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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Reading Elizabeth Bishop After the Click...

...is the title of a blog entry by Taline Voskeritchian I discovered in my early-morning search for material to use in our "Today in Bishop." It put into words (Read it!) a sensation I, too, have had.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: "Everything and Anything"

Recently, Suzie LeBlanc, who in late September/early October 2010 visited Ouro Prêto for the first time, gave me a wonderful object that had belonged to Elizabeth Bishop. This object was given to her by Linda Nemer, who, along with her brother José Alberto Nemer, have since 1982 owned Casa Mariana, Bishop’s restored eighteenth-century house in that beautiful city. I hope at some point Suzie will write about her visit to Ouro Prêto for the blog, as there were many wonderful “Bishop moments.” Our conversations about this trip triggered many memories for me, because in 1999 I had the great privilege to attend a conference in Ouro Prêto and I visit Casa Mariana, along with dozens of other EB scholars. The Nemers graciously hosted a garden party for the conference participants and we were all introduced to these two lovely people. I am sure they would not remember me because there was such a large group of people, but my memory of that afternoon will always be vivid.

The object, the gift, given to Suzie by Linda, brought thousands of miles to Nova Scotia, is now in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village. What is it? It is a tall, slender, metal, turquoise-blue coffee pot (percolator). Its metal handle has a pretty wicker covering (I assume to keep it cool to the touch). On the bottom is a stamp indicating that it was made in Denmark – perhaps it was a gift to Bishop from her friend Lilli Correia de Araújo, who was Danish and owned the hotel across the road from Casa Mariana. It is a thoroughly domestic object, but with an elegance that one associates with Elizabeth Bishop, her personal and artistic aesthetic.
Suzie and me with the coffee pot (Photo by Bill Barker)

You might not automatically assume that Casa Mariana and the house in Great Village have any direct link. While they are quite different in some ways (one is stone, one is wood; one is eighteenth century, one is nineteenth century; one is landlocked, one is by a river that leads to a bay – and so on), even so, when I visited Casa Mariana I felt an immediate connection between it and Bishop’s childhood home. I won’t enumerate those connections, as I perceive them (perhaps in another post), because I want to talk about objects.

One of the questions I get asked most often by visitors to the Elizabeth Bishop House is whether or not there are any objects of Bishop’s from her childhood or, generally, from her life. Alas, except for the house itself, perhaps the most powerful “object,” in Bishop’s childhood, there are no personal childhood treasures (Acadia University Archives holds a few such treasures), but there are a couple of other items that belonged to Bishop, which have come as gifts to the house.

What is it about objects that intrigues us so? Our curiosity is natural and aligns with Bishop herself, who had a fascination with objects – with their intrinsic existence, their link to lived experience, their evolution as subjects for art. Look at any Bishop poem and you find ordinary objects with extraordinary lives. Take “Sestina,” for example, a poem set in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Its utterly domestic stove, tea kettle and almanac are both familiar and strange in the same breath, the same beat – they are in a constant shifting relation to the grandmother and child, and the tears that both of them know; "everything and anything" are part of the unspoken sorrow that hovers and echoes in this powerful poem.

In a 1935 journal Bishop wrote:

“Sometimes I wish I had a junk-room, store-room, or attic, where I could keep, and had kept, all my life the odds & ends that took my fancy. The buffalo robe with moth-bitten scalloped red-flannel edges, my Aunt’s doll with the limp neck, buttons, china, towels stolen from hotels, stones, pieces of wood, beach-tarp, old hats, some of my relatives cast-off clothes, toys, liquor labels, tin-foil, bottles of medicine to smell, bottles of colored water – things which please by their neatness, such as small lined blank-books, blocks of solder. – Everything and Anything: If one had such a place to throw things into, like a sort of extra brain, and a chair in the middle of it to go and sit on once in a while, it might be a great help….”

In the Elizabeth Bishop House there is such a room – what we call the “back room.” Though unfinished and more or less empty now, it clearly was a storage room. One of the fascinating things about this room is that there are remnants of newspapers covering the walls (newspaper was used as insulation). What fragments remains indicates its vintage: 1898 and thereabouts. The subjects on these shards of the past have uncanny echoes in Bishop. But, again, that is another story.

A Visit to the Attic
Elizabeth Bishop House

When I read the above journal entry and other similar written observations by Bishop about the importance and resonance of objects, about how to store/preserve/engage them, I think about this very room – perhaps the prototype of all the other junk-rooms she knew, had in mind and needed during her life. (My recollection of Casa Mariana is that it has an amazing basement that might have served a similar purpose for Bishop.)

Bishop regularly asked Aunt Grace to send her “everything” that was left that had belonged to her mother, and “anything” that Grace might want to share that was connected to the family. She received genealogical information, paintings, books, maple syrup and hundreds of letters. Grace sent Bishop some of her mother’s hand-made, embroidered linens. Bishop also sent Brazilian gifts to Grace. Thus, that the turquoise Danish coffee pot found its way from South to North, all these years after Bishop lived there, is part of an old continuum.

As I mentioned, there are a couple other objects that belonged to Bishop at the house in Great Village: a red cloth, rubber-lined bag from J.W. Fredericks Co. in Boston (this bag transported a raw roast beef from Boston to Halifax in the early 1970s – but that is, again, another story); and a pair of wooden Norwegian Bonna cross-country skis, bought in Harvard Square, again in the early 1970s.

While none of these objects: blue coffee pot, red bag, wooden skis are particularly personal, intimate, symbolic, still they are intriguing and filled with energy – they have made long journeys in time and space to end up where they are, but their journeys may not yet be over.

Ultimately, the “objects” with the most power for Bishop, for us, are her poems and stories themselves. She honours the mystery and resonance of our connections with the things we create by creating art. So many objects of the world around her, of her own life and of the lives of her family found their way into her words and, the fact is, these objects become even more alive on the page, making our engagement with her art endlessly delightful, inspiring and generative.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bishop and Frost

Geography III:
her Witness Tree.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: "Deaths, deaths and..." numbers

Today is the anniversary of the death of William Thomas Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop’s father. He died on 13 October 1911. He was just shy of 40 years old (39 years, 8 months and 8 days, to be exact, according to an obituary). His early death set off a chain of events that forever shaped Bishop’s life, events over which she had not the slighted control, since she was only 8 months old at the time. Bishop herself died 68 years later, almost to the day, on 6 October 1979. The vital statistic that got all of these others started was the marriage of William Thomas Bishop to Gertrude May Bulmer on 22 June 1908.

The snippet of quotation in the title is adapted from Bishop’s poem “The Moose” “deaths, deaths and sicknesses” — I substituted “numbers” because it struck me how many curious convergences there are in the vital statistics of Bishop’s life — by which I mean both the quantity of these convergences and the way that their trajectories intersect in time (that incomprehensible and mysterious phenomenon), which as humans we have chosen to describe and measure with numbers on all levels: eons, years, days, hours.

In her memoir “Primer Class” Bishop concluded with a declaration about numbers: “I finally mastered the eight — but when I watched the older grades at arithmetic class, in front of the blackboard with their columns of figures, it was utterly incomprehensible. Those mysterious numbers!” Incomprehensible and mysterious. “Primer Class” has a delightful account of her learning to make the number eight on her slate, and how it “skreeked” so much that she was sent outside by her grandmother to practice. Was there something subconscious at work with 8? Which on its side ∞ is the sign for infinity, or, as Bishop would say, “forever.” There is a subtle semantic difference here between space and time, but since it can be argued they are the same thing, the terms are interchangeable — and equally unfathomable.

Digression: We have incorporated this sign in our new logo for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations, that is EB1∞ (have a look at the new events website to see it). The idea being that Bishop’s influence will go on long after all of us are gone.

Back to Bishop and vital statistics. She was born on 8 February 1911. There is that 8 again. In this year, I find my own strange convergence with Bishop. Both my grandmothers were born in 1911, both in March. I feel a direct generational link with Bishop through this temporal sychronicity, and my grandmothers had particular and long-lasting affects on me, as Bishop’s had on her.

Bishop’s much loved maternal grandparents were both born in February: William Brown Bulmer (Pa to EB) on 9 February 1846; Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer (Gammie to EB) on 23 February 1850. William Bulmer died on 5 February 1930, just shy of 84. Gammie died just over a year later, 9 April 1931. She was 81. Rather a lot of 8s here, too, and a cluster of Februarys. Bishop saw her beloved Pa for the last time during the Christmas / New Year holiday of 1929-1930. She was 18. Her poem “Manners” is about Pa. Its epigraph reads: “For a child of 1918.” She saw Gammie for the last time in Montreal during the summer of 1930, where she also saw nuns playing tennis (convergences with nuns is an entirely different story!). Her poem “Sestina” is about her grandmother. There are no 8s in it, rather the poem’s structure circles around the idea of 6 — a foreshadow of her own death date?

And what about that October, this month of significant loss? There is an October cluster in the vital stats: Aunt Maude Bulmer Shepherdson was born on 3 October 1873. Maude is the aunt who more or less raised Bishop, in Revere, MA. Maude died in August 1940. She was 67, slightly younger than Bishop when she died. Bishop’s darling Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers, her favourite aunt, was born on 19 October 1889. She died on 10 August 1977, the “last real Bulmer,” in Bishop’s phrase. She was 88. Bishop dedicated “The Moose” to Grace, its short 6-line stanzas an echo of the 6-line stanzas of “Sestina.” Strangely, Grace died just two weeks before Robert Lowell. The loss of these two significant people in her life was a terrible blow. In her elegy for Lowell, “North Haven,” she wrote: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does” — there was a lot of repetition in Bishop’s life.

Bishop herself had an interest in vital stats. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries (both happy and sad). She also was aware of temporal convergences. In January 1951, she was in a particularly bad place in her life, struggling to stop drinking, hospitalized, unable to decide what to do with her life. She wrote to Anny Baumann, “I am exactly the age now at which my father died, which also might have something to do with it.” (One Art, p. 217). When Bishop wrote “exact,” she must have been thinking about those 39 years 8 months and 8 days — not just a vague almost 40. She wouldn’t be 40 for a few weeks.

Pick a number and follow it through Bishop. Her fascination with them was visceral. The opening lines of “Primer Class”: “Every time I see long columns of numbers, handwritten in a certain way, a strange sensation or shudder, partly aesthetic, partly painful, goes through my diaphragm. It is like seeing the dorsal fin of a large fish suddenly cut through the surface of water — not a frightening fish like a shark, more like a sailfish….The real name of this sensation is memory. It is a memory I do not even have to remember, or reconstruct; it is always right there, clear and complete. The mysterious numbers and columns, that impressed me so much — a mystery I never solved when I went to Primer Class in Nova Scotia!” (Collected Prose, p. 4)

Bishop was removed from Nova Scotia in October 1917, by her paternal grandparents. In February 1918, just days before she turned 7, she experienced another strange sensation that decades later became her poem “In the Waiting Room,” a poem that clearly declares its year, 1918. In the summer of 1919 Bishop was returned to Nova Scotia by her maternal aunts, a year that marked the beginning of a decade of long summer visits. Bishop was 8 years old. The 8s just keep repeating.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bishop Bit by Bit: a Gratitude

Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving yesterday made me think how grateful I am for Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. I thought I would like to express that gratitude by beginning a new project for the EB100 Blog: reading Bishop's poetry, but reading it slowly, bit by bit, and describing what runs through my mind in the process. I hope this will prompt readers to make their own comments on the poems.

I'd like to begin with the first poem in North & South.

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.

There is a tremendous step between the title and the beginning of the first line. When I first read the poem I think I misjudged that step, and leapt directly from 'The Map' to 'land as depicted on a map,' without even noticing that the word beginning the body of the poem is simply 'land.' The title exerts such a powerful tug upon my imagination -- right from the get-go I have visions of Vermeer's maps, or the Rand McNally maps that hung in my childhood classrooms -- and this tumble of images is so vivid that at first reading they almost entirely replace the places being mapped. But the first phrase of the poem is 'Land lies in water.' And now, aware of the leap the title tripped me into making, it suddenly occurs to me that it would be equally true to say that 'water lies in land.' If it hadn't been for that title-shoved leap, I don't think I would have become aware of the possibility of a different assignment to land and water of the roles of figure and ground, any more than I ever thought to question why North is depicted at the top of maps, and South at the bottom, until I stumbled across discussion of Eurocentrism back in the early 1980s, and saw a map of this sort for the first time:

The questioning of the roles of figure and ground that I am now engaged in, of course, makes a second reading of "Land lies in water" possible: taking the phrase to mean that the land tells lies in water. This brings to mind the way in which water and air have different indices of refraction, so that when we reach for the land that lies beneath water our reach exceeds our grasp. That in turn raises the questions "but why should we say the land is telling falsehoods? Isn't it our misunderstanding of the world that is at work? And isn't blame or guilt something that neither land nor water partake of?"

The second moment I pause when reading the poem to the end of its first line is at the word 'it.' At first I think that 'it' refers to 'land', but after rereading provides the first phrase with its multiple meanings , it occurs to me that the 'it' in 'it is shadowed green' might equally well refer to 'water.' There is a tug-of-war of sorts going on between two 'rules' in my head -- (1) 'it' refers to the subject of the immediately preceding clause or sentence, (2) 'it' refers to the latest-mentioned noun preceding the occurrence of 'it', irrespective of the syntactic function of that noun. I think Bishop was well aware of this potential ambiguity, since she attempts to avoid it by italicising the word 'it' in two poems, "The Moose" (in the line "Life's like that. We know it -- also death.") and "The End of March" (in the line "it was the color of mutton fat jade"). Here, though, she retains the ambiguity of reference. Why? We must wade further into the poem for clarification... soon...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The "Casabianca" Connections

It is to be expected that poets are inspired by, borrow from and even imitate each other, manifested not only in poetic apparatus such as epigraphs and dedications, but also in direct absorption of phrases, images and even whole passages (sometimes signaled by quotation marks, sometimes not). Elizabeth Bishop had a list of poets who directly influenced her (predecessors such as Herbert, Hopkins, Baudelaire; contemporaries such as Auden, Stevens, Lowell).

It is not surprising either that poets have been influenced by Bishop. Indeed, Lowell was one of the first to respond directly to and borrow from Bishop. Many poets since have done the same. So numerous are the poems dedicated to Bishop or inspired by her work that Brian Bartlett, poet and editor of the Elizabeth Bishop Society Newsletter, has been locating and printing these poems for the past half-dozen years or so.

All this “untidy activity” is natural, but because poetry is, generally speaking, a quiet corner of our culture, all this influence and admiration tends to be a circular phenomenon: poets talking to poets.

To take Bishop out of this insularity and connect her to a wider audience, one must perhaps move her into prose. I do not mean the prose of writing about her, such as biography or literary criticism (both of these are themselves corners in the culture), but creative writing, such as fiction or drama (and in our visually dominated world, the ultimate would be a film script and a feature film). This shift is logical because Bishop herself was a fine prose writer. The prose she wrote was, however, primarily non-fiction, that is memoir or reminiscence, with a few fable or parable-like stories.

I contend that Bishop’s prose has been woefully under-rated, a situation that has been changing as more and more of her letters are being published. It is now clear that the prose Bishop wrote most consistently was epistolary. But, again, such a form is not mainstream. Indeed, letter-writing is now virtually extinct.

Playwrights have been tackling Bishop for over a decade. Plays about her have been written by Canadian, American and Brazilian playwrights, and staged in all three countries. This process of creative re-imagining, dramatizing and performing has definitely brought Bishop to the attention of people who might not otherwise read poetry. To be the subject of a play confers a certain kind of stature and garners attention. Of course, as I already have noted, the pinnacle of this type of treatment would be a Hollywood movie. A few years ago Bishop did make it into a movie, called “In Her Shoes,” in which a young female character reads nearly the entire text of Bishop’s poem “One Art” to an elderly male character. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me about seeing this scene.

At the end of September a major announcement was made in Brazil about a feature film (a Brazilian-British co-production) to be made about Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, “A Arte de Perder” (“The Art of Losing”). This film will certainly catapult both women into the mainstream.

Arguably, however, the most popular genre of creative writing, the genre with the widest appeal and readership, is fiction, particularly novels.

What does it mean when a real poet begins to turn up in novels (in fictional worlds). It probably means a number of things, and one of them might be that the poet is starting to infiltrate a wider cultural consciousness, becoming part of “popular” culture.

I am not a regular reader of fiction, but even I began to notice Bishop popping up in novels. The first example that crossed my path was Cathleen Schine’s 1995 novel The Love Letter, about the owner of a bookstore who is a Bishop fan. Schine quotes an entire Bishop poem in her book.

It is the most recent example I have encountered, however, that triggered the idea to write this post: Howard Norman’s new novel What Is Left The Daughter. I must stay immediately that I know Howard and readily admit that I am a big fan of his novels, as well as of his non-fiction (essay and memoir). I must also confess to being a subject of one of his essays, in a 2004 collection of essays called My Famous Evening. I am especially fond of this new novel in part because it is set in Halifax and Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, during World War II.

It is not my intention to review this book (you can read a National Post review), but when I read it a couple of months ago I was intrigued by Bishop’s cameo and the poem Howard chose to include, “Casabianca” (which, interestingly, and totally coincidentally I am sure, is the same one Schine chose).

“Casabianca” is an early and very curious Bishop poem. It is an example of exactly my point at the beginning about poets influencing and borrowing from each other. Bishop’s poem is a parody of one with the same title by the Victorian poet Felicia Hemans, a kind of indictment of the pathos and bombast of Hemans’s ideal of sacrifice. Both poems deal with shipwrecks and have the image of a boy standing on the deck of a burning, sinking ship.

I am not sure why Schine used it, but it makes perfect poetic and narrative sense in What Is Left The Daughter, with part of the plot hinging on the real-life disaster of the sinking of the passenger ferry Caribou – that ran between Cape Breton and Newfoundland – during the early years of WWII.

“Casabianca” has also intrigued the Newfoundland poet Agnes Walsh to such a degree that she committed one of those poetic absorptions and responses by writing “Placentia,” her own revision of the form, tenor and subject of the poem. It is published in her collection Going Around With Bachelors. On October 7, again coincidentally, the “Today’s Video” was Hector Munoz reciting “Casabianca.”

What Is Left The Daughter is set firmly in Bishop country: the short that run along Cobequid Bay and Minas Basin from Great Village to Parrsboro, N.S. This landscape also features in Devotion, Howard’s wonderful novella published a few years ago, which is set primarily in Parrsboro.

Howard’s connection to this part of Nova Scotia is long-standing. He has been coming to Nova Scotia for decades. He also has a fascinating and direct connection to Bishop through his wife, the poet Jane Shore, who was a student and colleague of Bishop at Harvard University in the 1970s.

Not only is Bishop appearing in cameo in novels (and I am sure there are others – if anyone has other examples, let me know), she is also starting to become the subject of entire novels. This summer the first novel about Bishop and her partner Lota de Macedo Soares was published: The More I Owe You, by Michael Sledge. I know of another novel about Bishop that is in progress and through the grapevine have heard about yet a third.

As the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary approaches, all this interest and use is perhaps not surprising, indicative of a steady expansion of her influence as more and more people encounter her in all sorts of ways, and their responses continue to generate all manner of connections.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Fill a Gap with Words

One image of Elizabeth Bishop’s writing process has come from a number of sources: the image is Bishop’s desk over which she posted her poems with blanks or gaps in the text, so she could ponder them while she waited for the right words. Gaps in text, in the creative process and in living life are inevitable. Sometimes they can be filled. Sometimes they cannot.

Life being what is it — busy — I was frustrated at being unable to make regular posts to the blog in September. All writers know this kind of frustration; I am in good company. Bishop herself experienced long periods of drought, gaps of varying lengths, when travel, ill health, states of mind, domestic demands and visitors (sometimes several combined at once) took her away from poetry — though often when poems were neglected she was writing letters, real letters. For me, and for most of us these days, the culprit is email, which can easily fill any gap to overflowing.

Distractions are legion, some unwanted and unexpected, some entirely welcome and pleasant because they are invited. Part of what has distracted me from writing for the blog over the past month was a most welcome visitor: I hosted a young writer from Scotland who came to Nova Scotia to do research for a Bishop project for a Creative Writing PhD. I will not give her name now because she has promised a “First Encounter,” so you will be introduced to her soon, I hope.

She stayed for a couple of weeks, part of which was in Great Village at the Elizabeth Bishop House; part in Halifax, where she worked at the Nova Scotia Archives; and part in Wolfville, where she worked at the Acadia University Archives. She immersed herself in Bishop’s Great Village and maternal family in an effort to understand her “Nova Scotia Connections.” I was delighted to spend some time with her in each of these places. Of the many things we talked about during these time, long and lively conversations about a wide-range of subjects, there was a delightful moment at the Acadia archives that has stayed with me and I decided to write about it.

The archivists brought out a number of items found in the Bulmer family collection (Bishop’s maternal family) and we carefully unwrapped and talked about each of them. One of the items was a very special dictionary. When Bishop finally started teaching late in life, she emphatically told her students to use a dictionary — she regarded dictionaries as essential tools of the trade. Indeed, one of the last major acts of her life, in July 1979, to buy the thirteen-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Not only did she urge dictionaries on her students, she also gave them as gifts. The dictionary in the Bulmer collection at the Acadia archives is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: American Heritage Publishing Co., Ltd., & Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973). Its inscription explains its provenance: “For Ernest Sutherland (& family) – Love & best wishes for 1975 – Elizabeth Bishop” Ernest Sutherland was the husband of Bishop’s Nova Scotian first cousin Phyllis Bowers Sutherland. Ern and Phyllis had three children.

The dictionary Bishop gave her cousin’s family is no ordinary list of words and their meanings. It is an illustrated dictionary and immediately reminds one of the Bulmer family Bible, also in the Acadia archives, which is the primary source for Bishop’s poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”

As the young Bishop scholar opened the dictionary and realized it was filled with pictures, her first impulse was to go to M and look for “moose.” Nearly every Bishop pilgrim from outside of Canada longs to see a moose when they come to Nova Scotia. Some of them have been successful, especially those who travel to Cape Breton. Sure enough, there in the wide margin of the page is a wonderful picture of a moose (male, not female). What is additionally delightful is that right above it was a picture of the moon. Instantly, we looked at each other and virtually in the same breath recited, “by craning backward / the moose can be seen / on the moonlit macadam…,” lines in the final stanza of Bishop’s poem “The Moose.”

Many devoted Bishop readers have had this kind of experience when encountering each other and something right out of a Bishop poem (fish, seals, filling stations, etc.): spontaneous simultaneous recitation.

The source for “The Moose” was a 1946 trip to Nova Scotia, when Bishop, having to return unexpectedly to the US, flagged down an Acadian Lines bus by the side of the road, which took her along the shores of the Bay of Fundy, then into New Brunswick, where the moose was encountered. It took her decades to finish the poem — 1972 to be exact, when she read it at a Harvard University Commencement ceremony. She dedicated the poem to Grace Bulmer Bowers, Phyllis Sutherland’s mother, who was still living in 1975 when the dictionary was given. I wonder if Bishop ever looked at that M page that so delighted us sitting in the Acadia archives.

We spent a little while looking through dictionary, and many Bishop images were pictured (sandpipers, compasses, moths, etc.). I am not sure why the moose moment was so memorable, except that it brought an instant delight and connection, filling a temporal and spatial gap. It also demonstrated that there is a direct channel between Bishop’s art and lived experience — not only her own life, which source the poems, but also that of her readers’ lives, long after the poems were written and Bishop has died.

It is a privilege for me to help bring Bishop scholars, readers, pilgrims closer to Bishop’s Great Village and maternal family heritage, to help bring them closer to her many “Nova Scotia Connections.”