"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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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The EBSNS Celebrates 30th Anniversary

On Friday and Saturday, 14-15 June 2024, the EBSNS will mark its 30th anniversary with some exciting free events at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S. Everyone is welcome. After dispatching our necessary business with our AGM on Friday morning (11:00 a.m.), in the afternoon join us for a "Room By Verse Tour" of the Bishop House (1:30 p.m.), which will see a reader in each room reading one of Elizabeth Bishop's Nova Scotia poems. On Saturday morning, Nova Scotia poet Brian Bartlett will give a talk about Elizabeth Bishop's Key West Houses (10:30 a.m.). Then we will cut the anniversary cake! In the afternoon (1:30 p.m.), British Columbia writer Leesa Dean will give a talk about the creative process that yielded her long poem Filling Station (Gaspereau Press 2022) based on Bishop's life in Brazil. We look forward to seeing all who can venture forth to the village and join us for these events. We'll share some images from the festivities later in June.

Our Two Speakers

(Brian Bartlett)

(Leesa Dean)

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

“O, wert thou…”: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Burns in Nova Scotia — multum in parvo

In advance of the Bishop Symposium in Scotland later this month, I share a little piece about Bishop and Burns. Nothing profound, mind you, just a bit of fun.

(frontispiece)

Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was in the midst of transcribing Elizabeth Bishop’s early, unfinished “Reminiscences of Great Village,” I also toured around Nova Scotia with a Bishop colleague/friend (a trip that took us from Cape Breton to Annapolis Royal with a stop in between in Great Village). While we spent a day/night en route in Antigonish, we happened to go into a used bookstore where my eyes immediately fell on The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, an 1898 edition by Frederick Warne and Co., a leather bound volume well preserved, covered in a thin cellophane wrapping. It cost $25. I bought it. 

(click to enlarge image)

(The only Burns I knew was the ubiquitous “Auld Lang Syne” and the sentimental “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” But the first page of the “Reminiscences” had given me another work that I wanted to know: “O, wert thou in the cauld blast.”1 Here is Bishop’s memory:

We seldom talked much in the evenings. Now and then my grandfather would read out loud, either from Burns or the Bible. He had a way of reading Burns — he neither wrestled with the Scotch dialect nor ignored it — he conceded wherever necessary. There was just enough to give it a Scotch flavor — like the Canadian regiment in our village which wore, above the regular soft kahki [sic] uniform, a sort of tam o’shanter with a bit of Scotch plaid grogram ribbon on it, and a feather.2 It pleased my grandfather to be able to give us that particular feeling of foreigness [sic] — a drop of red wine into the clear yellow of the lamp-lit evenings, he didn't take them away or change them, but gave them a shade of excitement quickened their pulse. His Bible reading, though, did just the opposite. We became quite stolidly a family when he read the Bible. My wicked Aunt looked atoned devout, and my poor grandmother almost a matriarch & 'manager'. Easter [Gertrude] never joined in with on feeling for Grandfather’s reading. She liked Burns, too — once she had asked Grandfather to read “Oh wert thou in the cauld blast”, but almost always she lay on the sofa with an arm across her eyes, her other arm hanging down so that the white hand lay on the floor. Betsy [the family dog] lay across her feet [Insert: mother’s feet], occasionally wrinkling up her forehead and rolling up her eyes at me, so that the whites showed. As it got later you could smell her more and more clearly.

Standing in the bookstore, I immediately looked for this poem in the book and learned that it was, in fact, a song, sung to the tune of “The Lass o’ Livingston.” Not long after, I also learned that Mendelssohn had also set it to music.3

It was abundantly clear to me why Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who had lost her husband too soon to illness and who had lived the subsequent years struggling with her grief, in a “wildest waste,” found this song so meaningful.4 Imagine Bishop sitting in the parlour with her family in the evening listening to her grandfather read this love song aloud to her mother. The “Reminiscences” records this one instance of Pa’s reading; there would have been many other instances during the year that Bishop and her mother together resided with the Bulmers, before Gertrude entered the Nova Scotia Hospital in June 1916. And how many subsequent evenings of these readings happened in the years Bishop spent in the village during the late 1910s and through the 1920s. One can guess: more than a few.

William Bulmer was descended from Yorkshiremen, but living in “New Scotland” had an impact on him, and the Scottish bard was one of his favourites. Pa Bulmer was not alone in his love of Burns’s work. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the folks of Great Village formed the Christophian Literary Society and Burns was one of their chosen poets. Great Villagers viewed this society as speaking for their literary taste and culture, and for many years it had a scholarly and ambitious program of reading: Tennyson, the Brownings, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Dante. The leading light of the society was Rev. Alexander L. Fraser (1870-1954),5 who was not only the Presbyterian minister at St. James Church (1904-1914), but also a prolific poet, who published ten volumes of poems during his life, including one entitled By Cobequid Bay, where sat Great Village.6

Bishop knew that her mother and aunts were members of the society and remembered that her aunts often recited Browning and Tennyson to her. Coincidentally, Mendelssohn was Aunt Mary’s favourite composer, so one can’t help but wonder if she perhaps played his setting of “O, wert thou….” 

(Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser)

Under Fraser’s leadership, the society engaged in public performances, taking their love of literature out of private parlours and onto the concert stage. Dating from the year before Bishop was born, the Truro Daily News, on 4 January 1910, announced a significant upcoming event in Great Village:

Preparations are underway for a great and grand celebration of Robbie Burns night at the town hall on Tues. evening, Jan. 25, in the form of an entertainment by the “Kritosophian [sic] Literary Society” under the able leadership of their President, Rev. A.L. Fraser, members and local talent, for which Great Village is well noted.

(Brief aside: The spelling of the society’s name had at least five variants, which is both puzzling and amusing.)

The TDN was not overstating the descriptors, on 2 February, a detailed account of the festivities appeared:

 “A Burns’ Night at Great Village” — The regular meeting of the Literary society being due to occur on the 25th inst., and that date being the anniversary of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robbie Burns, it was decided to deviate from the usual course and celebrate the occasion by a public evening’s entertainment in honour of that illustrious bard.

Accordingly, at 8 p.m., on Tues. the Town Hall was filled to overflowing with an expectant and somewhat enthusiastic audience, from this and adjoining villages as a “Burns night” is a new departure from what has hitherto been observed in our town.

The meeting being called to order by the chairman, Rev. A.L. Fraser, President of the Society, two solid hours of genuine pleasure was afforded by a well-directed and efficient body of entertainers, when the following program was carried out: 

Scotch National Anthem — “Scots Wha’ Ha” (chorus & violins)

Life of Burns — Mrs. W.G. Blaikie

“Hundred Pipers” — (violins)

“My Love is like a red, red Rose” — (violins)

“Coming thru the Rye” — (solo & violins)

Address on Burns — Rev. A.L. Fraser

“Bonnie Doon” — (chorus & violins)

“John Anderson my Jo’ John” — (violins)

“Afton Waters” — (solo & violins)

Reading selection from Burns, Mr. Brownie (Scotsman)

Reading selection from Burns, Mrs. L.C. Layton

“Here’s a health to one I love, dear” — (solo & violins)

“Will ye na’ come back again” — (violins)

“O wert thou in the cauld blast” — (Duet & violins)

“My love she’s but a Lassie yet” — (violin duet)

Imitation bagpipes (violins — Dr. & Mrs. Doherty)

“Auld Lang Syne” (closing — chorus & violins)

Two gentlemen direct from the heather were present, Mr. Brownie, referred to above, and Rev. McKendrick, of Economy, who faced the inclement weather to be present, and who in the course of a few remarks, stated that he had never yet failed to be present at a Burns celebration, and it afforded him pleasure to attend here by special invitation.

A vote of thanks was tendered to Miss Morris, violinist, of Londonderry, and also to Miss Abby Spencer and others, including the orchestra, for their generous assistance.

Miss Annie Gould presided at the organ. The violinists included Dr. and Mrs. Doherty, Mrs. D.W. Blaikie, Misses Winnie Morris, Belle Chisholm and Hattie Carter. The soloists, Misses Abby Spencer, Annie Moraesh and Maggie Chisholm.

Whilst leaving the hall the idea suddenly occurred to Mr. Aubrey Smith, of Londonderry, that Great Village had a really truly living poet, in the person of Rev. A.L. Fraser, author of “Songs and Sonnets,” and other poems (the latest being part of his address on “Burns” in poetry, which we hope will be reproduced in print), where upon three cheers for “Our Poet” were called upon for by Mr. Smith and the building resounded with hearty good cheers and a “tiger.” Thus was brought to a close what proved to be a successful and enjoyable evening’s entertainment in honour of the immortal bard Burns. One Present. TDN

Burns does not appear often in Bishop’s oeuvre (indeed, no where that I know of in her published poetry or prose). The only reference to him in the Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters is on page 704, in notes towards an essay entitled “Writing poetry is an unnatural act….” She wrote cryptically: “Burns: lacks mystery, maybe but weaker in the mystery.” A much more positive statement is found on page 37 in Words in Air, the Bishop-Lowell correspondence. In a 30 May 1948 letter she observed: “Marianne [Moore] has a very nice, old-fashioned steel-engraving of Burns in the front hall. I admired it; said I hoped sometime to write something about him, & didn’t he look nice. She replied, ‘But he couldn’t have looked that nice, really, of course’.” Lowell had to have his say about Burns and in a 2 July 1948 letter he declaimed:

Read a good essay on Burns in an anthology of essays gotten together by F.R. Leavis. I guess he’s really quite a first rate poet, and I’ve followed fashion in ignoring him. It’s funny, because his rhythms and stanzas are technical fire-works just on the surface. Then so much experience or observation. I don’t know which, for I’ve never soaked in him and have trouble with Scots — more verbs I have to look up than a French poet. (WIA, 40-41)

Even if the “great and grand” Burns Night was something of a departure for the Literary Society of Great Village, the TDN records other such events in the village in later years (for example, in January 1923). It will be of no surprise, however, that “Burns Nights” events have been common in many parts of “New Scotland” from the nineteenth century right into the twenty-first.7 Indeed, there is still a Burns Society in Nova Scotia.8 So important was the Scottish national poet to the province that in 1919 a group of admirers funded the casting of a magnificent bronze of the bard, which still stands in Victoria Park in downtown Halifax, N.S. This impressive statue represents decades of celebrations similar to that long-ago Great Village gathering. 

(Burns bronze statue in Halifax, N.S.

Photo by Susan Kerslake)

Perhaps Burns was not as direct and identifiable an influence on Elizabeth Bishop as was Herbert, Hopkins or Baudelaire, whom she studied and imitated at Vassar; but as a child she was “soaked” in the oral culture and traditions in Great Village, many of which were deeply influenced by the poetry and lyrics of Burns. These conditions were not located in a specific moment, event or impact (though there were such things, as noted above); but rather were part of the “yonder lea” of lateral and diffuse effect, an aural and imaginative landscape, what Bishop once described (in relation to her mother) as “the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water.” (PPL 118) Culture operates in ways similar to mycorrhizal networks in forests, nutrients from ancient (let us say “mother”) trees seeping through the earth, through intricate interconnections, reaching the young growth often distant from the original sources.

Recently, in conversation with an elder friend with a deep Scottish ancestry (she was born and raised in Cape Breton), who lives in Bridgetown (my home town) in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, she noted that “Burns Nights” were annual events at the Bridgetown United Church, where she attended for decades. Growing up there, I completely gapped these events, as my immediate family was not church-going in the least. Remarkably, these “nights” are still happening. I learned of one such event taking place in Bridgetown on 20 January 2024, at the local Royal Canadian Legion (there was even haggis on the dinner menu).

(Page from The Reader announcing a Burns Night

in Bridgetown, 2024. Ad in the top right corner.

Click to enlarge image.)

Yet again, during a conversation about Burns with another elder friend in Middleton (where I now live, not that far from Bridgetown, I might add), she remembered a songbook she used in school during the 1940s that contained songs from around the world.9 There are two Burns songs: “Ye Banks and Braes” and “O, wert thou in the cauld blast” (Mendelssohn’s setting). My friend remembers vividly singing the latter and went in search of the songbook, which she retrieved and proceeded to sing a few bars of the sad and aching song that had meant so much to Gertrude Bulmer Bishop.

My intention with this brief essay is to convey something of the abiding presence of Burns in Nova Scotia, rather idiosyncratically, I know, and his soft impact on Bishop. I have had such fun in the process. What was a surprise: more delightful conversations than I expected when I took up this subject, revealing to me the persistence of Burns in this part of the world. Burns’s hold on mainstream imagination has diluted to almost nothing, sadly, but that is perhaps a reflection of the general decline of interest in poetry and history, no reflection on Burns. But one could suppose that Bishop herself might be inclined to attend one of theese “Burns Nights.” (I suspect the pandemic curtailed them, as it did most other gatherings, but it is nice to see one happen so recently, at least in Bridgetown! I confess, I did not brave inclement January weather, as did Rev. McKendrick, though Economy is about the same distance from Great Village as Middleton is from Bridgetown, so I missed out on the haggis.) 

(“O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast" pages in the songbook.)

 ********************

NOTES

 1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/o_wert_thou_in_the_cauld_blast/

 2. During World War I the young men of Great Village enlisted in a variety of battalions, brigades and regiments. One of the first regiments to recruit was the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles, which mobilized on 17 March 1915 in Amherst, N.S. The 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, was authorized on 8 November 1915, with headquarters in Truro and companies at Truro and Springhill. These young men also joined medical corps and siege batteries. The battalion which most impressed Bishop, which was at the peak of its recruitment activity during 1916, was the 193rd Battalion, authorized on 24 January and commissioned “as a Highland Brigade Battalion...on February 23, 1916.” “The territory of the Battalion embraced the six Eastern Counties of the Mainland — Cumberland, Colchester, Hants, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysboro, with headquarters in Truro. Within one month the Battalion was over strength.” (Stuart M. Hunt, Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War, 1920) Decades later, Bishop vividly remembered the Great Village lads of this battalion:

In Nova Scotia the soldiers, some of whom I actually knew, wore beautiful tam-o’-shanters with thistles and other insignia on them. When they got dressed up, they wore kilts and sporrans. One of them had come courting my young aunt in this superb costume, carrying a swagger stick, and let me examine him all over. The Johnny-get-your-gun type of soldier in Worcester seemed very drab to me. (CPr 28) 

(Harold Spencer of Great Village in his Highland Brigade Battalion regalia, circa 1916)

3. https://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:Lass_of_Livingstone_(The). I have learned that Mendelssohn spent some time in Scotland and I find it so interesting that he chose this short, aching song to set.

 4. In the literary criticism, academic scholarship and biographical literature about Bishop, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop has been treated with great disrespect. She has been dismissed as “mad” or completely ignored, an absent figure at best and at worst a terrible burden to her daughter. Just who she was has not mattered, it seems, in the least. I have spent a lot of time writing about this foundational relationship: the mother-daughter dyad, which was a complex and profound influence on Bishop’s life and work in my own still unpublished biographical study, Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia.

5. https://pennyspoetry.fandom.com/wiki/Alexander_Louis_Fraser. Though retired by the time Bishop appeared in Great Village, Fraser continued to visit the village regularly throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

 6. https://canadianpoetry.org/2016/07/05/by-cobequid-bay/ 

7. https://www.dal.ca/news/2013/01/24/robert-burns-day--celebrating-scotland-s-most-famous-poet.html

 8. https://www.halifaxburnsclub.org/index.html

 9. This songbook was used for many years across Canada. The copy my friend has is well-worn from frequent use. 

(Title page of songbook. Courtesy of Janet Parker Vaughan.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Exciting Reading at the Elizabeth Bishop House on 8 June

 

Don't forget that the next weekend the EBSNS will host several events at the Bishop House to mark its 30th Anniversary.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

EBSNS marks significant milestone

The EBSNS was founded in 1994, so 2024 marks its 30th anniversary. The society will celebrate this milestone with a few events in June.

Ever committed to introducing the children of Great Village to Elizabeth Bishop, the society has arranged for Emma FitzGerald, the illustrator of A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop to give a workshop to the students at the Great Village School (where Bishop herself went to "Primer Class," on Monday, 10 June.

(Emma FitzGerald (r) giving a talk at the EB House)

The society will hold its Annual General Meeting on Friday, 14 June at 11:00 a.m. at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, at which time it will do the draw of the fund-raising raffle, the prize for which is a beautiful painting of the EB House by Nova Scotia artist Susan Tooke. In the afternoon (1:30 p.m.), members of the EBSNS board will participate in a "Room by Verse" tour of the house, which will feature readings of Bishop's Nova Scotia poems.

On Saturday, 15 June, the society is holding two exciting events. In the morning (10:30 a.m.), Nova Scotia poet Brian Bartlett (former EBSNS board member and editor of the society newsletter) will give a talk about Bishop's Key West houses, based on his January 2024 visit to Key West. This event will be followed by light refreshments, including anniversary cake!

(Brian Bartlett in Florida, January 2024)
 
In the afternoon on Saturday 15 June (1:30 p.m.), British Columbia writer Leesa Dean will give a talk about her process for writing Filling Station (published by Gaspereau Press), her novella in verse, inspired by Bishop's life and her Brazilian poem "Manuelzinho." Leesa's reading is sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets.

(Leesa Dean)

Other than the workshop, all events are free
and open to the public.
Everyone is welcome.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

A new book of great interest to EB fans

Two of Elizabeth Bishop’s dearest friends were the Ilse and Kit Barker. A new biography of Ilse Barker, a.k.a. the novelist Katherine Talbot is now available. Originally published in German in 2022, the English translation has just appeared. Below is information about an online conversation with the author Christoph Ribbat, happening in the UK on 30 May at 6 p.m.

Booking form to attend online: Becoming Kathrine Talbot: A Jewish Refugee and the Novelist She Invented at Online event tickets from TicketSource.

In 1935, when she was fourteen years old, Ilse Gross fled Germany for the safety of England. Alone. Seventeen years later, she published her audacious first novel Fire in the Sun. Her pen name: Kathrine Talbot. Her German Jewish identity she carefully concealed. Becoming Kathrine Talbot: A Jewish Refugee and the Novelist She Invented [Becoming Kathrine Talbot: A Jewish Refugee and the Novelist She Invented], first published in German in 2022, recreates the life of a refugee who lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and who resisted telling their stories until it was almost too late. Only at the end of her life did she turn her family’s fate into prose.

In the just-published English translation of his book, Professor Dr. Christoph Ribbat of the University of Paderborn, Germany, traces the life of a once well-known but now nearly forgotten 20th century novelist from an Isle of Man internment camp to postwar Cornwall, New York, and California, and then to a green hill in Sussex. He will be joined for this discussion of the new publication by Professor Sue Vice of the University of Sheffield, who has written: ‘Christoph Ribbat’s remarkable book is a creative biography and literary retrieval of Kathrine Talbot, née Ilse Gross ... It will make everyone who reads it reconsider what they believe they know about the lives of refugees, and rush to find copies of Talbot’s fiction.’

Please note that those signed up to attend this event will be able to benefit from a 20% discount on the cover price of the book.

Discount: 20% discount not including post and packing. Code: Ribbat24

www.vmbooks.com

North America: www.ipgbook.com

Offer valid May 2nd 2024 to Nov 4th 2024 (see Toby Harris email, 20.2.24)

Christoph Ribbat, born in 1968, is Professor of American Studies at the University of Paderborn and has previously held positions in Bochum, Boston and Basel. His book Im Restaurant was shortlisted for the Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse and was translated into fourteen languages.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The passing of an icon

The EBSNS marks the passing on Friday, 12 April, of Robert MacNeil (1931-2024).  He had a long and storied career as a journalist and a writer of a wide-range of books. He is most well-know for his time on PBS as part of the MacNeil-Leher Report. I met Mr. MacNeil in the mid-2000s, in Port Medway at a literary event and learned he was a huge fan of Elizabeth Bishop. He learned about the EBSNS and the EB House and through his efforts, he secured a significant grant from an American media organization for the EBSNS, which used it to construct the historical pergola that still exists in Great Village, and to publish the walking tour booklet that has been distributed far and wide. I met him again in the 2010s, around the time of the EB Centenary celebrations in Great Village, as was able to give him a tour of the EB House. The EBSNS owes Robert MacNeil a debt of gratitude for his generous support of the society's work.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

“My Permanent Home Some Day”: Elizabeth Bishop in Key West by Brian Bartlett

The kind of travel called literary pilgrimage has been around for a long time. We perform it to honour beloved writers, get closer to their experienced worlds, or sharpen our feelings for specifics of particular poems or novels. Many have travelled from afar and watched plays in the Globe Theatre, stood (or knelt) by Baudelaire’s grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery, or toured Katherine Mansfield’s childhood house in New Zealand. To cite personal examples, I’ve visited Willa Cather’s house in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Jack London’s forest retreat north of San Francisco, Hawthorne’s seven-gabled house in Salem, Marianne Moore’s address in New York, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, the homes of Keats and Dickens in London, John Muir’s origins in Scotland, multiple statues of Dante in Italy, and Pessoa’s house and favourite bar in Lisbon. Some day I’d like to breathe the air of the one house Emily Dickinson knew intimately, and follow routes Basho and Issa took through Japan. 

It would be easy to mock literary pilgrimages, and to consider them superficial, tempting travellers into boastfulness of the I-was-there-where-they-walked sort, with no bearing on the real substance of reading and re-reading. Yet I’ve found that spending even an hour in the wind and dampness on the Haworth moors impressionistically enhanced my next reading of Wuthering Heights; and having a meal in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Johnson’s favourite pub—despite many changes since the eighteenth century—helped evoke the atmospheres of his many lively conservations there, including ones put on paper by Boswell. Still, because I’ve often felt an inward need to defend writer-based tourism, it seems clear that I also wonder if it’s self-indulgent and sentimental. Lived experience, however, and a desire not to belittle the pleasures of other travellers, help me take a more tolerant view.

*

When Elizabeth Bishop first visited Key West in December 1936 shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday, she and Louise Crane made the trip by charter boat. Bridges and motorways didn’t connect all the hundred-mile length of the Florida keys curving south-westward into the Gulf of Mexico. A year earlier the Flagler Railroad’s bridge had begun providing chances to reach the final, most southern of the keys by train, but late in 1935 a severe hurricane walloped Key West and dismantled the bridge. When I travelled to Key West for the first time in early 2024, at the age of seventy, it was along a highway overseen by seabirds such as Magnificent Frigatebirds silhouetted high in the sky and—closer to the cars, trailers and RVs—Brown Pelicans (“whose delight it is to clown,” Bishop wrote in her poem “Florida”). If she’d lived long enough to see Key West in the twenty-first century, Bishop would’ve recognized many of the area’s creatures, architectural beauties and prismatic water-and-light colours, yet the city’s growth might’ve estranged her. In an interview she recalled of the Key West she first observed: “The town was absolutely broke then. Everybody lived on W.P.A.”  The inexpensiveness of living there was part of is appeal; her first rent room cost only $4.00 a week. Now Key West is so expensive that my wife, a friend of ours and I stayed for two nights a few islands away on Sugarloaf Key, and drove a half hour to the much more famous key during the day.

(BROWN PELICAN)

Bishop lived in Key West much of the time between 1938 and 1949—before, during and after World War II, and especially in winter. Those years helped develop her fondness for tropical climates and locations away from unrestful cultural mainstreams; Thomas Travisano has suggested a link between Bishop’s cherished, much smaller childhood community in Nova Scotia and the Florida city, “a warmer and more bohemian Great Village.” Attracted to maps and considerations of longitudes and latitudes (see her early poem “The Map” and the introductory quotation beginning Geography III), Bishop might’ve found it apt to choose the extreme southern tip of the continental United States as a place for exploration, relaxation, friendship and writing. She also valued southern Florida for the abundant opportunities to fish and swim, and for the relief she felt from her chronic asthma—but also for its death-haunted, unfamiliar phenomena, such as dozens of vultures circling “like stirred-up flakes of sediment / sinking through water” and dead mangrove roots that “strew white swamps with skeletons” (images from “Florida”). Though Bishop was far from the most gregarious of people, Key West also served as a writer-friendly place to her, since Hemingway and John Dos Passos were well-known residents, and in the winter of 1935 both Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens had begun spending winters there. Stevens had written one of his greatest poems, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in the same year Bishop first set foot on the key. 

Over seventy years after Bishop’s Key West era ended, I spent a mid-January afternoon tracking down the locations of her residences there, with the brochure Key West Homes of Elizabeth Bishop (text by Kay Bierwiler) in hand. The addresses were within walking distance of each other in that comfortably walkable city. The first stop on the route was 529 Whitehead Street, where Bishop roomed during her first Key West winter, in early 1938. I couldn’t tell whether the building where she roomed had been torn down and replaced, or radically renovated. The address now is for IVs [I.V.s] in the Keys: Essential Hydration Therapy (which specializes in intravenous treatments injecting liquids containing minerals, nutrients and antioxidants). Across the street from Bishop’s room was a courthouse and a jail. Her first Key West residence and its surroundings fuelled her writing: “I am doing absolutely nothing but work,” she wrote to Marianne Moore, “scarcely even read.” She wrote her first Key West poem, “Late Air” (“the radio-singers / distribute all their love songs / over the dew-wet lawns”) and encountered her second landlady’s memorable bossy servant, Cootchie (inspiration for a 1941 Bishop poem named after her; Key West initiated Bishop’s interactions with racially mixed communities). A block away stands the Green Parrot Bar, inviting with its colourful exterior paintings of its namesake. With origins as far back as 1890, the bar began as a grocery store and continued so until nearly mid-century; Bishop must’ve shopped at it for local food such as grapefruit, lemons and oranges.


 (GREEN PARROT BAR)

With my two travelling companions that morning I’d already spent an hour a few blocks away on Whitehead St., at 907, the most famous address in Key West. Its basic structure built in 1851, Hemingway House is an example of French Colonial Architecture. In differing accounts, I’ve read that Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, Ernest’s second of four wives, once a writer for Vanity Fair and Vogue, bought the house; or she persuaded her uncle to do so and give it to her and Ernest as a wedding present. Husband and wife lived together there between 1931 and 1939; by the time of their divorce in 1940, Ernest had moved to Cuba, but Pauline remained in the house for eleven more years. Bishop’s time in Key West was mostly a decade later than Hemingway’s. While 529 Whitehead was her first address in the city, 907 was one of her last residences, for the winter of 1947-48. She was friends with Pauline (“the wittiest person I’ve ever known, man or woman”), but Pauline was away during Elizabeth’s stay. The poet enjoyed many aspects of the property, including the unusually large, expensive swimming pool, which featured underwater lights (as quoted in Bierwiler’s brochure, Bishop wrote that friends in the pool “looked like luminous frogs”). Years before her brief sojourn in the Hemingway House, in another Key West house Bishop had written “The Fish,” a poem she was pleased Hemingway praised. Though Bishop and Hemingway both honoured piscine strength and struggles, her descriptions of an old fish are far more lavishly detailed than anything in adjective-avoiding Hemingway’s later novella The Old Man and the Sea, and her poem ends with an unHemingwayesque line: “and I let the fish go.”

(SLOPPY JOE’S BAR)

A now legendary Key West spot, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, opened in 1934 on the day Prohibition was repealed, then moved to its current location in 1937, less than a year before Bishop’s first Key West winter. The bar’s and Hemingway’s names are forever linked, yet young Bishop also spent evenings with friends there, chatting and drinking and dancing the rumba. We can choose to accept or question James Merrill’s report or belief that the often subdued poet would “jot a phrase or two inside the nightclub matchbook before returning to the dance floor.”  

The Key West address most associated with Bishop is 624 White Street. In spring 1939 Bishop and Crane bought the handsome nineteenth-century clapboard house there. Bishop wrote to Moore: “…seems perfectly beautiful to me, inside and out.” Then the house was isolated, with a yard enlivened by many kinds of trees—banana, avocado, sour sop, lime and mango. Years later it would be recognized as one of the three “loved houses” alluded to in Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art.” Its initial calm helped Bishop concentrate to finish most of the manuscript of her first collection, North & South, by the end of 1940 (though the book didn’t appear in print until 1946). In mid-century, Key West was a quieter location than it is today, yet even by 1941, Bishop had grown so annoyed by nearby construction and traffic noise that she moved away and began renting the house; five years later she sold it.

The White Street house is the one Key West Bishop location explicitly identified as such for passers-by. A “Literary Library Register” bronze plaque of Friends of Libraries USA spells out the historic significance of the building, and quotes Bishop’s lines, “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be”?  On a larger scale, a much more complicated sign announces: “The non-profit Key West Seminar acquired the property in 2019, and is now restoring the house to its historic condition, drawing upon Bishop’s private papers and photographs.” For that reason, the house is now closed to visitors. The sign also includes reproduced images of the house: a photo of it from Bishop’s time, and a painting of it by local folk artist Gregorio Valdes (1879-1939). Bishop commissioned Valdes to do the painting. Soon after his unexpected death in the next year, she wrote an affectionate essay about him and his art (found in both Collected Prose and Prose.) The sign in front of the house is misleading in one respect: it speaks of Bishop “living in this house between 1938 and 1946,” but she lived elsewhere between 1941 and 1946.

(WHITE STREET SIGN)

After her time with Crane on White Street and months of living in New York, in spring 1941 Bishop met Marjorie Stevens, into whose apartment at 623 Margaret Street she soon moved. Bishop’s alcoholic lapses had intensified; she spoke of “New York troubles,” and wrote that she was “very glad to be back” in Key West. She and Stevens lived on Margaret Street all that summer, and for much of the next three years. Between March and September of 1942, partly due to their growing disenchantment with the mounting military presence in Key West, they travelled around Mexico. In the following summer, sounding bored and guilty over her inactivity, Bishop got a job grinding binoculars for a U.S. Navy optical shop, but eyestrain “made me sea-sick, & the acids used for cleaning started to bring back eczema,” so the job ended after five days. The Margaret Street house was very close to the city’s spacious, tree-shaded cemetery (which I walked through after finding the street). Much later Bishop wrote affectionately of the Great Village cemetery of her childhood; first, while living in Florida, she painted at least three watercolours of spots in the Key West Cemetery (reproductions of them are in the book of her art edited by William Benton, Exchanging Hats: Paintings). 

As for 623 Margaret, no such address appears to exist anymore. All I could find was a large tree against a background of exuberantly sprawling greenery. But I paused at its former location, moved to remember that it was where Bishop likely wrote her posthumously published, warm-hearted and richly atmospheric love poem (likely for Marjorie), “It is marvellous to wake up together.”


 (630 DEY STREET)

A beautiful house still stands at 630 Dey Street. Now lemon-coloured, white-posted-and-fenced and sky-blue-shuttered, this was Bishop’s home base for a short while in 1948. It belonged to her older friend the philosopher John Dewey, a man she felt such deep affection for that she compared him in letters to other loved persons in her life, grandfather Bulmer and Marianne Moore. (Earlier, in the summer of 1946 during a few weeks in Canada, Bishop had visited Dewey for a day at his summer house in Hubbards, Nova Scotia. For her poetry those weeks were crucial, providing material for two of her masterpieces, “At the Fishhouses” and “The Moose.”). I’m unsure whether it was Dewey or his physicist daughter, Jane, also a friend of Bishop’s, who invited her to stay in the Dey Street house  It was under its roof that she wrote her key poem (no pun intended) “The Bight.” 

Another white house still stands at 611 Frances Street; the address is by a door far back from the sidewalk. Bishop rented an apartment there in the winter of 1948-1949 and seemed pleased by its “screened porch up in a tree, & a view of endless waves of tin roofs and palm trees.” One thing had come full circle: Mrs. Pindar, the initial landlord of Bishop’s first Whitehead Street residence over a decade earlier, also owned the Frances Street house.


 (611 FRANCES STREET)

 A day after my self-directed walking tour, my wife and I visited the Key West bight, the inspiration for “The Bight.” That poem is of special significance in that it concludes with the lines later carved into its author’s gravestone: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” During our stroll around the site, boats of many kinds rested in the water, including one emblazoned with the name FURY; palm trees shook in the wind; a gathering of uniformed police bought ice-cream cones and stared at them while talking; and a wall was plastered with hundreds of small informational items, advertisements, announcements and political pronouncements (recall Bishop’s line “The bight is littered with old correspondences”). I imagined that the kind of day Bishop described in her poem was more commercially and visually hectic than our introduction to the bight.

(THE BIGHT)

Many roosters roam the streets of Key West. We heard that the city appears to have something of a love-hate relationship with the birds.  A special bonus on my solo touring of the city with Bishop in mind was an encounter with an extraordinary rooster. Its feathers ranged from white to yellow and gold, from rust to red, from navy blue to paler blue inflected with purple. It was an entertaining fantasy to imagine Bishop encountering such a rooster in 1941 on that very street before writing “Roosters,” her biting satire of militarism and macho pride.

(ROOSTER)

In the honeymoon phase of Bishop’s attachment to Key West, she suggested in a letter that she hoped it “will be my permanent home some day.” Her search for suitable places for her writing to thrive, her restlessness and curiosity, her economic needs, health troubles and complicated relationships prevented her from ever finding a place to settle into for decades. After Key West, she spent periods of widely varied durations in New York, Maine, Rio de Janeiro, Samambaia, Ouro Preto, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Even spending a few hours in Key West, however, can give a heightened sense of why she might’ve dreamt of the island as a place to stay. 

In the context of literary pilgrimages, I didn’t travel to southern Florida primarily to visit a poet’s houses. Above all, the journey was a chance to visit a friend, explore the Everglades and the area around Vero Beach, and see first-hand the breathtaking biodiversity of southern Florida, despite great diminishments in its natural environments over the past century. Our excitements included hours in the presence of palms and mangroves (multiple species of both), herons and egrets and ibises (multiple species), spoonbills and cranes, vultures and anhingas, manatees and alligators. Back home in Nova Scotia before the end of January, I found new resonances in Bishop’s “Seascape,” with its “white herons got up as angels, / flying as high as they want and as far as they want sideways,” and “the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots.” It’s easy to imagine that Bishop, so drawn to Florida’s natural spaces, would’ve been pleased that a reader of her poetry spent much more time gazing at unfamiliar flora and fauna than standing on sidewalks outside her Key West residences. 

_______________________________________

Biographical details in this essay derive from Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994); Brent C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (U of California P, 1993); Thomas Travisano, Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop (Viking, 2019).

(Ed.'s Note: A heartfelt thank you to Brian for this fascinating look at Key West. He will be giving  a talk about this place and his visit during the EBSNS 30th anniversary celebration in Great Village in June 2024. You can click onto the images to enlarge.)

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Interest in Elizabeth Bishop stronger than ever -- and HAPPY BIRTHDAY EB!

On this day 113 years ago, Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, MA. Her stature as one of the most important American poets of the 20th century remains solid. Last fall, Vassar College mounted an exhibit, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Postcards,” that received glowing reviews in major literary journals. We understand that a number of venues have expressed interest in hosting this exhibit in the future. A full-dress biography is in the works by the American Merrill biographer Langdon Hammer. The Bishop-Lowell Studies, an academic journal dedicated to fostering scholarship about Bishop and Robert Lowell has been publishing for several years. And the Elizabeth Bishop Society in the U.S. continues to connect Bishop scholars around the world. The Elizabeth Bishop House in Key West is being restored and will be come the headquarters of the Key West Literary Seminar. This June will see a symposium about her taking place in Glasgow, Scotland

On a more local level, the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia turns 30 this year and there will be activities marking this milestone in Great Village in June. And the Elizabeth Bishop House in the village continues to welcome writers and artists as a place of retreat and a venue for readings and workshops.

As information about the EBSNS events unfold, we will post them here and on our other social media.

 HAPPY BIRTHDAY ELIZABETH BISHOP!

 

(Elizabeth Bishop circa 1916. Photograph by J.E. Sponagle.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow: A Symposium (26th to 28th June 2024) Early Announcement and Call for Papers

The University of Glasgow, College of Arts & Humanities, is delighted to welcome the 2024 Elizabeth Bishop Symposium to our beautiful, historic and friendly city. Following on from similar events in Oxford, Paris and Sheffield, Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow provides an opportunity both to hear about recent and emerging work in Bishop Studies, and to consider Bishop’s writing in a Scottish Atlantic context – a legacy that helped to shape the history and culture of Great Village, Nova Scotia, Bishop’s maternal family home and her imaginative lodestone. Bishop was familiar from childhood with the poetry of Robert Burns (and had editions of his work in her adult library); our Symposium will consider the influence of Burns – and of other Scottish writers and artists – on Bishop’s writing. And it will ask, in turn, about Bishop’s influence on her successors in Scotland up to the present day. 

Confirmed speakers include Professor Langdon Hammer (Yale University) and Victoria Fox (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). 

Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow is open to anyone with an interest in Bishop’s life, work and reception; in modern poetry; in Scottish and American literature and culture, in the Scottish Atlantic and in related fields. We welcome proposals for short papers (c. 20 minutes) or other forms of participation on these and related themes. Other areas of focus might include (but are not limited to): 

Boundaries

Travel and walking

The North

Mystery

Bishop’s correspondence

Religion, Protestantism, the Bible

Language: Gaelic and Scots

Music, Scottish Song, hymns

Diaspora

The Atlantic

Trade

Scottish Atlantic slavery

Publishing history

Visual culture

Bishop’s contemporaries

Bishop’s influence

Bishop in / and translation

Gender and sexuality

Robert Burns, Alexander Selkirk, Thomas and Jane Carlyle 

Please send brief proposals for papers, panels (3 contributors) or other forms of participation to: vp-arts@glasgow.ac.uk by MONDAY 15th JANUARY 2024. 

Location: Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow will take place in the James McCune Smith Building on the University of Glasgow’s main (Gilmorehill) campus in the lively West End of Glasgow and will open on the morning of Weds 26th June and close after lunch on Fri 28th . The booking page will open shortly. There will be time in the programme to visit the Hunterian Art Gallery, the Hunterian Museum or the Charles Rennie Mackintosh House. The campus is easily accessible by bus or subway from the city centre and there are hotels, guesthouses and restaurants close by.

 For further information about the campus, visitor attractions, accessibility information and transport links see: University of Glasgow - Explore. For details about the city of Glasgow, including accommodation, things to see and do, and where to eat, see: Visit Glasgow - hotels and accommodation - People Make Glasgow and for information about the rest of Scotland, see: Accommodation in Scotland - Plan Your Stay | VisitScotland

Organisers and Steering Group: Jo Gill (University of Glasgow); Jonathan Ellis (University of Sheffield); Angus Cleghorn (Seneca College); Bethany Hicok (Williams College); Tom Travisano (Hartwick College).

 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Kafka, Bishop and Literary Pilgrimage: A response to Elana Wolff’s Faithfully Seeking Franz

 

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today?” Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

Sometime in the late 1990s, I was sitting in Trident café in downtown Halifax with the writer and broadcaster Jane Kansas and a young friend of hers, whose name I forget. Jane and I were having a lively conversation about our literary passions hers: the American writer Harper Lee; mine: Elizabeth Bishop (“3/4ths Nova Scotian and 1/4th New Englander,” or a “herring-choker Bluenoser,” as Bishop described herself to Anne Stevenson). As I remember the conversation, it was animated, with a lot of talk about original sources, such as letters; and also about going to places that were important to these writers. The young friend sat quietly listening to us until at one point she blurted out, in a rather disgusted tone, “You are literary stalkers.” We paused and looked at her. I was surprised by this characterization, but as I thought about it, I couldn’t discount the assessment. I had already made several Bishop pilgrimages (Great Village, Vassar College, Worcester) and was mining her letters and archival documents for information about her life. Jane and I argued that what we were doing wasn’t intrusive, rather an honouring not an invasion of privacy but of course on some level it was. Harper Lee (still alive then) was a known recluse. Bishop, long dead, was regarded as a very private person, having once declared to a friend she perferred “closets, closets and more closets.” (OB 327) I have never forgotten that conversation and have endeavoured ever since to conduct my research and writing about Bishop in the most respectful manner. Not sure that made what I did any less objectionable, but I took solace in knowing that Bishop herself was keenly interested in the lives of the writers she read.

 In a 1964 letter to Anne Stevenson, Bishop wrote: “I went to see O Processo “The Trial” which is absolutely dreadful. Have you seen it? I haven’t read the book for ages but in spite of the morbidity of Kafka, etc. I like to remember that when he read his stories out loud to his friends he used to have to stop because he got to laughing so. All the way through the film I kept thinking that any of Buster Keaton’s films give one the sense of tragedy of the human situation, the weirdness of it all, the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing all in a twinkling, besides being fun — all the very things poor Orson Welles was trying desperately to illustrate by laying it on with a trowel.” (PPL 864)

While Bishop said she wasn’t a fan of “German art,” its “heaviness,” she had been a reader of Kafka since her adolescence. In a 1949 letter to Robert Lowell, she noted: “I’m glad you like ‘In Prison.’ I had only read The Castle of Kafka when I wrote it, and that long before, so I don’t know where it [her story] came from.” (OA 182) And in a 1958 letter again to Lowell, writing about her response to some “short instrumental pieces” by Webern she had just heard, she noted how much she liked them, “That strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes — Kafka, say, or Marianne [Moore], or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters … Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.” (WIA 250)

As noted above, Bishop was interested in the lives of the artists she admired, so I can’t help but think she would find the new book by Toronto writer Elana Wolff, Faithfully Seeking Franz, intriguing. Just published by Guernica Editions, Wolff’s book is a collection of poems and prose pieces about her search for Kafka in the places that were significant to him. I can certainly appreciate such a compulsion. So when this book came to hand, I was keen to read it. I have enjoyed every page. Each journey, encounter and account conveys not mere “compulsion” but deep, abiding and respectful dedication, devotion even, to understanding the meaning of Kafka’s work, Kafka’s life in his work, Kafka’s impact on posterity, especially on the young woman who read first The Castle and took its impact with her for the rest of her life, following in the footsteps of a compelling mystery: 

Yet having taken steps the author took; steps his ciphers, stand-ins, and characters also took; in seeing and feeling convergences of life and art on location, in company with M., in triangulation with ‘atemporal-aspatial’ Kafka, through signs, signals, messages, indications and ‘visitations’ — through these, the experience of reading has become heightened and deepened, ‘lived into’. Questing has whetted the appetite for more. I’ve become compulsively recursive in my search. I can’t settle. (263) 

As a fellow pilgrim, I could identify with every word of this passage. The identifier in Bishop’s work would be from “Sandpiper”: “poor bird, he is obsessed.” But I prefer to call it passionate, and Elana Wolff’s passion unfolds in the most delightful, insightful, unexpected ways. We follow her footsteps and in so doing, not only learn about Kafka, but also begin to understand what the power of art really is. Connection, coincidence, conundrum: all are experiences along the way; and accompanying it all: questions, surprising revelations, satisfying and disappointing conclusions. Such is life itself. 

In a world filled with chaos and violence and uncertainty, art matters. How so is such a complex and mysterious condition that it cannot be distilled or confined. Wolff never tries to delimit this mystery, even as she charts borders and boundaries (geographical, physiological, aesthetic, existential). One of the many things I admire about Faithfully Seeking Franz is its “Un-endness” (261): 

Invisible and thin and free,

as baffling as Kafka —

whose rendering of difficult things

was easier for him, it seems to me,

than birthing breath.

Will teachers of any persuasion contravene me? (285)