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

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.]

1 comment:

  1. There is a Newfoundland poet you would likely enjoy reading who is a great lover of Elizabeth Bishop's work. Her name is Agnes Walsh. She was the City of St. John's inaugural Poet Laureate. Her latest book is Going Around with Bachelors (Brick Books) and she can be heard reading her poems from In the Old Country of My Heart at rattlingbooks.com