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

Monday, February 21, 2011

February House

Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home has put me up the last week in February for several years now. Precious days for thinking, reading, writing, and walking — sometimes out to a high frozen pasture to look down on the spire of Saint James' Church, other times through waist-deep thick-crusted snow, up to the cemetery where Bishop's grandparents are laid to rest. That's where I was coming back from one day in February, 2007, just in time to catch Janet Baker before she headed for Truro. She'd left me a copy of February House, hanging in a plastic shopping bag from the back door latch. "I wanted you to have it for the week — I know you'll enjoy it," she said. It's the story of a brownstone house that once stood at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, where a motley group of writers, musicians, and artists, including Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles and W. H. Auden, lived for a time in something between a boarding house and a commune. Anaïs Nin named it the February House, because so many of its inhabitants had birthdays then. Later that week we'd be gathering to celebrate Auden's hundredth birthday. I'd heroically refrained from putting "Carriages at One" at the bottom of the invitations, as Auden used to do.

Who are we? Friends. Some of more than thirty years' standing, others meeting for the first time. There would be a menu for each of us, its cover photograph taken at the famous writers' conclave in the back room of the Gotham Book Mart (which would be locking its already-once-relocated-doors forever a month thence). Auden contrives to slouch on a high stool well above all the rest, while Elizabeth Bishop stands stiffly next to Marianne Moore and stares off left at something Randall Jarrell is also taken by, -- something, perhaps, behind our right shoulder as we look in on them by sixty odd inches and back on them by sixty odd years. We'd be having smoked salmon puffs, chicken satsivi, mushroom pie and cucumbers in sour cream, birthday cake and flummery — a spread Auden's companion Chester Kallman would (I hope, anyhow) have found acceptable, if not by his standards lavish. We'd be reading some of his poems, too, that afternoon. After all, he wept over "The Moose," as James Merrill wrote to Bishop, and she wrote back that she could weep herself, just thinking of it. It would be a day for him, too.

After lunch we settled back to read poems to one another. "If you really are concerned about that subject, I'd suggest you go and read Auden. If he doesn't know something about love, I just don't know who else does," Bishop claimed in 1966, so we started with Auden's "Some say that Love's a little boy" and "Lay your sleeping head, my love." A bit earlier, on 21 December 1965, Bishop wrote to a friend: "Hardy's 'Her Apotheosis' is similar to that poem of Auden's about the matron having lunch at Schrafft's, etc.", so we read those two. Scott MacDougall read from Hannah Arendt. We read poems from Kallman's books Storm at Castelfranco and A Sense of Occasion. And as we read, a companionable warmth welled into a shared happiness that has loomed larger as the occasion has receded. It has become something akin to that "sweet sensation of joy" we all share for those few moments in "The Moose". Is it wrong to hear in Bishop's "where if the river/enters or retreats/in a wall of brown foam" echoes both of Auden's "But when the waters make retreat/And through the black mud first the wheat/In shy green stalks appears" and of Kallman's "Evening. Who calls? The light/Is walking on the waves; the light retreats./A word advances and repeats"? Is it a mistake to hear Auden's "drowned parental voices" somewhere in the back of the bus with Bishop's "grandparents' voices"? No. On that particular afternoon, at any rate, that bright February afternoon, with the extra bottles of Vouvray for once entirely forgotten in the pantry until hours after we'd parted, we felt — we all felt — that the bus climbing from the narrow plain and later returning under a sickle moon the blue broke in a fleece-white ribbon along the beach in Kallman's "Little Epithalamium" was, just for that day, the same one entering Bishop's New Brunswick woods, with its moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. Certainly it was the same moon, the moon that "looks on them all", as Auden wrote in "A Summer Night". Just as in her "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore," Bishop refashioned the strict sapphics of Pablo Neruda's “Alberto Rojas Giménez viene volando," so in "The Moose" she loosened the strict AABCCB rhyme scheme of Auden's sestains, while echoing the epiphany of his opening stanzas in almost final lines of her own.

The party has been looming larger, too, in the years since it was held. There were lovely thank you notes. One said "It was as if New York's Russian Tea Room had relocated to rural Nova Scotia." Another friend wrote "My head is still 'fizzing' with the talk and the wonderful readings. The memory of it will always be vivid. One of the things I so loved was all the laughter--the house shook and it so loves that kind of conviviality and connection." Several folks sent photos — mostly of the food, actually… Elizabeth Jones wrote to share the connection she had discovered between Oberon's last speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love." Folks I met again when we returned the summer after for the unveiling of the Bishop plaques at the Great Village pergola confirmed what I, too, had felt -- something about that February afternoon had partaken, to some slight extent, at any rate, of the shared communality and commonality Auden describes so memorably in the prose of his introduction to Anne Fremantle's 1964 anthology The Protestant Mystics, and in his poem "A Summer Night". Perhaps not quite his "Vision of Agape" — visions being too serious a word — but the feeling of the sight of a door left unlocked "because someone might need to come in", the feeling of the sight of a book in a plastic shopping bag, left because someone thought you'd like it, hanging ever-so-slightly agape from a yet-to-be-used latch.

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