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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 3

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on it if meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

Here the vastness of provinces, bay, sea contracts and shifts to the mouth of a river, the view turning landward. The pull of opposing but natural forces is seen even more clearly here as the river “enters or retreats.” The phenomenon Bishop describes is a tidal bore: the inrush of water at the estuary of a tidal river as ebb tide turns. This phenomenon further establishes the specific geographic location of the poem, as a number of rivers at the head of the Bay of Fundy experience impressive tidal bores twice a day, including the Salmon River at Truro, only seventeen miles from Great Village.

Tidal Bore on the Salmon River, near Truro, Nova Scotia

Bishop’s description of the mechanics of this phenomenon reflects her sense of the complexity of experience and her own playfulness with perspective. Here the river itself comes and goes “in a wall of brown foam” as it “meets” the bay arriving back from some outing or finding it out, off on some journey. River and bay operate under their own conscious volition, interact in an intricate pattern of move and counter-move (much the way words interact in poetry).

Further, what Bishop wants to reiterate here is the fact that this landscape is as familiar as home ─ it is home. She does this not only by repeating the word itself but by heightening its sound with a perfect end rhyme. From becomes foam which underscores home. The linking of wall and foam is also another curious underscoring of the idea of home. The solidity of wall contrasts with the ephemeral, porous nature of foam. Home is indeed both a definite structure and a vague idea, permanent and evanescent, constant and changing at the same time.

The rush of a tidal bore sweeps away all obstacles in its path, and so Bishop allows the forces of “retreat” and “meet” their full head by withholding punctuation until the end of the stanza; but then she introduces a new element. To this point in the poem, Bishop uses only commas sparingly. The semi-colon at the end of the stanza signals that a shift is about to occur, not a dramatic one but one that necessitates a fuller pause than a comma provides. This shift is a further turning from the sea, bay, river to the land itself.

The sound play continues in perfect and imperfect end and internal rhyme, word repetition within the stanza and with the first stanza. The latter practice is an important technique in the poem. Repeating “where,” “bay,” “home” sets up resonances across time and space, signals that the reader must watch for other recurrences, signals that this poem is also about interconnection. By the second stanza the reader starts to get the idea that ideas, images and language are held in a crucible of sound: chant, echo, hum.

The second stanza also holds the first hint of colour. “Brown” is the vanguard for a varied palette, not just of tints and hues, but of shadow and light. Bishop has been called a painterly poet, and certainly she possessed a painter’s understanding of the way colour and shape work together. With the introduction of “brown,” Bishop signals a change and an intensification with another simple, unassuming word; but a word which holds intense meaning. While brown may not be a lively colour, it is created by mixing red, yellow and black. It is the colour of wood and earth. And here, startlingly, it is the colour of foam. Why? Because, as the next stanza reveals, red is the primary colour of this landscape.

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

Once again here is “where” we are from, a landscape shaped by tide. Sometimes the sun sets at high tide and the sea turns red. At other times the sun sets at low tide and the hidden spectacle of the land appears: the flats of “lavender, rich mud.” This is the other impressive phenomenon of this part of the Bay of Fundy. Here the tides are more horizontal than vertical. (Bishop is literally correct with “long tides” rather than the more expected “high tides,” for the waters of the Bay recede for kilometres, exposing vast stretches of dark brown, red, lavender mud, some of the richest earth on the planet, especially in late summer when there is an explosion of micro-organisms on which migrating birds feed as they travel south.)

"Old Pilings Near Great Village," by Susan Tooke. See Susan's website and blog.

Bishop evokes the intense textures of this landscape with her first sustained alliteration: silted, sometimes, sun, sets, sea; and the plurals of veins, flats, rivulets reinforce the sibilance. The slant rhymes of red/mud, sets/flats, the echo of “red” and its play with rich and rivulets (red, rich, rivulets being another alliteration) serves to represent verbally the multiple layers of sensory stimuli and myriad meanings that Bishop wants the reader to register. The motion is less swift (a facing sun, a sun that sets, a sun that veins) ─ hence here are three commas and a semi-colon ─ but the language actually holds more intensity, even drama, culminating in the brilliance of “burning rivulets.”

Note also that the syllabic practice of primarily concrete single syllable words punctuated by complex polysyllabic words continues, words that feel interesting on the tongue, sounds intriguing when spoken: “burning rivulets,” “lavender.” From a very early age, Bishop was excited as much by the sound, feel and texture of words as by their sense. When sound and sense come together, as they always do in Bishop, the effect is entirely memorable.

And what of that “lavender” (* Note below), a rather old-fashioned colour? Besides being tonally and metrically right (the soft “n” sound of the second syllable echoing sun, vein, burning), it is an accurate description of the colour of Fundy mud in late afternoon light. It also throws in a hint of what is to come, the next shift signalled by another semi-colon ─ a shift fully to the landscape itself, where human habitation appears for the first time. After all, lavender-water is a very pungent scent. It conjures images of ladies in parlours sipping tea and eating buttered bread. (** Note below)

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

The reader enters the human world which is for the poet the realm of community, the place where people earn their living from the land and gather to worship. This world is certainly connected to what has preceded it. Bishop signals this link immediately with the first phrase of the stanza “on red,” repeating the red/red of the previous stanza. The sun and sea have stained the land itself. The sea, which was in the nineteenth century a principal realm for travel ─ sea roads ─ links directly to the terrestrial roads of this stanza.

The expanse of the sea, bay, river and mud flats shifts again, the perspective telescopes, and the journey becomes more focused. It also slows down (signalled by all those commas). The affect of all the commas (eight) is to create a list, an inventory. The journey takes stock of all the passing objects: maples, farmhouses, churches, birches. Another indication that these communities are linked to the sea, bay, river and mud flats is the amusing simile (the first in the poem) between clapboard churches and clamshells, a startling yet intensely apt comparison. All along the head of the Bay of Fundy the mud flats are home to clams, and digging clams was an active fishery for the shore’s inhabitants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Though pollution has curtailed and this fishery in some places along the coast, there are still spots where clam digging continues.)

So linked are the two realms that the buildings have taken on the qualities of the natural world. Similes create associations rather than substitutes. This kind of link allows the two things compared to remain intrinsically what they are, while at the same time drawing them together into a third realm of intense resonance. Clapboard churches and clamshells come together in an imagined space where they co-exist, then return to their respective realms to reside intact. (Bishop's childhood home in Great Village is a white-clapboarded-house.)

In this stanza Bishop introduces another subliminal sound: “l” ─ gravelly, maples, clapboard, bleached, clamshells. Except for the nearly perfect and delightful rhyme of churches/birches, most of the rhyme in this stanza is slant, the most unusual rhyme being sugar/silver. And silver of course echoes river. Word repetition continues through this stanza, the first without an inter-stanza word link. However, the images here of farmhouses and churches link directly to the bread and tea of the first stanza. What was hinted at in the first two lines of the poem has become manifest as the journey continues.

Bishop has added a detail which is entirely natural to the emerging landscape, but which holds intense personal significance: the rows of sugar maples offer up maple sap in the spring, which is made into syrup, sugar, cream and butter. Maple syrup was Bishop’s favourite taste from her childhood, and during her years in Brazil she revelled in the arrival of maple gifts from Aunt Grace. The area around Great Village is still known today for its maple products.

Visually, this stanza is denser than the previous three. The words are more complex. Several are compound words: farmhouses, clapboard, clamshells. The adjectives have shifted from spare (red/neat) to complex: bleached, ridged, silver. These subtle modulations in verbal structure build a more concrete framework. The poem enters community and requires less elemental and more constructive language.

Bishop has not settled on one community though. The image is of many communities (all plurals: roads, maples, farmhouses, churches, birches). The past/past repetition signals that the reader continues to move through a larger landscape, but through one that is beginning to gain a more intimate focus. And one which is connected to time, for “past” is temporal as well as physical.

Without allowing for much of a pause (the final comma, having been preceded by so many others in this stanza, can almost be ignored), the poem shifts to a specific locus: the very means of transportation which takes the reader past all this detail, and will ultimately take the reader into the past.

* Note: Lavender is grown in many places in Nova Scotia, there is even a Lavender Festival. Check out Lavender Grange and Seafoam Lavender Farm, just two places where this amazing flowering evergreen shrub is farmed.

** Note: Bishop had described this landscape in “In the Village”:

These are the tops of all the elm trees in the village and there, beyond them, the long green marshes, so fresh, so salt. Then the Minas Basin, with the tide halfway in or out, the wet red mud glazed with sky blue until it meets the creeping lavender-red water. In the middle of the view, like one hand of a clock pointing straight up, is the steeple of the Presbyterian church. We are in the “Maritimes” but all that means is that we live by the sea. (Complete Prose, 264)

This description was written in the early 1950s, twenty years before she finished “The Moose.” This passage closely resembles the opening stanzas of the poem, revealing that Bishop’s sense of the landscape of her childhood was firmly established and cherished throughout her life. Contemplating it was something she enjoyed doing, as the vividness of her language in describing it shows.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 2

From where does the idea, the inspiration, the intention come to write a poem? What are the factors and forces which decide a poem’s structure, sound; its subject? How long does it take to write a poem? To read one? Is there a true meaning in a poem, or is meaning a relative ─ even an irrelevant ─ aspect of a poem? Why is a poem great, or good, or bad? Any poet will tell you that the answers to these questions are complex ─ and often a mystery to the poet, too.

Exploring the inner workings of a poem can be exciting and intimidating. Some readers believe such exploration is unnecessary, that a poem is what it is and should be left alone, simply read again and again ─ enjoyed like listening to a favourite piece of music. Some readers prefer digging deep into the layers of a poem, uncovering a poem's bones, its secrets ─ as though a poem is an archaeological site. The following is my reading, my point of view, of this great poem.

After leaving Elmcroft, the bus would have passed through the heart of Great Village, seen here from the steeple of St. James Church, circa 1940s

“The Moose”

The title and dedication are, of course, the first entrées into this poem; but these elements will be explored at the conclusion of this reading, which commences with the first stanza.

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

Begin at the beginning, begin in fact with the very first word: “From.” A little word, a helping word; not a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Only a preposition and only one syllable. Why would Elizabeth Bishop begin such a long poem with such a small word? For Bishop prepositions were vital words. So were first syllables.(* Note below) Her choice was no accident. As small as it is, from sets the tone for and orientation of the entire poem. Listen carefully to the poem to hear the soft hum of “m,” which runs along from beginning to end ─ like the murmur of wind or river, like muffled conversation. From is like the Buddhist Om ─ a gentle, visceral chant. It is a universal sound. In “The Moose,” as in many other Bishop poems, single notes of specific pitch fill the landscape and the mind, echo through space and time. From is the first of these notes.

Simple as it seems, from has many meanings. The Concise Oxford defines it in the following way:

A. expressing separation or origin, followed by: 1. a person, place, time, etc., that is the starting-point of motion or action, or of extent in place or time. 2. a place, object, etc., whose distance or remoteness is reckoned or stated. 3a. a source; b. a giver or sender. 4a. a thing or person avoided, escaped, lost, etc.; b. a person or thing deprived. 5. a reason, cause, or motive. 6. a thing distinguished or unlike. 7. a lower limit. 8. a state changed for another. 9. an adverb or preposition of time or place. 10. the position of a person who observes or considers. 11. a model

From is a poem in itself. In “The Moose” it is where we come from, where we leave from. We are from narrow provinces, we are from the home of the long tides, the place where the bay leaves and returns, where the tides take herrings for rides.

From triggers in the reader’s mind an expectation. It is a signal ─ like a semaphore ─ for the revealed and hidden seams in the poem: home, foam, coming, sometimes, mud, farmhouses, clamshells, metal, enamel. Each stanza echoes this hum of from: embraces, elms, form, bumblebees, commences, Economies, woman, Tantramar, trembles. On and on goes the hum: swims, solemn, climbs, amicably, moonlight, mist, lamb, dreamy, somewhere, names, mentioned, remarried, something, Amos, family, him. Keep going ─ finish the song yourself. This sound is the first chant and it begins with one tiny preposition. Bishop knew the power of words, whether it was a large, exotic one like “divagation” or “Eternity,” or a little one like from.

The first stanza of “The Moose” also establishes the meter, rhythm, cadence and rhyme of the poem. It establishes the poem’s movement, subtly preparing the reader for the fact that this poem is a journey. But the journey is not just from point A to point B, leaving never to come back. This journey is cyclical; it is a dialogue between going and staying, leaving and returning. The evocation of home (“fish and bread and tea”) is set beside travel (“the bay leaves the sea”; “the herrings long rides”). But this travel is migration. We leave home, but we also return. And we carry home with us. Come from a place; leave from a place ─ that place is home. Belonging and leaving ─ connection and separation ─ are natural forces in the world, the human and elemental world.

Bishop structured “The Moose” in dimeter and trimeter lines (two and three foot lines). This choice of short lines meant that the poem became long; it meanders along several pages. Bishop signalled this structure with “narrow provinces” (Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, her ancestral homes, are literally narrow) and “long tides.” The literal geography, we are told, was a factor in the final shape of this poem, which elsewhere she called “a very long one.”

The poem’s short lines alternate in a variety of punctuation: partial or full stops and enjambment. Line breaks and their punctuation integrally serve the rhythm of a poem. With them the poet can control the speed of language (enjambment, for example, pulls the reader along more quickly to the next line ─ no pause for breath as a comma or semi-colon allows, no complete stop to think of what has come before, as a period permits). In the first stanza Bishop uses punctuation sparingly. There are only two commas. Thus the flow of words is unimpeded like the rush of the tide. When the end of the stanza is reached, there is only the briefest pause at the comma before the next stanza is upon the reader.

Bishop further signals the journey ─ in time, space, language ─ by making the initial evocation of the Nova Scotia landscape one long sentence. The first six stanzas is just one sentence. The little word from anchors an incredible grammatical flow of 36 lines. Each stanza is six lines long. Why six? When Bishop was asked why she called her last book Geography III, “And that III?” She simply replied, “I like threes” (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, 66). Perhaps that would have been her reply to “Why six?” As Bishop wrote in “Primer Class,” numbers are “mysterious.”

Bishop loved rhyme. Language was for her a kind of music. Sounds mattered as much as sense. The first stanza of “The Moose” sets up a complex interplay of sound. The perfect end rhymes of tea/sea and tides/rides (sounding much like a childhood nursery rhyme) lace perfect and imperfect internal rhymes (bay/day, from/home). She continues this kind of variation throughout the poem. Bishop also establishes the practice of word repetition (long tides/long rides), a technique she uses frequently throughout the poem (indeed, in many of her poems) ─ another chant-like quality. The establishment of the resonance of “from” ─ its murmur ─ also points to another sound technique, which is only hinted at in the first stanza: alliteration (a play of words Bishop loved). The closest Bishop comes to alliteration in this stanza is “twice a day and takes.” But the hint is enough to set up the expectation.

This first stanza also sets up another kind of interplay. Most words in the stanza are monosyllabic – simple, concrete words. Indeed, they are all single syllables except for three: “narrow provinces” and “herrings.” It is provinces that is key here. Provinces is not only literally geo-political place/space (that is, the unnamed Nova Scotia, New Brunswick – that is, the Maritimes), but more generally “province” is a “sphere of action” or a “branch of learning.” There is also the connotation of “provincial,” (that is “unsophisticated”), a concept Bishop thought about a lot during her life. Provinces is also an interesting sounding word, and really noticeable in the stanza surrounded by all the lingual directness and simplicity of the rest of the words. Bishop repeats this kind of semantic balancing (that is, a poem of simple monosyllabic words interspersed with hefty, complex polysyllabic words – this strategy allows both kinds of words to throw light and shadow on the others), throughout the poem. What we experience (at this point only subliminally) is the sensation that what we understand as concrete and certain is mixed with mystery. Bishop called this existential state “knowledge” in “At the Fishhouses,” a poem she also started to write in 1946.

Structure and sound establish the foundation of “The Moose” ─ a solid, complex framework for Bishop's ideas and images. This first stanza sets out a number of ideas and images which are central to the whole poem and to Bishop’s entire oeuvre: geography & landscape, home & journey. Other ideas are also established: “fish and bread and tea” set up a sense of a way of life, a tradition, which has been shaped in many ways by the natural world. Bishop was fond of figurative devices such as simile, metaphor and personification. While the bay, the tide, the herring remain just what they are, juxtaposing them with the word “home” ─ a human invention ─ brings a quality of personification to them. Thus the human and natural worlds are brought together immediately ─ not merged but somehow connected. Linking these realms becomes a central issue at the end of the poem.

With this first stanza Bishop laid the foundation for her long poem about Nova Scotia. Why is this poem great? Partly because Bishop so meticulously crafted each word, line and stanza. Was Bishop conscious of all her choices and decisions? She thought about this poem for twenty-five years, so her level of consciousness about its inner workings was undoubtedly high. Yet she always acknowledged the complex forces at work in any creative act. In 1975 Bishop wrote a letter to an aspiring poet who had asked her for advice. She concluded by observing that writing a poem “can’t be done, apparently, by will power and study alone ─ or by being ‘with it’ ─ but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work” (One Art: Letters, 596).

In the first stanza of “The Moose” the deep compulsions of Bishop=s memory, creativity and skill combined to establish a structure which sustains one of the most evocative poems of the twentieth century. The reader pauses for a brief moment at that concluding comma, then moves deeper into the poem.

The road from Great Village to Parrsboro, circa 1940s

Note * In Bishop’s papers at Vassar College there are two unfinished poems which point to her awareness of both prepositions and first syllables in her art. In a poem tentatively entitled “Letter to Two Friends” (her poet colleagues Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell), Bishop ponders the preponderance of prepositions in her poems:

Heavens! It’s raining again
and the “view”
is now two weeks overdue
and the road is impassable
and after shaking his paws
the cat retires in disgust
to the highest closet shelf,
and the dogs smell awfully like dogs,
and I am sick of myself,
and sometime during the night
the poem I was trying to write
has turned into prepositions:
ins and aboves and upons ─
what am I trying to do?
Change places in a canoe?
method of composition.
(Elizabeth Bishop: Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box, 113)

The other unfinished poem begins, “Whatever there was, or is, of love let it be obeyed.” This fragment of a poem, which never advanced very far, was to be “autobiography,” as Bishop wrote on one draft. It was to be about her maternal grandparents and Great Village. And she thought about giving it the title “First Syllables.” (Edgar Allan Poe, 101). First syllables were electric for Bishop. The only typed draft of this poem concludes, “That steeple ─ I can’t remember ─ wasn’t it struck by lightning?” The first syllable Bishop connected with “that steeple” was her mother’s scream, written in “In the Village.”

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: The Biography of a Poem: Reading "The Moose" -- Part 1

The following is the beginning of a multi-part deep read of one of Elizabeth Bishop’s most iconic and beloved poems, “The Moose,” which will appear in my Nova Scotia Connections feature.

Often like the poet who creates it, a poem can have a history as fascinating as a life itself. Each of Bishop's poems has its own biography. Bishop believed that life and art are connected. Her artistic development and creative process reflect this belief. What follows is the story of “The Moose,” where it came from and how it proceeded to be written, read and published. Like all stories, this account is partial or approximate, as it is impossible to know all the mysterious leaps between thought and action.

In 1946 Elizabeth Bishop returned to Nova Scotia after an absence of sixteen years. She spent most of July and part of August on the south coast of the province, at Lockeport (also known as Ragged Islands), where she began writing the poem “At the Fishhouses,” a poem with its own interesting biography. Towards the end of August Bishop went back to Great Village, her first glimpse of the heart of her motherland since her mother had died. Bishop stayed at Elmcroft, the Bowers’s family farm, her beloved Aunt Grace having married William Bowers over twenty years before. Arriving in Great Village triggered a flood of memory and a profound reconnection with the landscape, which Bishop had travelled so far away from in the previous decade.

Bishop’s stay in Great Village was unexpectedly shortened by pressing business in the U.S., and she had to leave much sooner than she planned. (Bishop returned to Nova Scotia in 1947 and 1951.) Her need to depart suddenly necessitated her taking the bus, which in those days still connected travellers to the New England States. She boarded the bus one night outside Elmcroft and headed back to Boston. A couple of days later, finally back in New York City, Bishop wrote a letter to her friend and mentor, the poet Marianne Moore. Words tumbled out of her, words which clearly show the impact this reunion with her motherland had on her heart and mind ─ and, as it turned out, on her poetry.

Elmcroft, The Bowers's family farm (circa 1940s, with its elms, now, sadly, "dismantled")

I thought you might be interested in hearing a little about some of my farm experiences. I stayed first for a month at a little inn on the south shore among the “Ragged Islands,” then I visited in Halifax off and on for a while, and then I went back to Great Village, where my mother came from and where I lived when I was little. My aunt lives on an enormous (for that part of the country) farm about three miles from the Village. It is always described as the most beautiful farm on the Bay of Fundy, and I think it must be. You know about the Bay of Fundy and its tides, I imagine, that go out for a hundred miles or so and then come in with a rise of 80 feet. The soil is all dark terra-cotta color, and the bay, when it's in, on a bright day, is a real pink; then the fields are very pale lime greens and yellows and in the back of them the fir trees start, dark blue-green. It's the richest, saddest, simplest landscape in the world. I hadn't been there for so long I'd forgotten how beautiful it all is ─ and the magnificent elm trees. One of the hugest right behind my grandmother's old house in the Village is known as “the Landmark Elm.”

On the farm they raise pigs, potatoes, strawberries, supply the local dairy with most of its milk and cream, etc., and they used to raise race horses but they only have two now ─ the sulky racing variety. But I wanted to tell you about Pansy, the children's pony. She's a Sable Island pony, a breed that's supposed to have developed all by itself from a shipload of horses that was wrecked long ago on Sable Island (where great-grandfather was wrecked too). They're not much bigger than a Shetland, but better shaped, more like real horses, and beautiful velvety thick hair. They think that Pansy is over thirty years old. Aunt Grace and I went out to the pasture to see her and when she came over to the fence Aunt Grace lifted up her mane and it is all gray underneath ─ like a woman's hair combed not to show. She used to have lots of tricks: she’d walk right in the kitchen and put her front hoofs up on the back of a chair to beg for a doughnut. And my aunt said, “And she knew where the cookie jar was, too, and she’d follow me right in the pantry after the cookies.” The children even took her upstairs one day to see another aunt of mine who was sick in bed. They used to drive her to school every day in the winters in a little sleigh and sometimes when it was terribly cold they'd bring her in in the mornings and harness her beside the kitchen stove. All the schoolchildren used to take their lunches out and eat them with her in the minister's barn, where she stayed, and my cousin said, “She’d eat anything but oranges.”

I've always loved those big farm collies, haven’t you? ─ the present generation wait along the side of the roads for the buses to stop and their owners to get off. There are two now at my aunt's, an old one named Jock, and his son, whom he's trying to teach to herd cows, etc., and getting quite disgusted with because he will bark and run around too much. Jock is supposed to be such a wonderful cow herder that other farmers come and borrow him when they lose their cows in the woods. One day while I was there a man drove in in an old sedan and said a few words to my Uncle Will, who just said “Jock!” and opened the car door. Jock, apparently knowing exactly what was wanted of him, got in the back seat and sat up looking very pleased. He went thirty miles down the bay and found seven cows and was driven home that night looking very tired and complacent.

I went to call on a family in the Village, the MacLaughlins [sic: MacLachlan], and as I came up Mr. Mac was coming out of the barn with another farm collie ─ a very old one, his face was all white. He came up to me wagging his tail but barking in a very loud rather hollow-sounding way and Mr. Mac said to him, “Stop it, Jackie!” and then to me, in a sort of polite aside behind his hand, “He's stone deaf.” We went in the house and as soon as I sat down Jackie promptly brought in a very old small bone and dropped it at my feet. Mrs. Mac shouted at him, “That's very hospitable of you, Jackie, but take it away!” and then said to me in the same polite aside, in a lowered voice, “He’s stone deaf.” I asked how old he was and they said about fifteen. “Yes,” said Mrs. Mac. “Last winter they said we'd never keep him through the winter. But he had a very good winter, yes, a very good winter, didn't he, Don? He went to the woods with Don every day, and he only had rheumatism in one leg.” And they both sat back and looked at him admiringly. Meanwhile we were all sitting on straight kitchen chairs, while the beautiful big gray cat lay sleeping in the nice padded rocking chair....

Donald and Alberta MacLachlan and their family, circa 1930s

But of course being kind to animals is a very minor part of the farm life there. It is such hard work, I don't see how my aunt stands it at all ─ she is really one of the best and nicest people I know. There are so many people around all the time, coming and going, something is always happening, the cows get in the corn or the milking machines break down, distant relatives arrive unexpectedly for dinner, etc. ─ but she keeps going somehow and is always cheerful and funny. Fortunately, all the sons, stepsons, hired men, etc., seem to adore her.

My plan was to take a room at a nearby farm so that I could have a little peace and privacy to work in, and stay on a few weeks. But the deed to the Key West house had to be signed right away, and in the U.S., for some legal reason, so I had to leave. I came back by bus ─ a dreadful trip, but it seemed most convenient at the time ─ we hailed it with a flashlight and a lantern as it went by the farm late at night. Early the next morning, just as it was getting light, the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. She walked away very slowly into the woods, looking at us over her shoulder. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine. “Very curious beasts,” he said.... (One Art: Letters, 139-141)

Acadian Lines bus schedule, 1946

Bishop’s visit to Great Village and encounter with its rich, sad, simple landscape; her observations of the busy farm where “something is always happening”; her sudden departure; the journey by bus through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; the encounter with the moose ─ all these elements combined to trigger the idea, inspiration and intention to write a poem. In this series of moments in time are the seeds of “The Moose.” But this poem had its own long journey, its own life, to lead. (This letter also holds sources for other works, such as “In the Village” and her unfinished Sable Island piece, but these are separate stories.)

Elizabeth Bishop at the time of her bus trip, mid-1940s

The archive of Bishop's papers held at Vassar College reveals that she was a meticulous reviser of her poems, that poems often went through many drafts (sometimes dozens) before she felt they were complete and ready for publication. Many poems never reached this stage and remain buried in her private papers until Alice Quinn edited them for Elizabeth Bishop: Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box (2006).

Brett Millier, Bishop's first biographer, writes that “the poem that eventually became ‘The Moose’ took rough shape in Elizabeth’s mind relatively quickly” (Life and the Memory of It, 183) after her 1946 visit to Nova Scotia; but it was not until “the spell of writing she managed in 1956-1957” that “the earliest extant drafts” of the poem emerged (288).

For the next nearly fifteen years, Bishop continued to work on this poem, which she told Aunt Grace would be dedicated to her. She wrestled with the meter, rhyme scheme and images, managing only slowly to find just the right combinations. It was not until 1972 that Bishop decided to make a final effort to finish it. She agreed to read a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard University on 13 June 1972, and decided she would read “The Moose.” She hoped this deadline would spur her on to finish this poem which seemed determined not to be finished.

The final effort was an intense struggle, as Millier records:

The poem that Elizabeth read was a patched together draft, and after the reading she made several major changes. Some of these The New Yorker version reflected, but most came too late for the July 15 publication date. The changes were made for the Geography III printing three years later, and it remains one of her most revised poems. (466)

Completing “The Moose” under deadline was deeply stressful for Bishop and she always said she hated the result, remarking that she had “almost collapsed” from the effort (Millier 466). After the Phi Beta Kappa reading, Bishop wrote to Aunt Grace:

What has really prevented me from coming [to Nova Scotia] was that I had to give the Phi Beta Kappa poem here this year ─ that was day before yesterday ─ and I had to get the damned poem written, first. This is a very long one, about Nova Scotia ─ the one I said was to be dedicated to you when it is published in a book. It is called “The Moose.” (You are not the moose.) It was very successful, I think ─ it was broadcast here sometime yesterday ─ I missed it, thank goodness ─ and will be in The New Yorker. I'll send you a copy. But it took me weeks to get it done and I almost had a collapse worrying for fear it wouldn=t be done on time. (One Art, 568)

As Millier writes, Bishop “found it funny that she had been introduced as reading a poem called ‘The Moos,’ and Alice [Methfessel] heard one student say that ‘as poems go ─ it wasn’t bad’.” (465-66)

“The Moose” is a poem about journeys: the journey to and from places, the journey from birth to death, the journey which is the creative process. Each of these journeys is “long” (even if in real time it takes place in a breath or a blink). Each of these journeys is connected to “Eternity.” The writing of this poem took Bishop twenty-five years. Most poems do not take that long to write (this is a long time even for Bishop). Yet great poems, even when completed and published, seem always to be writing themselves over and over again, seem always to be journeying on, even when the poet is long gone.

This brief biography describes aspects of the creation of “The Moose” ─ the apparent source for the poem (a 1946 visit to Nova Scotia) and the struggle Bishop had to understand its shape (a poem after all has its own imperatives, demands and requirements which are often a surprise even to the poet). While 1946 was the point when the poem itself took actual shape, the deeper origins of the poem go much farther back in time and place. “The Moose” is one of Bishop's most quintessential Nova Scotia poems. It is filled with memory. Remembering is another journey in our lives. The memories in “The Moose” are of Bishop's childhood in Great Village: what she saw, heard, tasted, touched, smelled; and how she responded to and felt about it all. The deeper origins of “The Moose” are the landscape, people, traditions and language of Bishop’s Great Village. What will follow in subsequent posts is a close read of the poem itself, which explores some of these deeper sources.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Our Natick, Massachusetts Correspondent Writes:

"Students and faculty celebrated Elizabeth Bishop's 100th birthday with a special presentation by members of the Writing & Publishing program. A member of the class of 1930, Bishop is one of North America's most important poets. To honor her birthday and her work, students in the Writing & Publishing program created a cento...a piece of work created entirely out of their favorite lines from Bishop's poetry. Additionally, Vangie Delgado ’11, wrote a special tribute to one of Bishop’s works."

For further details, please follow this link, or consult the Walnut Hill School items listed in the right-hand column under February 10, 2011 and March 1, 2010.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Our Carlisle, Pennsylvania Correspondent Writes:

Come and commemorate Elizabeth Bishop’s Centennial! A public reading of her poetry will take place on Thursday, February 24th from 12:00-1:20 in the Biblio Café, Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College. Refreshments will be served.

Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

-- "A Miracle for Breakfast"

Inquiries may be made here.

EB100 Birthday Readings VII: "Roosters"

Monday, February 21, 2011

February House

Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home has put me up the last week in February for several years now. Precious days for thinking, reading, writing, and walking — sometimes out to a high frozen pasture to look down on the spire of Saint James' Church, other times through waist-deep thick-crusted snow, up to the cemetery where Bishop's grandparents are laid to rest. That's where I was coming back from one day in February, 2007, just in time to catch Janet Baker before she headed for Truro. She'd left me a copy of February House, hanging in a plastic shopping bag from the back door latch. "I wanted you to have it for the week — I know you'll enjoy it," she said. It's the story of a brownstone house that once stood at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, where a motley group of writers, musicians, and artists, including Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles and W. H. Auden, lived for a time in something between a boarding house and a commune. Anaïs Nin named it the February House, because so many of its inhabitants had birthdays then. Later that week we'd be gathering to celebrate Auden's hundredth birthday. I'd heroically refrained from putting "Carriages at One" at the bottom of the invitations, as Auden used to do.

Who are we? Friends. Some of more than thirty years' standing, others meeting for the first time. There would be a menu for each of us, its cover photograph taken at the famous writers' conclave in the back room of the Gotham Book Mart (which would be locking its already-once-relocated-doors forever a month thence). Auden contrives to slouch on a high stool well above all the rest, while Elizabeth Bishop stands stiffly next to Marianne Moore and stares off left at something Randall Jarrell is also taken by, -- something, perhaps, behind our right shoulder as we look in on them by sixty odd inches and back on them by sixty odd years. We'd be having smoked salmon puffs, chicken satsivi, mushroom pie and cucumbers in sour cream, birthday cake and flummery — a spread Auden's companion Chester Kallman would (I hope, anyhow) have found acceptable, if not by his standards lavish. We'd be reading some of his poems, too, that afternoon. After all, he wept over "The Moose," as James Merrill wrote to Bishop, and she wrote back that she could weep herself, just thinking of it. It would be a day for him, too.

After lunch we settled back to read poems to one another. "If you really are concerned about that subject, I'd suggest you go and read Auden. If he doesn't know something about love, I just don't know who else does," Bishop claimed in 1966, so we started with Auden's "Some say that Love's a little boy" and "Lay your sleeping head, my love." A bit earlier, on 21 December 1965, Bishop wrote to a friend: "Hardy's 'Her Apotheosis' is similar to that poem of Auden's about the matron having lunch at Schrafft's, etc.", so we read those two. Scott MacDougall read from Hannah Arendt. We read poems from Kallman's books Storm at Castelfranco and A Sense of Occasion. And as we read, a companionable warmth welled into a shared happiness that has loomed larger as the occasion has receded. It has become something akin to that "sweet sensation of joy" we all share for those few moments in "The Moose". Is it wrong to hear in Bishop's "where if the river/enters or retreats/in a wall of brown foam" echoes both of Auden's "But when the waters make retreat/And through the black mud first the wheat/In shy green stalks appears" and of Kallman's "Evening. Who calls? The light/Is walking on the waves; the light retreats./A word advances and repeats"? Is it a mistake to hear Auden's "drowned parental voices" somewhere in the back of the bus with Bishop's "grandparents' voices"? No. On that particular afternoon, at any rate, that bright February afternoon, with the extra bottles of Vouvray for once entirely forgotten in the pantry until hours after we'd parted, we felt — we all felt — that the bus climbing from the narrow plain and later returning under a sickle moon the blue broke in a fleece-white ribbon along the beach in Kallman's "Little Epithalamium" was, just for that day, the same one entering Bishop's New Brunswick woods, with its moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. Certainly it was the same moon, the moon that "looks on them all", as Auden wrote in "A Summer Night". Just as in her "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore," Bishop refashioned the strict sapphics of Pablo Neruda's “Alberto Rojas Giménez viene volando," so in "The Moose" she loosened the strict AABCCB rhyme scheme of Auden's sestains, while echoing the epiphany of his opening stanzas in almost final lines of her own.

The party has been looming larger, too, in the years since it was held. There were lovely thank you notes. One said "It was as if New York's Russian Tea Room had relocated to rural Nova Scotia." Another friend wrote "My head is still 'fizzing' with the talk and the wonderful readings. The memory of it will always be vivid. One of the things I so loved was all the laughter--the house shook and it so loves that kind of conviviality and connection." Several folks sent photos — mostly of the food, actually… Elizabeth Jones wrote to share the connection she had discovered between Oberon's last speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love." Folks I met again when we returned the summer after for the unveiling of the Bishop plaques at the Great Village pergola confirmed what I, too, had felt -- something about that February afternoon had partaken, to some slight extent, at any rate, of the shared communality and commonality Auden describes so memorably in the prose of his introduction to Anne Fremantle's 1964 anthology The Protestant Mystics, and in his poem "A Summer Night". Perhaps not quite his "Vision of Agape" — visions being too serious a word — but the feeling of the sight of a door left unlocked "because someone might need to come in", the feeling of the sight of a book in a plastic shopping bag, left because someone thought you'd like it, hanging ever-so-slightly agape from a yet-to-be-used latch.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In the Realms of the Visual --


(With thanks and a tip of the top hat to Elizabeth_Bishop@100.)

Our Toronto Correspondent Writes --

Our attention has been drawn to a birthday greeting to Elizabeth Bishop from Zachariah Wells, which may be read at the Best Canadian Poetry website:


Our Boston Correspondent Writes --

The Centenary Tribute to Elizabeth Bishop at Boston University was recorded, and may now be viewed at the following URL:


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

For Elizabeth Bishop -- a reading of James Merrill's "Victor Dog," posted to www.blogtv.com by "thumbtack."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

EB Birthday Readings V

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reports from Worcester and Prague -- Elizabeth Bishop's 100th birthday celebrations

Our Worcester correspondent writes:

Greetings from Worcester!
We visited the Bishop grave site at Hope Cemetery on February 8, as we do every year for a brief reading. This year, there was too much snow to get anywhere near the Bishop plot but we read “The Bight” in a blistering wind then ran off to a Brazilian restaurant to recover. In the attached photo of Hope Cemetery, the Bishop marker can be seen just to the right (at the base) of the large center tree. The snow is deep enough to obscure everything below the line, “All the untidy activity continues” – beyond that, it was certainly awful but we were cheerful!
Best regard,
Francine D’Alessandro
Worcester County Poetry Association
See the WCPA site for more information about upcoming Elizabeth Bishop centenary celebrations in Worcester.

A snowy Hope Cemetery, 8 February 2011


Our Prague correspondent writes:

Dear Sandra,
Let me just briefly tell you about our modest commemoration of Bishop’s
anniversary here in Prague. Last night [11 February 2011], there was a small celebration of her birthday at a literary café of the publishing house Fra, which published her selected poems in translation. It was a great evening, the poet Petr Borkovec and I did most of the talking and reading. I translated “Sandpiper” for the occasion (and there was an interesting ornithological debate about it). A young Slovak poet read her poem inspired by “The Bight”; the painter who made the cover of the selected poems spoke about his painting; and a well-known choreographer prepared minimalist choreographies of “Roosters” and “One Art” (two dancers performing on a tiny coffee table), which were a great success. I think it’s amazing how Bishop’s works inspire other arts. And I was surprised how well the readings and the dance worked together. Hopefully, I will have some pictures to send [see link below].

On February 8 I gave a little live interview (some five minutes) on the radio, and there will be two or three longer radio programs about Bishop and her anniversary later in the year. Also, we are organizing a writing contest in English for our students at the Literary Academy – the topic is “One Art,” they are supposed to write a poem or a prose piece beginning with the first line of “One Art.” I’m quite curious what comes out of it. The translation of “Sandpiper” should appear in some literary magazine, but before I send it I have to make sure about the correct Czech translation of the name of the bird – the trouble is that there are about three different Czech names which translate "sandpiper" as it seems to be a large family of birds with lots of species. Would you or anyone round you know the full Latin name of the bird she most probably had in mind when she wrote the poem? It probably does not matter too much as all the three Czech names in question that refer to birds which look and behave in a very similar way, but I think Bishop deserves exactitude in details like this.
Best regards, Mariana Machová

See photographs of the evening mentioned above, taken by poet and photographer Ondřej Lipár, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/redroom/sets/72157625899989857/

[Ed. note: Mariana has two books of translations of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and prose. She visited Great Village and the Elizabeth Bishop House about five years ago and began her translation of "In the Village" there. I think I answered her question about the sandpiper. Bishop is likely referring to the Semi-palmated Sandiper (Calidris pusilla), especially common on Nova Scotia shorelines during their southward migrations in August and September.]

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Magical Night with Suzie, the Symphony and 3 composers

“My love, my saving grace,
Your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.”

“We lived in a pocket of Time.
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river….”

“…the fiery event
of every day in endless
endless assent.”

Last night in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 10 February 2011, was a historic event in the Bishop world – which is the whole world, really. Our own Suzie LeBlanc, looking and sounding like an angel (for Bishop the word might be “celestial”), with our own Symphony Nova Scotia, conducted by the masterful Bernhard Gueller, performed world premieres of settings of Elizabeth Bishop by three amazing Canadian composers: Alasdair MacLean, Emily Doolittle and Christos Hatzis – and they were all present, they all came to Halifax to be part of this fabulous concert. And vision was not neglected. The insightful and expressive filmmaker Linda Rae Dornan created stunning visual collages, which were projected behind the orchestra for part of the performance. All this just in the first half! The second half of the concert was the iconic and rousing Fifth Symphony by Beethoven, which might seem a marked contrast, but when centenaries are being celebrated, the brilliance of Beethoven, performed with both precision and gusto, is entirely fitting. Ten exclamation marks do not even come close: !!!!!!!!!!....

“There is magic made by melody,” Bishop wrote in “I Am in Need of Music,” one of the poems set. Last night, there was magic made by Suzie, the Symphony and these three composers.

The lines I have quoted above are from three of the eight poems set. These poems include (in the order of performance): “Dear, my compass,” “Close, close all night,” “Breakfast Song,” “A Short Slow Life,” “I Am in Need of Music,” “Insomnia,” “The Unbeliever” and “Anaphora.” Alasdair also wrote a gorgeous instrumental piece, a kind of intimate overture, inspired by a line from “Cape Breton,” “The silken water is weaving and weaving.”

This post is not a review. I am so overwhelmed by the beauty of what happened last night, I have no adequate words to describe it. I wish I could teleport you all to last night (I want to go back myself right now) so you, too, could hear the intimate glory and tender grandeur of the merging of score, musicians and voice. The only reason I am not bereft that I cannot teleport you back to that “pocket of Time” is because Radio Canada (Espace Musique) recorded the concert!! As soon as we know when it will be broadcast (and it will be also broadcast on CBC Radio 2 – that is, English CBC), we’ll let you know!!! Nothing can compare with being there for that moment when years of work and astonishing artistry come together, BUT to have a recording of this magical night is beyond wonderful.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I heard Elliott Carter’s settings of Bishop’s poems (the suite called “A Mirror on which to Dwell”), I longed to have a Canadian composer set Bishop and have Symphony Nova Scotia perform it. About four years ago, I told my friend Peggy Walt about this dream. I have written about what happened next in another post on this blog: Peggy introduced me to Alasdair MacLean and Bernhard Gueller. Alasdair introduced me to Suzie LeBlanc. The rest, as they say, is history. And history was made last night for so many reasons.

What would Elizabeth Bishop think? Well, I have my thoughts on that – as perhaps you do yourselves. But for me, part of what happened last night was both a profoundly personal and a wondrous public tribute to this great poet, our “home-made” poet – an honoring of her life, art and legacy, one that she would surely have marvelled at, as did everyone in the audience (there were many passionate readers of Bishop at the symphony last night – and likely many people who had never heard of her before – and many tearful eyes and smiling faces!)

I can scarcely believe that the dream I have held for two decades came to be last night, surpassing even the wildest fantasies I could have had, a hundred-fold.

The settings are stunning – each composer finding his and her way into Bishop’s words – these are true songs to be “sung to rest the tired dead” -- and to inspire a grateful life. Maestro Gueller and the orchestra took on all this new music and gave us a sparkling performance. I can barely find words of thanks to offer Maestro Gueller and all of Symphony Nova Scotia, not only for entertaining the idea, but also for embracing it so openly and fully and eloquently.

Finally, I am speechless and in awe of the dazzling Suzie LeBlanc – whose voice lights and lifts this dark and troubled world every time she sings. Without Suzie’s journey to Bishop, her whole-hearted embrace of not only this project but also of the whole Elizabeth Bishop centenary idea, this historic concert would not have happened. Muito obrigada, dear Suzie.

This concert crowned the opening week of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival, a year-long event here in Nova Scotia. We had a birthday party on 6 February. We had an official media launch on 8 February, Bishop’s actual birthday, at PIPA Restaurant. Both wonderfully fun and successful. And, then, last night’s concert. As unbelievable and overwhelming as all of this is – it is only the beginning!!!! There is yet more fabulous music, more collaboration with Suzie and composers/musicians such as John Plant, Dinuk Wijeratne, Tempest Baroque Ensemble and Blue Engine String Quartet. And even more music than this with other singers and songwriters, which we will announce as the year unfolds. I could go on and on and on....

But, with a grateful heart, I will say finally: Happy 100th Birthday Elizabeth Bishop!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Elizabeth Bishop in Words and Music" -- Maestro Bernhard Gueller introduces the concert

Three World Premieres:
Alasdair MacLean: Breakfast Song | Dear, My Compass | Close Close All Night
Christos Hatzis: Sonnet / Insomnia / The Unbeliever / Anaphora
Emily Doolittle: A Short Slow Life | From Sonnet

Our Boston Correspondent Writes:

A Centenary Tribute to Elizabeth Bishop

7:00 pm on Thursday, February 10, 2011
Jacob Sleeper Auditorium, CGS, 871 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts

Elizabeth Bishop at 100: Poets and scholars gather to pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop. Poems will be read, reminiscences offered. A not-to-be-missed literary event! Participants include Frank Bidart, Peter Campion, Dan Chiasson, Henri Cole, Bonnie Costello, Maggie Dietz, David Ferry, Erica Funkhauser, Jonathan Galassi, Jorie Graham, Melissa Green, Saskia Hamilton, George Kalogeris, Gail Mazur, Christopher Ricks, Peter Sacks and Lloyd Schwartz. Reception to follow. Co-sponsored by the Humanities Foundation and the College of General Studies at Boston University, AGNI, the Poetry Society of America and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Please contact Meg Tyler (mtyler@bu.edu, 358-4199) with any questions.

EB100 Birthday Readings I: "The Bight"

Monday, February 7, 2011

First Encounter XXXI — Discovering Elizabeth by Rita Wilson

I came to Elizabeth Bishop late — and roundabout. Strange for an English major — to have missed making her acquaintance. Even stranger for a reader who immersed herself in Canadian literature after arriving in Nova Scotia decades ago. Strange but true.

Sable Island introduced me to Bishop. Zoe Lucas was “doing” an afternoon at the Elizabeth Bishop house. I went to hear Zoe, who I had met on a Sable Island trip. Backdrop to the fascination of Sable Island stories were the black typewriter and Maud’s painting of Great Village, the curious hook hanging from the dining room ceiling and the picture of young Elizabeth hanging on the wall. And Sandra Barry, who took us upstairs and told a few stories of her own, dispensing Bishop magic.

Bishop began to insinuate herself in my life. A few poems at first, then a chance night’s sleep in her Great Village bedroom. (Johanna Skibsrud, who I’ve known since she was born, was spending January 2010 at the Bishop house. Her mother and I went to a reading at Mo’s.) I read “In the Village” that next morning, sitting on the couch in the living room, whose windows look out on the Presbyterian church across the street.

More poetry. More prose. More “afternoons” at the Bishop house. I took my daughter, Catherine, recently graduated from university, to an afternoon in which Sandra enchanted us with Bishop stories. As we walked down the porch steps, Catherine asked, “Why didn’t I read Bishop in school?” (She had gone to school in Nova Scotia from grade Primary through grade 11.)

That question was a challenge and a spark. I had been an elementary teacher in Nova Scotia and knew how much kids would love Bishop’s words and story. The fact that she had been a child right here, right in Great Village, and that she had written about that experience — it opened a door. A door that opened right into her grandparent’s house, with the walls, the windows, the objects that she describes in such detail in her work.

I spent a week in Great Village last November, immersing myself in Bishop. I listened to her words on tapes and CD’s. I read her poetry and prose. I read other people’s words about her life and her work. I moved from room to room, wondering what I was seeing that she would have seen. I walked through the village, tracing her path as she guided the cow to pasture, mailed my own letters at the post office where Box 21 still exists, crossed the iron bridge to the schoolyard, walked on past the Baptist church, past her doctor’s house.

I tried to imagine Great Village then, in the early 1900’s, to imagine Elizabeth then, to imagine how to convey both to today’s children. Bishop’s words paint a vivid picture of her world there, both exterior and interior — a starting point.

And then, it was time to wash sheets, put books back on shelves, leave the key for the next person, say goodbye to the house — until the next time. I wrote this poem as I was leaving:

Goodbye Elizabeth Bishop

Goodbye, Elizabeth Bishop’s house.
Goodbye, Gammie and Pa
and the kettle that steamed tears.

Goodbye, echo of the blacksmith, Mate,
creating rings for little girls
out of a single nail.

Goodbye, “slp” whispering river,
the iron bridge above
ringing the sound of horse and buggy.

Goodbye, glass fronted Box 21,
set in your wooden postal case,
waiting for letters.

Goodbye, Hills Store,
with those pink and blue shoes,
that she coveted.

Goodbye, Miss Spencer’s house—
the milliner
whose hats sat in the window.

Goodbye, Chisholm’s fields.
Such a distance, it seems,
for a little girl steering her cow with a stick.

Goodbye, lambs in the cemetery,
where she gathered flowers
while Pa scythed the grass around the graves.

Goodbye, to the memory of that little girl,
catching bees in foxglove,
number 8 “shreeking” on her slate,
while she sat on the back step.

Goodbye, to that scream,
vibrating always in the background.

Goodbye, Elizabeth Bishop.

{Ed. note: This is our first "First Encounter" in awhile, but we are hoping to post more as the year unfolds. This encounter is temporally special because Rita is this week again at the Elizabeth Bishop House working on a children's book about Bishop's childhood in Great Village. She will be in residence on Bishop's actual 100th birthday, 8 February.}

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Let the Celebrations Begin!

It is hard to believe that the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary year has arrived! – and the first of our many EB100 events are set to begin here in Nova Scotia next week – and not only in Nova Scotia, but events will also be happening in Worcester and New York City and many other places around the world where devoted readers and fans will mark this milestone of her birth and celebrate her life, work and legacy.

So many people in Nova Scotia have been working and planning for this year. I have been deeply involved myself in this planning and I am amazed by the response from dozens and dozens of artists and Bishop fans in Nova Scotia; excited by the wonderful, creative, inspiring projects, activities and events that will happen. I feel an immense gratitude for all the interest, support and engagement by so many people.

John, Suzie and I started this blog about a year ago now. It has been great fun working on it, building it into a truly interesting Bishop site. We’ve been delighted by how many people have visited and come back regularly to check out what we’re posting. We have endless ideas about what to do on this blog – the only impediment has been TIME, or lack of it. But we will keep adding to it throughout the year and we hope you will keep visiting.

I want to thank John for his wonderful “Today in Bishop” and “Today’s Video” – I suspect there are more than a few people like me out there in the Bishop world who have become addicted to seeing what he will come up with for tomorrow!! This inspired aspect of the blog is a tremendous amount of work. I hope John knows that it has brought and will continue to bring delights and insights to many people.

My own postings to the blog have been less frequent than I would like since 2011 rolled in because I’ve been caught up in the planning and preparation for our big launch events next week (the Sixth Annual Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Party and EB House fund-raiser on 6 February; the EB100 launch on 8 February; and the “Elizabeth Bishop in Words and Music” concert with Suzie LeBlanc and Symphony Nova Scotia on 10 February).

As I write this little post on the evening of 2 February, Nova Scotia is in the midst of what has quickly been dubbed the Ground Hog Day Storm of 2011 – well over a foot of snow already down and more still falling. Like most places west of us, we are in winter’s grip. We hope that people in Halifax and around Nova Scotia who can get into the city will be ready for the lively Bishop events we are offering next week, definitely a way to help dispel the winter doldrums! John, Suzie and I are looking forward to seeing everyone next week.

People keep asking me how I feel about how things have developed, unfolded and evolved. The days are so busy right now, I haven’t had much time to reflect on the fact that Nova Scotian artists have embraced Elizabeth Bishop and are helping to make the centenary celebrations wonderful. I am of course tremendously excited. Through all this effort and creativity, we hope to make many more people in Nova Scotia aware of Elizabeth Bishop and her brilliant art and her deep and abiding connection to her childhood home.

We are doing other publicity about the EB100 celebrations in Nova Scotia – radio, print, electronic. You will see some of the results of this publicity in various ways on the blog and our websites. A lovely recent development is a little print ad we had designed that will appear in Nova Scotia Tourism’s Festival & Events Guide 2011. Last summer/fall we worked with a young man from Newfoundland, Jody Burry, who has a design company in Halifax called Fogo Creative. Jody designed our wonderful EB100 logo. The response to it has been tremendously positive. When the opportunity for the ad came up, we asked Jody to design it. It is so lovely that I wanted to share it with you all.

As I’ve listed above, the first EB Centenary event happening is the birthday party on Sunday, 6 February (two days before her actual 100th birthday and our official EB100 launch – John has put up a reminder about the launch on the right hand side of the blog). It is the sixth year for the party, which from the beginning has encouraged costumes (“come as your favourite Bishop character or creature”). We have had some wonderful creations. Recently, a friend sent me a photograph taken at the first EB Birthday Party and EB House fund-raiser in 2006. I wanted to share it with you because it is such fun, and shows the wild imaginations of those who attend. Of course, it is the bus from “The Moose”!!

We are so looking forward to seeing all of you who can come. And if you do an EB centenary event in your own city, town, village or home, let us know! Happy 100th birthday Elizabeth Bishop!!! DISSOLVE IN A DAZZLING DIALECTIC!!!