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

Monday, August 23, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXVI: A Moose and A Mouse, by Jonathan Ellis

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop was through a letter, or rather a series of letters. As an undergraduate at Oxford I attended one of the smallest colleges at the university. Established by the Franciscans in the thirteenth-century, its students were first exiled from Oxford during the Reformation. In the early twentieth-century the friars were allowed back again. Initially only men were admitted to study Theology. In my day the college was mixed though we still only studied arts subjects. And there were only thirty of us, ten or so in each year. There was just one proper academic, a Capuchin friar who taught (no surprise) Theology. As an English undergraduate, I was thus permanently “farmed” elsewhere, usually onto brilliant but completely overworked postgraduate students.

In my final year, fed up of not being allocated a tutor until week three or four of each semester, I decided to find my own supervisor for a dissertation on American poetry. I contacted the poet Tom Paulin who replied that he was “too busy” but recommended a fellow poet, Jamie McKendrick. In a short letter he agreed to take me on and suggested we meet in a pub in town to discuss my ideas. I recall talking a lot about Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. A few days later another letter followed. “Have you ever read Elizabeth Bishop?” I’d never even heard of Elizabeth Bishop at that point. So off I dutifully went to the library to borrow the Complete Poems.

I remember reading the poems not in Oxford but in my grandmother’s house near Liverpool where I was staying for a week over the Christmas holidays. Like most reading experiences, the place where I first read Bishop was an important feature of my response to her writing. Some fourteen years later, reading Bishop has always in some ways meant remembering my Nan who died the summer after.

I read the Complete Poems in one, or at most two sittings. I found North & South intriguing but, as the title warns, also a little cold to the touch. My favourite book was certainly Geography III. Every poem seemed perfect there. I don’t think I’ve changed my mind on that score. I’m not sure what I loved most about Bishop’s poetry first, probably the sound of her mind thinking. As someone who often speaks before or even as I am making my mind up, I was amazed by a poet who was able to do so in sonnets and sestinas.

When I got back to Oxford I looked to see what other writings by Bishop I could find. On a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remember buying The Collected Prose in a bookshop. I read it on a train ride to and from Durham. One Art had also just been published a few years earlier. It felt like a very expensive book to me then but by that point I had to keep reading. I devoured it in bed at night.

Before handing in the dissertation, we were allowed to give our supervisor two or three drafts. For some reason, I kept referring to “The Moose” as “The Mouse.” This was in the days when essays were still mostly handwritten, so the error could not be blamed on an eccentric computer spellchecker. Somehow, I don’t think the poem would work as well with a mouse… The animal in question certainly wouldn’t be as “high as a church.” “Moose NOT Mouse,” my supervisor scribbled in the margin with I like to think amusement.

I was awarded an A-- for the dissertation. When I was an undergraduate, each grade could have three pluses or minuses attached, from A + + + down to D ---. I hope the two minuses were not for further animal mistakes. Following Jamie McKendrick’s advice not to study contemporary poetry at Oxford, I moved to do a PhD at Hull University. Generous support there allowed me to encounter Bishop in other places, in Brazil and Nova Scotia particularly. In 2008, my college at Oxford closed again for the second time in its history, the Catholic Church in Britain deciding the running of a college to be too much of a burden.

My first encounter with Bishop was not there, however, or even in the library where I first saw her book, but on a grey December day on my grandmother’s bed, the rain falling as in “Sestina” like the sound of a “teakettle’s small hard tears.” Each time I read or write about Bishop, I wonder whether I am simply redrawing and remembering another version of that (now) inscrutable house. Encountering Bishop my own Nan’s voice is certainly “recognizable, somewhere.”

It goes without saying that my favourite poem is “The Moose”, NOT “The Mouse.”

[Jonathan Ellis is the author of Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop (Ashgate). He lives in Sheffield, England, an hour or so from Bulmer (North Yorkshire) where Bishop’s Nova Scotian relatives must have lived once upon a time (Bulmer, like Great Village, once had a blacksmith’s). He is currently organising a series of talks on letter writing, including one on Bishop and Lowell by Irish poet Paul Muldoon.]

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