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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections – Gasoline

In an interview with Leslie Hanscom in 1977 (collected in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro, 1996, pp. 69-71, reprinted from Newsweek, 6 February 1977, p. 8), Elizabeth Bishop recounted an early memory. As Hanscom recorded:

“Her own beginnings as a poet go back to the age of eight. Miss Bishop remembers a morning when her grandmother, preparing her for Sunday school, was sprucing up her shoes. The shoes were patent leather with white tops. To clean the tops, the grandmother used gasoline, and Vaseline for the patent leather. The little girl was intoxicated by the rhyme. ‘I went around all day chanting “gasoline/Vaseline,”’ the older Elizabeth Bishop said, ‘It may not have been a poem, but it was my first rhyme’.”

Illumination during Bishop’s childhood in Great Village in the 1910s came primarily from oil lamps, which during the day were lined up on a shelf in the pantry of her grandparents’ home. Elizabeth was responsible for polishing their chimneys. Even in Revere, Massachusetts, where she lived with her aunt in the 1920s, there were gas lamps, “that surely did give an ominous cold bluish light,” as Bishop recalled. “I can remember the awe with which I watched my aunt light up every night the one lamp that was kept burning—it had a ‘mantle’—and that I could make jump up into full awful glare by pulling a small balled chain” (“Mrs Sullivan Downstairs,” collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 199).

That first encounter with shoe polish and the fascination with oil and gas lamps coincided with the advent and rise of the automobile, as the internal combustion engine, hungry for fossil fuel, revolutionized life in North America. With this appearance came the infrastructure needed to service this new technology – that is, the blacksmith shops gave way to service stations. The first such businesses in Great Village were A.L. Peppard’s Vulcanizing Shop and Ronald Jenks’s Garage, which operated during Bishop’s childhood.

Arthur and Mabel Bulmer and their daughters Eleanor and Hazel, circa 1910

Bishop’s Uncle Arthur Bulmer was one of the first people in the village not only to get a Model-T Ford but also, being a businessman with his own tinsmith shop, he realized that he could augment his living by selling gasoline to motorists. As Bishop remembered:

“Then I went away to live in the States and came back just for the summers. Perhaps two or three years went by, I’m not sure, but one summer a gasoline pump appeared in front of the shop. Cars stopped to be filled up; not very often, but there were more of them, although the road was still dirt and gravel, ‘crowned’ in the middle. Billy and I competed with each other as to which one had seen the most and the biggest trucks. If a truck stopped for gasoline, we rushed to examine it: read or blue paint, decorated with white lines or gold lines, with arrowheads, what load it was carrying, where it was going.” (Collected Prose, p. 248)

Uncle Arthur's station under construction

Arthur Bulmer gradually expanded his service station (originally a “Red Indian” and then a “Texaco”) and right beside it an Esso Station appeared in the 1930s. Bishop encountered this latter business for the first time in 1946, when she returned to Nova Scotia after a hiatus of sixteen years. It was with this encounter that one of her best known poems and evocations of gasoline emerged: “Filling Station” with it “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” environs and the “rows of cans” that “softly say: ESSO-SO-SO-SO” to those “high-strung automobiles.” (Complete Poems, p. 127-128)

Uncle Arthur's Texaco (his house is to the left)

Esso station on left. Bulmer family home top right. Layton's store bottom right.

The new Esso station, built in the 1980s

For someone so focused – obsessed even – with the natural world and wary of cities with their oppressive and congested traffic, images of oil and gasoline are remarkably persistent, a hint of the continuous dialogue in Bishop’s work with modernity. For example:

There is the sea in “The Sea & Its Shore”: “On nights that Boomer was most drunk, the sea was of gasoline, terribly dangerous. He glanced at it fearfully over his shoulder between every sentence he read, and built his fire far back on the beach. It was brilliant, oily, and explosive. He was foolish enough then to think that it might ignite and destroy his only means of making a living.” (Collected Prose, p. 174) Edwin Boomer also carries around a lantern with him wherever he goes, an echo of those childhood oil lamps.

There is “the pool of bilge / where the oil had spread a rainbow / around the rusted engine” at the end of “The Fish” making that “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” just as she let’s the fish go.

There is the “acrid / smell of gasoline” at the end of “The Moose” as the bus starts off along the “moonlit macadam.”

There is the “blue cloud of burning oil” from an old truck and the oil that “has seeped into / the margins of the ditch of standing water” in “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto.” Oil that “flashes or looks upward unbrokenly, / like bits of mirror – no, more blue than that: / like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.”

I am sure there are others, but these are the ones that spring to my mind instantly. The wonder of Elizabeth Bishop’s art is that in spite of the few poems and stories that she published during her life-time, there are endless subjects and startling images evoked and juxtaposed. And somehow, always, these subjects and images seem to have a path back to Great Village and childhood, seem somehow directly or indirectly connected to Nova Scotia.

No comments:

Post a Comment