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

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Fill a Gap with Words

One image of Elizabeth Bishop’s writing process has come from a number of sources: the image is Bishop’s desk over which she posted her poems with blanks or gaps in the text, so she could ponder them while she waited for the right words. Gaps in text, in the creative process and in living life are inevitable. Sometimes they can be filled. Sometimes they cannot.

Life being what is it — busy — I was frustrated at being unable to make regular posts to the blog in September. All writers know this kind of frustration; I am in good company. Bishop herself experienced long periods of drought, gaps of varying lengths, when travel, ill health, states of mind, domestic demands and visitors (sometimes several combined at once) took her away from poetry — though often when poems were neglected she was writing letters, real letters. For me, and for most of us these days, the culprit is email, which can easily fill any gap to overflowing.

Distractions are legion, some unwanted and unexpected, some entirely welcome and pleasant because they are invited. Part of what has distracted me from writing for the blog over the past month was a most welcome visitor: I hosted a young writer from Scotland who came to Nova Scotia to do research for a Bishop project for a Creative Writing PhD. I will not give her name now because she has promised a “First Encounter,” so you will be introduced to her soon, I hope.

She stayed for a couple of weeks, part of which was in Great Village at the Elizabeth Bishop House; part in Halifax, where she worked at the Nova Scotia Archives; and part in Wolfville, where she worked at the Acadia University Archives. She immersed herself in Bishop’s Great Village and maternal family in an effort to understand her “Nova Scotia Connections.” I was delighted to spend some time with her in each of these places. Of the many things we talked about during these time, long and lively conversations about a wide-range of subjects, there was a delightful moment at the Acadia archives that has stayed with me and I decided to write about it.

The archivists brought out a number of items found in the Bulmer family collection (Bishop’s maternal family) and we carefully unwrapped and talked about each of them. One of the items was a very special dictionary. When Bishop finally started teaching late in life, she emphatically told her students to use a dictionary — she regarded dictionaries as essential tools of the trade. Indeed, one of the last major acts of her life, in July 1979, to buy the thirteen-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Not only did she urge dictionaries on her students, she also gave them as gifts. The dictionary in the Bulmer collection at the Acadia archives is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: American Heritage Publishing Co., Ltd., & Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973). Its inscription explains its provenance: “For Ernest Sutherland (& family) – Love & best wishes for 1975 – Elizabeth Bishop” Ernest Sutherland was the husband of Bishop’s Nova Scotian first cousin Phyllis Bowers Sutherland. Ern and Phyllis had three children.

The dictionary Bishop gave her cousin’s family is no ordinary list of words and their meanings. It is an illustrated dictionary and immediately reminds one of the Bulmer family Bible, also in the Acadia archives, which is the primary source for Bishop’s poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”

As the young Bishop scholar opened the dictionary and realized it was filled with pictures, her first impulse was to go to M and look for “moose.” Nearly every Bishop pilgrim from outside of Canada longs to see a moose when they come to Nova Scotia. Some of them have been successful, especially those who travel to Cape Breton. Sure enough, there in the wide margin of the page is a wonderful picture of a moose (male, not female). What is additionally delightful is that right above it was a picture of the moon. Instantly, we looked at each other and virtually in the same breath recited, “by craning backward / the moose can be seen / on the moonlit macadam…,” lines in the final stanza of Bishop’s poem “The Moose.”

Many devoted Bishop readers have had this kind of experience when encountering each other and something right out of a Bishop poem (fish, seals, filling stations, etc.): spontaneous simultaneous recitation.

The source for “The Moose” was a 1946 trip to Nova Scotia, when Bishop, having to return unexpectedly to the US, flagged down an Acadian Lines bus by the side of the road, which took her along the shores of the Bay of Fundy, then into New Brunswick, where the moose was encountered. It took her decades to finish the poem — 1972 to be exact, when she read it at a Harvard University Commencement ceremony. She dedicated the poem to Grace Bulmer Bowers, Phyllis Sutherland’s mother, who was still living in 1975 when the dictionary was given. I wonder if Bishop ever looked at that M page that so delighted us sitting in the Acadia archives.

We spent a little while looking through dictionary, and many Bishop images were pictured (sandpipers, compasses, moths, etc.). I am not sure why the moose moment was so memorable, except that it brought an instant delight and connection, filling a temporal and spatial gap. It also demonstrated that there is a direct channel between Bishop’s art and lived experience — not only her own life, which source the poems, but also that of her readers’ lives, long after the poems were written and Bishop has died.

It is a privilege for me to help bring Bishop scholars, readers, pilgrims closer to Bishop’s Great Village and maternal family heritage, to help bring them closer to her many “Nova Scotia Connections.”

1 comment:

  1. Sandra Barry's post about a visit to the archives with a young scholar resonates and
    reminds me of the joy to be found in close
    reading of a text as well as in finding unexpected associations.
    Many thanks, Donez Xiques