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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lifting Yesterday – Supplement – Chapter 5: In search of a shipwreck

I have often been asked, in one way or another, whether being so immersed in one subject for so long (i.e., Elizabeth Bishop for over 20 years) is limiting. I can appreciate why someone might think this to be the case, but the truth is quite the opposite. If you are engaged in a deep study of just about anything, you find yourself travelling (metaphorically and literally) to all sorts of places you never expected.

I am particularly fortunate that my subject (one of them, that is) — Elizabeth Bishop — happens to possess an astonishing range, a remarkable latitude of context. Not only was her art diverse and her life complex and fascinating, her own interests were abundant. So, my immersion in the study of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and art has taken me on voyages that I would never have imagined (including, for example, an actual journey to Brazil, and the discovery of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins).

My interest in the history of my own province long predated my encounter with Elizabeth Bishop (I have two degrees in history and worked for over five years in the Nova Scotia Archives). But when I embarked on a study of Bishop’s connections to Nova Scotia and the Maritimes, in many ways I immersed even more deeply in the history of this region. It was as if I acquired a third history degree.

Chapter Five of Lifting Yesterday is the first of three chapters (Five, Six and Seven) which comprise a mini-biography of Bishop. The first four chapters explored powerful Nova Scotia influences on Bishop (place, ancestors/family and her mother). The next three chapters look at how those influences manifested in her life. The way I decided to chart the impact of these influences was through a more conventional chronological narrative. Thus, what Chapters Five through Seven offer is a biography within a biography. Leave it to me to complicate structure, but Lifting Yesterday’s form seemed simply to emerge out of my immersion.

I have always contended that Bishop’s childhood held many keys and clues to “Bishop the adult” and “Bishop the poet.” So, Chapter Five is a direct account of what I see as significant in the earliest years of her life. I focus on only a few themes, as I provide a basic narrative of these years. One thing from these earliest years I’m quite proud of is my discovery that Bishop, fascinated by shipwrecks her whole life, experienced her own shipwreck in 1919.

The discovery happened this way: I spent months in the Nova Scotia Archives reading the “Newsy Notes” of Great Village in the Truro Daily News (a motherlode of information). One day I came across a note that said (I’m paraphrasing): “Miss Grace Boomer and her friend [name forgotten by me] and little Miss Elizabeth Bishop returned home for the summer. They were aboard the ill-fated North Star.” Thought I: “Ill-fated North Star! What is that?!”
North Star (Yarmouth County Museum)
One small reference sent me off on a delightful journey — first through more records in the archives, where I discovered that the steamer North Star went aground off the coast of Nova Scotia on a trip from Boston to Yarmouth. That Bishop never directly mentions this event (she was eight years old at the time) in anything I have ever read was disappointing to me, but I still felt that this experience was vital. How could being on a shipwreck not affect you?
 North Star aground on Green Island (Yarmouth County Museum)
After I’d mined the archives for information, I learned that the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives (http://yarmouthcountymuseum.ca/) had more information. So, one day, my father and I drove to Yarmouth to visit the museum. The archivist, whose name also escapes me, showed me a number of North Star artefacts. The most impressive of them, I felt sure, would have thrilled Bishop: the great ship’s bell (which I got to ring!) and its wheel.
The wheel of the North Star (my own photo)
As we talked, the archivist said that sometime in the 1970s an elderly woman, who had been a child on the North Star on that fateful day, came to the museum seeking information about the shipwreck. She was sure that the archivist at the time had alerted the local paper and there was a photo of this woman. You can imagine what I thought. I knew Bishop had passed through Yarmouth in the mid-1970s when she and Alice Methfessel had taken the ferry Prince of Fundy to and from Portland/Yarmouth and drove to Great Village. Might Bishop have gone to the museum? The archivist went off to find the photograph, returning about fifteen minutes later with it. Alas, it was not Bishop; but as I looked at the photo, it was amazing to think that this woman had shared that experience with Bishop.
Survivor of the North Star with Yarmouth County Museum archivist
Chapter Five of Lifting Yesterday has a detailed account of what happened on the North Star on that “ill-fated” day.

I incorporated the North Star experience into an essay I wrote that was published in The Dalhousie Review, “Shipwrecks of the Soul.” I’d be happy to send you a pdf of that essay, if you are interested.
Yarmouth County Museum Facebook page

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