"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lifting Yesterday – Supplement – Chapter 4: Gretrude May Bulmer Bishop

Over the years that I have been researching and writing about Elizabeth Bishop, the one aspect of her life which has most interested me is her relationship with her mother. Because their actual time together was of relatively short duration (the first five years of Bishop’s life), most critics and scholars assume that there was no ongoing relationship at all — which makes me wonder what sort of relationships these critics and scholars have with their own mothers. I am no psychologist, so cannot presume to know much if anything about the organic nature of this relationship (heavens, I’m still working out my own relationship with my mother, who has been dead over eighteen years); but on the most basic, practical level, regardless of the length of time we have with our mothers, the relationship not only endures, but continues to affect our sense of self and our position vis-à-vis the world. Sometimes I’ve wondered if scholars think that Bishop emerged fully formed from the head of some Vassar deity in 1934, without any connection to what was, upon investigation, a complex, fraught, fascinating childhood.

One of the critical habits about this important relationship of Bishop’s life that has been perpetuated in most of the scholarship is the often complete erasure of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude May Bulmer Bishop. Many times, Gertrude is referred to only as “mother,” as if she was some sort of vague notion, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Bishop certainly did not experience her mother as a vague notion, even in the long, living absence that occurred because of her mother’s hospitalization. Much of this erasure of Gertrude is due to the alleged “objectivity” of academic literary criticism and critics and their belief that the life must remain removed from the art — to link art to the life of the artist is a disservice to (even a betrayal of) the art. Bishop did not separate art from life, nor did she privilege art over life. Just as with her understanding of the forces of creativity, Bishop believed there was no “split,” which makes life and art quite messy, “an untidy activity” — even if one can hold to some enduring truths outside our selves, such as beauty. Of course, there were times when Bishop believed the opposite of all of this — to hold too rigidly to one belief paints one into a very small corner.

A major part of my Bishop research has been to locate information about Gertrude, to piece together a more detailed picture of this quite real and complex person. Bishop famously “disembodied” her mother in a sound, “the scream” of “In the Village” — but look carefully at that masterpiece and her mother is quite embodied through all the senses and in many dimensions. Bishop even tries to understand her mother’s state of mind, unsuccessfully perhaps because she was only five when she witnessed the events of that story.
This portrait of Gertrude Bulmer, around age 7 (circa 1886) was done by an "unknown itinerant portrait painter." It and its companion portrait of Arthur Bulmer were given to Bishop by her aunts in the 1960s. They formed the basis of "Memories of Uncle Neddy." The portraits still exist in the US and in 2010-2011 I tried desperately to find a way to buy and repatriate them, but failed.

For me, Chapter Four of Lifting Yesterday is the most important chapter in the book, providing the beginning of a corrective of the general treatment of Gertrude Bulmer Bishop in Bishop scholarship. This portrait is only a sketch, more detailed than anywhere else, but still only a sketch. Even so, I hope that I bring a living, breathing Gertrude more the fore, placing her in the context of her family, community and time; but even more, showing something of her “selfhood” — the sense of who she was and why she was unable to hold onto what we would, rightly or wrongly, call a “normal life.”

Bishop was deeply affected by her parents’ lives, by the premature death of her father, by the ongoing mental struggle of her mother. I think Bishop spent her entire life dealing with all this stuff: she sunk under its burden; she rose above its pain; she channelled her confusion, anger, frustration and sorrow into her art, transforming the overwhelming emotions into amazing poems and memoirs. She didn’t let it get to her and she let it trap her, all at the same time. Whose life is any different, I wonder? Bishop’s fable “In Prison” declares that we are all in some sort of prison, so the trick is to find the right one and commit to it, then you might have a chance at finding some sort of peace of mind. This story is told from a remarkable clear-eyed, unself-pitying perspective. Bishop was in her twenties when she wrote it. Who did Bishop know who was “imprisoned”? Her mother.
Nova Scotia Hospital (Mount Hope), the institution where Gertrude spent the last eighteen years of her life.

When Bishop first read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems during her teens and early twenties, she saw how profound, troubling, overwhelming emotions could be held and carried in powerful language. One of the reasons I believe Bishop was able to cope (with varying degrees of success through the years) with these early first losses was because somehow, for some reason, in some way, she was able to hear her own “voice” at an early age. Rather than this reality being in spite of her mother, might it also be, if only in part, BECAUSE of her mother. Why is one assertion more accurate than the other? As in the quantum world where light is both a particle and a wave, in our psychic world there is no either/or, there is only all, and all at once. Bishop knew how important and futile language was in her exploration and expression of this all.

Artists are notoriously difficult to understand and each of us who approaches an artist’s life does so with a bias. One of my biases is that Bishop’s mother mattered to Bishop, so when I went looking for how and why, I was primed to interpret evidence that light. I have written about Bishop’s relationship with her mother a number of times. One of my first published essays appeared in the spring 1994 issue (Vol. 74, no. 1, pp. 25–50) of The Dalhousie Review, “Shipwrecks of the Soul: Elizabeth Bishop’s Reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” Somehow I have lost track of my electronic file for this essay and The Dalhousie Review has not yet digitized back issues (though it declares that is happening).

Some years later, I wrote an essay about Bishop and World War I, which appeared in War, Literature & The Arts (Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 11, no. 1, 93–110). This journal is digitized and you can check out this issue at the following link: http://wlajournal.com/archive.aspx?issue=11_1
 
 

Gertrude (r) and Elizabeth (c) and either Mabel Bulmer or Florence Bishop. Sadly, I have lost track of how this image came to me. Bishop looks to be about 2 or 3, so that would put it circa 1913-1914.

However, I have managed to keep track of this file and if anyone is interested in reading this essay, which is, if I do say so myself, an interesting look at how the private drama of the Bulmer family (around the illness and hospitalization of Gertrude) and the drama of global war held uncanny synchronicities, I can send it to you as a pdf (gratis).

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