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

Monday, June 28, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XX: My First (Un)Official Encounter with Bishop and Beyond, by Camille Roman

My first meeting with Elizabeth Bishop occurred about the time of her death in the Fall of 1979. I consider it to be “unofficial” because I was not familiar with her poetry and did not understand her importance until I learned about her death. Many decades later, I discovered that Kathleen Spivack, the instructor of my poetry-writing seminar held during that fall at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, knew Bishop very well. In fact she was a close friend as well as frequent table tennis partner.

Then in the Spring of 1986 I found Bishop on the syllabus of my doctoral seminar in Postmodern American Poetry at Brown University. It was very early in Bishop studies; and Tom Travisano’s first book on Bishop had just been published. So Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s decision was a major pioneering move, which resulted in what I consider to be my “official” first encounter with Bishop’s poetry. Only much later did I learn that Bishop had spent a great deal of time at Brown with the students in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and that another major Bishop scholar, George Monteiro, had been one of the founders of this field there. Given Bishop’s enjoyment of the students, it did not surprise me to discover that Brown had given Bishop an honorary doctorate.

When I began work on my dissertation, I decided to include Bishop. Fortunately I was able to organize a dynamic committee composed of Blasing as the director with Monteiro as my second reader. Then I invited another Brown faculty member, the well-respected poetry scholar Susanne Woods to join the committee; and she graciously accepted. Finally, I added a fourth reader from outside of Brown, Patricia Yaeger, now the PMLA editor, but then at Harvard University and later at the University of Michigan. She had just published a major book in feminist studies that included Bishop.

After I accepted a tenure-track position at Washington State University on the West Coast, I began teaching Bishop immediately in my graduate seminars on mid-twentieth-century American poetry. As I considered developing Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II-Cold War View, my book for tenure, I returned to two poems from my seminar with Blasing: “Visits to St Elizabeth’s” by Bishop and “Daddy” by Plath. They inspired me to begin thinking about both World War II and the Cold War together. At that time I also contacted Thomas Travisano, president and founder of The Elizabeth Bishop Society, and he was very gracious. I had attended the first organizing meeting of the society at MLA and therefore knew about him from that session, which was held in the suite of Lorrie and Barry Goldensohn (Lorrie also, of course, became a major Bishop scholar). From that point forward Tom and I have conversed frequently about Bishop and other mutual projects both alone and with many other leading Bishop scholars, critics, friends, students, biographers, and supporters.

Presently I am looking out at the breathtaking skyline of Portland, Oregon, where Bishop located Nova Scotian friends during her teaching assignments at the University of Washington and her stays in San Francisco – and just before she began teaching and living in her native New England. I am completing this reflection about my initial conversations with her and thinking about her further. She remains very much a part of my life. Tom, Steven Gould Axelrod (another major Bishop scholar who also read my book on Bishop in manuscript form), and I are completing the third volume of The New Anthology of American Poetry that will include her writing.

Camille Roman is the author of Elizabeth Bishop's World War II-Cold War View (Palgrave) and a board member of the Elizabeth Bishop Society. Currently, she is completing volume three of The New Anthology of American Poetry with Steven Gould Axelrod and Thomas Travisano and is co-editing a large project on Robert Frost and Ernest Hemmingway with Suzanne del Gizzo.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- St. James Church

St. James Presbyterian Church, circa turn of the 20th century

Anyone who has gone to Great Village will tell you that, in addition to the enormous tides in nearby Cobequid Bay, the most immediately impressive thing about the village, as one approaches and passes through, is St. James United Church. As it did in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood, when it was the Presbyterian church, so it continues today to loom large over the community, its 112 foot steeple, still topped by a lightning rod. The steeple and lightning rod are visible from all elevations surrounding the village, looking, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “In the Village,” “like one hand of a clock pointing straight up.”

Invoking the startling and electric image of the lightning rod (which is, after all, a conduit between the wildly elemental and the solid dark earth – a way to channel mysterious and dangerous power) in relation to the deep tragedy of her mother’s illness and breakdown, Elizabeth Bishop sets the tone – a singular note – of her aesthetic universe, as she transforms her mother’s scream into art: “Its [the scream’s] pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”

The Bulmer home sits diagonally across the road from the church, literally in its tall shadow. Bishop had quite a lot to say about this church and its parishioners. She remarked that she was as familiar with the structure as she was with her grandmother. She admired its Gothic architecture, regarded it as “dazzling” and “high-shouldered and secretive.” She remembered playing hide-and-seek among its non-flying buttresses and swinging on the double chains that hung between white wooden pillars that surrounded the grassy yard (the buttresses still invite hide-and-seek, but the pillars and chains are gone). She heard its bell, which had been cast in Boston, ringing for worship and as a fire alarm. That bell still startles and impresses when it is rung on Sunday mornings to call the congregation to service. She watched her Baptist grandmother sit by her kitchen window on Sunday mornings watching her Presbyterian neighbours arrive and leave, and later gently gossiping with her Baptist neighbours about them at afternoon services. When her playmate Gwendolyn Patriquin died, the eleven year old Bishop was not allowed to go to the funeral, but she secretly looked through the parlour window, watching the mourners dressed in black. Suddenly, she had a vision, tied subconsciously to her struggle to understand her mother’s own mourning and disappearance, of Gwendolyn’s tiny coffin abandoned in front of the church. This waking dream triggered a flood of grief and a “howl” that echoed her mother’s scream.

In 1962 Bishop received a copy of the recently published History of Great Village, put together by the local Women’s Institute. She was fascinated by many things in this wonderful community history and she read it cover to cover, though she was already familiar with much of it through family stories and oral tradition.

The section on “Church History in Great Village” reveals that the first Presbyterian Church in the village, built in 1845, was even more impressive than the current one: “The new church was 75 feet long, 50 feet wide and would seat 1200 people.” Its opening on 30 July 1845, drew “the largest crowd of strangers ever seen at a religious gathering in Great Village.” It received its bell, cast in Boston, in 1871.

In 1882 this grand edifice “was destroyed by fire with all its furniture, including its sweet bell, its lamps and beautiful chandelier and the Bibles and Hymn Books and Pulpit and pews.” In an unfinished poem now collected in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke Box, Bishop remembered that the church had been struck by lightning. Is that what caused the fire? It might explain the prominent ornate lightning rod on its replacement.

Undeterred, the congregation immediately constructed another church, slightly smaller but still grand, which opened in 1883, “The main building is 55 feet by 40 feet, with a wing on each side and gable 4 feet from the pulpit, projecting 9 feet by 20 feet.” The bell was sent back to Boston, repaired and returned.

In the 1880s, Great Village, and many communities along the shores of Cobequid Bay and Minas Basin, were shipbuilding centres. One of the remarkable features of this church, designed by the architect J.C. Dumaresq, is that the roof of the sanctuary is in the shape of the inverted hull of a sailing ship. It also has unusual painted walls.

When interest in Elizabeth Bishop began to coalesce in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s, one of the first gestures the community made was to erect a plaque in her memory. In thinking about where to put such a commemoration, public access being a primary consideration, the unanimous decision was to place it on St. James United Church. The unveiling ceremony took place one sunny summer afternoon in 1994. The bronze plaque was cast at the Lunenburg Foundry, which had probably made the fittings for some of the sailing ships built in Great Village. While the gathering was not as large as those for the openings of both churches, the Bishop commemoration drew people from all over the province.

Elizabeth Bishop was fascinated by churches and church architecture her whole life. Ultimately, she bought a house of her own in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, a city with thirteen baroque churches. She said that she could see six or seven of them from her balcony. Sitting in St. James’s beautiful sanctuary on that now long ago day, listening to readings of Bishop’s work and talk about her deep connection to the village, it was easy to see why St. James so impressed the little girl. It loomed not only over her literal village, but loomed large in her imagination. In a very late poem, “Santarém,” the Brazilian city’s “church, the Cathedral, rather,” deeply impressed her. The fact that it “had / been struck by lightning” found its way into the poem, one of her most beautiful Brazilian works. And, by the way, “dazzling” also appears in this poem (“such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off / in that watery, dazzling dialectic”), something I only just this moment realized as I put St. James Church and Santarém Cathedral together in my own mind.

Memorial plaque on St. James United Church. Photo by Laurie Gunn. To see some of Laurie’s wonderful photographs of Great Village and the surrounding landscape, visit her website: www.lauriegunnphotos.com.

Bishop in London

If you are planning to be in London in July, you may have the opportunity to attend the UK premiere of a new English translation of Marta Góes' play "A Safe Harbour for Elizabeth Bishop" which will be held in the Purcell Room of the Southbank Centre on Sunday the eighteenth, at three in the afternoon. The play had a limited run in New York in 2006. For ticket information click here. For a description (with photos) of the 2006 New York production, click here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XIX: How I Got to Know Elizabeth Bishop by Carole Langille

For years, when I lived in New York City, I wanted to visit Nova Scotia because of Bishop's poems. I knew Elizabeth Bishop had spent her early years in Nova Scotia, the province with the musical name, and it was from reading her poems that Nova Scotia took on resonance for me. In one poem, Bishop describes people getting on the bus going to Maine, talking the way people talk in Nova Scotia, boarding at Lower Economies. Where was that? Where was Great Village where mint grew by brooks and when you climbed the hill you could see the top of the elm trees and the long green marshes? I wanted to see Tantramar Marshes, the Bay of Fundy, tamarack trees, sheer water revealing crumbling ribs of marl. She might not have been talking about Nova Scotia in her poem “The Bight” but she may as well have been. I longed to visit Nova Scotia ever since I read her poems, but it wasn’t until my early thirties, when I married a man who was born in this province, that I first visited with him, and then moved here.

“You shouldn’t be living in New York City,” he said to me when we first met. He was right. As soon as we arrived in Nova Scotia, I felt as if I were returning home. And though I am no longer married to this man, I still live in Nova Scotia, the province to which he introduced me.

When my then husband and I first got off the ferry in Yarmouth on a bright Monday morning, and got on the narrow country highway he identified as the 103, I was startled that there weren’t any other cars on the road. “Is there a quarantine, some illness keeping people away?” I asked. “Where is everyone?”

“Welcome to Nova Scotia,” my husband said. Here was this beautiful place, and hardly any people. And those I did meet when I first arrived, at the bank, in the post office, were kind and eager to be help any way they could.

The fact that this province had become my home seemed to me a sign that Bishop and I had a personal connection. Our mothers were both named Gertrude, after all. Bishop had been brought up in Nova Scotia and Worcester, Massachusetts, and I had lived briefly in Worcester when I went to university there. Now I was in Nova Scotia, a couple of hours from where she spent her childhood. When I began going to Quaker Meeting in Centre, Lunenburg County, I noted that the meeting was on Bulmer road. Bulmer was Bishop’s mother’s maiden name. However tenuous the connections, I was motivated to find them.

In Nova Scotia, as I talked with an old woman whose home was near mine and whose family had lived in the area for generations, I heard, with great pleasure the "yes", spoken with an inrush of breath and subtle inflection which Bishop described so well in her poem, “The Moose:”

“Yes..." that peculiar
affirmative. "Yes..."
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means "Life's like that.
We know it (also death)."

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on...

I'd never heard people speak like this before I moved to Nova Scotia nor have I seen it described anywhere other than in Bishop’s poem. It was an even bigger surprise to see what far-reaching effects this poem had.

A decade after moving to Nova Scotia, I took a trip to Scotland to tour as the writer on a children’s book mobile and to give a poetry reading in the small village of Kirkcudbright. At a party after the reading the host mentioned Elizabeth Bishop. I said I was now living in the province where Bishop had lived as a child. We talked about the inrush of breath characterized in “The Moose,” and the host took a collection of poems off his shelf and asked if I'd read the poem aloud. A Scottish poet nodded excitedly as I read the lines about the inrush of breath. Afterward she said she too heard people talk like that in certain rural areas of Scotland, although she'd never before seen it written about in verse or prose. Bishop's subtle observation, detailed in a poem, traversed continents.

I have always found that Bishop's acute attention to detail so particularizes a setting that I am immediately able to place myself within it. And because she describes experience with almost obsessive attention, I am compelled to scrutinize my own world as well. Her poems are restrained and distilled, with great concentration on rhythm and sound. Yet beneath Bishop’s disciplined control, the reader can’t help but be aware of the poet’s passion and ache, even a certain wild urgency that seethes beneath her contained lines.

I had the good fortune to hear Elizabeth Bishop read once, when I lived in New York City. I was in an M.F.A program then, studying with John Ashbery, when he told the class that Bishop would be reading at the Guggenheim Museum. My close friend Soren, who was also in the class, wasn’t able to come, so I asked another friend who lived near the museum to meet me. I remember looking around the packed room and feeling quietly ecstatic.

“All these people love poetry,” I said to my friend, who was not a poet.
“I suppose so,” she said vaguely, and a little surprised.

All through the reading, the feeling of being at a major event with one of our greatest poets persisted, even when Bishop read inaudibly, staring at the page, and I could not hear the poems. I was content just to see her, to look at the dress she wore, to observe how she stood, the way she smiled. I didn't know that she was ill at the time, or that this would be her last reading in New York City. Reading a biography many years later I discovered that this precise, meticulous poet had been an alcoholic for much of her life and in and out of hospitals during her last few years.

“Poor darling,” my friend Soren said when she learned this. She too loved Bishop.

After I graduated and long before I came to Nova Scotia, I was living in the suburbs of New York City when I learned that Elizabeth Bishop had died. She’d been alone in her home in Boston when she had a brain aneurysm. I cried when I heard the news. Ever since I’d started reading her work I’d always entertained the hope of studying with her. Now I would never even get to talk with her.

I find her poems full of tenderness. In her work the particular is transformed into the universal. Such narrow focus enlarges the world. Certainly it enlarges mine. Her poems make me want to be more generous, more accurate, more alert. Not only does her work inspire me, when I read her poems I feel deep kinship and love for her. Perhaps because, in poem after poem, her precise observation is itself an act of love.

[Carole Langille is the author of three books of poetry and a collection of short stories. Poems from her collection Late in a Slow Time have been set to music by the composer Chan Ka Nin and will be on Duo Concertante's next cd.]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Two Versions of a Setting of Bishop's "I am in Need of Music"

This performance of David L. Brunner's setting of "I am in Need of Music" by the Vista Murrieta High School Chamber Choir (Murrieta, California) has just appeared on YouTube:

It has led me in turn to the following performance, with full orchestration, by the 2009 TMEA Texas All-State Mixed Choir:

From there one may go on to find many other versions... How blessed we are to live in a time when so many beautiful musical performances are so readily available!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "In the Village" in The New Yorker

There are still a few people in Nova Scotia who knew Elizabeth Bishop, principal among them is her first cousin, Phyllis Sutherland. Being fifteen years younger than Bishop, Phyllis’s own first memory of her cousin is seeing a teenager doing cartwheels in the driveway of Elmcroft (the Bowers’s family home), something which deeply impressed the little girl. The bulk of Phyllis’s memories connect to a time much later in their lives, when Bishop began visiting Nova Scotia in the 1970s, after having lived for over fifteen years in Brazil (though in the interim, hundreds of letters passed between them and Phyllis’s mother, Grace Bulmer Bowers).

The members of MacLachlan family of Great Village also had strong memories of Elizabeth Bishop, and several members of that family were resident in the village until quite recently. Donald and Alberta MacLachlan were close friends with William and Elizabeth Bulmer, Bishop’s paternal grandparents. One of their oldest daughters, Margaret Motley, was a good friend of Gertrude, Bishop’s mother. Muir MacLachlan, one of the younger sons, was Bishop’s exact contemporary and her classmate in Grade Primary in the Great Village School. Muir and his wife Helen later took over his father’s general store in Great Village and Bishop remembered visiting him there in the 1940s and 1970s. A younger daughter, Donalda, born a couple of years after Bishop, has her own very early memory of seeing little Elizabeth take the cow to pasture, passing by the MacLachlan family home.

Muir features in Bishop’s late memoir “Primer Class,” about going to school in Great Village in 1916-1917. Donald and Alberta feature in “In the Village,” Bishop’s masterpiece of memory about the year of her mother’s breakdown. In that piece the MacLachlans are referred to as “MacLean.” Bishop always had a reason for changing or modifying a name (often more than one reason). In this instance, my theory is the change was made because she never mastered the spelling of MacLachlan (I have come across several variants of it in her letters). Like Bulmer (Boomer, Bulmore, Bullmer, etc.), MacLachlan did legitimately have several spellings, but I think Bishop opted for the simpler “MacLean” as being safe and close enough.

“In the Village” first appeared in The New Yorker in the 19 December 1953 issue. With its rigour about “facts” – its (im)famous fact checking department – I find it interesting that “MacLean” made it through. Perhaps when the complete Elizabeth Bishop/New Yorker correspondence comes out next year (edited by Joelle Biele), there might be some indication whether “MacLean” was ever questioned.

When I first started researching and writing about Elizabeth Bishop, I had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting Margaret Motley, Muir MacLachlan and Donalda Nelson. I remember on one occasion sitting in the wonderful old MacLachlan family home talking with them about Bishop, the Bulmers, their own parents and what Great Village was like during their childhood.

It was a deep loss to Great Village when Margaret and Muir died. I continued to visit Donalda, who lived across the road from her family home, in the lovely old house which had once belonged to the Great Village postmaster Angus Johnson. Recently, Donalda moved to nearby Truro.

I have many wonderful memories of drinking tea with Donalda in her cosy kitchen, talking about music, art, history and Great Village. During one of those visits she told me about one time when Margaret was living in New York City and she opened up an issue of The New Yorker and saw “In the Village.” Recognizing its provenance immediately, she mailed a copy of the issue to her parents. It may very well have been the first way anyone in Great Village saw this story. Bishop was living in Brazil at the time, and while she unfailingly sent signed copies of her books to Aunt Grace and Phyllis, she rarely managed to send the magazines or journals in which her poems appeared.

It was the first time I had heard this story, and you can imagine how interested I was. Donalda got up and went off into another room. A moment later she returned holding the very issue of The New Yorker that Margaret had sent! I nearly fainted. I opened it up and found “In the Village,” and laughed when I saw the cartoon on the opening page, it has a parrot nattering at a television. As I leafed through this treasure, Donalda gently asked, “Would you like to have it?” I nearly fainted again! “Yes,” I said, as calmly as I could manage, “thank you so much.”

What intrigues me about this story is the trajectory: Elizabeth Bishop sits in her Brazilian studio in early 1953 writing “In the Village,” the story about her childhood in Great Village in 1916-1917. She sends it to New York City where it is published in December that year. Margaret Motley of Great Village is living in New York City and opens The New Yorker (perhaps she bought it off the newsstand or perhaps she was a subscriber) and reads the story. She knows it must go back to Great Village. When it arrives it is likely the first moment when Bishop’s vivid memories are tangibly returned to her childhood home. The MacLachlans and Donalda save the issue, treasure it, and decades later, it reappears and is passed on to me. What are the odds? Whatever the odds are, I am most grateful to Donalda for her stewardship not only of this resonate object, but also of her family’s memories of and connections to Elizabeth Bishop.

Cover of the 19 December 1953 The New Yorker.

Monday, June 14, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XVIII: A poem by Phoebe Roper

(inspired by Elizabeth Bishop)

At dawn, raucous
and vain
you awake us again
and again -
your song, your sake, your say:
“Wake up! I’m here!”

You hurl words into our sleep
our day
and keep
flaunting that blood crest, throbbing;
arched chest and royal tail
you who, each dawn, create the world.

But I admit you did wake up Peter -
terrified into recognition
of his betrayal
unto death
Death, that with His contrition, saved;
forgave and forgave.

Was this a phoenix birth
this rude, rash awakening
of intractable earth
this sudden dark dawn
of shame
no angel song below
just that outrageous
cock crow?

Phoebe Roper, Halifax, N.S.

Monday, June 7, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XVII: Journeys, by Helen Cannon

Before I write of my first meaningful encounter with Elizabeth Bishop, let me tell of my less-than-meaningful exposure with Bishop’s oeuvres and the facts about her life. I’m a woman in her 70’s, having come up in my university literature studies in the 1960’s, when DWPM (Dead White Protestant Males) ruled and reigned. If we studied the token woman writer here and there, it certainly wasn’t Elizabeth Bishop. In fact, if the notion of Canadian literature was acknowledged at all, it was viewed askance as almost an oxymoron.

So, eventually in my literary studies, partly in defiance of that oversight of Canadian women’s letters, I chose to write my Master’s thesis on two Canadian Margarets—Atwood and Laurence. And when I then began teaching at Utah State University, my niche was the writing of prose, not poetry, and when I was allowed to teach literature classes, it was contemporary women’s prose writing that was my focus.

Another salient matter relating to my scant acquaintance with Bishop’s works might seem to be a left-field matter. Why would the fact that my husband and I have been avid subscribers to and comprehensive readers of The New Yorker magazine for going on 50 years now, and that when I taught Creative Non-Fiction (another unfortunate rubric—who wants to write in a “non” genre?) I used The New Yorker as text, be of relevance here? Anyone who knows the course of Bishop’s writings has to know that this magazine was her primary venue—for both her poetry and her prose writings. So I came to her writing, not through my undergraduate literature classes, but fortuitously and serendipitously, as I happened upon her lovely, provocative works in those illustrious pages. As these prose and poetry items appeared, I came to acknowledge this major talent, but I can’t really single one out—neither prose nor poetry—as being my pivotal “First Encounter.”

If there was one New Yorker piece that discursively taught me about Elizabeth Bishop in ways my formal education had not, it was Dana Gioia’s “Studying with Miss Bishop,” (September 15, 1986). I identified very much with that lovely essay, since teaching was of utmost importance to me then, and as Gioia described Miss Bishop as a teacher, I could fully align my teaching philosophy with hers, even though she was a recognized and established poet teaching at Harvard, and I was a nobody teaching at a university in the hinterlands of the West. Both of us stubbornly chose to be out-of-step with the current pedagogy. Both of us found a good dictionary the best teaching aid to recommend to our students—better than all the deconstructionist and postmodernist analysis that was newly in vogue. I can still quote from Gioia’s praiseful essay, word for word, and I still hold to Bishop’s against-the-grain pedagogy as it was described by one of her admiring students: “…One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. …One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text.” Gioia had begun his tribute by telling of how “While Northrop Frye, who was visiting Harvard that year to deliver the Norton Lectures, drew audiences of nearly a thousand for his class on myth and literature, Miss Bishop, I was to learn, rarely attracted more than a dozen unenthusiastic undergraduates. Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of Harvard, her conversation was not designed to impress…”

So my first encounters are random and diffuse and hard to pinpoint—that is until something happened in the most tangible of ways to bring about what now seems to me like the most remarkable of miracles. Let me explain.

My then colleague, Anne Shifrer, a poet and teacher of poetry at our university, understood and appreciated the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop in ways I was just beginning to discover. Anne had traveled to Nova Scotia in the interest of furthering her studies of Bishop’s works—had visited the Bulmer home and the gas station and other Bishop landmarks. Earlier, at a Bishop conference at Vassar, Anne had made a firm and fond connection with the independent scholar and poet, Sandra Barry. Out of that meeting grew a remarkable literary correspondence—a true correspondence course on Canadian letters in general and Bishop studies in particular. Those letters from Sandra to Anne were so informative and fine that we decided they would make a core resource for a class we were scheduled to teach—better than any text on Canadian literature that we could identify. So with Sandra’s permission, those letters became required reading for our course, along with primary materials—representative poems and prose works, as Bishop herself advised. Furthermore, Anne’s love for Bishop’s poetry was entirely contagious. I was already becoming a convert, but the momentum and imagination that Anne inspired made something wonderful come to pass.

Anne and I had proposed to our department’s curriculum committee that we create and team-teach a class on contemporary Canadian women’s literature. I would teach the prose, and Anne would teach the poetry. So here we were, a couple of ingénues trying to introduce to students works that we had just barely discovered ourselves. But Anne had sufficient intrepidity in her vision, daring, and imagination that when she saw a Canadian embassy notice offering grants for study in Canada, she boldly suggested that we apply. Together then, we wrote a proposal to that embassy, and, unlikely as it had seemed to me, somehow we won the grant to study Canadian Women’s literature in situ—something I wouldn’t even have dared dream had it not been for Anne. In addition to our Canadian Embassy travel grant and matching monies from our university and from our own English Department, we also had been awarded a $1000 grant from the Women’s Studies Program for course enhancement. So, that summer of 1997, we readied ourselves for three weeks of study in Eastern Canada in ways no graduate study program anywhere could provide, and in ways I could never repay. Here, at last I found my first true encounter with the works of Elizabeth Bishop by way of first-hand time with one of the very best Bishop scholars, traveling with her in the country that Bishop loved and wrote of—even from Brazil and other far-flung places. This was Bishop’s heart’s home, no matter how far afield she traveled. The seminal importance of actually being there—in Bishop country—is hard to fully convey. James Merrill captures some of that necessity in his poem, “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia Elizabeth: Bishop 1911-1979,” as it appeared in the October 23, 1989 New Yorker magazine:

Your village touched us by not knowing how.
Even as we outdrove its clear stormlight
A shower of self-belittling brilliants fell.
Miles later, hours away, here rooms are full
Of things you would have known: pump organ, hymnal,
Small-as-life desks, old farm tools, charter, deed,

—All circa 1915, like the manners
Of the fair, soft-spoken girl who shows us through.
Although till now she hasn’t heard of you
She knows things you would have known by heart
And we, by knowing you by heart, foreknew. …

Closer to both art and what we are
Than the gush of nothings one outpours to people
On the correspondence side of bay and steeple,
Whose dazzling whites we’ll never see again,
Or failed to see in the first place. Still, as the last
Suds glide, slow protozoa, down the pane
We’re off—Excuse our dust! With warm regards,—
Gathering phrases for tomorrow’s cards.

Not until I myself stood in the upstairs garret where the little Elizabeth heard her mother’s scream did I fully understand just how perfectly “In the Village” captured that place and those feelings. “She stood in the large front bedroom with sloping walls on either side, papered in wide white and dim gold stripes…” We stood there and the lines were made manifest… “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” Other lines can never again be merely abstract descriptions: “September rain falls on the house/ In the failing light, the old grandmother/ sits in the kitchen with the child/ beside the Little Marvel Stove,/ reading the jokes from the almanac/ laughing and talking to hide her tears…”

Sandra took us to that very house—a house little changed since Elizabeth had lived there as a child. At the time of our visit, the home was owned and lived in by Paul Tingley, a man who respected the provenance and history of his home and its village and who, most of all, caught something of Sandra’s vision and so was willing, because of Sandra, to allow her to bring inquiring folks into his home.

Our witnessing wasn’t limited to Great Village. We traveled the "Moose Route" and met Bishop’s cousin Phyllis (Sutherland). At Acadia University, we saw and even touched some of the fonds. I can still almost feel the fragile thinness of the pages of the Bulmer family bible on display there—“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’…”

Those ands still suggest the endlessly generative nature of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, so that a “first encounter” cannot stop with first, but leads inevitably to what follows. “First” can never stand alone…


Helen Cannon is a retired English literature professor, who taught at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Tradition and Modernity

Horse-drawn wagon in Great Village, circa turn of the 20th century

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Manners,” with its epigraph “For a Child of 1918,” speaks about her close bond with her maternal grandfather, William Bulmer, and about the how his traditional way of life was being affected by the changing modern world, represented in the poem by automobile.

William Bulmer, a tanner, currier and shoemaker, continued to ride his horse-drawn wagon right up until he died in 1930, that is, he remained faithful to old ways of artisanship and the home-made. While he undoubtedly drove in automobiles, he never owned one. Elizabeth Bishop’s vivid memories of her beloved “Pa” (as she called him) centre on his quiet, gentle and patient practices of craft and oral tradition.

In the poem, grandfather and granddaughter trundle through Great Village on his wagon greeting everyone they meet with a courteous hello and good day – even shouting to the people inside noisy automobiles which speed by in clouds of dust. Being on the wagon means that they were part of the community, there was no separation from others, unlike those contained inside automobiles, a technology that advanced civilization but that also divides us from each other.

Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood in Great Village occurred during World War I. I have already written about how the war intersected in strange and profound ways with Bishop’s maternal family (see Nova Scotia Connections: The War Was On, parts 1 and 2). This “Great War” marked a cataclysmic shift in the world, on all levels of existence, which can be defined and characterized in many ways (countless books have been written doing so). One of the ways to characterize this time was as a tension-filled dialectic between Tradition and Modernity.

Even in Great Village, in rural Nova Scotia, this dynamic played out in many ways and the young Elizabeth Bishop observed and absorbed some of the dialogue/debate between these two cultural and existential forces. Decades later she acknowledged the impact of World War I on her own life and poetic practice, describing herself to Anne Stevenson as a “late, late post-World War I generation poet.” I have argued elsewhere that Elizabeth Bishop had her own life-long dialogue between tradition and modernity, which I believe was set during her formative years in Great Village, a dialogue which helped shape the kind of poet she became.

In “Manners,” Bishop presents this dialogue in a quiet, gentle and patient manner. She does not tell us what she is doing, she simply shows us in the juxtaposition of Pa Bulmer’s wagon and the speeding automobiles. Just as William Bulmer stayed true to his old-fashioned way of life, Bishop’s maternal uncle, Arthur Bulmer, a tinsmith, embraced the new order. He was one of the first people in Great Village to get a Model-T Ford, along with the fellow who delivered the mail and the village doctor. In a memoir of her uncle, “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” Bishop observed: “Uncle Neddy got his Ford somehow, and the younger daughter [Hazel], fifteen or so, with long curls just like Mary Pickford’s, drove it hell-for-leather, expertly.”

As the spectacle of an unprecedented war loomed over the world in the 1910s, each person, each family, each community, engaged and came to terms with personal and cultural change as best they could. Elizabeth Bishop always respected traditional ways and sought to connect with and understand them regardless of where she was in the world. She engaged and came to terms with the modern, uncertain world and its pervasive technological change – not always with equanimity, sometimes with resignation, but always with curiosity. Sometimes the seemingly innocuous or trivial has an abiding affect on our lives and so it was with wagons and automobiles, realities of daily life and metaphors for philosophical positions. Elizabeth Bishop’s special brilliance is the way she held dualities like this one in fluid connection, how, as she wrote in “Santarém,” such ideas always, for her, “dissolved, straight off” in a “watery, dazzling dialectic.”

Dr. T.R. Johnson and his automobile, circa 1910s