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

Monday, July 12, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXII: Somebody Loves Us All, by Susie DeCoste

As I wrote my MA thesis in creative writing at UNBSJ a few years ago, my supervisor recommended that I read a Maritime poet, Elizabeth Bishop. She directed me to an anthology of Atlantic poetry as a place to start: Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. For my thesis, I was writing a series of poems about a woman fiercely attached to her place who also feels drawn to new horizons in travel. I read Bishop’s Questions of Travel as the title seemed suited to my interests in the project that motivated my reading. I saw connections between my manuscript and Bishop’s traveler versus her homebody—which excited me—and I fell in love with the title poem. I noticed, of course, poems about Nova Scotia: “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and “Sandpiper,” but I took for granted that Bishop was originally from the Maritimes, and didn’t think more of it for some time.

My larger, driving questions about Bishop that continue to motivate me really began during the first year of my PhD in Ontario (I’m now nearing the end of year three). There, I found Bishop in a course on twentieth-century American literature. I was confused about her listing on the course, though. After reading her poetry in Coastlines, and thinking of her as a Maritime poet also interested in travel, I was convinced she was from Nova Scotia and that she was Canadian. The professor went through each of the course texts, providing a brief synopsis to help us in choosing our slots for seminars. When it came to Geography III, I asked: “Isn’t she a Maritime poet?” The answer was simple: “No, I don’t think so.” I immediately signed up for the seminar on Bishop, and then read Geography III very closely. I found “Poem,” and “The Moose” and my initial question remained unanswered: “Isn’t she a Maritime poet?” I presented a seminar, went on to write my term paper on poetics in Geography III, and then I developed it into a conference paper.

Now I find myself continually asking how and whether Bishop is a Nova Scotian poet. When I decided on Bishop as a dissertation topic in Canadian literature, delving into questions about Bishop’s relationship to place, I began reading more and more of Bishop’s work, becoming more and more receptive to Bishop’s writing, and more enthralled by it. But, to be clear, my interests are not merely in the particular ways Bishop is categorized.

What I value in poetry is what Bishop delivers without fail. Perhaps these values stem back to a certain creative writing assignment: “be reticent about emotion, but verbose in description.” What a difficult feat for a writer: use description that understates emotion, but at the same time allow the emotion to be present, and to arise in a reader.

I recently presented at a student and faculty research discussion group, where the presenting professor—after discovering my research interests—confessed that he could never get into Bishop. He found her too cold, and lacking in emotion. But I find her reticence, the ability to show intense emotion as if it were a caged animal, to be part of her writing’s allure. And I think it so much more skilled to restrain from the over-emotional in moments of intense pain, or joy. Each time I read “One Art,” I think what a gift it is to all readers who now have loss articulated so deftly. And, there was a period of time when “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Filling Station” never failed to bring a tear to my eye. When I found out that “Filling Station” was about a gas station in Great Village, I found it so fitting that my favourite of her poems would be grounded in Nova Scotia.

While reading Bishop’s letters recently, I found one that she wrote to a publisher who wanted to include footnotes to help students understand her work. She wrote to him: “…I’d let students figure out—in fact I TELL them—the cans are arranged to say so-so-so, etc., so I don’t think that has to be explained. However—most of them might well not know that so-so-so was—or still is in some places—the phrase people use to calm and soothe horses.” Who’s to say she doesn’t calm us when we read the line, along with those high-strung automobiles? I don’t see how the final line of that poem could be any warmer or more caring. Here is the final stanza:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

Susie DeCoste is writing a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotia poems and questions of Maritime literary regionalism. She tutors and teaches writing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and teaches children’s literature through distance education at the University of Waterloo. Her poems have appeared in journals in Canada and Ireland.

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