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

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.]

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