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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 3

She stood in the large front bedroom, with sloping walls on either side, papered with wide white and dim-gold stripes. Later, it was she who gave the scream.

A central technique of any story is voice ─ the perspective of the narrator. The first two sections of “In the Village” are told by an omniscient narrator, a perspective which overlooks the characters and events, a voice which functions outside or above the story. This choice of voice at the beginning allows Bishop to provide context or background (“Later, it was she who gave the scream.”) This third person narration introduces the principal characters of the story: “she” (the mother) and “the child.” It introduces the principal sounds: “a scream” and the “Clang” of the blacksmith.

The omniscient narrator also allows the story to move through time. The first section of “In the Village” is in the present tense. The second section begins in the past tense but shifts back and forth through tenses. Gradually, the second section moves from the past to the present tense ─ from “She stood in the large front bedroom” to “Now the dressmaker is home.” In essence all these events are in the past, but shifting from past to present tense gives the reader a feeling of an eternal presence (and, ultimately, absence). The tenses shift as they do towards the end of the second section in part to signal a shift of voice from an omniscient narrator to the first person ─ to the voice and perspective of the child: “I had watched,” “I had once lived,” “I had come from there,” “I remembered.” The remainder of the story is told from this point of view, placing the story in the past ─ but because memory exists in the present, the verb tenses ebb and flow like tide. Bishop’s narrative shift and the shifting verb tenses (and the actuality of events being in the past, being remembered in the past, yet existing in the present in memory and on the page) produces at once a strange elusiveness and a startling clarity. The story embodies our experience of time as being both linear and non-linear. It is difficult to know exactly which state dominates at any given moment:

The pure note: pure and angelic.
The dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes.

This brief, grammatically complex, yet acutely direct passage in the second section is an example of the intense compression. Essentially, it encapsulates all the events and the fundamental form of the whole story. Bishop offers these kinds of lyrical vignettes throughout “In the Village.” All the exposition in the world, however, will never have the power of these few words, possessing as they do a “dazzling dialectic” (a dialogue) between lost and found, between wonder and fear.


Gertrude Bulmer Bishop in Great Village, circa 1900, before the "mourning."

The second section of “In the Village” is an onslaught of sensory experience and description. There are many colourful sights: gold-striped wallpaper on sloping walls; a new purple dress being made; red or green gilded books with Bible stories; a gray roof with moss; lilac bushes, heavy green elms, honeysuckle vines with wasps; ruby wine. The colours contrast with underlying shadows embodied in the woman with thin white hands who has worn only black, who is resisting all the colours around her: “Is it a good shade for me? Is it too bright? I don’t know. I haven’t worn colors for so long now....” Not all shadow worlds are frightening. The blacksmith’s shop is a dark realm of intense energy where “things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things.” (Here is “hang” again directly linked with the blacksmith’s “Clang.” This “things” is a premonition of the appearance of “things” in the next section.) This darkness contains too many fascinating things to be frightening. It is awesome.

Sound also continues in this section and its register widens: the pure and angelic note “Clang” ─ “Oh, beautiful sounds”; the “hissing, protesting” water as the horseshoes, “bloody little moons,” are drowned; the wasps, the creaking bellows, the horse’s stamping foot. These sights and sounds are accompanied for the first time by the other senses. Smell: “straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay”; “a smell of red-hot metal and horses’ hoofs” ─ and those lilacs and honeysuckle. Taste: “sour, diluted ruby: raspberry vinegar.” Touch: the “almost touch noses” between horse and dog; granite disks “too hot to touch”; the dressmaker “holding the dress to her heart.”

The elements are present too. Earth: trees, moss, flowers, grass, stones. Air: the hot summer afternoon, shade and shadows, the bellows. Fire: the red-hot metal, the bloody little moons, the hot millstones. Water: the diluted wine, the tub of night-black water. This confluence of sensory and elemental experience speaks to the richness of the world the child inhabits and contrasts with the struggle of the mother who is very thin, who “had not got any better,” who screams.

In this section Bishop writes directly about the life of this woman. She provides a poignant, highly compressed chronology of that life: “First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.” What keeps this account from being mere reportage (for it is factually accurate) is that Bishop has turned it into a song, a chorus. The repetitions not only describe facts, but produce an ebb and flow cadence.

Bishop records the “frightening expenses” of the mother’s illness and its affect on the child who is “unaccustomed to having her back.” This mother’s scream causes the child to vanish. Yet the child is in the midst of myriad sensations, a plethora of stimulation. Having written, “The child vanishes.”, Bishop then returns the child to the reader by shifting voice in the third section, allowing the child herself to take up and finish telling the story.

Absence/presence, lost/found ─ our sensory experiences make a deep impression on our minds. Human events and emotions do the same. Everything passes ─ “vanishes” ─ yet in memory it can be recalled; in art recreated. Art is the same and not the same as experience; but essentially, both life and art are human processes: “It is the most beautiful material she has worked on in years...and heaven knows how much it cost.” Bishop’s beautiful story cost her a great deal. Did “In the Village” redeem the loss and pain in any way? Can any art do that? Bishop would have said, “perhaps.”


Before my older aunt had brought her back, I had watched my grandmother and younger aunt unpacking her clothes, her “things.”

In “The Moose” Bishop recorded an inventory of individual and communal life experience:

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened....

This inventory resides in “Grandparents’ voices,” “Talking the way they talked,” “talking, in Eternity,” remembered by Bishop and retold in the poem. This “Eternity” echoes Bishop’s “forever” in “In the Village.”

The third section of “In the Village” is essentially an inventory, in this instance of “things” belonging to the absent/present mother. At this point, the child takes over the narration. She is the direct witness of people, places, events ─ and, here, objects. The child links herself immediately with these objects: “...they had finally come from Boston....even I had once come from there.” Thus she objectifies herself, but she also equally animates the objects. They resonate for her in overwhelming ways. The list is extraordinary and evocative: “mourning hat,” “large black roses,” “mourning coat,” “housedresses,” “black grosgrain bows,” “pearls in a little wreath,” “white hat,” “white embroidered parasol,” “black shoes,” “mesh bag,” “calling card case,” “silver-framed photograph, quickly turned over,” “handkerchiefs,” “a bottle of perfume,” “postcards,” “barrels of china,” “cake basket,” “another photograph,” “a tablecloth,” “little ivory embroidery tools.”

In the previous section Bishop distilled her mother’s life in several short, rhythmic sentences. In this section she creates a portrait of the mother herself ─ bodily absent yet tangibly present ─ through an inventory of her “things.” How many of us can be described this way? These present things are all the more poignant because the person they belong to is ill, troubled, even lost. Yet these things are also harbingers, signals for the arrival of the mother, preparing the child for the future.

The things explain emblematically the principal circumstance of the mother: she is in mourning. They also bespeak her illness and unstable state: the postcards have metallic crystals which are “crumbling, dazzling and crumbling”; the china is broken; the tablecloth “isn’t finished.” The shape and texture of the life of this woman, this mother who is only called “her,” unfolds poignantly in this inventory.

In this section the narrator records other voices ─ as Bishop did in “The Moose.” The child hears her grandmother and aunt “exclaim, and talk, and exclaim, over and over.” The inventory is spoken. The voices introduce the child to the complexity of language: “But always I think they are saying ‘morning.’ Why, in the morning, did one wear black?” These voices also offer the first instance of a “dazzling” dialogue:

“It’ll just have to stay in the barrels.”
“Mother, you might as well use it.”
No,” says my grandmother.
“Where’s the silver, Mother?”
“In the vault in Boston.”
Vault. Awful word.

This talk adds dimension to the objects. The objects reside not just in the silence of their “trunks and barrels and boxes,” but within lived experience and oral history. The objects have stories attached to them.

Moreover, the absent mother, her things and the child reside in a sensory world: the starched, stiffly folded dresses; the bright sunlight; the “marvelous scent” of the perfume ─ “It doesn’t smell like that here” ─ the postcards looking like a colour wheel: “brown...black...blue,” “silver, gold, red, and green”; the “rough, jeweled lines on the postcards” which the child touches with the tip of her finger, “over and over.”

Because this inventory is essentially an interior, home-made one, the elements are at the periphery. However, in the end, the child symbolically returns the objects to the earth: “I abscond with a little ivory stick with a sharp point. To keep it forever I bury it under the bleeding heart by the crab-apple tree, but it is never found again.” The inventory concludes with a desperate bid for “forever” ─ this time the sky is not holding a scream, but the earth is receiving an ivory stick (a tool of the mother’s creativity). The child buries it beneath a perennial with a powerfully evocative name: bleeding heart. The hope of the child for forever is, however, “never” realized. Some things will always remain lost.

Bishop does not explain any of this directly ─ rather, she evokes it through metaphor, symbol and question: “What are the messages?” The messages she seeks and gives are those connected to how we know, remember and honour the joy and sorrow of our lives.

In 1978 Bishop remarked about childhood, “You are fearfully observant then. You notice all kinds of things, but there’s no way of putting them all together” (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop 125). The child is faced with a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Only through experience can a person begin to put the pieces together in a coherent, meaningful way. The inventory in this section of “In the Village” is part of the raw material of Bishop’s puzzle. Though the objects, voices, sensory and emotional “things” are her own, the process of creative transformation ─ of art ─ puts this particular puzzle into a realm which her readers can access and identify with. She says only: This is my puzzle. By doing so, each reader is given an opportunity to return to his or her own puzzle, and may find pieces that were missing.

The dense accumulation of detail in this section establishes a textured domestic realm: clothes, crafts, communication. It is interesting to note that the first title Bishop chose for “In the Village” was “Clothes. Food. Animals.” (One Art 249). This realm helps to establish “the village, where we live, full-size, and in color.” Many of the objects and subjects of this section appear elsewhere in the story, and in Bishop’s other poems and stories. The repetition of words and images reinforces the cadences and rhythms of the overall form. Within each section there are echoes of what has come before and hints of what will follow. “In the Village” is one continuous echo.

The domestic, private realm of this section and the personal struggle it evokes always exists in tandem and often intersects with the archetypal world of the blacksmith shop. Both these realms are contained within the natural or elemental world. At any given moment these realms are in communication with each other: “Black shoes with buckles glistening like the dust in the blacksmith's shop.” One of the marvels of "In the Village" is its seamless interconnectivity.

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