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

Friday, July 9, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Bulmer Family Bible

The sources of any work of art are both visible and invisible, even to the artist creating it. There are those who feel that art is its own independent reality, requiring no search for sources, that trying to locate the sources of art is a reductive or diminishing process. Part of the argument goes: art must be engaged on its own intrinsic terms and any apparent or hidden underpinnings are beside the point. Yet others (including me) argue that there is no art without life and lived experience (as illusory as they might be) and that knowing the sources is an interesting way to encounter and enter a work of art. Both sides of this argument (even as simplistically as I’ve described them here) can be argued convincingly. A discrete encounter with a poem, story, novel, painting, photograph, sculpture, song, outside any knowledge of the artist and the creative process can be completely meaningful. (The “First Encounter” feature on this blog relates a number of such sudden, unexpected events). Yet, arguably, one of the defining characteristics of our species is our curiosity about how things come to be, about how they work, about what things mean beyond what is apparent.

Elizabeth Bishop described herself as a “naturally curious” person, and she was interested in a vast range of subjects and objects. Many of her poems emerge out of a direct engagement with objects, which are contemplated and puzzled over in many ways. Of course, she questions her own engagement with the world of things, the subjectivity and inadequacy of her own and of all contemplation; but in the end, these object poems – from “The Map” to “The Moose” – stand; she sent them into the world. It is not too much to suppose that the actual things which triggered the creative process, which are so intensely observed and commented on, really mattered to Elizabeth Bishop. It is not too much to suppose that in engaging the actual things that we can uncover new layers, resonances and meanings. How this happens is as individual as each reader, so it behooves anyone presuming to analyze such engagement not to be reductive or categorical. As Bishop wrote in “SantarĂ©m,” all rigid dichotomies simply dissolve in “a dazzling dialectic.”

One of Bishop’s early poems has the exceptionally long title “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” – indeed, it is her longest title (the only other that comes close is “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress.” “Over 2,000 Illustrations…” has been written about at length by many literary critics, scholars and academics. It is one of her first deep examinations of a perennial Bishop theme: travel (through both time and space).

The directly identifiable primary source for this poem still exists: the Bulmer Family Bible, given to Bishop’s maternal grandparents as a wedding present in 1871 by Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley, Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer’s mother. Its publishing information includes: New Devotional and Practical Pictoral Family Bible, Chicago: The National Publishing Co., 1870.

This bible was a central object in the Bulmer family home when Bishop was a child. As an object, it is impressive, a tome of over 1,000 pages with an elegant embossed leather cover with gold lettering quite worn away now. It is filled with etchings depicting the stories in the bible and providing historical information (for example, there is a marvellous section on the plants and animals of the Holy Land). Essentially, a one-volume encyclopedia.

I saw this intensely resonant object when I first visited Phyllis Sutherland in the early 1990s. I was thrilled beyond words when I opened the cover and turned to the title page to find all the words in the title of “Over 2,000 Illustrations…” embedded in the elaborate text and images offered on that page.

One of the first ways Elizabeth Bishop began her travels, which she so intimately yet ironically recounts, ponders and questions in the poem, was directly in this object (travels begun in her imagination), by looking at and through this book. When she grew up and began to make her own decisions about where she wanted to travel, she carried with her the memory and the lessons offered in the illustrations in this bible.

In “Over 2,0000 Illustrations...,” Elizabeth Bishop acknowledges the way her “infant sight,” which studied the pictures in this book carefully, over and over again, meshed and merged with the adult who observed the world around her with a more questioning eye. She identifies the centrality of her own nativity, “a family with pets,” a collective of individuals who influenced not only in infancy, but throughout her life.

Even the most in depth analysis serves only to throw a dim light on the power of lived experience and the way it sources the creative process and art. Many people, including myself, have written about “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” but we have only approximated (never fully identified or isolated) the core energy and mystery of this and other Bishop poems. On some level the fact that the Bulmer Family Bible exists may not matter at all, but the experience of actually seeing this object, looking at it and reading it next to the poem, creates a curious and wonderful synergism. Elizabeth Bishop did the same thing and from that looking and pondering emerged art.


The Bulmer Family Bible was saved and passed on by the women in the Bulmer family: Mary Hutchinson Gourley, Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer, Grace Bulmer Bowers, Phyllis Bowers Sutherland. It now resides in the Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds at Acadia University.

1 comment:

  1. For those studying the poem, would it be possible to show some of the illustrations inside the covers,if only that of the Nativity?