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

Sunday, July 18, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXIII: Encountering Bishop, by Michael Hood

I believe pretty much with certainty, that the first encounter I had with Elizabeth Bishop was by way of reading selections of her poetry included in an anthology (red cover, I believe — hmmm!) edited by Al Poulin, Jr.: Contemporary American Poetry. Al had been a student, and later, a teacher at the college I attended during the 1960s, and too, the moderator of the literary magazine (The Canticle — I contributed one poem ) and drama club (The Friars Club — I had minor roles in two plays).

I next encountered Elizabeth Bishop via her poem, “To A Tree.” I included it as one of a series of poems that I made use of as part of my creative writing class for students at the secondary school level of education — Bishop needs to get into the classroom at the lower levels of public education — and too, as part of my poetry sections when teaching English as an Adjunct in one of the colleges in Worcester, Massachusetts.

My third encounter with Bishop came about in 1997 at which time I accepted an invitation by Laura Jehn Menides, currently Professor Emeritus of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), to serve as one of several assistant editors treating scholarly papers connected to the lengthy “Elizabeth Conference and Poetry Festival” held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1997. Later they were brought together in book form: “In Worcester, Massachusetts”: Essays on Elizabeth Bishop.

While serving in an editorial capacity in reading the conference papers, then, I fell into reading a bodily amount of Bishop-written poetry and creative prose, and prose materials examining both her life and her works. As a result I found myself being drawn closer into Bishop’s life. My particular interest of concern at the time (still is) was the lack of attention given to her childhood and youth. More specifically, information and possible creative output (mature or otherwise) relating to and/or coming from a major American poet during particularly sensitive years, as in her pre-adolescent and adolescent period in Revere, Massachusetts: 1918–1925; her time in Saugus, Massachusetts: 1925–1930 (intermittingly in the late part of the 1920s); and too, her summer time at Camp Chequesett (Cape Cod) during some of these same years. Not satisfied, then, with limited information and limited creative showing during what I call her “gap years,” I followed through with a series of visits to Revere and Saugus. These visits ultimately led me to write “Elizabeth Bishop: The Revere and Saugus, Massachusetts Experience.” This paper was presented at Case Western Reserve University as part of a conference celebrating Bishop and other literary artists, and later published in The Worcester Review, Volume XX1, Numbers 1 & 2, 2000.

Tidbits of Encountering

I would note that on each visit I made to Revere I would read and re-read Bishop’s unfinished memoir narrative about her Revere experience: “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs” (located in Vassar College Special Collections holdings on Bishop). Sometimes I would carry out my readings of her narrative in front of her 55 Cambridge Street house, at other times on each side and in the back of the house, and still at other times across the street at the back and side entrances to the dwelling wherein once lived the character Barbara Hunt, Bishop’s sometimes playmate, who appears in “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs.” I even read sections of the unfinished narrative in the entrance passageway of the dwelling (located on Mountain Avenue). On my trips I never got to directly meet any Sullivans residing at that address. However, at the entrance doorway on one of my trips I did get to briefly converse with a female voice through a closed door setting. The woman said that Mr. Sullivan was not home and chose not to identify herself. The man who lived next door to the Sullivans said a Mr. Sullivan was alive but not at home, was quite ill and was currently in the hospital. Also, during my Bishop-Revere Experience, I was to discover in the local newspaper, The Revere Journal, that Bishop was listed as having made the Honor Roll while attending junior high school in Revere. This is particularly interesting since it is generally presented that she received little formal education preceding her entry into private schools at the secondary level. And too, correction of photo misidentification of the Bishop residence and the residence of Barbara Hunt in Bishop’s “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs,” also came about as a result of my Revere adventure. Lastly, during my last visit to Revere, I unexpectedly (talk about encounter) met with the current owners of the house wherein Bishop and Maud and George Shepherdson resided, and too, received a brief tour of the interior of the house. Neat.

My early visits to Saugus had me knocking on doors and asking questions and taking notes of residents living in the immediate area or vicinity of where Bishop and the Shepherdsons had resided: 20 Sunnyside Avenue. I also meandered around to get a feeling of the land as it presented itself in its natural state. Out of this came my imaginative reconstruction of the physical environment that surrounded Bishop during her residence on Sunnyside Avenue: wooded area, pond…. I also visited where the Cliftondale (an area in Saugus) branch library in Saugus was located in relation to the Shepherdson-Bishop residence: comfortable walking distance for Maud and the not-always healthy Bishop. I also checked town records and old newspapers: great aids. And too, I had the occasion to unexpectedly (again, talk about encounter) meet and talk with a Saugus resident who remembered George Shepherdson (“Mr. Shepherdson”) — he had a garden, she said, and shared with her family the fruits of his labors. She also noted that George Shepherdson collected rent from her parents on behalf of someone, but she could not recall the name (interesting).

And finally, I encountered Bishop in Uxbridge via Saugus! As I said earlier, during my early visits to Saugus, I knocked on many doors, some while in pursuit of specific information, and others while in pursuit of general information. At some now unremembered point in time I received, anonymously, in the mail, a Saugus High School transcript reflecting Elizabeth Bishop’s Freshman high school subjects, grades, attendance, and conduct, etc., during the course of the 1925–1926 school calendar year. The succeeding year she entered a private school. Up to this point it had been understood that her high school record for the school year 1925–1926 had been destroyed. In investigating this point I was to learn that student records need only stay in existence for a given number of years and then, at the discretion of authorities, could be destroyed, or SAVED.

*I must note that my numerous visits to Revere and Saugus Massachusetts, inclusive of countless area points outside the immediacy of 55 Cambridge Street (Revere) and 20 Sunnyside Avenue (Saugus), has allowed for my reason and imagination to compatibly work together to sharpen my analytical and creative skills with respect to my current undertaking of imaginatively filling in the “gap years” of Bishop at a creative level, and via my own mode and style. I am currently working on Bishop within this framework and suspect I will continue to do so for some time to come. My hope is to encounter Bishop creatively, time and time again, and in doing such, bring about a more fully developed range of appreciation of her.

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