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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 6

But one night, in the middle of the night, there is a fire.

The hope, the possibility of “That afternoon” abruptly shifts: “But one night....” This construction is colloquial and powerful. How many of us in our conversations explain a possibility with the qualifier “But”: All is well and good, but.... This small word signals the reality behind the hope: “Everyone is pleased....But....”

The fiercest of elements ─ fire ─ sears through this section and there is little anyone can do to put it out. The damage is done. The fire is not contained inside the blacksmith’s forge, harnessed as energy to create. This fire is loose, a wild thing (“heat lightning”). For the first time in the story night appears. This is not the shadowy blacksmith shop with its bloody little moons and night-black water, contained and presided over by a powerful artisan. This darkness is time itself, vast and uncontrollable. Day and night ebb and flow and if we are lucky we get through intact. But fire and night are powerful together ─ too powerful for the mother.

A new sound, another bell, the church bell, alerts the child to the shift. She “wakes...up” to the fearful truth. Startled, she reacts: “red flames are burning the wallpaper beside the bed. I suppose I shriek.” Church and wallpaper are inextricably linked to the mother, so linked that the child intuitively knows where the real destruction lies and takes the mother’s sound, a scream.

This section is the most sustained stretch of talk in the story. The urgency is different now ─ an urgency of what we now call “damage control.” The fire, the alarm, the commotion of men and wagons pervade. The night time crisis takes place in lamplight inside the house. Bishop’s choice to focus on voices and noises for this section is perfectly attuned to the reality. One would hear more than see. And sound is an immersion. Just as the child could tell that the blacksmith was making a wheel rim just by the sounds, so the grandmother and aunts can tell how “She” is by listening, can tell how things are progressing outside by listening (“Now they're going down to the river to fill the barrels…”).

Bishop includes an interesting and significant detail (image) in this section, which is echoed several times: an open door. By opening the door of the child’s room the grandmother and aunts bring her directly into the activity. The child can clearly hear the voices. While there is much to be upset about, including the child is actually a gift. What would Bishop have grown to be if indeed her grandmother and aunts had kept the door closed? (an unanswerable but relevant question). By “Leav[ing] her door open,” they give the child (and the poet) access to a fuller understanding of the forces at work on the mother ─ give the child a dialogue of life which mitigates to some degree the depth of loss because she has a wider context.

Though the cacophony eases, echoes persist (the bell, the rattle of wagons, voices) “for a long time.” Indeed, it can be argued the echoes persisted until Bishop was able to write “In the Village.” The child tries to settle down, tries to “Go to sleep,” “I suppose I go to sleep.” This construction echoes the “I suppose I shriek.” These provisional phrases frame the drama. Their tentativeness signalling that the night is not yet over. The intensity and excitement, the destructiveness of the fire, has a profound, lasting impact.


I wake up and it is the same night as the fire.

This brief, poignant section is the bridge between what was and what is to be. As day dawns the grandmother, aunts and child, and the village itself, emerge to the scope of the damage. “It is still dark and silent” soon turns to “No, not silent,” then “It is gray.” There are still echoes: “one wagon rumbling far off, perhaps crossing the bridge”; and voices, “a skein of voices...saying the same things over and over, sometimes loudly, sometimes in whispers.” Here again is a door ─ not the child’s but the mother’s ─ slamming, opening. The talk in this section is a distillation of the last section, a lyrical condensing of the struggle, an acknowledgement of a terrible fact. It reads like a poem:

“Hurry. For heaven’s sake, shut the door!”
“Oh, we can’t go on like this, we...”
“It’s too dangerous. Remember that...”
“Sh! Don’t let her...”
A door slams.
A door opens. The voices begin again.
I am struggling to free myself.
Wait. Wait. No one is going to scream.

This passage is packed with rhyme, alliteration and cadence. It is another site in the story where “everything” is told in as few words as possible. This passage is the nexus of the shift, after which, “Slowly, slowly it gets daylight.”

The child re-enters day “by myself,” older and wiser, more independent. She connects with her grandfather for the first time, alone and more independent, too: “He has made the oatmeal himself.” His account of the fire, which he helped put out, reveals that all was not lost ─ and somehow he can be cheerful about it. The impact of the fire, however, is more devastating inside the house: “But neither of us is really listening to what he is saying; we are listening for sounds upstairs. But everything is quiet.” This image echoes the earlier one with the grandmother, “We are waiting for a scream. But it is not screamed again.”

And daily life must be attended to. The child takes Nelly to the pasture; the ebb and flow continues. The child, with her perennial curiosity and new independence, needs to see the evidence for herself. Arriving at the scene of the fire she is confronted with a profound paradox: “Everyone seems quite cheerful there, too, but the smell of burned hay is awful, sickening.” This sentence echoes one of Bishop’s most famous lines, and the epitaph on her gravestone: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.”

The barn can be rebuilt, the hay replaced. But the impact of the fire on the mother is forever.


Now the front bedroom is empty.

With this simple, quiet, matter-of-fact statement (akin to "The child vanishes."), Bishop signals that the emotional tide has turned utterly. The ebb and flow of the absent/present mother has ended. As Bishop invoked the absent mother in objects earlier in the story, here she represents the finality of the absence in an empty room. Why is this configuration more powerful than just saying, “The mother is gone,” as she says, “My older aunt has gone....” The empty bedroom is figuratively and literally more logical because although the mother has had a bodily and lingual presence, principally she has been her “things.” The bedroom is another of those rooms in “homes” which fill this story.

The finality of the change occurs in the continual ebb and flow of daily life, in which the child immerses herself again. The necessity of this immersion is one of the great imperatives of all life.

The next two paragraphs in this section are a curious memory/interlude about “a new pig.” While Bishop means this account to be quite literal ─ and clearly the grandparents introduce him to distract the child ─ this “new pig” can also be read as a metaphor for the child. The brutality of the pig’s fate ─ “this pig is butchered” ─ does not literally correspond with the child’s or Bishop’s experience. However, the disappearance of the mother is in many ways a kind of death, not only of the mother but of the child. After all, Bishop graphically wrote at the beginning of the story, “The child vanishes.”

In many instances in her poems and stories Bishop wrote about strange or curious non-human creatures ─ and identified herself, or parts of herself, with these creatures. The most obvious example is her prose-poem suite “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics,” with its “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab” and “Giant Snail.” Thus, it is not surprising that Bishop would link her child self to a pig: “He was very cute to begin with....He grew and grew.” The strange sunburn the pig gets is a kind of transmutation attended to by the grandmother, who trims his “brown and scorched” tail, “and it doesn’t hurt him.” This is all preparatory for the ultimate transformation of death. Being a farm child in a village where the source of food lived in the backyard (hens, cows, pigs, sheep), this death is part of the order of things ─ though it is still painful, and the trio of women (“my grandmother, my aunt, and I”) cope with it by accompanying the death with music, which both pays homage to life, “Out in the Fields,” and acknowledges the violence, “War March of the Priests.”

This interlude ends abruptly and quietly with an echo: “The front room is empty. Nobody sleeps there. Clothes are hung there.” Each of these tiny sentences echo something which had come before, and point the reader towards the forever of the mother.

What follows is a sustained echo of the fourth section of the story ─ another inventory, a listing of contents of “a package” the grandmother prepares and sends to the absent mother. The inventory itself is filled with its own echoes ─ the most prominent one being “Fruit, cake.” The package is an act of love and caring, which anchors the sadness of the terrible fact: “The address of the sanitorium is in my grandmother’s handwriting, in purple indelible pencil, on smoothed-out wrapping paper. It will never come off.” Here is the truth of the absence ─ and it is linked directly to the purple fabric and forever.

The child participates in this care-package ritual. Doing so takes her back out into the village ─ another errand of urgency for the mother (like the humbug errand) and the pattern is the same ─ the child executes it with determination. She doesn’t let herself be tempted by the blacksmith shop: “I pretend I don’t hear him. But at any other time I still go there just the same.” Moreover, the child has now entered the realm of self-consciousness, hiding the address from the blacksmith’s eyes. Now the “pretend” is no longer connected to play, but to serious purpose.

This errand puts the child in contact with the post office and its master, the description of which parallels that of Mealy and her shop. Indeed, the child links the two sites directly. Although the child is self-conscious, this does not make her retreat from the village. Indeed, the post office and its master are truly comforting and sympathetic. Mr. Johnson’s “Well, well”; “Good day, good day”; “Let me see. Let me see. Let me see. Hm.”; and “Yes. Yes.” are all genuine and soothing, echoes of much of what has come to her before from the villagers, “saying the same things over and over.” This man is “very old, and nice.” ─ he is the quintessential representative of the village, the person who administers one of the principal means of communication in the child’s world. What is communicated to the child is that even in the midst of tragedy (Mr. Johnson has his own wounds), humanity must engage the world with compassion. Mr. Johnson concludes this complex section (essentially a synopsis of the story) with the gentle, quiet acknowledgement, “Your grandmother is very faithful.”

The principal purpose of this section, however, has been to put the child outside, re-immerse her in the world, and to move the reader back towards the scream, back towards forever.


Every Monday afternoon I go past the blacksmith’s shop with the package under my arm, hiding the address of the sanatorium with my arm and my other hand.

Another echo ─ a variation on a theme ─ recurs in the last section (the echoing has gradually become more noticeable as the story moves towards its close): “Every Monday afternoon.” Whereas the opening section evokes “a scream” in the here and now, the final section explains how “a scream” got to be there in “that dark, too dark, blue sky.” This echoing phrase though brings the reader right back to the present of the opening section, past and present merging. This section also explains how the scream has become like an element. This happens because the child, standing on the bridge, lets the currents of the human and natural worlds flow over, under and through her ─ she is the site where they merge. Walking through the village “with the package under my arm” (essentially holding the absent mother), she stops on the bridge and stares into the water. Fish and Ford mingle. This paragraph is a lyrical evocation of “all the untidy activity” ─ listen to the sounds: “rushing in flank movements, foolish assaults and retreats, against and away from the old sunken fender of Malcolm McNeil’s Ford.” The “f” alliteration is the sound of the mind, spirit and body breathing: “And everything except the river holds its breath.” This line also embodies the ceaseless ebb and flow (“assaults and retreats, against and away from”) of existence ─ the irony of its futility and inevitability.

The child stops and stares, but she also listens to the sounds and silences. And once again the “Clang” returns and with it the scream. Has it “settled slowly down to earth” or does it still “float up, into that dark, too dark, blue sky”? Holding the package, the absent mother, under her arm all the while, the child enters a revery, a kind of hypnotic trance: “The leaning willows soak their narrow yellowed leaves.” The child is in service here to herself, her mother and the world around her. She is being, not without questioning, which is part of being. The child immerses into “everything.” Everything of humanity and nature merges.

This merging is most fully represented in the grammatical ambiguity of the sentences, “It sounds like a bell buoy out at sea. / It is the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water.” The “It” refers to the “Clang,” but the immediate antecedent subject is, in fact, the scream, “surely it has gone away, forever.” Indeed, “It” is both the scream and the Clang, humanly created sounds which have become “elements speaking.” “All those other things” ─ and here is the final distillation of the inventory of “In the Village,” of life and death ─ are both frail and mortal, and elemental and forever. As long as humanity can remain close to its elemental spirit, it will only be “almost-lost.” Scream and Clang (sounds rather like Strum und Drang) cannot be separated if we are to maintain our humanity ─ one will always resound in the other. With a gentle relentlessness, as the story progressed, Bishop linked and layered inner and outer worlds. The interconnections are mind-boggling, too intricate to be simply explained; they must be felt. They are structured through the dynamic of “echo”: what exists and its aftermath ─ both the tangible, “things,” and the intangible, “time.”

The triumph of the tragedy of “In the Village” is that the child and the poet conclude this brilliant evocation of harmony and paradox, love and loss, not by demanding the scream and Clang stop, but by commanding Nate to “strike again!” This is true artistic courage and vision.

Elizabeth Bishop's village

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