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

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.}

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