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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Commemoration

The first act of public commemoration of Elizabeth Bishop in Nova Scotia occurred, if my memory serves me, in the summer 1992. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia was formed in 1994, so it was essentially the people of Great Village, along with some scholars, academics and writers (myself included), who got together and decided to put up a marker of some kind acknowledging Bishop’s connection to her childhood home. (The idea of forming the EBSNS was being discussed by a number of individuals as early as 1992, but it was nearly two years later when the society came into existence – I’ve been looking at the incorporation papers for the EBSNS and it became official in April of 1994 – where has the time gone?)

I remember attending quite a few meetings and having lots of discussions with people in Great Village, but I do not remember the specific moment when the choice of the type of commemoration was made. It was decided to erect a bronze plaque with her name and dates and a line from her poetry. I do not want to take more credit than is due (the process was a group effort all the way), but I think it was me who brought forward the line from “Crusoe in England”: “Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”

The committee that had been formed decided that the plaque should be cast at the Lunenburg Foundry, in Lunenburg, N.S., a storied business that has been in existence for decades, and was involved in casting hardware for our famous schooner, Bluenose, as well as for the replica, Bluenose II.

I would have to go back to the old files to find out who designed the plaque – a company in Halifax – and they arranged for the casting. I am not sure who suggested St. James Church as the site for the plaque. At that time, the owner of Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home was an elderly woman named Hazel Bowers, so placing the plaque there was not an option. Besides, we all wanted it to be completely accessible to the public. The church seemed an obvious choice, situated as it is right next to the EB House and smack in the middle of the village. The church was a site of great significance for Bishop, so much so that she turned it into a powerful iconic image in her writing.

The unveiling of the plaque was a day of celebration and drew quite a few people to the village. We had put together an exhibit of the wonderful Bulmer family material which is now at Acadia University (see the permanent link to the digital archive of this material on this blog) – at that time, the collection was still in Bishop’s maternal family’s hands.

Photograph by Laurie Gunn

The plaque is still on the church – there are now other public commemorations of Bishop (a few years ago the EBSNS erected two large panels about Bishop which are displayed in the summer on a beautiful pergola structure by the Great Village River – see the EBSNS website for a closer look at the panels, which are digitally reproduced there).

Public commemoration can be a controversial activity – we all have our ideas of what is important and what should be acknowledged. Commemoration in Nova Scotia tends to focus on history, and usually political, military and economic history. Being a historian, I don’t object to this kind of commemoration, but rarely do we honour our artists in such permanent public ways. Somehow, in 1992, a group of people from Great Village and from around the province in general recognized the importance of Great Village and Nova Scotia to Elizabeth Bishop, recognized the importance of Elizabeth Bishop to Nova Scotia, and recognized the importance of poets and poetry in our lives (historically, culturally and personally) and decided to make a statement about this importance in a quiet but definite way. Bronze is remarkably enduring.

We will be commemorating Elizabeth Bishop in many ways in 2011, marking her centenary and marking her continuing influence in the world today. As we embark on this year-long celebration, I wanted to remember this initial act of commemoration because it was genuine and farsighted.

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