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

Monday, August 9, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXV: Waiting...? by Jane Finlay-Young

I was introduced to Elizabeth Bishop twice. The first time, briefly, seven or eight years ago when a friend of mine, Annie Jacobsen, loaned me a copy of Geography III. That very same copy sits beside me as I type — one of the many books I inherited from Annie after she died. Her name is printed distinctly in black ink on the first blank page.

That first encounter, I turned the page past her name and looked at the list of books that Bishop had published. Seven books! How did I not know this poet? Was she still alive? I scanned front and back, but there was no author blurb, no hint of her origins or nationality or age. I turned the page again, past the picture of globe and compass and book and inkwell and the prestigious stamp of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Past the Copyright page — this was the 9th printing! Past ‘For Alice Methfessel’. Past the ‘Contents’ page — ten poems over fifty pages. And into the “First Lessons in Geography”. Which was not a poem. It was an excerpt from a child’s geography book.

I thought to myself: well, this woman is surely preoccupied with place, with direction, with location. And perhaps with childhood, too.

And then I turned the page again and stumbled into the waiting room. In that first encounter, “In the Waiting Room” was the only poem I could absorb. I read it over and over and over trying to get at what was moving me, drawing me in. It was a whole world, the world of the child, full of wonder and fear and mystery.

I knew that world completely — I had spent four years writing my first novel in that world, a novel for adults whose narrator was a child. From the simple language, to the mysterious meandering of the child-mind where the inside and outside of little Elizabeth are intertwined, to the beautifully simple yet profound questions about self, to the fear of loss of self, to the wonder of the universe around her — all of it so honest, so true.

I knew nothing of Bishop then, but I could sense loss in the poem. Loss as a child experiences it, completely and without rationalization. Loss that disorients and breeds fear and dislocation.

Many years later, not long after I had moved to Halifax I met Sandra Barry. Sandra was my second introduction to Bishop.

We met, on a late Fall day, so that Sandra could give me the key to Bishop House. My friend Anne (another Anne bringing me close to Bishop!) and I were going for a few days to write. Sandra and I arrived bundled in coats and hats and mitts (arctics and overcoats!), our glasses fogged with cold. We shook hands, sat down, and Sandra said: so, you know about Bishop? I was embarrassed; I was going to be a house guest and I knew nothing about my host. I knew one of her poems, I said, but admitted reluctantly, I knew nothing about her.


What ensued was the most fascinating of conversations — about Bishop and specifically about Bishop and her mother, Gertrude.

Bishop lost her mother, to mental illness, when she was five years old, just as I had lost my mother, also to mental illness, when I was six — that is what I recognized; loss at an early age, loss of a mother.

We talked about many things, but what I remember most is talking about Bishop being taken from Great Village, the place she last saw her mother, and about the effect that would have on a child. How would her mother find her upon her return if she wasn’t where her mother last saw her!

I said goodbye to Sandra, key in hand, and headed to EB House eager to be within the walls of the place Bishop last saw her mother and no doubt waited, and waited in vain, for her to return. As I had waited for years for my own mother — in the waiting room trying to stop the sensation of falling off the round, turning world into cold, blue-black space.


Jane Finlay-Young is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a lover of poetry. She is the author of the novel From Bruised Fell, and co-author (along with the aforementioned Annie Jacobsen) of Watermelon Syrup. She is working on a memoir about her foray into Orthodox Judaism. She lives in Halifax, N.S.

No comments:

Post a Comment