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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Wonder Question III: "The End of March"

Stones (and an oystercatcher egg) on Duxbury Beach
I had intended to mark the end of March with remarks on "The End of March," but in researching them I came across an article so comprehensive in its discussion of the poem that I felt abashed by what I'd written so far. Since it appeared just last November and may not have been seen by at least some our readers, I've decided simply to provide this link, and express my gratitude to its author, Joelle Biele, for considerably enlarging my appreciation of the poem.

Monday, March 29, 2010


My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop took place when I was a high school student in New Jersey, either in Oscar Williams’ A Pocket Book of Modern Verse, or the Caedmon LP which included her reading of “The Fish.” The Williams anthology, a tiny well-packed book whose green cover was dotted with miniscule photographs or paintings of the poets represented, was a lovingly assembled book, one which made it possible to plunge in at random and find something irresistible. As for the recording, what I remember is that her gentle, straightforward, unostentatious reading – the very opposite of Dylan Thomas! – made the triple rainbow at the end so moving, powerful and expressive, filling the room the way they fill the boat.

My encounter with Bishop must coincide with my first visits to Nova Scotia – our family vacationed in Petite Rivière, in the summers of 1961 and 1962, and I am certain that the Williams anthology accompanied me on these trips. I wish I could say that I made the connection of place and poet then, but this does not seem to be the case. However, Nova Scotia imprinted itself on me powerfully. Six years later I dodged the American military draft, and in 1970 my parents bought a cabin by the ocean in West Jeddore, as a place where the whole family could be together. This is where my wife Jocelyne and I live now. The intensity of my first impressions of Nova Scotia remains with me, raising the question: did Bishop set me up for Nova Scotia, or did Nova Scotia set me up for Bishop?

[To learn more about composer John Plant and his work, please visit his website.]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- The Christophian Literary Society

On January 14, 1903, the “Newsy Notes” of Great Village, in the Truro Daily News, reported: “An evening with the Christophian Literary Society ... speaks for our literary taste and culture.” In 1961, Elizabeth Bishop received the Women’s Institute’s newly printed History of Great Village from her Aunt Grace. The item that most intrigued her was about “The Literary Society”:

In the early 1900̓s the Great Village Literary Society was formed. Rev. and Mrs. W.M. Crawford were active in the Organization and fortunately Mr. Crawford’s successor, Rev. A.L. Fraser, brought to the Group a literary interest and knowledge which assured its continuance ....The Society met fortnightly in the homes of the members, to spend the evening reading and discussing great literature. A winter each was spent on Keats, Ruskin, Mrs. Browning, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and two winters on Browning and Tennyson ....The Society did not long continue after Mr. Fraser left in 1914, but for ten years at least, each winter the Group had lived with great writers.

After reading this passage, Bishop was prompted to write Grace, “And did you see the item about the old ‘Literary Club’ — I’d like to know how many people in G[reat] V[illage] ever read Browning or Tennyson these days ... and it happens everywhere — culture is dying out completely in small places.” (20 February 1962, Vassar College) Shortly afterwards, she wrote to Robert Lowell:

The saddest thing is the Literary Society (my mother and aunts belonged) in the early 1900̓s .... I imagine no one in that village has opened a Milton or a Browning for years now, and TV aerials rise from the shingles. The dying out of local culture seems to me one of the most tragic things this century — and it’s true everywhere, I suppose — in Brazil, at any rate. (One Art, 407–8)

Why this literary society was called “Christophian” (the Truro Daily News spelled it several different ways, including Kristosophian, Kritisphian, etc.!! – apparently, the locals couldn’t quite figure it out either) is a mystery. Its guiding light was Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser, Presbyterian minister in Great Village from 1905–1914. In his day, Fraser was a well-known and beloved poet, who published many books. Though living elsewhere during Bishop’s childhood in the village, he continued to summer there during the 1910s. Without a doubt, Bishop would have known him, as he was a friend of her grandparents, mother and aunts. Even Uncle George Shepherdson had been treasurer of the society for a couple of years.

The society’s members did not only gather in parlours and sitting rooms for quiet evenings of reading, discussion and reflection, they also organized concerts. An especially popular event was the annual Robbie Burns’ night.

Even though the society was defunct by the time the four-year-old Bishop arrived with her mother in Great Village in 1915, its residue persisted. She had vivid memories of her Aunts Maude and Grace reciting Browning and Tennyson to her throughout her childhood. She remembered her grandfather sitting at night in the parlour reading to the family from Burns, “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 flavour ... a drop of red wine into the clear yellow of the lamp-lit evenings.” (Vassar College) Those quiet private readings also brought the memory of her mother’s favourite Burns poem: “O wert thou in the cauld blast,” which Mendelssohn had set, which she requested that her father read in that lamp-lit parlour. Might she have heard it, too, during one of those Burns’ nights? In February 1910, as the Daily News reported, the literary society hosted “A Burns’ Night at Great Village” and part of the ambitious programme was a “Duet & violins” rendering of this wrenching poem:

O, wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee;
Or did misfortune’s bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a’.

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae blaek and bare, sae blaek and bare,
The desert were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there:
Or were I monarch o’ the globe,
Wi’ thee to reign, wi’ thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.

Did the daughter understand more of the mother’s (and widow’s) pain hearing these lines spoken quietly by the (grand)father?

Reflecting on the affect of the society in the lives of Great Villagers, Rev. Fraser noted: “We found the little club worth while. We had college graduates, teachers, doctors of medicine, housewives, merchants, school girls. It gave color to their lives, and there are people from Halifax, N.S., to Vancouver, B.C., to recall with pleasure and profit the discovery of great lines and the hearing of great music.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s fear about the dying out of local culture is a valid one even today. However, perhaps she would not be too dispairing. While not many people in Great Village are reading Browning’s or Tennyson’s poems these days, they are more and more reading Elizabeth Bishop’s. In the literary and musical gatherings held now at the Elizabeth Bishop House and in public spaces in Great Village (the church, the legion, the school, the community hall), we not only honour Elizabeth Bishop, a modern-day Keats or Shakespeare, but we also reflect back on the tradition of the Christophian Literary Society. As the Elizabeth Bishop centenary approaches, as many artists of all disciplines prepare to honour and celebrate her continuing relevance and influence, it behooves us all to think about the importance of “great literature” in our lives.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Wonder Question II: Bishop and Nabokov?

...not Nicholas Nabokov, by the by, who was Vladimir Vladimirovich's cousin, a musician and composer somewhat-more-than-noddingly acquainted with our Bishop (not Morris Bishop, chair of the Department of Romance Literature at Cornell University when Nabokov taught there, "known on campus for his wit and his oratorical panache," [Boyd, 135] nor even M. B.'s wife, Alison Bishop, "a talented painter in a style not unlike the wittier style of Benois or Somov," [Boyd, ibid.] -- both of them close friends of Nabokov (V.) and his wife Vera). No. I have in mind Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov himself, author of the notorious Lolita and the notarial Pale Fire. I'd like to speculate here a bit on what Bishop (henceforward "E.") may have found in Nabokov ("V.")'s work, and how that work intersects with hers.

The two writers met, insofar as I have been able to determine, only once in corpore. It happened (if it happened -- it was a large gathering, we are told, so perhaps this was an Akhmatovian non-meeting, two looks exchanged as if by chance across a crowded room, a sea of heads) on Friday, May 25, 1951, sometime between five and eight p.m. The enchanted evening was a ceremony held by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, at which E., V., Brendan Gill, and Randall Jarrell were awarded grants of one thousand dollars apiece. Jarrell describes it in a letter to Sara Starr, inviting her to attend:
You'll probably never see more prominent-authors-sculptors-painters-and-musicians all together; and you'll also get given refreshments and have to listen to an organ prelude by Henry Cowell, a speech by Mark van Doren, and an organ postlude by Virgil Thomson. [Jarrell, 249]
E., Gill, and Jarrell are reported to have read from their work: I wonder what poem or poems E. might have chosen? Later, riding a bus with Jarrell after the ceremony, V. was nonplussed to find that Jarrell did not speak about poetry, but only about the reputations of other poets. [Boyd, 198].

Mentions of V. in E.'s published correspondence are few; of E. in V.'s non-existent. She harrumphs a bit to Robert Lowell about the 1960 elections to the American Academy of Arts and Letters:
Yes, I saw that Mary and Randall got in -- and Levin! -- and Nabokov refused -- and Calder's in, too. I think we might have some quite funny dinners in our old ages, don't you? [Travisano/Hamilton, 318]

A few years later E. writes Lowell about reading Pale Fire with Lota and Mary McCarthy's review of the novel:
PALE FIRE is great fun -- much better to read it first and Mary's review afterwards. Her review is clever, but seems meant for those who don't intend to read the book -- she tells so much! Lota is now working on PALE FIRE -- so much of it depends on plays on words, etc. that she has to get my help once in a while. [Travisano/Hamilton, 418]
In March, 1970, Lowell mentions V.'s novel Ada in his account to E. of accepting the National Book Award in her stead:
Ah, the award! I like to make a cut at boldness occasionally, this I think I had to do. The rather curious jury, due to Rexroth, left Pound off the listings of poets to be considered (Meredith put him on). No one even noticed the omission, but there was a great clamor about Ada and Portnoy not being listed. [Travisano/Hamilton, 669]
While Lowell was indignant about Rexroth's omission of Pound, he may not have been too concerned about the failure to include Ada, in which V. had included a parody of Lowell as the character "Lowden" (Lowell's mother's name was Ada); the two men had previously exchanged swipes in letters to the editor of Encounter, who did not publish any of of them. Lowell's included an attack on Pale Fire; V.'s were counter-thrusts claiming that Lowell was an incompetent translator:
The couplets that Mr. Lowell refers to are not at the end but at the beginning of Pale Fire. This is exactly the kind of lousy ignorance that one might expect from the mutilator of his betters -- Mandelstam, Rimbaud, and others."[Nabokov/Bruccoli, 385]
V. then improved upon this four days later in a substitute reply:
To the Editor:

I do not mind Mr. Lowell's disliking my books, but I wish he would stop mutilating his betters -- Mandelstam, Rimbaud, and others. I regret not having entitled my article "Rhyme and Punishment" [Nabokov/Bruccoli, 386]
E. had tried to spare Lowell just such attacks five years earlier, when she suggested revisions to Imitations, his collection of free translations: "I don't think you should lay yourself open to charges of carelessness or ignorance or willful perversity..." [Travisano/Hamilton, 356]. I wonder if she would have caught the parody of Lowell in Ada -- we know from a letter to Randall Jarrell that she had read both it and Portnoy's Complaint. [Giroux/Schwartz, 867].

I wonder, too, where E. began her reading of Pale Fire. With the Foreword, perhaps? I don't suppose that readers acquainted with her biography can do anything but pause in astonishment when they reach this passage of Kinbote's apologia:
Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? "Is that a crime, I countered, and they all laughed. [Nabokov 1962, 7].
Of course, E. had only one ping-pong table, and it was in her dining room, not in the basement. Perhaps, though, E. skipped the Foreword and plunged immediately into the poem itself. What might her reaction have been as she made her way through the poem portion of Pale Fire? Would lines 20-21 have evoked "Trouvée"? Would she have tasted a swift sweet moment of recognition in lines 30-31 ("My eyes were such that literally they / took photographs [...]")? What would she have made of line 86, I wonder ("I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud")? Would the objects in Aunt Maud's room have brought Marianne Moore to mind? -- Maud's room, like Moore's eventually was to be, has been kept intact:

"[...] Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman's Homer
, thumbtacked to the door." [lines 91-98]

Manners and morals, morals as manners... Moore might well have come to E.'s mind again when she reached lines 243-244: "[...] LaFontaine was wrong: / Dead is the mandible, alive the song." V.'s fictive poet John Shade, or his persona in the poem, had a clockwork toy that brings to my mind at least the one portrayed in "Cirque d'Hiver" -- Shade's is a tin boy trundling a tin wheelbarrow, who comes to life in the poem's final lines. Did the 'trk' at the end of line 470 recall the 'slp' of the river in "In the Village"? Did the 'Click. Clunk.' of the horseshoes being tossed (in line 991), the last one described as "leaning against its lamppost like a drunk" (in line 992), summon the click of the dredge in "The Bight", and perhaps a vision of Nate, a parodic echo of the Clang from "In the Village"?

These, though, are only some bezeled pebbles on the End of March beach that is Pale Fire. I think what would most have struck E.'s fancy would have been the poem's central conceit: Shade's near-death vision of a white fountain, his excitement when his vision seems confirmed in a newspaper article; alas, the confirmation vanishes when the 'white fountain' of the report turns out to have been a misprint for 'white mountain' -- or does it?

Life EVerlasting, based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But a topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

It was just such a newspaper misprint that gave E. her Man-Moth. Did she think of her moon, the Man-Moth's moon, -- so battered and shiny when Lota, her hair freshly washed, asks for help with a word in the poem ("What's grimpen?") from the next room, -- but now in "The Man-Moth" just battered, just a small hole at the top of the sky, as E. comes to lines 464-474 of Pale Fire, and listens to the trk-trk-trk of the moon-shaped channel changer, and then

Oh, switch it off! And as life snapped we saw
A pinhead life dwindle and die in black

-- and did she think of her "Chemin de Fer" and its dirty hermit when she read the next words:

                   Out of his lakeside shack
A watchman, Father Time, all gray and bent,
Emerged with his uneasy dog and went
Along the reedy bank. He came too late.



[Boyd]. Brian Boyd. Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[Giroux/Schwartz]. Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, (eds.). Elizabeth Bishop. Poems, Prose, and Letters. (New York: Library of America, 2008).

[Jarrell]. Mary Jarrell, (ed.) Randall Jarrell's letters: an autobiographical and literary selection. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).

[Nabokov/Bruccoli]. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew Bruccoli (eds.) Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977. (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989).

[Nabokov 1962]. Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire. (New York: Putnam, 1962).

[Nabokov 1969]. Vladimir Nabokov. Ada, or Ardor: a Novel. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969).

[Travisano/Hamilton]. Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (eds.) Words in Air. The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008).

I'm grateful to my colleague, Yuri Leving, for help locating the letters associated with the Nabokov/Lowell Encounter tiff, and for the reference to Boyd's account of the 1951 awards ceremony. I'd also like to thank Susan Lemcke, who gave me my copy of Words in Air, and has been the source of innumerable kindnesses.

Monday, March 22, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS VI: Upon being asked about first encountering Elizabeth Bishop

by Janet Baker

I feel like the narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing" saying "What you ask moves tormented through my mind." I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop's work when I was in my late twenties. I am now almost the age she was when she died. We have had a long association.

Being an academic as I was in the late 1960's, my reading was largely dictated by the requirements of course work. I was doing a doctorate in Canadian literature, and was therefore struggling through some pretty mediocre stuff. (My supervisor had discouraged my initial interest, Virginia Woolf, as being too insignificant for "advanced study" as he put it. So instead, I was reading Isabella Valency Crawford, who presumably was suitably significant. To say I was experiencing academe as surreal is to understate.)

A colleague arriving from cutting edge Ann Arbor during this time of draft avoidance knew Bishop's work, knew she had spent time in N.S., said she was the real thing and was shocked that I had never heard of her. One reading of "First Death in N.S." and I knew he was right. My next question, to myself and to my academic handlers, was why was she not better known in Canada? In Nova Scotia? To which I never ever received an answer.

In short: EB schooled me in "canons" and their ephemeral nature, in categories generally, in the buffoonery of the male dominated academic enterprise of the time, and in the dumbed down political correctness that followed. Her voice goes on and on, into eternity, in my fibres.

[Janet Baker is the author of Archibald MacMechan, Canadian Man of Letters. (Lockeport, Nova Scotia: Roseway Publishers, 2000).]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday Wonder Question I: Bishop and Orwell?

Monday’s “Today in Bishop” quotation from her poem “Varick Street” has prompted me to wonder whether George Orwell happened to read it when it was published in The Nation in the March 15, 1947 issue: there is a striking similarity between its haunting refrain “And I shall sell you, sell you, sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me” and the lyric quoted more than once in his Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.”

Orwell scholars have traced this couplet back to the lyrics of a song made popular by Glenn Miller in April, 1939, a few months before the beginning of the Second World War; the music was by Hal Kemp, the words by J. And H. Kennedy:

“Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved him and he loved me
There I used to sit up on his knee
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree
There beneath the boughs we used to meet
All his kisses were so sweet
All the little birdies went „tweet-tweet“
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree
He said „I love you“, and there ain’t no if‘s or but’s
I said „I love you“, and the blacksmith shouted „Chestnut!“
Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There he said he’d marry me
Now you oughta see our family
´Neath the spreading chestnut tree."

One can imagine that this scat on Longfellow’s famous “Village Blacksmith” would have appealed to the Bishop who was to write “In the Village.” Might not both Orwell and Bishop have been drawing upon it as a subtext?

Bishop mentions Orwell at least once in her correspondence, in a letter to Kit and Ilse Barker from May 24, 1953, in the midst of an account of her reading of Charles Dickens:
“Well, while you read Lorna Doone I’ve been here in bed reading Dickens. I really never had, very much, and I have polished off Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, his U.S. travels (guaranteed to raise my fever). How can Orwell say he was just being fair? – but then Orwell was never in the U.S., and Edmund Wilson says he asked if it wasn’t true that English had deteriorated so much there that we had no separate words for insects but called them all ‘bugs’ – and now am in A Tale of Two Cities.”
[One Art, Letters Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), p. 265].

Presumably Bishop is referring to Orwell’s essay on Dickens, first published in Inside the Whale & Other Essays (1940):
“It would be an exaggeration to say that he nowhere pokes fun at foreigners, and of course like nearly all nineteenth-century Englishmen, he is untouched by European culture. But never anywhere does he indulge in the typical English boasting, the ‘island race’, ‘bulldog breed’, ‘right little, tight little island’ style of talk. In the whole of A Tale of Two Cities there is not a line that could be taken as meaning, ‘Look how these wicked Frenchmen behave!’ The only place where he seems to display a normal hatred of foreigners is in the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. This, however, is simply the reaction of a generous mind against cant. If Dickens were alive today he would make a trip to Soviet Russia and come back to the book rather like Gide's Retour de L'URSS. But he is remarkably free from the idiocy of regarding nations as individuals.”

A second mention of Orwell in Bishop’s correspondence is not something she wrote, but something which was written to her, by Robert Lowell, in a letter from August 23, 1968:
“Things worked out much better with Mary [McCarthy], but her guests are almost as dull and as many as the Eberharts: I faint at the thought of what has passed through here: American common market people with French names and American fortunes; all summer, the sweet, drunken, never silent widow of George Orwell; [...]”
[Words in Air, the Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008), p. 645].

“Sweet, drunken, never silent”... I wonder what passed through Bishop’s mind as these words passed beneath her gaze?

Monday, March 15, 2010

by Linda Rae Dornan

In 2008, when Suzie LeBlanc described her love of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry to me, it had been many years since I had read any. I soon rectified that, quickly dipping into a phrase here and an image there on a regular basis. Bringing her poetry into my life again has been a very happy event. Sharing it has been another. In August 2008, Suzie and I walked across the Avalon Peninsula, from St. John's to Norman's Bay, retracing the path which Bishop and her friend, Eva, walked in 1932. Bishop's Newfoundland journal, though brief, mentioned people and places, and some of her impressions. We were able to meet several descendants of people mentioned in the journal which was a lovely surprise. We also met many incredibly generous people who invited us into their homes, helped us with whatever we needed, and who were interested in our project. We read poetry to them and invited them to read it as well. I was carrying a video camera and recorded our trip through highway and byway, beach, bog, mountains and blueberries amongst many various landscapes. This movie documentary will be shown during the centenary celebrations in 2011.

Following Bishop's path gave us both time to think, to get to know each other, to become physically stronger, and to meet some fantastic Newfoundlanders. One of the main characters in this story is, of course, the landscape. I have been to Newfoundland many times since 1979 and each time I have felt a binding connection to the land. This trip was even more intense since I was immersed in the landscape every day as we placed one foot in front of the other travelling from community to community. I found myself wondering about the changes placed upon the land since 1932. In Bishop's journal there are fewer people, less cars, more sickness (tuberculosis), less sanitation, less education, but still great hospitality. She and Eva went swimming and jigging, Suzie and I went swimming and on a boat tour (jigging is no longer legal). We did have the traditional jig's dinner though, courtesy of the Byrne's family in Holyrood. The air is still delicious outside of major urban centres and the sea has not stopped being overwhelmingly beautiful. I can only imagine the effect on EB of the wilderness she was in. She was a young woman in 1932 storing her impressions and life's experiences for more mature poetic insights.

Where once there were dirt roads and paths through forests and along the shore, there were now highways and private shore properties so whenever we could, we walked to a beach and hiked through the forests. Seeing the land while on foot instead of speeding through the landscape was about experiencing its smells and textures, and being seduced by what I came to call the Moss World, all green and red and varied. It also made us more open to meeting people along the way. From Cheryl (coincidentally, a cousin of the Byrne Family) who we met on the way to Conception Bay, and who offered to drive us a short distance but instead took us to her favourite spot in the world which was a huge waterfall in a rock cliff way out in the middle of nowhere; to Vera in Chapel Arm whom we met on a stony beach after an all day hike over a boggy mountain, who took us home for tea and cake and chat. Elizabeth brought us here, that is what we were thinking, through all of our individual re-evaluations and life issues and tired muscles. There is value in following what is a tenuous connection—this retracing of a dead poet's journal; reading her poetry on the moors above Brigus; meeting people and reading Bishop's poetry to them and with them; celebrating the re-enactment of her youthful adventures; reaching our own insights.

The video camera had not recorded the sound as well as I wanted that August, so we returned in August 2009 to gather better sound recordings and more footage. Again, we were struck by the hospitality of the people and the amazing landscape. I had been in touch with people ahead of time and many graciously became poetry readers...Poets Mary Dalton and Don McKay, artists Marlene Creates and Pam Hall, musician Christine Smith and radio producer Chris Brookes all read while the Byrne family once again opened their doors to us, read Bishop's poetry and shared history and food.

As I begin the long editing process for the documentary of our trip about EB, the Avalon Peninsula, the walking experience, the landscape and people, and having adventurous spirits, I am once again immensely pleased to have Bishop's poetry in my life. For that is what motivated me to begin this particular adventure and which has opened new pathways in my own artwork.

At the suggestion of Suzie and Sandra Barry, I am organizing a short film festival for the Centenary Celebrations in 2011. For anyone out there who is interested in making a short film/video about EB's poetry and writings, her life, and anything about her, please make one and send us a copy of it. There will be a screening in 2011, the time and place to be announced at a later date. Stay posted for the deadline and further updates. It will be an amazing year! You can contact me with any questions at lrdornan@yahoo.ca. Cheers!

[To learn more about Linda Rae Dornan and her work, please visit her website.]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

EB100 and Symphony Nova Scotia

On Friday 12 March 2010, a couple hundred people gathered at the Rebecca Cohn auditorium in Halifax, N.S., for the launch of Symphony Nova Scotia’s 2010-2011 season. I have been a subscriber to SNS for many years. For me, SNS is one of the great benefits of living in Halifax. SNS is one of our cultural gems. The programming for the upcoming season is fantastic. You can find out more about it on their website: www.symphonynovascotia.ca

If you read my February post “The Origins of an idea: the theory of a centenary” and Suzie’s “First Encounter,” you will remember that my first idea for celebrating Elizabeth Bishop’s centenary was to commission settings of her poems by Canadian composers, which would be premiered by SNS. I hoped this idea could become a reality, but I did not really think it was possible. A series of convergences occurred to bring Suzie and me together, both of us holding the same idea, she with the capacity to make it happen. The Bishop realm is like this — serendipity and synchronicity everywhere.

I am thrilled to say that on 12 March 2010, such a premiere concert of settings of Bishop’s poems to mark her centenary was announced as part of SNS’s 2010-2011 season. Before you read any further, mark THURSDAY, 10 FEBRUARY 2011, in your calendars and join us for “Elizabeth Bishop in Words and Music,” featuring our own Suzie LeBlanc. This concert will mark the official start of our EB100 celebrations — and what a kick-off it will be!!

In the days to come, Suzie herself will write more about the commissions, the concert and her collaboration with SNS. We will even have some of the composers and members of the orchestra of SNS contribute to the blog. For now, however, I wanted to be the first to announce this exciting project to the Elizabeth Bishop world.

For me, personally, this concert is a dream come true. Bishop’s poems have been set by a number of American and Brazilian composers: Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, John Harbison, Luciana Sousa, and others. Bishop herself heard some of the settings: she attended the premiere of the Carter suite, “A Mirror on Which to Dwell,” and knew Ned Rorem and heard some of his settings. But, as far as I know, until now, no settings have ever been done by any Canadian composer.

Bishop herself was so passionate about music — her taste was eclectic, ranging from traditional hymns to Brazilian samba, from early (indeed sixteenth and seventeenth century) music to opera and jazz; from Purcell to Webern. She studied music at Vassar. Her instrument was the clavichord. She owned one made by the Dolmetsch company and carted it around with her for decades. She said more than once that she always wanted to write song lyrics. Her “Songs for a Colored Singer” were written with Billie Holiday in mind (she knew Holiday in New York in the 1930s).

The EB100 celebrations include a number of music projects (from concerts to kitchen parties) throughout the year — stay tuned to learn more about them; but the Symphony Nova Scotia/Suzie LeBlanc collaboration is a special one for me. I want to thank Suzie and the composers (I will let Suzie tell you who they are – and they are fabulous!) for their commitment to this idea. I also want to thank the Music Director of SNS, Bernhard Gueller for being open to this idea from the start and working to make it happen.

Besides the wonderful EB songs being offered on 10 February 2011, Maestro Gueller’s own birthday gift to Elizabeth Bishop is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have had the privilege of seeing Maestro Gueller conduct a number of major Beethoven works, and when I learned that his choice for the second half of the concert was this piece, I was thrilled. He is a passionate Beethoven interpreter. One of the principal philosophies of our EB100 celebrations is that artists of all disciplines pay tribute to Bishop in their own way — through their own creative process and medium. There is no better way for Maestro Gueller to honour Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th birthday than to conduct one of the greatest symphonies of all time, to conduct the music of a composer with whom he has a long-standing and profound connection. I think EB would appreciate the range of music which will be offered by SNS on 10 February 2011. It will be another magical convergence.

I also want to thank Erika Beatty, the CEO of SNS, and Adrian Hoffman, Chair of SNS’s programming committee. Both have been enthusiastic supporters of this idea from the beginning. I also want to thank, again, Peggy and Shimon Walt for their pivotal role in facilitating the convergence which lead to these new works and this exciting concert.

Well, you can imagine, I will be at the Rebecca Cohn on Thursday, 10 February 2011 — with bells on!!!

Monday, March 8, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS IV: How I first met Elizabeth Bishop, by Joy Laking

Many years ago I was driving along near Great Village and suddenly a very old fashioned Acadian Lines Bus came the other way. “Wow,” I thought, “I just can't believe the old buses they put on our route.” A day or two later, I heard through the grapevine that PBS was making a film on Elizabeth Bishop. I had never heard of Bishop. Being an avid reader, I was intrigued that I had lived in this area for ten years and nobody had mentioned her to me. I quickly found a copy of her poetry and prose. My three children were small and I thought I could read her short stories to them. All went well until I read “The Baptism” and the little girl dies of pneumonia. Quickly, I changed the ending, much as I always did with Cinderella. In my version of Cinderella, she meets the prince, they become friends and go off to University together. In my version of “The Baptism,” the little girl soon recovered.

Elizabeth Bishop's name kept popping up. I went into Truro one evening for a Bishop talk by Peter Sanger at the Truro Historical Society. There I also met Sandra Barry. Sandra is a wonderful woman who is so full of enthusiasm for EB that one can't help admiring her tenacity. Later, I was approached to support the Elizabeth Bishop Society. I happily donated one of my serigraphs called aptly “In the Village.” When the fundraising draw was held, Sandra Barry won the print (perhaps she bought all of the tickets). In any event, none of us could imagine a better winner.

"In the Village" by Joy Laking

Over the years, Elizabeth Bishop has gradually crept into my life. When I was on the board of Ship's Company Theatre, one of our summer plays was about Elizabeth Bishop's adult life, written by Donna Smyth. It was a powerful play with an amazing set, and I can still see “Bishop” swimming in real water towards the shore. Just prior to Jim and I going to South America last year, we had an Elizabeth Bishop scholar, visit the gallery from Brazil. This new friend put us in touch with another friend and we ended up with perfect accommodations in São Paulo.

Then last June, Jim and I went to breakfast on Saturday morning in Great Village as we always do. I was approached to be on the EB Society Board. I wanted to say, “No. I am on too many boards.” However, I gave it some thought and decided that working on the EB centenary is something that I have to support. And so jump right in I did. The centenary celebration is right on many different levels. Hopefully, most Nova Scotians will finally know who Elizabeth Bishop is. The centenary will also draw attention to the value of poetry and prose and encourage more creative folk to write. Our area of rural Nova Scotia is depressed because of declining population and declining jobs. Church closures and school closures are always being debated. The centenary will not permanently change the economic climate of this area but we are already filled with community pride as we work on this wonderful party celebrating Elizabeth Bishop's birth!!

[To view more of Joy's work please visit http://www.joylakinggallery.com/]

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Migrations

In 2003, I was invited to be on a panel at an American Literature Association conference in Boston. The panel’s title was “Elizabeth Bishop and the ‘Boston States’,” which phrase was once of common usage in Nova Scotia because the links between New England and the Maritimes are historically deep and wide. Bishop’s family, indeed, her whole ancestry, shared in these deep connections, a long and steady story of migration between the two regions. I was given 15 minutes to say something on this subject. I knew that trying to describe all these connections in prose was not possible in that time. So, I chose to write a poem, which, with your indulgence and apologies to Bishop, I once again share.

On 3 January 2003, Muir MacLachlan had died. He was 92. He lived in Great Village. He was Elizabeth Bishop’s classmate at the Great Village School in 1916–1917. Muir’s own family also shared in the Maritimes-New England trajectory. I dedicated the poem to him.

Her ancestors sailed from England
for every reason imaginable,
sailed towards the future, which is now
the unreclaimable past.
Fosters trace to William the Conqueror.
Bulmers trace to before William the Conqueror.
Bishops and Hutchinsons trace beyond memory.
Somewhere, so far back,
hidden in the folds of Fales, Meade, Hooper and Black,
the lines diverged from the seven clan mothers.
Somewhere, not so far back, the codes held
in these bones and blood washed up
on nearby shores: colonies of wilderness,
colonies of hope, colonies of construction
and deconstruction, and every ancestor must account.
Fosters trace to Massachusetts.
Bulmers trace to Nova Scotia.
Bishops trace to Prince Edward Island.
Hutchinsons trace to New Brunswick.

The matrix is artisans – weavers, farmers,
carpenters, tanners; seamstresses, gardeners,
healers, cooks – crafting from scratch
(she once wrote “in a pinch”) new lives
“in unthought of ways,” new ideas forged
from molten iron (the too hot imagination),
cooled into judges, deacons and politicians
with obedient or not so obedient wives.

The circle constricts towards the centre;
the trajectories lie in closer proximity.
What force in nature brings together
disparate lives as though on purpose?
She would have said “wanderlust.”
It must be a gene.

The matrix set inside a vast historical pattern
because the sea is the first highway,
an element of motion older than all pilgrims
combined. Its paradigm is tide. Time.

The wanderlust kept alive by the Hutchinsons
– master mariners and missionaries who sailed
around the Horn, sailed to Egypt,
to India and back to England. Sailed and spoke
the journeys – this line was the artists: writers,
translators, painters, orators.
Her affinity was always with the artists,
who settled and never settled, who appeared
and vanished, because that is what artists do.

John Bishop emigrated from Prince Edward Island
to Rhode Island to Massachusetts. He married
Sarah Foster; their large family included William.

William Bulmer took a young man’s tour
of New England, then settled in Nova Scotia.
He married Elizabeth Hutchinson;
their large family included Gertrude.

All the ancestral inclinations converged here,
at the turn of the twentieth century,
in a moment (lost to the record)
when this William and this Gertrude met.
It all happened for this one reason
(why not?) – it all happened for every
other reason imaginable or unimaginable,
remembered or lost. Is there a reason
to choose a nexus, study it,
realize, as she did,
truth is an imaginary iceberg,
visceral, looming, cold?
Her study of the consequences
of this lost moment lasted a lifetime.

Begin again: to Boston to Boston to train
as a nurse; home again, home again
because she was ill. Back to Boston
where he was ill; she nursed him
back to health.

The bond can only be imagined: She fled
to Great Village afraid of the power
of her love. He followed her to Great Village
determined to declare his powerful love.
In 1908 they were married. They sailed
to Jamaica, to Panama for their honeymoon.
Back in Massachusetts they lived and loved
their only child into being.
1911 was a year of life and death (isn’t every year?).
1911 began the back and forth of her imagination;
life began like a cradle rocking. Rocking gently
on the sea between worlds, both worlds home,
neither world home. She said the poet
“carries home within.”

Is there a reason
to choose? Let the rocking continue
her whole life: aboard the North Star
(ponder all the shipwrecks); aboard
the Königstein, the Normandy, the Britannic,
the Exeter, the Bowplate, the Jarlsberg,
the Prince of Fundy. Life began en route:
steam back and forth between Yarmouth
and Boston, ride the “unk-etty” train
between Londonderry Station and Boston,
motor the to and fro in early Fords and Chevrolets,
sit in the long bus limbo on trips between
Great Village and Boston. Occasionally fly,
if you have to.

Great-grandparents did so.
Grandparents and great-uncles did so.
Maternal aunts and girl cousins did so.
Even Uncle Arthur, who never went anywhere
in his life, drove from the village to Boston
once or twice, to visit his daughters.
Look at him, he ended up in Brazil,
like she did. Willingly
and unwillingly she came to and left
Nova Scotia. Willingly
and unwillingly she came to and left
Massachusetts. Patterns as old as her ancestors,
as new as her own next breath.
Lost and found words were mantras,
she called them “first syllables,”
which vanished from her tongue
like her father and mother from her life.
Where does the historian, the biographer,
the critic, the artist locate the initial conditions,
the uncanny convergences, the accidents?
In her lines, in her vision (look, that is),
in her memory, which lift the weight
of uncountable yesterdays, as far back
as William the Conqueror,
and as close as old men named Muir.

Monday, March 1, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS III: "Is It Excess of Imagination?" --

-- or so I ask myself, when I cast my mind back over the past thirty years or so and all the tellings and re-tellings of the story of my first encounter with the work of Elizabeth Bishop, and of my all-but-Akhmatovian non-meetings with Miss Bishop herself -- is it excess of imagination that makes me indulge this queer retrospective urge I've so often felt to place myself in her proximity geographically and chronologically? Is it oddly-manifested gratitude (much too late for that, alas) for the words she left behind? Or (let's be honest now, shall we?) might it not be unrequited hope that, like a needle drawn across a lodestone or a knife against a whetstone, something would somehow rub off, and I'd become as magnetic a writer or as sharp a wit as she?

We were both at Harvard in 1972-1977. I was a graduate student in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and in my last three years there a Teaching Fellow. In the tale I tell when asked about it I have always stated that we taught in the same building, -- "albeit I was on the second floor, whereas she was in the basement," I usually add modestly. As I checked the facts in preparation for this slender contribution to the genre of the confessional, however, I discovered three decades' worth of what I'd prefer to believe are unintentional little white lies, told often enough to have replaced the truth even in my own recollection. It turns out I was in Emerson Hall, and she was in Kirkland House. I've generally added that we probably attended the same reading by Seamus Heaney -- in the Poetry Room on the second floor of the Lamont Library ("and may even have sat next to each other," I sometimes speculate in my more expansive moments), but truth, like a pebble of quartz lodged awkwardly somewhere between my sole and my stocking, now hurts me into the rueful admission that most likely that reading was later, in 1981-82, when I had returned to Harvard on leave of absence from Dalhousie University in a fruitless attempt to complete my dissertation. Her presence at a reading then would have aroused a certain amount of comment even amongst notoriously reserved Cantabrigians. I've always concluded my story by pointing out that Dalhousie awarded her an honorary degree in 1979, "and wouldn't you know that would be a year when I didn't attend Commencement." Well, that's true enough, I suppose. I seldom do.

There are other details I omit in the telling -- conceivable overlapping visits to a certain drinking establishment near Harvard Square where Bishop fell and broke her shoulder one icy second of January, for example: the Casablanca, with its man-moth single-letter slip away from the title of her poem about the boy who stood on the burning deck reciting "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" and towards the title of the film that most often played (continuously, morning, noon and night) at the neighboring Harvard Theatre (then going through one of its seedier periods). Or perhaps she went to the Orson Welles Cinema (now only a memory, then a vast tan sand-stuccoed cavern of art film delights) to see Pixote the same night I did -- after all, I had seen Paul Monette and Roger Horwitz there that evening, hadn't I? --or thought I did. Why shouldn't she have been there, too? But that turns out to have been in 1981-82 as well.

I'm a bit less vague about my first acquaintance with Bishop's work. While I was house-sitting for Professor Lord in the cold early spring of 1982, I was assaulted one afternoon on Mass Ave: someone knocked me to the sidewalk and snatched a Russian fur hat I'd been incautious enough to be wearing (four years of life in Nova Scotia had left my America Survival Skills (tm) sadly atrophied). Even more incautiously, I gave chase, yelling "Stop, thief!" at the top of my lungs -- to the indifference or occasional amusement of otherwise-occupied passersby and gawking onlookers. Eventually, after what seemed a mile or so but wasn't even as far as Central Square, my lungs gave out and I gave up. I turned around and trudged back to Harvard Square, muscles aching and body trembling from all that nasty adrenalin. A friend and fellow graduate student, Don Anderson, ran into me, saw the state I was in, took me straight to a bar (not the Casablanca), and did a very kind and sensible thing: he bought me a drink. (Don was always sensible: he ended up abandoning Slavic Studies for a career in banking). Then he listened to my story. Then, to take my mind off my troubles, he changed the subject and began to talk about the English-language poets he was reading. It turned out that we shared an interest in James Merrill, and it was after talking about him for a time that Don mentioned someone I'd never heard of. It was Elizabeth Bishop.

Within a week I was hooked. I no longer recall which poem turned the trick, but by the time the Voices and Visions documentary on her life and work appeared on PBS in 1988 I had already come to think of her as a kind of tutelary spirit. Like Sandra Barry, I find her lines constantly just popping into my head. After Hurricane Juan, for instance, when a dead white strip of new concrete replaced half of the completely undamaged but well-weathered sidewalk on the Lord Nelson side of the Public Gardens, I immediately thought of the Amazon and Tapajós from "Santarém." I wasn't sure why, until days later I observed that in the acute-angled sunlight of the hour after dawn the sidewalk now gleams a watery blue alongside a muddy brown... and I find I am no longer tempted to quote Mr. Swan when viewing it at other times of day.

It would be yet another little white lie to claim that as a result of my Mass Ave misadventure my favourite Bishop poem is "Exchanging Hats". Nevertheless I will admit that I suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome as a consequence of the incident, which manifests itself annually on the eve of the "Heat the House" Bishop Birthday Party when I am choosing my costume. One year I donned lengths and lengths of wet white string... Another time I acquired a carpenter's level from Canadian Tire, tied it to my head with more lengths and lengths of white string (dry this time, however -- I am capable of learning from experience) and spent the following evening enduring repetitive remarks to the effect that I seemed to be keeping a level head on my shoulders, &c &c &c... I don't know what form my chapeau will take in 2011. Perhaps time will tell. "Time will say nothing but I told you so," intones Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat from his perch astride my computer monitor. I believe this means it is past my bedtime, and more than past time to post these remarks.