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

Monday, May 31, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XVI: A reminiscence of Elizabeth Bishop, by David Staines

Distinguished Canadian literary critic and scholar David Staines teaches at the University of Ottawa. He met Elizabeth Bishop in the 1970s when they were both teaching at Harvard University. Shortly after her death in 1979, Canadian Poetry published his tribute to Bishop (No. 7, Fall/Winter, 1980). David has very kindly given us permission to excerpt the following from that tribute.


I first met Elizabeth in the early seventies. Literature naturally formed the major topic of so many wonderful conversations, and she spoke often of her childhood, her Nova Scotia years, her explicitly Maritime writings, her recollection of the gentlemanly kindness of her grandfather in “Manners,” the haunting evocation of a young child’s first exposure to death in “First Death in Nova Scotia,” the majestic description of “Cape Breton,” the poignant veiled autobiography of “In the Village.”

Often Elizabeth took me to a large granite warehouse, Lewis Wharf, on the Boston waterfront. Here she had brought a fourth-floor apartment in the gutted 1830 building and was designing her new home. Following her example, I donned the required hardhat as she led me through the construction. With a balcony overlooking the harbour she had returned to the sea of her childhood. She reminded me, then and in subsequent years, that there had been regular boat service between Boston and Nova Scotia. For her and for so many Maritimers Nova Scotia and New England were part of the same long eastern coast. Distinctions between Canadian and American were superfluous.

When Northrup Frye was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, he told me of his eagerness to meet Elizabeth. And she too had mentioned her own desire to meet this visiting Canadian. Accordingly I arranged a small dinner for the Fryes and Elizabeth. The shyness of the guests made the initial conversation tentative and sparse, but when Elizabeth asked about the driving conditions during Frye’s childhood (“Which side of the road did they drive on in New Brunswick?”), the critic with memories of his Moncton upbringing and the poet with memories of her rural Nova Scotia formed an instant friendship. On other meetings we talked of Canadian literature, for Elizabeth was familiar with many writers and eager and willing to read more. She knew the work of many poets, among them E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, and P.K. Page, and even some of the younger writers, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

When I was teaching Canadian literature courses at Harvard, Elizabeth playfully threatened to audit some of my lectures. She never did attend, though we spoke often on the telephone and over lunch about Canadian writers. I gave her volumes of fiction and poetry, and she repaid me with the informed reflections on their quality. Her criticism was sometimes complimentary, more often harsh though kind, for she applied to all writing, whether it was Canadian, her own, or that of her young students, the same demand for perfect clarity of thought and expression....


DAVID STAINES is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Born in Toronto, he received his B.A. from the University of Toronto and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He is a founding member of the Scotiabank Giller Prize Advisory Board and he also serves as General Editor of the New Canadian Library and Editor of The Journal of Canadian Poetry.

To learn more about David Staines see his website: www.davidstaines.com

Monday, May 24, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XV: Bishop and saudade, by Corey Clawson

Six years ago, I elected to devote two years of my life to missionary work following my freshman year of college. Totally removed from my comfort zone, I found myself in Minas Gerais in Brazil, absorbing by a new language and history. I was instructed to “love the people” and understanding the culture seemed the most logical way to do so. In my time there, I came to view Brazil as more than a splotch on a map, as something living — a complex organism with a tri-racial heritage, deep natural beauty, and problems of poverty and violence. A new and abiding desire to understand materialized within me. I entered an introductory literary analysis course two years later. The first poem I encountered flipping through the pages of one of the course’s texts — Elizabeth Bishop’s “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto” — described a city and segment of Brazilian culture I knew quite well. Initially, I simply wondered why an American poet would be so interested in Brazilian culture, but I soon found myself so enthralled with class discussions on this and Bishop’s other Brazil poems that they continued one-on-one with the professor following each class period.

Finally, one day, she (Dr. Anne Shifrer) said to me, “Corey, this is something you need to pursue. In a matter of weeks, you’ve completely changed my understanding of Bishop, a poet I’ve studied for decades because you’ve shared experiences as a fellow American in Brazil.” In that moment, she showed me that the insights I’d gained while studying Bishop and Brazil were just as important to her as they were to me. This realization gave my life new depth and focus. I knew I needed to continue working with these texts and sharing their power and beauty with others.

By the end of that semester, we had outlined a project to examine saudade (a unique concept of longing in Brazilian culture that I came to understand as a missionary). Over the course of two years, this project evolved into an undergraduate thesis, three different presentations at literature and Latin American Studies conferences, a guest lecture on Bishop in an upper-division course, and an undergraduate research grant funding related research on the poet’s childhood in Nova Scotia.

Now, preparing my applications for graduate school, I am excited to be a part of a new generation of Bishop scholars and have a number of topics on my radar including other aspects of Brazilian culture in Bishop’s work and her relationship with May Swenson, a native of my hometown.


Check out Corey Clawson's thesis at: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/honors/5/

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "Large Bad Picture"

It has been a little while since I did a Nova Scotia Connections. Even though I have endless subjects to cover, sometimes I find it difficult to choose one. As those who know me understand, I have so much to stay about any given topic, that deciding where to begin and end can be problematic. To this point, I’ve allowed circumstances and my own inclinations to mix and decide which topic I will settle on. Truly, I often don’t know until I sit down what I will write. For the past few weeks, however, one subject has started popping up and seems to be asking to be written about a little bit; but this subject is a very big one for Elizabeth Bishop – and I have been having a difficult time trying to decide what to write first. Part of the issue with this subject is that I am not the only person to have worked on it, in terms of researching and writing about it for publication. My dear friend and colleague Lilian Falk has also spent many years delving into this important person in Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family collective – I am hoping that starting off this subject will prompt her to write something for this blog. I realize that, like the World War I subject, this one will be multi-part, though just how it will unfold, I haven’t yet decided.

Perhaps you have guessed by the title what, or rather, who I’m talking about: George Wylie Hutchinson (1852-1942), Elizabeth Bishop’s great-uncle, one of Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer’s brothers (she was Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal grandmother). George Hutchinson was a painter, illustrator and photographer, who had a remarkably interesting life, a subject worthy of study. Elizabeth Bishop was well aware of Great-Uncle George and his two brothers (John Robert and William Bernard – I will definitely be writing about them, too, in the future). All were still alive during her childhood years in Great Village. Indeed, George Hutchinson lived to nearly 90 and was in communication with his sister right up until she died in 1931.

Elizabeth Bishop grew up looking at Hutchinson paintings, his portraits and seascapes hung on the walls in the Bulmer family home. Indeed, Hutchinson was sending little water-colours to his sister and nieces right into the 1930s. We are fortunate to have a few Hutchinson paintings at Acadia University, a few which were left in Nova Scotia after Elizabeth Bulmer died. But Hutchison work is also found in interesting places in the United States and the United Kingdom. I could write at length about George Hutchinson and his importance to Elizabeth Bishop, but I will limit myself here to commenting on one aspect of their connection. Not surprisingly or accidentally, Elizabeth Bishop, who was fascinated by visual art, has two important poems based on George Hutchinson paintings. Interestingly, these poems span her entire career: the first, “Large Bad Picture,” was published in her first book North & South in 1946; the second, “Poem,” was published in her last book Geography III in 1976. The poems address many subjects and themes, one of which is the position of the artist vis-á-vis the worlds of “commerce and contemplation,” as she writes in “Large Bad Picture.”

As tempting as it is to go off on a tangent of explication and interpretation of the poem, I will forebear and give you an actual glimpse of the painting itself, a painting which imprinted deeply in Bishop’s mind. The painting is a large canvas, a seascape of Labrador. Though the poem does not indicate it, the painting was done by a young George Hutchinson – perhaps even as a teenager. He spent some years as a cabin boy in the 1860s and painted several large canvases based on his experiences. Bishop would have first seen this painting hanging in the house in Great Village. It may have been the only place she saw it, however, perhaps not. When the Bulmers died in 1930 and 1931 respectively, much of the content of their house went to their youngest daughter, Mary Bulmer Ross, who lived in Montreal. Mary acquired quite a few Hutchinson paintings, including “Large Bad Picture.” Elizabeth Bishop visited Aunt Mary on a number of occasions over the course of her life.

When Mary died in 1970, the paintings were inherited by Mary’s oldest child, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. Elizabeth and her husband Ray knew Bishop fairly well, having lived in Brazil in the early 1960s, while Bishop was resident there. They lived in Florida during the final decades of their life. Both died in 2008. I met Elizabeth and Ray in the late 1990s and had a correspondence with Elizabeth. Elizabeth kindly sent me a photograph of “Large Bad Picture” and that is what I include below. As far as I know, this painting has never been exhibited. Alas, I am no longer sure where the painting is. I did not know any of Elizabeth and Ray’s daughters, so have lost touch with the family.

As I mentioned above, George Hutchinson had a remarkable life, and over the next year or so, I will write about him (and his brothers) and Bishop’s connection to him, and invite Lilian Falk to contribute postings about this fascinating (if not famous) artist. In the 1960s, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Anne Stevenson about her great-uncles. Of them she said, and I am paraphrasing, that the Hutchinsons “had brains”, “talent” and were “eccentric.” She identified her own penchant for travel and seafaring in this family – particularly her great-grandfather, the master mariner who was shipwrecked. But the Hutchinson great-uncles also sailed the seven seas and wrote about their travels to places as far flung as India and Russia. Stay tuned for more of their story.

Seascape by George Wylie Hutchinson, circa 1870s, subject of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Large Bad Picture.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XIV: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop, by Peggy Walt

It was the early 90’s when I first learned about Elizabeth Bishop and her connection to Nova Scotia. Determined to find the actual date, I recently read through my old work diaries, and found a note from Wednesday, January 27, 1993, indicating that I had talked to Peter Sanger about Bishop and then later in the day had a meeting with my boss, the late Allison Bishop, (no relation) about EB (“AB re. Eliz. Bishop”). Similar notes followed on February 2, 16, 24, 25, 26 and March 1, when I recorded having been “working on Bishop.” On March 8 (flash ahead to an International Women’s Day connection?) I recorded working again on the “Elizabeth Bishop Report.”

I loved working for Allison Bishop — he was so encouraging and supportive of me. I remember him calling me into his office and asking me if I had ever heard of a poet named Elizabeth Bishop. I’m sure I looked blank and said, “Sorry, no, it doesn’t ring a bell.” It wasn’t the first time that I had wondered if my English degree from Mount Allison was standing me in good stead! I offered to find out who she was. I am pretty sure Allison mentioned a connection to Nova Scotia, and that Bishop had won the Pulitzer Prize — in my English major smugness I thought, “pretty sure I would have heard of this person if she’d won a Pulitzer Prize.” I remember going to the library (no Internet!) and researching EB, and thinking, “How could I not have read this person? How could I not have known who she was?” I made notes (and also thought how lucky I was to have a job where I got paid to go to the library to look up famous writers!).

I have a definite memory that the first thing I read by Elizabeth Bishop was prose, and that I was immediately and forever overwhelmed by her writing. Again, questions: why hadn’t I studied her in university? was she American? Canadian? Maritimer? I have no recollection whatsoever of any English professor ever mentioning her name. Did I take the wrong courses?

I’m not positive, but I think it might have been “In the Village” that I first read. I was completely gob-smacked and I felt an immediate connection with my family experiences in rural Nova Scotia (Cumberland County, Pugwash, Malagash and Great Village areas).

I also remember thinking that if the prose was that good, the poetry must be amazing, but not wanting to read it “too soon.” I read about Elizabeth’s mother, and thought how tragic it was that she had never left the Nova Scotia Hospital. Where was the movie about Elizabeth Bishop? I needed to know more.

Somewhere in my research, I learned about a Halifax friend of EB’s, Zilpha Linkletter. I wondered if she had been present when Bishop received her honorary degree from Dalhousie University, and then realized sadly that the same year the degree was awarded, 1979, was the year of Elizabeth’s death.

Much to my surprise, I found out that Zilpha was still alive and living on Robie Street, in a house that was directly opposite mine, behind my across-the-way neighbour’s house. I considered visiting her. Would she tell me her remembrances of EB? But what would I say? Just showing up at her door and stating that I was a government employee who’d become increasingly obsessed with all things Bishop wouldn’t really do, would it? I asked my neighbour if she knew an older lady living behind her. “Oh, Zilpha?” she replied. “Yes, she lives there, but I haven’t seen her out for a while.” I knew time was passing and I so wanted to talk to her. I have a strong recollection of walking home from work after a day of thinking about Bishop, pausing in front of that Robie Street house, dithering about what to do and, then, doing nothing and coming home. Now I wish I’d followed my impulses, as Zilpha Linkletter has passed away in 2001 and the opportunity to converse with her is gone.

The EB report had to do with a proposal that the Province purchase and take ownership of a significant collection of Bishop-related items in Nova Scotia that were being made available for sale. The fear was that these items would permanently leave the country as there were institutions eager to add them to their existing Bishop collections. I told Allison, and he very much agreed, that we should really try to hang on to the objects if possible. There was much liaison, appraisal of the items, negotiations with the various partners involved in making this happen. I had met Sandra Barry by this time and she more fully explained to me EB’s connection and the importance of these family paintings, photos, letters and other objects to the Province. Sandra immediately impressed me with her vast and intimate knowledge of all things Bishop, and her sincere desire to let her fellow Nova Scotians in on the EB story. I learned a lot from Sandra — about Bishop herself, her still living family members in Nova Scotia, and the legions of her fans all over the world who wanted to come and see where she hailed from (visions of Japanese tourists seeking the Great Village Holy Grail….á la Anne of Green Gables…). The collection, eventually purchased by the Province through the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, came to reside at Acadia University, where it is on permanent loan.

Allison felt that something else should be established in Nova Scotia and worked very hard with others who had in interest in creating the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. He was a quiet, behind the scenes kind of man and his efforts were tireless to help fledgling initiatives like this get off the ground. Others in the cultural community weren’t so sure — I remember being scolded about the fact that Elizabeth Bishop was a dead American poet and there were living Nova Scotian writers who couldn’t get enough provincial government support to work on their writing, that we shouldn’t be paying any attention or giving money to EB until this situation was resolved in favour of the living creative artists. I saw the point, but I felt it was also important to honour Bishop as one of our own, to make people understand why we should be reclaiming her. I was very excited when the EB Symposium took place at Acadia in 1998.

Along the way I continued reading Bishop bit by bit, like picking one’s way through a box of delicious chocolates, I didn’t rush it. I read the poems slowly, each one something to savour and reflect on.

Flash forward about 10 years. My infatuation with Bishop had grown, and I’d met others who were likewise indoctrinated. Yet, despite many wonderful projects and efforts to make EB more of a household name in Nova Scotia, I kept mentioning her to people who didn’t know about her. My choir, the Aeolian Singers, was casting around for a theme for an International Women’s Day concert (March 8!), and I suggested Bishop to our Artistic Director, Jackie Chambers (who initially didn’t know EB either, but who caught on fast!). We decided to approach singer/songwriter Susan Crowe about helping us to create an EB themed concert.

Susan, it turned out, was already an enthusiastic fan (“Elizabeth Bishop? I love Elizabeth Bishop!”). In March 2005, we presented Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman onstage to an appreciative audience at the Rebecca Cohn, a collaborative collage featuring singers, musicians, actors and the choir.

The concert was a lot of organizational work and a big success. The Globe and Mail covered it. CBC recorded it. Stephen Pedersen reported in the Halifax Herald his astonishment that, in this day and age, poetry could move people to jump to their feet. And, while I typed Elizabeth’s biography, program notes, press releases, and contemplated her photos, I wondered what EB herself would have made of it all. I felt a strong presence over my left shoulder at the computer — hopefully if it was EB, she was pleased with our efforts.

I think I visited the Elizabeth Bishop House for the first time with Susan (who, with Sandra and eight other people bought it in 2004). I will never forget the feeling of connectedness I had when I entered it, especially, on walking into what had been the young Elizabeth’s bedroom. Then I truly knew, yes, this is a Maritime house and, yes, she is one of us. And, “the echo of a scream,” haunted me when I thought of that house for many days afterwards.

And now, the centenary — what a wonderful bringing together of so many who love and celebrate EB’s place with us!

I’m sure that my Bishop connections will continue to lead me down new paths and to other interesting folks, and that more will learn, as I did, that a most astounding writer lived amongst us for a time, and never forgot this place that we are all blessed to call home.

Flyer for "Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman" -- the Aeolian Singers concert.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"In the Village": The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition

“I was five. My grandmother had already taught me to write on a slate my name and my family’s names and the names of the dog and the two cats. Earlier she had taught me my letters, and at first I could not get past the letter g, which for some time I felt was far enough to go. My alphabet made a satisfying short song, and I didn’t want to spoil it…. By the time school started, I could read almost all my primer, printed in both handwriting and type, and I loved every word. First, a frontispiece, it had the flag in full color, with ‘One Flag, One King, One Crown’ under it. I colored in the black-and-white illustrations that looked old-fashioned, even to me, using mostly read and green crayons.”

[Elizabeth Bishop, “Primer Class,” The Collected Prose, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984.]

Learning to read and write is arguably the single most important primary education for any writer. Elizabeth Bishop had a particularly vivid recollection of the process which brought her to this uniquely human accomplishment. Her earliest memories of learning to read and write are set in her grandmother’s kitchen in the house in Great Village, quickly followed by her first formal pedagogical experience at the Great Village School. Both buildings still stand and continue to foster the language and literary arts.


Part of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia’s mission is to raise awareness of Elizabeth Bishop’s connection with Nova Scotia, and also to encourage young people to read Bishop’s work. Part of the vision of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations in Nova Scotia is not only to mark this important anniversary and honour Elizabeth Bishop’s life and art, but also to have Nova Scotian artists of all disciplines and ages pay tribute to Bishop with the creation of new work. Elizabeth Bishop’s art continues to have relevance and influence in the world, and to extend the legacy of that relevance and influence, creating new works of art inspired by her art seems appropriate and exciting.

In the discussions the EBSNS had to decide what projects it would sponsor itself to mark Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th birthday, a writing competition, with a focus on Nova Scotia students from Elementary to Senior High, quickly became the first choice. The society felt a writing competition was an good way to fulfill its mission and the centenary’s vision: bring more young people to Bishop’s poetry and stories and foster creativity and artistic excellence.

The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia recently announced “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition. The competition will officially open for submissions on 15 September 2010 and close on 15 March 2011. Winners will be announced in June 2011 and awards will be presented at an Arts Festival to take place in Great Village, 19-21 August 2011.

Much more information, including Guidelines and Entry Form, about this writing competition can be found can be found on the EBSNS website: www.elizabethbishopns.org – click on the “Writing Competition” link in the menu. Also on the website, you can listen to Halifax storyteller Claire Miller read Elizabeth Bishop’s story “In the Village” (click the audio file link provided on this page).

The EBSNS will have an official launch for the writing competition in September 2010 both in Halifax and Great Village. Stay tuned for more information about this and other centenary events.

Monday, May 10, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XIII: Reading Bishop -- Remembering the Art of Losing, by Neil Besner

In the summer of 1990, I was at a conference in Quebec City with my colleague and friend David Staines. We were sitting in the very comfortable bar in the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac, an old and ornate hotel, getting ready to meet with an Oxford U.P. colleague to discuss a short story anthology we were co-editing when I heard a couple speaking Portuguese nearby. Whenever I hear Portuguese – Brazilian Portuguese – in North America, it’s been a reflex of mine to say hello, ask where people are from, etc., and that’s what I did, coming back to David ten minutes later. He was excited. “I didn’t know you spoke Portuguese that well,” he said. I still didn’t understand his excitement; he knew I’d grown up in Brazil. “Do you know Elizabeth Bishop’s work?” he asked. I told him I knew the name, but didn’t know her poetry.

The Oxford colleague, Richard Teleky, arrived. David mentioned Bishop again; Richard knew her work well. I didn’t think much of this. We were more preoccupied, or at least I was, with the table of contents for the anthology.

The next day, at the conference, at Carleton University, David and I were at the book display. He walked over to a shelf of anthologies, took one down, leafed through it, and hurried back. “Read this,” he said.

It was “One Art.” I remember, vividly, standing by some off-white shelves with the anthology in my hand. I also remember an obscure pounding in my chest – a sensation I was often to have over the next several years as I read Bishop, first the Complete Poems, then prose, letters, The Diary of Helena Morley, etc. (I thought to myself, often, of Dickinson’s remark about her sense of a poem about to explode in her head.) The obscure pounding sensation still occurs; no other poet has this effect on me. And the less I understand it, the better. (Although the art of losing isn’t hard to master.)

Neil Besner teaches at the University of Winnipeg.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "The War was on." -- Part Two

The War was already well under way when Gertrude Bishop brought Elizabeth Bishop back to Nova Scotia in April 1915. Elizabeth remained in Great Village until October 1917. The chronology of this time, connected as it is to world events, only touches the surface of the intersection of public and private experience. Themes such as patriotism, mourning, commemoration (public) and guilt, grief and loss (private) – all issues Elizabeth Bishop dealt with in her writing – are only hinted at in this list. One of the elements missing is another list: the names of the young Great Village men, who Bishop had watched mobilize and march through the village in their exotic highland brigade uniforms. She watched them leave, many never to return. The six-year-old was fascinated by their ceremonial dress: the full highland regalia of the 193rd Highland Brigade. The chronology continues:

Late April 1915 - Gertrude and Elizabeth return to Great Village.

“The six terrible days” of the Second Battle of Ypres (Gwyn, 149), Canadian troops’ first major engagement and first encounter with mustard gas. The reality of war hits home: more than 6,000 Canadian casualties; 66 officers and 1,784 other ranks killed (Gwyn, 160).

7 May 1915 - Lusitania torpedoed off Ireland; 2,000 die, including “numerous Canadians.” (Gwyn, 157)

23 June 1915 - Frank Elwood Bulmer, son of Arthur and Mabel Bulmer, dies at the age of two months. His death is the subject of “First Death in Nova Scotia.”

November 1915 - Gertrude visits New Brunswick and Massachusetts. Elizabeth remains in Great Village.

January-February 1916 - 193rd Battalion, authorized and designated a Highland Brigade Battalion, recruits from the six eastern counties of Nova Scotia: Cumberland, Colchester, Hants, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysborough (Hunt, 130). Bishop refers to the 193rd in “The Country Mouse,” “In Nova Scotia the soldiers, some of whom I actually knew, wore beautiful tam-o’-shanters with thistles and other insignia on them. When they got dressed up, they wore kilts and sporrans” (Collected Prose, 28). The Battalion mobilizes in May and embarks in October (Hunt, 131).

21 February 1916 - Battle of Verdun begins. “Nineteen sixteen was the year when the war stopped being an aberration and turned into a constant, a nightmare.” (Gwyn, 295)

March 1916 - Gertrude suffers a violent episode triggered by a “business paper” relating to the custody of Elizabeth. Her Nova Scotia Hospital case file records that Gertrude believes she is going to die for her country and that she is the cause of the war.

May 1916 - Gertrude goes to Massachusetts for medical treatment. Elizabeth remains in Great Village.

20 June 1916 - Gertrude voluntarily admits herself to the Nova Scotia Hospital, Dartmouth, N.S., where she remains until her death on 29 May 1934. Elizabeth does not see her mother again after June 1916. “In the Village” and the unfinished “Reminiscences of Great Village” recall events from May 1915 to June 1916.

July-November 1916 - The eight battles of the Somme, including an engagement by the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel, in which only 68 of the 801 members of the regiment survive (Gwyn, 304). Bishop visits Newfoundland, still a British colony, in 1932. Newfoundland becomes a province of Canada in 1949.

July 1916-September 1917 - Elizabeth lives in Great Village with her maternal grandparents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer. “Sestina” is about this period.

Fall-Winter 1916-1917 - Elizabeth attends the Great Village school. “Primer Class” recalls this experience.

February 1917 - Elizabeth sick with bronchitis.

6 April 1917 - United States enters war.

9 April 1917 (Easter Monday) - Canadian troops capture Vimy Ridge. Some historians view this victory as a rite of passage to Canadian nationhood, “Canada became a nation.” (Gwyn, 343); but it came at great cost: 10,602 casualties, 2,600 of them fatal. The massive Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge invokes “The Spirit of Canada,” “the cloaked and hooded figure of a woman, standing alone overlooking the Douai Plain.” (Gwyn, 343)

In “Reminiscences of Great Village” Bishop re-names her mother “Easter.”

circa 12 September 1917 - John and Sara Bishop arrive in Great Village.

circa 11 October 1917 - John and Sara Bishop and Elizabeth leave Great Village and return to Worcester. “The Country Mouse” recalls Bishop's time living with her paternal grandparents.

July-October 1917 - Passchendaele. “The Great War reached its nadir of horror.” (Gwyn, 389). Canadian troops see action in October with 15,634 casualties (Gwyn, 400).

6 December 1917 - Halifax Harbour Explosion. Most powerful man-made explosion to date, caused by the collision of the French munitions ship, Mont Blanc, and the Belgian relief ship, Imo. Over 1,600 die instantly, more than 9,000 wounded; immediate area of destruction 325 acres; impact felt as far away as Cape Breton (Kitz, 26). Nova Scotia Hospital, especially women’s wards, receives heavy damage, but no deaths and functions as a station for treating wounded. Massachusetts organizes largest single relief effort, sending a train loaded with supplies, doctors and nurses on the night of the 9th. (Kitz, 84) Blizzard hits the city on the 7th. (Kitz, 71). Newspapers headlines in Toronto, “HALIFAX CITY WRECKED.” (Gwyn, 411)

5 February 1918 - Elizabeth visits dentist’s office in Worcester, and experiences extreme dislocation. It becomes the subject of “In the Waiting Room” over 50 years later.

May 1918 - A seriously ill Elizabeth - “I felt myself aging, even dying” (Collected Prose, 31) -taken to live with Aunt Maude in Revere, MA. “Manners” is dedicated “For a Child of 1918.”

August-November 1918 - “The Hundred Days.” Final assaults and breakthroughs by Allies.

11 November 1918 - Armistice.

Fall-Winter 1918-1919 - Spanish Influenza epidemic. It “killed more than died in the war.” (Gwyn, 485). Bishop’s Aunt Grace, a nurse, helps care for the sick in Massachusetts during the epidemic. Bishop does not contract the Influenza.

1919 - Demobilization and return of Canadian troops from Europe.

8 August 1919 - Elizabeth returns to Nova Scotia for the first time since her removal in October 1917. She and Aunt Grace travel aboard the steamer North Star, which grounds off Yarmouth, N.S. All passengers and cargo are safely removed. The ship is lost; Bishop’s shipwreck.

Great Village cenotaph, erected in the 1920s. Remembrance Day services are held every 11 November at this memorial, which is now in a location nearby this original site.

Works cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Craig, John. The Years of Agony 1910/1920. Toronto: Natural Science of Canada Limited, 1977.
Gwyn, Sandra. Tapestry of War. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 1992.
Hunt, M. Stuart, ed. Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War. Halifax, N.S.: The Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co., 1920.
Kitz, Janet. Shattered City. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 1989.
Mathieson, William D. My Grandfather’s War. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981.
Spires, Elizabeth. “The Art of Poetry, XXVII: Elizabeth Bishop.” Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. George Monteiro, ed. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 114-132.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1981.
Wells, H.G. The Outline of History, Vol. II. Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1920 (1960).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An Apology

"Don't blame you, don't blame me, blame that man behind the tree," to paraphrase the late Governor Huey B. Long of Louisiana...

"The mail-boxes are never collected so one has to go to the Post Office; and there there are glue-machines which are frequently incopacitated by their own glue so that one gives up and goes to the woman who runs a stamping-machine, even if the stamps are much nicer... I don't believe I've made that at all clear, but you'll be able to gather that mailing a letter here is quite an undertaking and actually what I do most of the time is hand my letters over once a week here to a friend who is going to Rio to mail them for me."

[from a letter to Marianne Moore, written (if not mailed) from Samambaia, Petropolis, Brazil, March 3, 1952 -- history does not record (apparently) when it arrived in Brooklyn...]

Sandra will have apprised this establishment's patrons of the various and sundry Technical Difficulties (tm)-- actually not sun-dry at all but fairly damp, only occasionally exposed to the sun at all, in fact, since the weather in southern Indiana has been unseasonably chock-a-block with thunderstorm and flood this spring -- which have assailed your humble servant during his sojourn amongst our Neighbours to the Southwest (tm). My experiences with the local phone company, the local internet service provider, my modem manufacturer, the folks who hold the second mortgage on my laptop, and the all-too-numerous additional personages requiring arcane rites of propitiation and self-abasement before they will even point an accusatory finger at the next potentially-responsible party on my list would make the corrupt politicians in the classic depiction of Tammany Hall which opens this post seem like innocent children playing ring-around-the-rosey by comparison. I take comfort in the thought that Bishop, too, often experienced analogous difficulties trying to communicate with "the outside world" during her travels.

Be that as may be, I have forwarded a partial collection of "This Day in Bishop" materials for May to Sandra, who will post them as circumstances permit while I am drawing water and hewing stone in the wilds of the Hoosier State. My mother and I do make occasional pilgrimages thirty or forty miles to the south, to the University of Evansville, and on those occasions I will avail myself of the hospitality of that gracious institution to post additional reflections on Bishop's work.

Thank you all for your forbearance.

Best wishes,

John Barnstead

Monday, May 3, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XII: It was music and fear that brought me to Elizabeth Bishop, by Claire Miller

In 2005 the Aeolian Singers decided to celebrate International Women’s Day by honouring Elizabeth Bishop. The concert was the brainchild of Susan Crowe and the Aeolians’ artistic director, Jackie Chambers. Their intention was not to present a biography of Bishop, but instead to offer a selection of poetry, songs, and dramatic scenes, which would evoke the work and places of Bishop's life. As a choir member, I was asked to read one of the poems.

At that time I did not know who Elizabeth Bishop was and, although I am a lover of the rhythms and sounds of language, I really was not much of a poetry reader. So the thought of presenting a poem to an audience, out loud, by a poet I was not familiar with, in the company of well-known musicians and actors, on the big stage of the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, was,to say the least, terrifying.

I was assigned “Song for a Rainy Season,” and although I was given a copy of the poem well in advance, I decided I needed to know more about Elizabeth Bishop. I began, of course, on the internet, looking for clues about Bishop, her life and her writing, and I visited the public library. The amount of information seemed over-whelming. Then I took myself to the bookstore, where I found a copy of The Complete Poems. And so I read and read. But still I wondered how to interpret this particular poem emotionally and vocally, especially as, the more I read, the more I whined to myself, “Oh, I'd rather read another poem!” or even “I don't want to do this!”

But then, as I kept on reading and thinking, I realized that the poems of Elizabeth Bishop were accessible and understandable, meaningful and relevant, even to a poetry novice like me. The images were both exotic and familiar, from far away yet close to home. And when I returned to “my” poem, I could feel the dampness almost as I do here on an August afternoon; I could imagine a great rock covered with lichen like those protruding from the steep cliffs of the river near my former Eastern Shore home; I could hear Bishop’s Brazilian owl just as I've heard owls in our Maritime woods. I found my own way to understand and speak her words.

And so the concert came — an enchanting evening of music, readings, performance — presented before an attentive audience. And Elizabeth Bishop captured at least one more heart.

Since that night I seem to have encountered Elizabeth Bishop in so many places, even in popular movies and novels. I have read more and learned more. I have taken her poems to circles of women, I have given her Complete Poems to friends, and I read her words at my mother's funeral. She has become part of my life.

Claire Miller has been telling stories professionally for over 20 years. She has told them throughout the Maritimes, in schools and libraries, in intimate living rooms and on the concert stage. {Editorial insertion: Check out the EBSNS website and look under “Writing Competition” and hear Claire reading Bishop’s story “In the Village.”}

Aeolian Singers website: http://www.aeoliansingers.ca/

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop and "the mails"

Yesterday's "Today in Bishop" was an excerpt of a letter from Robert Lowell, written on 1 May 1964. Exactly a decade later, he wrote Bishop another, somewhat shorter letter. Yes, I know it is 2 May, but I am supposing that Lowell posted this 1974 letter to Bishop on 2 May (I don't know that, of course, but I will believe it for now, allowing me to post it today). In 1964 Bishop was living in Brazil. In 1974 she was back in the US. One of her regular topics of discussion in letters from Brazil was the quirks of Brazilian mails -- often with amusing accounts of trips to the post office. Complaining about the mails and the post office, like complaining about the weather, is something Canadians also like to do. However, while the weather still comes in for constant discussion, "the mails" are dimming in our discourse, primarily because writing and posting actual letters (pen to paper, envelopes, stamps, etc.) is rapidly fading from daily practice. Emailing and texting have taken over. But these mediums have their own quirks and frustrations. Thus, my taking on "Today in Bishop." John is in the US. This physical distance means nothing in cyberspace, but only if internet connections work. He scarcely missed a beat with "Today in Bishop" while en route, and quickly was able to establish internet service when he reached his destination. However, as they used to say on the radio and television when signal problems occurred, he is "currently experiencing technical difficulties." This problem necessitated a telephone call to alert me. So, I am taking up the "Today in Bishop" task until he has them resolved.

When John told me he was creating the "Today in Bishop" feature on the blog, I was amazed. "Can you do that?" I asked. "Sure," said John. And if anyone could, it was John. He has been at this task for a couple of months now and my amazement continues. He compiles a list for the month in advance and I am sure has May's list in hand, but I do not have his file (and there is no way for him to email it to me). Combing through the published and unpublished Bishop letters I have on hand, I was unsuccessful in finding something for 2 May. Looking through documents in any certain way, one notices things you might not notice looking through them in another way. For example, I noticed in the Bishop/Lowell letters that Bishop wrote to Lowell three times on 3 May (years apart, but there it was, 3 May). So, tomorrow I'll have lots to choose from! Also, I found the 1 May repeat of Lowell for 1964 and 1974.

I decided that "in a pinch," as Bishop once wrote, one improvises or invents something -- and since we are having trouble with our version of "the mails" I could justify the slight editorial indiscretion.

The fact of the matter is, I will not be able find things as John finds them. Suzie and I owe a huge debt to John, as he is the heart of this blog project. He set it up and keeps it going in a most amazing way. I am very tentative and unsure about this realm. I've been told by many people, "Oh, it is so easy." Maybe so, but not for me. John has taken the lead and has created an interesting and valuable site. Not only is he a gold mine of information, but he has a firm grasp of the technical side of things. Whenever I've asked him to modify the site, he simply does it. We will be adding more things to this blog over the next two years, so, do stay tuned.

For now, I'll muddle along and hope that his "techncial difficulties" will be resolved soon. I wonder what Bishop would have thought of this medium. Yesterday I hosted a gathering at the EB House in Great Village: a Halifax book club many of its members reading Bishop for the first time. In the dining room of the house is a beautiful old manual typewriter, not Bishop's of course, but like one she would have used. Part of the discussion was about the use of manual typewriters, all those present being old enough to have learned how to type on them. Amazingly, Bishop used them her whole life, typing thousands of pages, then taking some of those pages, putting them in envelopes and posting them -- what happened next: waiting, waiting for them to reach their destinations, waiting to receive replies. We don't want to wait anymore.

Typewriter at Elizabeth Bishop House. Photo by Chris Reardon.