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

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village, 21 June 1916: Introduction

Great Village seen from the top of St. James United Church

Elizabeth Bishop’s memoir “In the Village” is both deeply personal and transcendently universal, an expression of private, intimate experience and an evocation of the joy and pain that resonates for all of us. It stands alone, ultimately, a self-contained world, drawing a moment in time in astonishing, beautiful detail.

As a poet, I am content to leave it be. As a biographer and historian, however, my curiosity gets the better of me and I want to know more about the foundation, the sources, of this masterpiece. After all, Bishop said of it that it was plain facts, that it actually happened, that all she did was compress time a little. I am compelled to dig deeper not to detract from its sublime wholeness, but to link it more fully to its origins, to understand more broadly what the world was like at that moment in time and what caused the events to happen and allowed Bishop to write about them so movingly.

“In the Village” is, in the end, about the child Bishop was in 1916, when the events happened (even if it is the adult remembering that child and re-imagining, re-creating, re-envisioning her).The other person, though, who was central to the experience and who remained a force in Bishop’s life, was her mother. Bishop searched her whole life for the sources about her mother (within herself and in the world) – her mother always remained a part of Bishop’s life.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Bishop and her mother and what Great Village was like for them in the mid-1910s. My thinking led me to an idea of re-imagining “A Day in the Life of Great Village” – a day of great significance to both Bishop and her mother: the day Gertrude Bulmer Bishop went to the Nova Scotia Hospital. We do not know the precise day she boarded the train at Londonderry Station (or, perhaps in Truro) and went to Dartmouth, but we know it was late June. I imagine it was 21 June 1916 (the summer solstice), a date probably very close based on evidence found in documents connected to Gertrude’s hospitalization.

Many years ago, having pondered this day for some time, I decided to write a series of vignettes about Great Village, “A Day in the Life” – set on that day – to create a sort of narrative describing the people who lived “in the village,” and the activities that would have been happening in the community. I did nothing with these vignettes, so I have decided to dust them off and post them on the blog. My aim is to post one a week, for the next several months. Slowly, “A Day in the Life of Great Village” will appear and gradually the story of that day will unfold. Stay tuned!

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