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

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "Nate" the Blacksmith

Mayhew (Mate) T. Fisher (right) standing in the doorway of his blacksmith shop. One of the photographs Shirley MacLellan gave me during my visit with her.

“Nate sings and pumps the bellows with one hand. I try to help, but he really does it all, from behind me, and laughs when the coals blow red and wild.” Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Village” (The Collected Prose, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984)

Elizabeth Bishop referred to “In the Village,” arguably her most important work about her childhood in Great Village, as “completely autobiographical,” saying that she had only “compressed” time a bit. This masterpiece of imaginative remembering is endlessly fascinating on both macroscopic (world view) and microscopic (“no detail too small”) levels.

In this story, which is so particular yet so universal, it does matter that every inhabitant of “that Nova Scotian village” was real. But, as real as they were, this lyrical “prose poem” (another way Bishop consistently described it) also renders them mythic. No more archetypal a figure is there than Nate the blacksmith. “In the Village” requires no outside, historical knowledge by any reader. Indeed, it is such a whole universe unto itself, that we know all we need to know, even in the great silences it holds. I am, however, trained as an historian and archivist, and part of my compulsion has always been to link art to life — not reduce art to a mere reflection of life, but truly to understand the dynamic, mysterious and synchronous connections between these two powerful and uncontainable realms.

I do not remember when I realized that “Nate” the blacksmith was Mayhew “Mate” T. Fisher. I suppose that connection was made when a friend gave me my first copy of the Women’s Institute’s History of Great Village, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Bishop received hers from Aunt Grace the year it was published, 1961 (the year I was born). Bishop sometimes changed names, sometime did not change names (for example, the Mr. MacLean in “In the Village” was Donald MacLachlan — I think Bishop changed his name because she never could remember how to spell MacLachlan. I have come across several variants of it in her letters. So, MacLean was easier and close enough.) Perhaps Bishop thought “Nate” was right, mis-remembering “Mate.” But, clearly, Nate and Mate are one and the same.

The section entitled “Blacksmithing” in the History of Great Village contains the following: “To the average youngster of today the blacksmith is an extinct individual of the past whose greatest contribution to society was providing inspiration for Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Village Blacksmith’….” Without a doubt Bishop knew this poem (and others of Wordsworth; his Evangeline was part of the Bulmer family library).

In the late 1990s I learned that Mate Fisher’s son Donald lived in Bass River, just up the road from Great Village. I tried several times, in several ways, to connect with Mr. Fisher (a letter, phone calls, even knocking on his door), but I never succeeded in making contact. Again, I do not remember exactly what year it was, perhaps 2005, when my dear friend Donalda Nelson (Donald MacLachlan’s daughter) one day mentioned, in the midst of one of our wide-ranging conversations about Great Village and its history and people, that Mate Fisher’s daughter, Shirley MacLellan, lived in Truro and she was sure that Shirley, who was in her 80s, would be happy to meet me. Donalda got me her phone number and I called to introduce myself and ask if it would be possible to visit. A very lively, sprightly voice greeted me and without hesitation said “by all means” (not her exact words, but the gist of her meaning).

I bought a copy of The Collected Prose and one sunny afternoon (was it spring or fall? I cannot remember), I arrived at 103 Queen St. in Truro. Shirley was a totally with-it woman, gracious and most interested in what I had hinted I had to tell her. She did not know who Elizabeth Bishop was and had no idea that this poet had written about her father, indeed, had immortalized him for eternity in a masterpiece! She was amazed and thrilled, but, as I learned, she was not surprised that her father had affected Bishop so deeply.

As I listened to Shirley tell me about her father, I grew more amazed myself. As a young man, Mayhew Fisher set up his first blacksmith shop in Great Village in the early 1910s (he moved to Bass River before the 1920s arrived and worked his forge there until he retired). He and his wife were newly married and expecting their first child. She told me that her father had come from a somewhat large family, the siblings all of whom were artistic. There were poets and musicians in this family. For a few years he and his wife lived in a large house right beside the bridge in Great Village (a house which later was owned by the Patriquin family, of “Gwendolyn” connection). The blacksmith shop sat right next to the Bulmer house, both of which were just across the river from the Fisher home.

Shirley told me that her mother had recounted how on 9 December 1917 she was hanging clothes on the line just after 9:00 a.m. and felt a strange contraction of the air and heard an unearthly noise, frightening and mysterious. Shortly after, word came via telegraph of a terrible explosion in Halifax: the Halifax Harbour Explosion. It was an experience her mother never forgot and a story Shirley never forgot.

As Shirley talked about her father, it was instantly clear that she adored him, that he meant a great deal to her. Imagine my amazement when she said that one of her most vivid memories was of him at his forge singing and reciting poetry! She said he always did so as he worked. Here was a living embodiment of Longfellow’s “village blacksmith” She could even remember some of the poems he recited and songs he sang. Sadly, my memory is not so good, and since I did not have the foresight to bring a tape recorder (but in my defence, I did not want to be pushy in a first visit and had no idea the kind of story I would hear), her words are now only in my faulty mind.

One of the most touching things she said about her father was that whenever she ran into the shop after school, her father always stopped what he was doing and asked her about her day. She said (and I paraphrase), “My father was keenly interested in children, in their lives, in what they were doing and how they were feeling.” For Shirley, this deep interest and concern was a force of good in her life. And it was a glimpse into the reason why Bishop includes him so prominently in “In the Village” — Nate’s welcoming of the child into his shop, his allowing her to work the bellows, his making a ring for her, is both literal fact and transformative art. Not only that, Mate Fisher and his wife would have known about Elizabeth Bishop’s circumstances, so his interest in her (and Bishop is very aware of that interest, it is why she hides the address to the sanitarium) would have been doubly solicitous.

Nate is an iconic figure, who stands for himself and for the powerful healing capacity in humanity. Actually, this figure/character is many things and many scholars and critics have written about him. I wanted to write something about the actual Nate: Mate, especially when I learned how poetic he was in real life. Interestingly, Mayhew Fisher lived into his 90s — he had gone blind by that time— and died in 1977 (only two years before Bishop!). Throughout almost her entire adult life, this man lived quietly in Bass River. I wonder if she ever heard about him again when she visited Nova Scotia in the 1940s and early 1970s.

Sadly, I never followed through with my intention to visit Shirley MacLellan again and do a taped interview with her. I am sure she would have agreed. I delayed too long and she died in 2007, 30 years after her father. Donald Fisher died a year or so later, so the direct links to this fascinating man and artisan, who played such an important role in the formation of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic aesthetic, have disappeared.

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