the Orson Welles Cinema (now only a memory, then a vast tan sand-stuccoed cavern of art film delights) to see Pixote the same night I did -- after all, I had seen Paul Monette and Roger Horwitz there that evening, hadn't I? --or thought I did. Why shouldn't she have been there, too? But that turns out to have been in 1981-82 as well.

I'm a bit less vague about my first acquaintance with Bishop's work. While I was house-sitting for Professor Lord in the cold early spring of 1982, I was assaulted one afternoon on Mass Ave: someone knocked me to the sidewalk and snatched a Russian fur hat I'd been incautious enough to be wearing (four years of life in Nova Scotia had left my America Survival Skills (tm) sadly atrophied). Even more incautiously, I gave chase, yelling "Stop, thief!" at the top of my lungs -- to the indifference or occasional amusement of otherwise-occupied passersby and gawking onlookers. Eventually, after what seemed a mile or so but wasn't even as far as Central Square, my lungs gave out and I gave up. I turned around and trudged back to Harvard Square, muscles aching and body trembling from all that nasty adrenalin. A friend and fellow graduate student, Don Anderson, ran into me, saw the state I was in, took me straight to a bar (not the Casablanca), and did a very kind and sensible thing: he bought me a drink. (Don was always sensible: he ended up abandoning Slavic Studies for a career in banking). Then he listened to my story. Then, to take my mind off my troubles, he changed the subject and began to talk about the English-language poets he was reading. It turned out that we shared an interest in James Merrill, and it was after talking about him for a time that Don mentioned someone I'd never heard of. It was Elizabeth Bishop.

Within a week I was hooked. I no longer recall which poem turned the trick, but by the time the Voices and Visions documentary on her life and work appeared on PBS in 1988 I had already come to think of her as a kind of tutelary spirit. Like Sandra Barry, I find her lines constantly just popping into my head. After Hurricane Juan, for instance, when a dead white strip of new concrete replaced half of the completely undamaged but well-weathered sidewalk on the Lord Nelson side of the Public Gardens, I immediately thought of the Amazon and Tapajós from "Santarém." I wasn't sure why, until days later I observed that in the acute-angled sunlight of the hour after dawn the sidewalk now gleams a watery blue alongside a muddy brown... and I find I am no longer tempted to quote Mr. Swan when viewing it at other times of day.

It would be yet another little white lie to claim that as a result of my Mass Ave misadventure my favourite Bishop poem is "Exchanging Hats". Nevertheless I will admit that I suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome as a consequence of the incident, which manifests itself annually on the eve of the "Heat the House" Bishop Birthday Party when I am choosing my costume. One year I donned lengths and lengths of wet white string... Another time I acquired a carpenter's level from Canadian Tire, tied it to my head with more lengths and lengths of white string (dry this time, however -- I am capable of learning from experience) and spent the following evening enduring repetitive remarks to the effect that I seemed to be keeping a level head on my shoulders, &c &c &c... I don't know what form my chapeau will take in 2011. Perhaps time will tell. "Time will say nothing but I told you so," intones Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat from his perch astride my computer monitor. I believe this means it is past my bedtime, and more than past time to post these remarks.


  1. I know when I first met the esteemed Ms Bishop. Well, maybe not exactly, but you talked about her until I realized her birthday is as important to celebrate as that of Albert, Consort to her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria.

    And, in fact, I bought a copy of One Art after you mentioned it.

    And I love to listen to your stories...you, like those other great authors Twain and L. Long, know that sometimes the story is more important than the fact.

  2. I live in Santarem and I can feel(so I feel)what Ms Bishop felt about my hometown. I actually live for 5 years now in the very house she stayed.
    It is really great to feel attached to her through her words.