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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: "Deaths, deaths and..." numbers

Today is the anniversary of the death of William Thomas Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop’s father. He died on 13 October 1911. He was just shy of 40 years old (39 years, 8 months and 8 days, to be exact, according to an obituary). His early death set off a chain of events that forever shaped Bishop’s life, events over which she had not the slighted control, since she was only 8 months old at the time. Bishop herself died 68 years later, almost to the day, on 6 October 1979. The vital statistic that got all of these others started was the marriage of William Thomas Bishop to Gertrude May Bulmer on 22 June 1908.

The snippet of quotation in the title is adapted from Bishop’s poem “The Moose” “deaths, deaths and sicknesses” — I substituted “numbers” because it struck me how many curious convergences there are in the vital statistics of Bishop’s life — by which I mean both the quantity of these convergences and the way that their trajectories intersect in time (that incomprehensible and mysterious phenomenon), which as humans we have chosen to describe and measure with numbers on all levels: eons, years, days, hours.

In her memoir “Primer Class” Bishop concluded with a declaration about numbers: “I finally mastered the eight — but when I watched the older grades at arithmetic class, in front of the blackboard with their columns of figures, it was utterly incomprehensible. Those mysterious numbers!” Incomprehensible and mysterious. “Primer Class” has a delightful account of her learning to make the number eight on her slate, and how it “skreeked” so much that she was sent outside by her grandmother to practice. Was there something subconscious at work with 8? Which on its side ∞ is the sign for infinity, or, as Bishop would say, “forever.” There is a subtle semantic difference here between space and time, but since it can be argued they are the same thing, the terms are interchangeable — and equally unfathomable.

Digression: We have incorporated this sign in our new logo for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations, that is EB1∞ (have a look at the new events website to see it). The idea being that Bishop’s influence will go on long after all of us are gone.

Back to Bishop and vital statistics. She was born on 8 February 1911. There is that 8 again. In this year, I find my own strange convergence with Bishop. Both my grandmothers were born in 1911, both in March. I feel a direct generational link with Bishop through this temporal sychronicity, and my grandmothers had particular and long-lasting affects on me, as Bishop’s had on her.

Bishop’s much loved maternal grandparents were both born in February: William Brown Bulmer (Pa to EB) on 9 February 1846; Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer (Gammie to EB) on 23 February 1850. William Bulmer died on 5 February 1930, just shy of 84. Gammie died just over a year later, 9 April 1931. She was 81. Rather a lot of 8s here, too, and a cluster of Februarys. Bishop saw her beloved Pa for the last time during the Christmas / New Year holiday of 1929-1930. She was 18. Her poem “Manners” is about Pa. Its epigraph reads: “For a child of 1918.” She saw Gammie for the last time in Montreal during the summer of 1930, where she also saw nuns playing tennis (convergences with nuns is an entirely different story!). Her poem “Sestina” is about her grandmother. There are no 8s in it, rather the poem’s structure circles around the idea of 6 — a foreshadow of her own death date?

And what about that October, this month of significant loss? There is an October cluster in the vital stats: Aunt Maude Bulmer Shepherdson was born on 3 October 1873. Maude is the aunt who more or less raised Bishop, in Revere, MA. Maude died in August 1940. She was 67, slightly younger than Bishop when she died. Bishop’s darling Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers, her favourite aunt, was born on 19 October 1889. She died on 10 August 1977, the “last real Bulmer,” in Bishop’s phrase. She was 88. Bishop dedicated “The Moose” to Grace, its short 6-line stanzas an echo of the 6-line stanzas of “Sestina.” Strangely, Grace died just two weeks before Robert Lowell. The loss of these two significant people in her life was a terrible blow. In her elegy for Lowell, “North Haven,” she wrote: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does” — there was a lot of repetition in Bishop’s life.

Bishop herself had an interest in vital stats. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries (both happy and sad). She also was aware of temporal convergences. In January 1951, she was in a particularly bad place in her life, struggling to stop drinking, hospitalized, unable to decide what to do with her life. She wrote to Anny Baumann, “I am exactly the age now at which my father died, which also might have something to do with it.” (One Art, p. 217). When Bishop wrote “exact,” she must have been thinking about those 39 years 8 months and 8 days — not just a vague almost 40. She wouldn’t be 40 for a few weeks.

Pick a number and follow it through Bishop. Her fascination with them was visceral. The opening lines of “Primer Class”: “Every time I see long columns of numbers, handwritten in a certain way, a strange sensation or shudder, partly aesthetic, partly painful, goes through my diaphragm. It is like seeing the dorsal fin of a large fish suddenly cut through the surface of water — not a frightening fish like a shark, more like a sailfish….The real name of this sensation is memory. It is a memory I do not even have to remember, or reconstruct; it is always right there, clear and complete. The mysterious numbers and columns, that impressed me so much — a mystery I never solved when I went to Primer Class in Nova Scotia!” (Collected Prose, p. 4)

Bishop was removed from Nova Scotia in October 1917, by her paternal grandparents. In February 1918, just days before she turned 7, she experienced another strange sensation that decades later became her poem “In the Waiting Room,” a poem that clearly declares its year, 1918. In the summer of 1919 Bishop was returned to Nova Scotia by her maternal aunts, a year that marked the beginning of a decade of long summer visits. Bishop was 8 years old. The 8s just keep repeating.

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