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

Monday, July 5, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXI: From Texas to Great Village, by Adrianne Berry

My first encounter with Bishop was in 1996. I had returned to the University of Texas at Arlington to finish up a Master’s Degree (in English) that I’d left dangling several years earlier. When it came time to start thinking about my thesis, I approached my favorite professor, Dr. Tim Morris. We discussed several ideas, and I headed off to the library with the notion that I would write my thesis on some aspect of Emily Dickinson and her poetry.

When I got to the library I ran across Becoming Canonical in American Poetry, a book Dr. Morris had recently published that focused on the work of four poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop. Wait a minute. Who was this Elizabeth Bishop? I was in grad school and didn’t remember ever reading anything of hers. I checked the book out and took it to Dr. Morris. He explained that Bishop had a relatively small but important body of work that more and more critics and scholars were beginning to recognize. He recommended that I look at both her poetry and her prose, but that I begin with her poem “The Moose.” He was right. I read it over and over. Poetry had never made me feel this way! I was transported to that long-ago bus, watching the changing scenery, listening to the gossip, and witnessing with the other passengers the wonder of nature that brought the bus to a halt. I didn’t have to read anything else to help me make up my mind. Bishop became my thesis subject.

Now that may have technically been my “first encounter,” but my first immersion (yes, a baptism, if you will) happened when I met Sandra Barry. While researching my thesis I ran across a paper on Bishop that Sandra had presented at Vassar. I found her paper on the Internet and somehow found Sandra’s phone number (I don’t believe she had email until shortly after this time). I wanted to talk to this Bishop scholar about the paper she’d presented and see if she could point me to more information about Elizabeth Bishop. I contacted Sandra, we began corresponding, and I discovered that Sandra delighted in sharing her knowledge about Bishop. She was a great help with my thesis, but even beyond that, we began to develop a friendship. We corresponded frequently (by then both by mail and email), and in 1998, my then 17 year old daughter and I traveled to Nova Scotia and got the “Sandra Barry Deluxe Bishop Tour.” Wow! This is where my interest in Elizabeth Bishop changed into my love of Elizabeth Bishop.

Sandra introduced me to the little girl Bishop, her kinfolk, the town, the school, the churches, the people, the bay, and the province that colored Bishop’s world and helped forge the lens through which she would view the rest of her life. I was able to complete my pilgrimage by visiting the Bishop house in Great Village, even though it was owned by Paul Tingley, a private owner, at the time. During this visit to the house in Great Village, I grasped the importance of this special place, and I gained a whole new insight into its impact on Bishop’s psyche.

I was able to return to Nova Scotia again in 2006 with my husband, Eldon, and we are planning a trip in the summer of 2011 to celebrate the EB centenary. We are also fortunate and proud to be shareholders in the EB house. However, I must say that without Sandra Barry, it is doubtful I would have ever gone from Elizabeth Bishop encounter to Elizabeth Bishop immersion. Thank you, dear Sandra.

In the years since completing my degree, I’ve taught middle and high school English, and I’ve been a high school librarian for the last seven years. One thing I can proudly say is that I have introduced Bishop’s poetry to many Texas students who might never have found her. And I’ve made sure to have copies of The Collected Prose and The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 on the shelves of the libraries I’ve managed. No doubt there are other Elizabeth Bishop first encounters out there just waiting to happen!

[See Adrianne's own blog about life in Texas: "Seeing the Good."]

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