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

Monday, November 29, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXIX: The Art of Loosening by Chris Hosea

I took a leave of absence from college when I was eighteen. Frankly, I wasn’t inclined to go back. I felt I’d had enough. I began college early, saying farewell to my New Jersey public high school, without earning a diploma, to matriculate at Johns Hopkins in 1991. Arriving in North Baltimore at sixteen, I discovered I was part of a small group of early admits. We gradually located each other on campus, exchanging excited introductions as if we were far-flung members of a Masonic order. By and large, we were intellectually precocious and socially clueless. There was just no escaping the incongruity of our puny frames, our downy cheeks. And to their eternal credit, the vast majority of older students were patient and kind. They considered us hilarious and endearing, and petted us like mascots. I was soon as comfortable and happy as any college freshman, which is to say enthusiastic, spoiled, quick to judge, insecure, addicted to sudden binges of angst, and wildly exultant in my sudden liberty from parental oversight.

A lot can change in a year. At fencing practice I lunged and scuttled and ran the daily mile. I grew my hair out and started shaving more convincing stubble off my chin. Then Harvard accepted my transfer application. I had assured the Harvard admissions office I wanted to leave Baltimore because Hopkins’ philosophy department paled in comparison (actually Hopkins had world-class philosophy professors). Really, I confided in my close friends, I wanted a fresh slate—and why not try the knowledge industry’s leading luxury brand? Viewed in retrospect, my decision to transfer sprung from more complicated motives and pressures, and was more bound up in family drama, but I’ll delve into that in my memoirs. If I ever find the time!

My first year at Harvard was a bit of a sudden plunge into the frigid Charles. Dunster House, the dormitory to which I was assigned, was overcrowded. So I was roomed in a high-rise apartment project apparently airlifted from the suburbs of early-1960s Prague. The brutalist F. G. Peabody Terrace Married Student Housing Estate is just a short walk down Memorial Drive from Dunster House, where I took my meals in a dark-paneled dining hall with French windows and chandeliers. But back at my concrete suite with my roommates, all transfers themselves, I felt isolated in a lockless Chateau D’If.

Harvard students were smarter, fiercer, and quite delighted to call bluff on my bullshit. The classes were larger, the professors less easily impressed. I was at a bit of a loss, and for a time did little but attend classes, annotate assigned readings, thrash and sweat at the regular Lemonheads shows at T. T. the Bear’s Place (the band’s bassist, Juliana Hatfield, was a big crush of mine and every other lonely guy in the room), hang out with transfer students, read lots of nineteenth-century novels, and make mix-tapes from gloomy pop records to send to girls I knew back at Hopkins. After struggling through a particularly difficult, mind-bending class led by Derek Parfit, I switched my concentration to Engish. Though I attended and enjoyed a John Ashbery reading, I wasn’t especially curious about contemporary poetry. As far as I know I had never yet read a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

When I returned to Harvard after four years of working and backpacking my way through Asia and Europe, living for stretches of more than six months in India, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic, I was ready for a livelier approach to college. I’d carried pocket editions of Leaves of Grass and Illuminations on my travels, and somewhere along the way I’d become convinced I was a poet. I had no idea whether I would ever write a poem I would happy be with. And I was woefully disappointed with all my attempts thus far. But I knew I was a poet like the Pope knows he’s Catholic. I felt so solemn and pretentious I shivered with it. Poetry became one of the few things—aside from dating, which I also pursued with scattered success—for which I could summon the kind of unnervingly dense passion my friends roundly teased me about.

I hungrily enrolled in every poetry class I could. Helen Vendler’s expansive, virtuoso close-readings of Whitman and Keats discovered the wild world of signification that lives and breathes in poetic texts. The levels on which a poem may be read suddenly seemed endless. Vendler favored close readings supported by biography. She radiated the conviction that some readings are definitive. Yet she was quick to point out, correctly, that the sharp critical tools she taught could be fruitfully employed in service of any critical methodology. I adored Professor Vendler and devoured paperback copies of her books, including Part of Nature, Part of Us and Soul Says, collections of popular reviews she had penned mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Vendler’s stature as an arbiter of American contemporary verse was then at its zenith. I got to know student poets who resented her mostly mainstream tastes and the occasional testy dismissals that broke her general radio silence concerning language-affiliated poets, a group which included Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Ted Greenwald and Clark Coolidge, who certainly were publishing some of the most brilliant and exciting poetry to appear in the United States during the nineties.

I was ready to forgive Vendler anything and everything, though, when with the help of her essay collections I began parsing, exploring, and delighting in the works of Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Marianne Moore, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, and especially the wonderful James Tate, whose books became an addiction after I was unnerved by a brief, scathing review in which Vendler, taking an extremely uncharacteristic tone, unfairly mocked Tate’s razor-sharp Viper Jazz. My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop also came through Vendler’s brilliant essays. Vendler’s celebratory divinations drew heavily on quotations from Bishop’s letters and poems. Nevertheless, by some cosmic accident I didn’t arrive at the Collected Poems proper until the spring semester of my senior year, when I enrolled in Henri Cole’s Advanced Poetry Workshop.

At Harvard each creative writing workshop is reserved for twelve lucky students who win their place at the table by competitive application. When I showed up at Sever Hall for the information session and found I numbered among perhaps two hundred undergraduates chatting and biting their nails, I was crestfallen. Looking around, I saw I wasn’t alone in my mood, to judge from the wealth of wry frowns and boastful curses and twitching nicotine-stained fingers. Until I found acquaintances to commiserate with, I kept reminding myself about how none of my lyrics had ever been accepted by The Advocate, the college literary magazine. Even little campus journals that sprang up and died in a semester were rejecting my work, with the exception of the ephemeral “experimental” tabloid Cellar Door. By the time a bored junior professor read the rules of the application process from a Xeroxed sheet into a podium microphone, I was probably foggily trying to remember what movies were showing at the Brattle. Yet despite my poor batting average with student magazines, I was granted a spot in Henri’s class, much to my surprise and delight.

Henri is one of the most patient, helpful, generous, and constructive teachers of poetry with whom I have had the good fortune to study. The students in his workshop were a various bunch. There was a very young woman who had already published verse in national magazines, a few curious graduate students, a dancer, an older librarian or assistant, and a motley assortment of undergraduates who, like me, were clumsily groping at the materials of poetry, blundering along mostly happily, while sometimes catching disheartening glimpses of the dizzying difficulties of the quest. Henri smiled kindly at naive pretensions, and offered gentle critiques that helped many students make real steps forward. The most generative thing about Henri as a teacher, I think, is his keen ability to appreciate, encourage, and help to flourish all kinds of styles, even those that plough fields far distant from the masterfully disciplined and resonantly empathetic autobiographical lyricism that he has so successfully made his own.

There was a moment early on in the workshop when I let fly an inelegant remark. “There are so many feet in this poem,” I said of a classmate’s short sketch of Florida holiday ennui. “Feet walk across the floor. They waggle at the television screen. They have sand between their toes. But where is the person who goes with these feet?” After I said all that, or words to that effect, I saw tears well up in the poet’s eyes and at once knew I had badly misjudged the thickness of her skin. She surprised us all by standing up and fleeing the room. I felt awful, and turned to Henri, to plead my guilt and shame. He cut me off by laughing merrily and holding out his palms. In a calm voice he said, “Oh, don’t worry; she’ll get over it.” And so the workshop moved on to the next poem. The student returned the following week and everyone acted as if nothing unusual had happened. Which I later learned was essentially true, given the kind of blunders and fits of embarrassment that happen all the time in poetry workshops.

Not long after that little incident, Henri gave us each a photocopy of “One Art” and asked the workshop members to write a villanelle. The villanelle could be about any theme we desired, but it had to adhere to and vary from the formal requirements of the villanelle precisely in the ways Bishop’s did. This assignment proved a thrilling challenge. I wasn’t writing formal verse at the time—officially because I considered it “stuffy,” but privately because it was beyond my talents to create formal poems that were at once musical, new, and resonant. What was eye opening about Henri’s assignment was that he didn’t ask us to follow any old villanelle form, but rather to follow Bishop’s formal scheme in “One Art” exactly, paying close heed to all particular variations of intonation and structure. I spent a while mapping the poem, first for semantic meaning and resonance (here Vendler’s methods were especially crucial), after which I moved on to a phonetic and metrical analysis of “One Art.”

By the time I completed the project, I was in awe of the multiplicity of meanings that this poem carries. What seemed at first glance an enormously clever rendering of a philosophical commonplace about loss revealed itself to be a windswept, changeful sea of denotation. I saw the dark star in “disaster;” the “losing” loosening of “practice;” the wakes of massy vessels “filled with the intent / to be lost;” the notion that past places could return as visitations of what “it was you meant;” lapsed communities of “the hour badly spent,” the oceanic feeling of belonging to landscapes that overflows into a sense of ownership of “rivers, a continent;” a dark twinge of the inevitable disintegration of contentment that locates a frightening but also fertilizing and fructifying echo of (in)continence in the word “continent;” irresolvable, anxious doubts about one’s lover’s fidelity and one’s own ability to love in the “gesture” that may be as much a jester as “joking voice;” the awful struggles and sheer unfairness imposed on any woman attempting to become a—write it—“master” in an oppressively male-dominated literary world. We can all go on and on like this. That’s why Bishop’s great.

I have no memory of the poem I wrote for Henri’s assignment, and can’t find it in my files. My effort was likely technically adequate but rhetorically dull. I still haven’t mastered the difficult art of writing formal verse, and spend most of what writing time I have working with free and open forms. Nevertheless Henri’s assignment changed my life. I dashed to Lamont Library to check out whatever Bishop books I could find, and I soon discovered many Bishop poems that I now love even more than “One Art.” Last summer, my wife Cecily Iddings and I enjoyed the great privilege of studying and writing in the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Eleven years had passed since those early lessons in Henri’s workshop, and it felt like a kind of homecoming.


Chris Hosea was educated at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts MFA. His poems appear in 6x6, Swerve, Denver Quarterly, VOLT, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Wildlife, Eoagh, and Article: Art and the Imaginative Promise. He teaches high school English in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. Visit his blog at:


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections – Gasoline

In an interview with Leslie Hanscom in 1977 (collected in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro, 1996, pp. 69-71, reprinted from Newsweek, 6 February 1977, p. 8), Elizabeth Bishop recounted an early memory. As Hanscom recorded:

“Her own beginnings as a poet go back to the age of eight. Miss Bishop remembers a morning when her grandmother, preparing her for Sunday school, was sprucing up her shoes. The shoes were patent leather with white tops. To clean the tops, the grandmother used gasoline, and Vaseline for the patent leather. The little girl was intoxicated by the rhyme. ‘I went around all day chanting “gasoline/Vaseline,”’ the older Elizabeth Bishop said, ‘It may not have been a poem, but it was my first rhyme’.”

Illumination during Bishop’s childhood in Great Village in the 1910s came primarily from oil lamps, which during the day were lined up on a shelf in the pantry of her grandparents’ home. Elizabeth was responsible for polishing their chimneys. Even in Revere, Massachusetts, where she lived with her aunt in the 1920s, there were gas lamps, “that surely did give an ominous cold bluish light,” as Bishop recalled. “I can remember the awe with which I watched my aunt light up every night the one lamp that was kept burning—it had a ‘mantle’—and that I could make jump up into full awful glare by pulling a small balled chain” (“Mrs Sullivan Downstairs,” collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 199).

That first encounter with shoe polish and the fascination with oil and gas lamps coincided with the advent and rise of the automobile, as the internal combustion engine, hungry for fossil fuel, revolutionized life in North America. With this appearance came the infrastructure needed to service this new technology – that is, the blacksmith shops gave way to service stations. The first such businesses in Great Village were A.L. Peppard’s Vulcanizing Shop and Ronald Jenks’s Garage, which operated during Bishop’s childhood.

Arthur and Mabel Bulmer and their daughters Eleanor and Hazel, circa 1910

Bishop’s Uncle Arthur Bulmer was one of the first people in the village not only to get a Model-T Ford but also, being a businessman with his own tinsmith shop, he realized that he could augment his living by selling gasoline to motorists. As Bishop remembered:

“Then I went away to live in the States and came back just for the summers. Perhaps two or three years went by, I’m not sure, but one summer a gasoline pump appeared in front of the shop. Cars stopped to be filled up; not very often, but there were more of them, although the road was still dirt and gravel, ‘crowned’ in the middle. Billy and I competed with each other as to which one had seen the most and the biggest trucks. If a truck stopped for gasoline, we rushed to examine it: read or blue paint, decorated with white lines or gold lines, with arrowheads, what load it was carrying, where it was going.” (Collected Prose, p. 248)

Uncle Arthur's station under construction

Arthur Bulmer gradually expanded his service station (originally a “Red Indian” and then a “Texaco”) and right beside it an Esso Station appeared in the 1930s. Bishop encountered this latter business for the first time in 1946, when she returned to Nova Scotia after a hiatus of sixteen years. It was with this encounter that one of her best known poems and evocations of gasoline emerged: “Filling Station” with it “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” environs and the “rows of cans” that “softly say: ESSO-SO-SO-SO” to those “high-strung automobiles.” (Complete Poems, p. 127-128)

Uncle Arthur's Texaco (his house is to the left)

Esso station on left. Bulmer family home top right. Layton's store bottom right.

The new Esso station, built in the 1980s

For someone so focused – obsessed even – with the natural world and wary of cities with their oppressive and congested traffic, images of oil and gasoline are remarkably persistent, a hint of the continuous dialogue in Bishop’s work with modernity. For example:

There is the sea in “The Sea & Its Shore”: “On nights that Boomer was most drunk, the sea was of gasoline, terribly dangerous. He glanced at it fearfully over his shoulder between every sentence he read, and built his fire far back on the beach. It was brilliant, oily, and explosive. He was foolish enough then to think that it might ignite and destroy his only means of making a living.” (Collected Prose, p. 174) Edwin Boomer also carries around a lantern with him wherever he goes, an echo of those childhood oil lamps.

There is “the pool of bilge / where the oil had spread a rainbow / around the rusted engine” at the end of “The Fish” making that “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” just as she let’s the fish go.

There is the “acrid / smell of gasoline” at the end of “The Moose” as the bus starts off along the “moonlit macadam.”

There is the “blue cloud of burning oil” from an old truck and the oil that “has seeped into / the margins of the ditch of standing water” in “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto.” Oil that “flashes or looks upward unbrokenly, / like bits of mirror – no, more blue than that: / like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.”

I am sure there are others, but these are the ones that spring to my mind instantly. The wonder of Elizabeth Bishop’s art is that in spite of the few poems and stories that she published during her life-time, there are endless subjects and startling images evoked and juxtaposed. And somehow, always, these subjects and images seem to have a path back to Great Village and childhood, seem somehow directly or indirectly connected to Nova Scotia.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Worcester Review Call for Submissions

The editors of The Worcester Review have announced that they are planning a special issue in honour of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary. They will be soliciting submissions for this issue, and are particularly interested in papers concerning individual poems. The tentative deadline for submissions will be May 11, 2011, with publication scheduled for the autumn. The Review is a publication of the Worcester County Poetry Association:


We will post further details as these become available.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


“It must be Nova Scotia”: Negotiating Place in the Writings of Elizabeth Bishop

June 9-12, 2011 in Halifax,

Nova Scotia, Canada

Call for papers

To mark the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth, and to celebrate her contribution to world literature, a special conference will be held 9-12 June 2011 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Working under the title, “It must be Nova Scotia:” Negotiating Place in the Writings of Elizabeth Bishop,” the conference will focus on Bishop’s examinations of place and placelessness, her fascination with borders and shifting cultural geographies, and her unique position as an artist who lived and wrote both for and against competing definitions of “home.”

We encourage proposals from scholars and creative artists who are engaged with Bishop’s work from a range of perspectives. Strong presentations might address, for example, the relationship between the local and the global in Bishop’s work, her sometimes contested status as a Canadian/ American/ Brazilian writer, or the importance of “questions of travel” and forced migration in her life and work. The conference will feature a keynote address by the celebrated Irish novelist and Bishop scholar, Colm Tóibín, and participants will have the opportunity to tour the Bulmer home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a place where Bishop lived through some the most formative and traumatic experiences of her childhood and a site she often returned to in her most celebrated poetry and prose. As part of the Scotia Festival of Music, an array of world-class musical performances inspired by Bishop’s work will also be incorporated into the program. Selected essays from the conference will be collected and the editors of the volume will seek publication from a leading university press.

Interested scholars are invited to submit a 300-word abstract as well as a brief CV (two pages maximum) to the following address: bishopns@dal.ca. Electronic submissions only, please. Deadline for submission is 10 January 2011.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

伊丽莎白·毕晓普 -- Elizabeth Bishop in China

Over the past six months the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Blog has had visits from eighty-five different countries. This week we hope to receive our first visitors from the People's Republic of China! Megan Williams, who through the good offices of Strategic Arts Management has been an enormous help to the Centenary Committee in its quest for funding of the year's activities, is visiting Beijing to attend a UNESCO conference on cultural diversity, and plans to bring the blog to the attention of the participants. In celebration of this extension of our international outreach work, we will be making posts throughout the week describing Chinese language resources for Bishop Studies.

Of all Elizabeth Bishop's poems, it is perhaps "One Art" which has been most widely translated. Here are three versions in Chinese:

















Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Those Mysterious Numbers!...

Since the EB100 Blog became fully active (on 19 March 2010) we have received 5,683 visits from 3,720 people living in 85 countries. Something in excess of a thousand of you have paid us the compliment of making return visits! The mind boggles...

We're enormously grateful for your interest and support. As the start of the centenary year approaches, we would like to make this place as informative, useful, and pleasant to visit as we can. To that end we welcome your comments on every aspect of what we're doing. What would you like to see more of? What might we do just as well (or even better) without? Please feel free to make your suggestions at the end of this entry.

We also encourage you to submit your own "First Encounter" for our Monday feature -- Elizabeth Bishop's writing enters people's lives in very different and often intriguing ways, and we'd like to learn more about them. Please send them to bishopcentenary-"at"-gmail.com (and please replace the -"at"- with the @ sign when you write us -- we're attempting to avoid being harvested for spam).

Once again, many thanks! -- JB

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Ships that Pass

Elizabeth Bishop and travel are intimately connected in most of her readers’ minds. She identified her link to this idea and activity directly in many titles, including a poem title that became a book title: Questions of Travel. Most people think of “place” when the idea of travel is broached, that is, the places to which Bishop travelled. Her peripateticism was life-long, indeed, it probably began in utero, so caught up was her mother in moving back and forth between Nova Scotia and the “Boston States.” Further, the places she travelled to were so fascinating – Florida, Mexico, Brittany, Cabo Frio, the Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Diamantina, Newfoundland, Leningrad, Sable Island and so on – there is an amazement when one contemplates Bishop’s destinations.

How she got to these places does not usually come in for much attention when thinking about Bishop’s travels, that is, her modes of transportation. Most of us see the getting from point A to point B as a necessity that is best tackled and then forgotten. Occasionally, it was so for Bishop, but usually she found the en route worthy of note, in journals, letters, stories and poems. Think of “A Trip to Vigia,” a trip done in an automobile, which is really about the en route more than the final destination. Bishop was not much of a driver of cars, though she owned two particularly interesting ones during her life (an MG and a Volkswagon Bug). She was a child during the era when the automobile was the harbinger of modernity and some members of her family (on both sides) were avid motorists. She travelled around Brazil mostly by car, especially between Rio and Petrópolis. Her accounts of these trips pepper her correspondence in the 1950s and 1960s. When she occasionally returned to the United States during these decades, she despaired of the ubiquity of the car and its impact on the landscape.

Interestingly, her first mode of transportation upon landing in Brazil in November 1951 was not the automobile, but the train – she took a train from Santos to Rio de Janeiro: “an apparently undreamed-of procedure, although I enjoyed it very much. The ‘roomette’ was just like those I’ve been trapped in before, except that all the instructions were in Portuguese which made it even more dream-like.” (One Art, Letters, p. 226) Bishop had known trains and train travel early on – during her childhood in trips through Nova Scotia (taking the Dominion Atlantic Railway from Yarmouth to Halifax and then the Canadian National from Halifax to Londonderry Station).

She writes about a particularly painful train trip in “The Country Mouse.” She travelled by train to and from the southern United States, during her years living in Florida. She took a train trip across Canada (west to east) and one across the United States (east to west) in 1968.

Bishop’s anxiety about flying is well-known, though by the 1970s she was using this form of transportation fairly regularly. Remember, Bishop was born at a time when flight was in its infancy. She was of the generation that saw flight transform from a specialized activity for a few hardy adventurers, explorers and dare-devils into a wide-spread commercial activity after World War II. Bishop flew from Boston to Halifax in 1951 on her way out to Sable Island. In her journal she wrote about how fascinating and surreal the clouds looked en route. There was no international airport in the city at that time, but a small regional one on the east side of Halifax Harbour. After landing and crossing the harbour on a small ferry, Bishop boarded the Coast Guard vessel Cornwallis for the voyage out to Sable Island. It is with the Cornwallis that we reach the mode of transportation which held the most significance for Bishop. This vessel was one of many ships Bishop travelled on during her life time.

She more than once noted that she was happiest being at sea and would choose this slower means of trans-Atlantic travel if she could logistically manage it. She loved the suspension of being on the water far away from land – but she also experienced the loneliness and disconnection being so far from land causes.

As we say in the Maritimes, Bishop came by her interest in the sea and seafaring honestly. Her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson was a mariner who was shipwrecked in 1866. Her great-uncle George Hutchinson painted large seascapes and ship portraits as a young man; they hung in her grandparents’ home. Her great-uncle John Robert Hutchinson made his own global sea journeys to India and back, nearly getting shipwrecked. Immediately after their wedding, her parents embarked on a sea voyage to Jamaica and the Panama Canal. Uncle Arthur Bulmer was fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (a year after Bishop’s birth), and Bishop remembered the books about the ship and a framed print of its sinking in her uncle’s house. Tragically, two ships played a devastating role in her mother’s life: the collision of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Belgian relief ship Imo in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917, resulting in the worst non-nuclear man-made explosion in history, destroyed the north end of Halifax and seriously damaged the Nova Scotia Hospital where Bishop’s mother was resident.

From the time Bishop was a child she travelled between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts by steamer. She spent time as an adolescent at Camp Chequessett at Wellfleet, MA, a nautical summer camp for girls, and learned to sail. One of her first major trips was a 1932 walking tour of Newfoundland, and she reached St. John’s by freighter. She made two trans-Atlantic trips in the late 1930s. She preferred travelling by steamer or freighter – she did not do “cruises” in the way we think of them now, except the last year of her life when she cruised the Greek Islands. Whenever she lived by the ocean, especially ports, she was a keen observer of shipping. Ships fascinated her.

For example, she was fascinated by the strange and mysterious tale of the Mary Celeste, which was found drifting off the Azores in 1872 without a soul on board and no sign of what had happened to the crew. The Mary Celeste was built in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia and, curiously, was originally called the Amazon.

The Mary Celeste

Some time ago I wrote a little Nova Scotia Connections post about one important ship in Bishop’s life, the North Star. She and her Aunt Grace were onboard in 1919 when it grounded on Green Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. I did not have an image of that ship at that time, but have acquired one from the Yarmouth County Museum.

The North Star, Courtesy of the Yarmouth County Museum

Its receipt has made me think again not only about this early shipwreck in Bishop’s life (linked as it is to many other actual and metaphorical shipwrecks), but also about other important ships in her life. For example, her first trans-Atlantic voyage was in 1935 aboard the Königstein. I found images of the exterior and interior of this ship on a fascinating site called Time Table Images.

Perhaps the most important ship of Bishop’s adult life was the Bowplate, the ship that took her to Brazil, landing her in Santos (from which came “Arrival at Santos” a poem about a destination but also intrigued by all the shipping), a trip that changed her life. Her account of the en route of that voyage – how she was acutely aware of crossing the equator; how a young missionary made them sing “Nearer My God to Thee” during Sunday service, the song that passengers aboard the Titanic supposedly sung as the ship sank.

The Bowplate took her to a new life that itself included more ships, particularly those that carried her on the Amazon. The Bowplate took her to another ocean perch in Rio, where with binoculars Bishop watched all the ships coming and going. The Bowplate took her to a new life where suddenly, in land-locked Samambaia, at the base of a 200 foot escarpment of granite, she found the first real home of her adult life with Lota, the love of her life, and began to write about her childhood, a long-ago time when she her life was shaped by sea-farers and sea-travel.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- The art of the home-made

Elizabeth Bishop had an abiding interest in the domestic arts. The one she practiced most regularly throughout her life was cooking. During her years in Brazil, she was often in the kitchen with the cook, teaching her North American dishes, learning Brazilian dishes, creating and serving meals to many visitors and guests.

Her letters to her Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers are peppered with stories of meals and often accompanied by recipes. Here is one, 19 June 1959:

“To make the Orange Spread, in the liquidizer – take 1 big orange (the softer the skin the better, the best seems to be navel oranges) – 1 lemon or lime – and cut up with all the skin, juice, etc., But with seeds. Put in the machine with 1 pint of water and 3 cups of sugar, and grind and grind and grind. (I found it was better not to put all the water and sugar at the same time, but that’s what the recipe says – also our mixer isn’t too good so I had to take out some tough pieces – but IDEALLY SPEAKING, with soft-skinned oranges, a good Waring mixer or liquid-izer, and stronger electricity than we have here – it works well) – When it is very fine, put it in a shallow pan and simmer until it jellies –45 minutes or so. You can do the same thing using half a grapefruit as well, and a cup more sugar, and that also turns out very well. Best of all, though, was one batch I made using the orange [insert: lemon] and about half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger, put in the machine as well. The ginger here is not good – tough – so I cooked it first – but with good ginger you wouldn’t have to. I have a passion for it – of course – Strange to say, it seems to make quite a lot for the quantities used – I’m going to make some more when we go to Rio – the current is stronger there! Also, there I have a big electric frying-pan, a wonderful gadget for jelly-making, I find, because it’s easy to control the heat, and very shallow –

I am learning to make my favorite Brazilian cake – a little cup-cake-like thing called Mae Benta (Holy Mother, I suppose! – Lots of sweets here have religious names, including Angel’s Kiss and Nun’s (excuse me, but it’s true) Little Fart – I imagine because they were all originally made in the convents by the nuns.) The last one, the Nuns’ L.F. is awfully good – just cream-puff batter, fried in deep fat in tiny balls, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Holy Mothers are made with rice-flour, eggs, and coconut cream – made by grating the nut and then squeezing the pulp. – I wish you could read Portuguese so I could send you some of the wonderful little books about the various sweets – Oh, the Angel’s Hair – thin bright yellow threads, just egg yolks and sugar – when Lota was a child they were always made for her grandmother’s birthday and they would take 50 dozen eggs. Very complicated to make, though…” (Vassar College Special Collections)

On more than one occasion she gave cookbooks as gifts. Two can be found in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University (one about jams and jellies and one about cookies). Her best known occasional poem is probably “Lines Written in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” which was given to Frank Bidart in 1971. Well, as “One Art” says, “It’s evident / the art” of cooking was a passion for her.

Of course, her first introduction to this art was in her grandmothers’ kitchen in Great Village. If one does a survey of her published work, references to her grandmothers’ food, to her childhood experience of food in Great Village generally, can be found liberally scattered throughout poems and stories.

The turn of the twentieth century heralded the wide-spread emergence of the “catalogue” – in Canada it was the T. Eaton Company that became synonymous with this kind of retail activity, which soon came to dominate shopping practices. As well, during the 1910s, when Bishop lived in Great Village, the community had several general and specialty retail stores where mass-manufactured items could be purchased. Yet, even with all this retail choice accumulating, many people still relied greatly, especially in rural Nova Scotia, on the home-made. The term “store-bought” was coming into the lexicon as Bishop herself remembered in “Memories of Uncle Neddy”: “Often, around time for ‘tea,’ Billy or one of the girls could be seen running across to the store, and a few minutes later running back with a loaf of bread or something in a paper bag. My grandmother was furious: ‘Store bread! Store bread! Nothing but store bread!’” Clearly, in the Bulmer family home, “home-made” remained the norm and Bishop was immersed in all the activities this domestic reality entailed.

Besides all the food encounters and memories, Bishop was also exposed to many other domestic arts of the non-organic and, principally, fabric kind, those connected with the crafts that supplied the household with useful items – arts such as rug hooking, quilting, knitting, tatting, embroidery, millinery and tailoring. (Bishop’s grandmother also made soap; her grandfather, a tanner, currier and shoemaker, more or less made all the tools and equipment needed around the house, along with the blacksmith whose shop was next door; her uncle was a tinsmith and made all sorts of pots, pans, etc. – one of his cookie cutters is in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University).

Next to cooking, it was the domestic fabric arts that followed Bishop through her life. One of her most poignant memories, immortalized in “In the Village,” has the child abscond with one of her mother’s “little ivory embroidery tools” and bury it under the bleeding heart in the garden, where it is lost forever. Bishop’s mother, Gertrude, was known as a fine seamstress and had created beautiful linens for her trousseau – not unusual, most young women started their trousseaus as soon as they learned to sew. Some of Gertrude’s linens are also part of the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University. All the Bulmer daughters decorated their own hats, though the village had a highly accomplished milliner named Eleanor Spencer. Bishop has vivid memories of the clothes her grandmother and aunts made for her. As an adult, Bishop was known to wear beautifully tailored clothes, conservative but stylish.

Most of the things made by women in rural Nova Scotia in the early decades of the twentieth century were meant to be utilitarian, practical objects for every day use. Yet, there was also a great pride in the design and execution of all these objects, meaning that there was a keen aesthetic component; they were creative endeavours, works of art. Bishop absorbed this link, between usefulness and decoration, between practicality and aesthetics. A couple of quotations will illustrate her understanding of this link:

In a letter to Fani Blough, 5 September 1929: “The other day I got for myself out of the attic a patchwork quilt, one that my great-grandmother [Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley] made. It’s the Sunflower Pattern – big orange wheels on a white ground, and so many thousands of little while stitches that it pains one to look at it. I’d love to hang it on the wall of my room at school – a spur to conscientiousness, you know – but then I’m afraid it might make it rather like a padded cell. Well, I shall huddle under it in January and bless my great-grandmother. It should look well placed artistically near a bowl of calendulas.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 5)

One of Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley's hand-made quilts (Acadia University Archives)

In a letter to Marianne Moore, 28 September 1942: “I wish I’d known, years ago, that you liked hooked rugs. I could have got you all you wanted, beautiful ones, so easily. My grandmother’s house and my aunt’s house, in Great Village, were covered with them, of course, and all the women there hooked. I used to be able to do it myself. I went to several hooking parties with my grandmother, and one quilting party. I like the formal designs, with scrolls and Maple Leaves, etc., don’t you? In the Primer Class there we used to have to sing ‘O Maple Leaf, Our Emblem Dear’ every morning, as well as ‘Rule Britannia’.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 111)

Ultimately, Bishop carried all this “home-made-ness” into her art, where there is a constant “dazzling dialectic” between what is beautiful and what is useful – these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in Bishop, they come together. She locates the beautiful in the every day and the every day is often the springboard for the creation of beautiful art. Bishop defined “domestic art” in both simple and complex ways – and most certainly, looking at her poems, like looking at her great-grandmother’s quilt, is a spur to conscientiousness for all poets and artists – her words are like those tiny stitches, awe-inspiring.