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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: "Everything and Anything"

Recently, Suzie LeBlanc, who in late September/early October 2010 visited Ouro Prêto for the first time, gave me a wonderful object that had belonged to Elizabeth Bishop. This object was given to her by Linda Nemer, who, along with her brother José Alberto Nemer, have since 1982 owned Casa Mariana, Bishop’s restored eighteenth-century house in that beautiful city. I hope at some point Suzie will write about her visit to Ouro Prêto for the blog, as there were many wonderful “Bishop moments.” Our conversations about this trip triggered many memories for me, because in 1999 I had the great privilege to attend a conference in Ouro Prêto and I visit Casa Mariana, along with dozens of other EB scholars. The Nemers graciously hosted a garden party for the conference participants and we were all introduced to these two lovely people. I am sure they would not remember me because there was such a large group of people, but my memory of that afternoon will always be vivid.

The object, the gift, given to Suzie by Linda, brought thousands of miles to Nova Scotia, is now in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village. What is it? It is a tall, slender, metal, turquoise-blue coffee pot (percolator). Its metal handle has a pretty wicker covering (I assume to keep it cool to the touch). On the bottom is a stamp indicating that it was made in Denmark – perhaps it was a gift to Bishop from her friend Lilli Correia de Araújo, who was Danish and owned the hotel across the road from Casa Mariana. It is a thoroughly domestic object, but with an elegance that one associates with Elizabeth Bishop, her personal and artistic aesthetic.
Suzie and me with the coffee pot (Photo by Bill Barker)

You might not automatically assume that Casa Mariana and the house in Great Village have any direct link. While they are quite different in some ways (one is stone, one is wood; one is eighteenth century, one is nineteenth century; one is landlocked, one is by a river that leads to a bay – and so on), even so, when I visited Casa Mariana I felt an immediate connection between it and Bishop’s childhood home. I won’t enumerate those connections, as I perceive them (perhaps in another post), because I want to talk about objects.

One of the questions I get asked most often by visitors to the Elizabeth Bishop House is whether or not there are any objects of Bishop’s from her childhood or, generally, from her life. Alas, except for the house itself, perhaps the most powerful “object,” in Bishop’s childhood, there are no personal childhood treasures (Acadia University Archives holds a few such treasures), but there are a couple of other items that belonged to Bishop, which have come as gifts to the house.

What is it about objects that intrigues us so? Our curiosity is natural and aligns with Bishop herself, who had a fascination with objects – with their intrinsic existence, their link to lived experience, their evolution as subjects for art. Look at any Bishop poem and you find ordinary objects with extraordinary lives. Take “Sestina,” for example, a poem set in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Its utterly domestic stove, tea kettle and almanac are both familiar and strange in the same breath, the same beat – they are in a constant shifting relation to the grandmother and child, and the tears that both of them know; "everything and anything" are part of the unspoken sorrow that hovers and echoes in this powerful poem.

In a 1935 journal Bishop wrote:

“Sometimes I wish I had a junk-room, store-room, or attic, where I could keep, and had kept, all my life the odds & ends that took my fancy. The buffalo robe with moth-bitten scalloped red-flannel edges, my Aunt’s doll with the limp neck, buttons, china, towels stolen from hotels, stones, pieces of wood, beach-tarp, old hats, some of my relatives cast-off clothes, toys, liquor labels, tin-foil, bottles of medicine to smell, bottles of colored water – things which please by their neatness, such as small lined blank-books, blocks of solder. – Everything and Anything: If one had such a place to throw things into, like a sort of extra brain, and a chair in the middle of it to go and sit on once in a while, it might be a great help….”

In the Elizabeth Bishop House there is such a room – what we call the “back room.” Though unfinished and more or less empty now, it clearly was a storage room. One of the fascinating things about this room is that there are remnants of newspapers covering the walls (newspaper was used as insulation). What fragments remains indicates its vintage: 1898 and thereabouts. The subjects on these shards of the past have uncanny echoes in Bishop. But, again, that is another story.

A Visit to the Attic
Elizabeth Bishop House

When I read the above journal entry and other similar written observations by Bishop about the importance and resonance of objects, about how to store/preserve/engage them, I think about this very room – perhaps the prototype of all the other junk-rooms she knew, had in mind and needed during her life. (My recollection of Casa Mariana is that it has an amazing basement that might have served a similar purpose for Bishop.)

Bishop regularly asked Aunt Grace to send her “everything” that was left that had belonged to her mother, and “anything” that Grace might want to share that was connected to the family. She received genealogical information, paintings, books, maple syrup and hundreds of letters. Grace sent Bishop some of her mother’s hand-made, embroidered linens. Bishop also sent Brazilian gifts to Grace. Thus, that the turquoise Danish coffee pot found its way from South to North, all these years after Bishop lived there, is part of an old continuum.

As I mentioned, there are a couple other objects that belonged to Bishop at the house in Great Village: a red cloth, rubber-lined bag from J.W. Fredericks Co. in Boston (this bag transported a raw roast beef from Boston to Halifax in the early 1970s – but that is, again, another story); and a pair of wooden Norwegian Bonna cross-country skis, bought in Harvard Square, again in the early 1970s.

While none of these objects: blue coffee pot, red bag, wooden skis are particularly personal, intimate, symbolic, still they are intriguing and filled with energy – they have made long journeys in time and space to end up where they are, but their journeys may not yet be over.

Ultimately, the “objects” with the most power for Bishop, for us, are her poems and stories themselves. She honours the mystery and resonance of our connections with the things we create by creating art. So many objects of the world around her, of her own life and of the lives of her family found their way into her words and, the fact is, these objects become even more alive on the page, making our engagement with her art endlessly delightful, inspiring and generative.

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