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

Monday, August 30, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXVII: Reading Elizabeth Bishop, by Mark Hamilton

Uncle Keith with his Bus

I grew up on the north shore of Nova Scotia, and one could be forgiven for thinking that a family trip “down shore” —to Moose River, Parsborro and so on—would be a bit of a busman’s holiday. One would have to be forgiven, because to think that would reveal one as having come from away. The two areas share the rolling granitic spine of the old Cobequid Hills, but otherwise vary as much as the tea-like Northumberland Straight does from the heart-stoppingly frigid Minas Basin.

We went because my mother was from Moose River. I told her on one trip that I’d always felt like ‘down shore’ was haunted, and I was trying to remember something there that was always just out of my mind’s reach. She smiled and said it was a racial memory, something genetic. The other memories she supplied: of her family piling out of the Model “T” so it could climb Economy Mountain while they walked up, or stories of grandfather Dave Smith building a five-mile long logging sluice with only his wits and a handlevel.(The deal wood for the Empire State Building scaffolding would come down that sluice.)

As kids we picked fossilized tree branches from the upended shales at the mouth of Moose River. I’ve always been of the opinion (later strengthened by the the Joggins fossil finds) that this is where life began. It’s not hard to imagine if you stand on the shore, cliffs disappearing into the distance to right and left, while at your feet the ancient, indifferent ocean and pebbles swap places as they always have. Standing thus at night beside the dark and moving water is a good inventory of your spiritual state. (George Cooke, my grandfather, floated his cart back from the fish weir as the horse swam and he threw weight overboard. Misjudging the tide makes for a good spiritual inventory too.)

This is all to say some places are in your bones.

My first reading of Bishop was “The Moose”. I apologize; I don’t remember the date, the place, what I wore….any of that, but I will never forget the sense of “rightness”—the being home in it—that “The Moose” is for me. It’s a perfect poem technically (of course) but that’s not its importance to me. It is rather that she remembered for me—well, for all of us—remembered and said that racial memory I had sensed in my youth; the inheritance of place of people who eat dulse. Even if Bishop, being away so long, never quite mastered the sharp inhaled “yes”, the accomplishment of that poem reveals her as part of the family here.

I sent “The Moose” to my mother via email soon after I read it. She has never been a person given to unseemly displays of sentiment, but her response was a line of gratitude for having a son who would send her such a poem. So I am indebted to Bishop again.

My uncle Keith Cooke was a bus driver for Acadian Lines during the era of “The Moose” (late 1940s), driving the route from Halifax to Amherst via the Parsborro shore. When passengers got to Amherst, they switched to another bus line—SMT—to travel to points west. Keith never rolled his “Rs” like the driver in “The Moose”, but by that stage of the poem the traveller would have been on an SMT bus, so I’ll just hang on to my notion that Keith was driving for at least part of “The Moose”!

He was of that generation required to memorize poetry as part of his rural schooling, and my mother told me how, on cresting Economy Mountain of an evening and seeing the lights of the settlement below, he would recite from Longfellow:

“The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”

I have a fantasy that Elizabeth might have sat a row or two behind Keith, smiling to herself. If any of my scholarly friends know better, please don’t tell me.

[Poet, painter, essayist, and champion parade float architect Mark Hamilton is presently sunlighting at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. We have been working for over fifteen years on a joint translation of Mikhail Kuzmin's volume of poems Нездешние вечера (Evenings Elsewhere). With luck it will be finished later this year (I haven't found that folder with the drafts yet, Mark -- I swear you're the one who has them...) -- JAB]


  1. I appreciate Mark Hamilton's entry. It's one that I am sure to re-read from time to time. My summer abode is on the Northumberland Strait and so I admit (as a
    cfa)to finding Hamilton's comments about "down
    shore" new to my repetoire of local phrases.

  2. Wonderful! My grandmother recited the Longfellow poem to me. My favourite Bishop poem starts " the art of losing is not so hard to master. I do think love or "sense" of place is in our DNA.
    Thank you so much for sharing with me tonight.