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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXXIII: Bishop’s “Roosters” by Elizabeth Jones

Recently I’ve been reading and rereading Bishop’s “Roosters” in order to compare it to a short story by Chekhov. Not unsurprisingly, the “old holy sculpture” that Bishop evokes representing “one small scene” of Christ, Peter and “in between / a little cock … / carved on a dim column in the travertine” (stanzas 29-31) set me wondering what and where this sculpture might be. It didn’t sound like something Bishop had invented. Was it something she had seen in Europe? From my own limited sightseeing, I remembered a vivid depiction of such a scene in S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, but this was, of course, done in mosaic. A friend who had studied art history remembered illustrations in a book of this scene carved on sarcophagi of the early centuries A.D. The next obvious step was to go to the Internet where I found this article: http://www.jstor.org/pss/3046629, which excitingly went further than just answering my question.

Entitled “The Iconography of the Cock on the Column” and written by S.A. Callisen, it appeared in The Art Bulletin in June 1939, not long before Bishop started on “Roosters”. The gist of this article is that the image of a cock on a column in Christian art was adapted from a pagan motif that went back centuries. Even a quick perusal of the article makes clear how much Bishop is indebted to it for images, ideas, and phrases, particularly in the second section of the poem, where hope responds to despair. And oh joy, it features an illustration of the “Christ, Peter and cock” scene carved on one side of a sarcophagus in the Lateran museum, the very scene that Bishop describes! (Only the cock is not so “little” but the size of a turkey.) One can see too (something that always puzzled me) why she describes Christ as “stand(ing) amazed”. However, Bishop’s scene is a composite, as the inscription “gallus canit; / flet Petrus” appears, not under the sculpture illustrated, but under another depiction of St. Peter weeping, mentioned but not reproduced in the article. The comparison between Magdalen’s sin “of the flesh” and St. Peter’s “of the spirit”, the “bronze cock on a porphyry pillar” near the Lateran, its association with the erring “Prince of the Apostles”, the cock as weathervane on basilica (“churches” in Callisen) and barn, all appear in the article. Only four of the thirteen stanzas of this section could have been written without reference to it.

What the article also cleared up for me were two of the three allusions to the Greeks in stanzas 17 and 18. On page 170 of the article, mention is made of “the ancient sport of shooting at a rooster placed on top of a column”, something I had never read of anywhere else. On page 166 we discover that it was Pausanias, the Greek geographer, who explained, concerning a statue of Athena, that a cock was perched on her helmet “because cocks are very combative.” (The third allusion, that to a sacrificed cock, I’ve always taken to be a reference to Socrates’ request, before he took the hemlock, that his friend, Crito, should sacrifice a cock to Asclepius. The cock’s struggling I attributed to Bishop’s imagination. But perhaps this alludes to something else Bishop read.)

Also striking is Callisen’s observation (p.173) that “the feathers of the rooster” on the sarcophagus mentioned above are so precisely carved as to “seem almost to have been inspired by some metallic prototype”. Could this have inspired Bishop’s image of “those metallic feathers” that “oxidize” in stanza 26? Or did it just corroborate her own observation of the metallic sheen on rooster’s feathers?

As this article is available to anyone who can access the JSTOR archive, I can’t think of it as a discovery. However, I have not as yet had time to do a thorough search to see if someone has written on it, noting what Bishop borrowed from the article and how she used these borrowings. In the meantime I thought that anyone interested in “Roosters” might like to read it. However, fascinating though it is as a source on which Bishop drew, and then consider it as an example of how an artist refashions borrowings, one can still appreciate this fine poem without reading the article, much as one can, on a larger scale, appreciate Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra without recourse to the relevant part of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

Read "Roosters" here.

{Ed. note: While Elizabeth’s piece is technically not her first encounter with Bishop – she has been reading Bishop for many years – it is a particularly interesting close encounter, which needed to be shared for its discovery of this important source for Bishop. If anyone else has made this link, let us know in a comment or drop us an email.}

Monday, April 25, 2011

EB Projected: Short Films + Videos about Elizabeth Bishop -- launch screening

To mark Elizabeth Bishop’s centenary, the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia (EBSNS) join forces with interdisciplinary artist Linda Rae Dornan and Bishop scholar Sandra Barry to present new and old short films about Elizabeth Bishop. Dipping into the CBC and CBS archives, tapping the creative minds of Maritime, American and British filmmakers, collecting the best videos of the YouTube explosion, this screening and discussion will give a wide-ranging view and interpretation of this beloved poet, who was herself fascinated by film and cinema.

New short films by Suzie Hannah (UK), Elli Heartz (NB), Joy Laking/Laurie Gunn (NS), Linda Rae Dornan (NB), John Scott (NS/USA), and Angela Thibodeau (NB).

Better than the wedding of Will and Kate!!

Screening will take place on Friday, 29 April 2011, 7:00 p.m.
The Music Room, 6181 Lady Hammond Road, Halifax, N.S.
Free. Everyone Welcome!


First Take: Bishop and Cinema – Background

Elizabeth Bishop had a life-long interest in cinema. From her early encounters with the silent films of Buster Keaton in the 1920s to her strong opinions on the iconic Brazilian film “Black Orpheus” of 1959, Bishop was fascinated by this medium as expression and art form. So convinced was she of Keaton as consummate artist that she wrote a poem in praise: “I was made at right angles to the world / and I see it so. I can only see it so.”

Elizabeth Bishop has been herself the subject of film. The first documentary about her was done by PBS in 1988-1989 in its “Voices and Visions” series. Two short features were done by CBS (1994) and CBC (2002), and a short film by Nexus Media (2005). With the exponential growth of YouTube in the past few years, dozens of videos have appeared, most connected to her poems: countless readers around the world recording themselves reading her work.

The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia has set up its own Bishop YouTube channel:
(http://www.youtube.com/user/ElizabethBishop100#p/a) --
or click on the link at the top of the page.

With Bishop’s interest in film and cinema and the film activity around her over the years, a film project is an important addition to her centenary celebrations. A call was issued to filmmakers to create new short films in honour of Bishop’s 100th birthday. Curated by Linda Rae Dornan, the screening offers some of these new films with some old works about Bishop and inspired by her art.

Linda Rae Dornan is an interdisciplinary artist creating performance, video and audio art about interior spaces and processes of bring, using language, memory, sound and body. She lives in Sackville, N.B., and has had her work shown across Canada and the United States, and in South American and Europe. She has an audio art radio show every week on CHMA 100.9FM, the campus/community voice of the Tantramar marshes (11 p.m. AST, available online) – http://www.lrdornan.ca

Sandra Barry is a poet and independent scholar. She has researched and written about the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop for over twenty years. She is a co-founder, past president and current secretary of the EBSNS. She is a co-owner and administrator of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S. Her book Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to Her Life in Nova Scotia was published by the EBSNS in 1996. She co-edited with Gwen Davies and Peter Sanger Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place, published by Gaspereau Press in 2002. Her book Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-Made” Poet is forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing in May 2011. She is co-host of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary blog.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 6

But one night, in the middle of the night, there is a fire.

The hope, the possibility of “That afternoon” abruptly shifts: “But one night....” This construction is colloquial and powerful. How many of us in our conversations explain a possibility with the qualifier “But”: All is well and good, but.... This small word signals the reality behind the hope: “Everyone is pleased....But....”

The fiercest of elements ─ fire ─ sears through this section and there is little anyone can do to put it out. The damage is done. The fire is not contained inside the blacksmith’s forge, harnessed as energy to create. This fire is loose, a wild thing (“heat lightning”). For the first time in the story night appears. This is not the shadowy blacksmith shop with its bloody little moons and night-black water, contained and presided over by a powerful artisan. This darkness is time itself, vast and uncontrollable. Day and night ebb and flow and if we are lucky we get through intact. But fire and night are powerful together ─ too powerful for the mother.

A new sound, another bell, the church bell, alerts the child to the shift. She “wakes...up” to the fearful truth. Startled, she reacts: “red flames are burning the wallpaper beside the bed. I suppose I shriek.” Church and wallpaper are inextricably linked to the mother, so linked that the child intuitively knows where the real destruction lies and takes the mother’s sound, a scream.

This section is the most sustained stretch of talk in the story. The urgency is different now ─ an urgency of what we now call “damage control.” The fire, the alarm, the commotion of men and wagons pervade. The night time crisis takes place in lamplight inside the house. Bishop’s choice to focus on voices and noises for this section is perfectly attuned to the reality. One would hear more than see. And sound is an immersion. Just as the child could tell that the blacksmith was making a wheel rim just by the sounds, so the grandmother and aunts can tell how “She” is by listening, can tell how things are progressing outside by listening (“Now they're going down to the river to fill the barrels…”).

Bishop includes an interesting and significant detail (image) in this section, which is echoed several times: an open door. By opening the door of the child’s room the grandmother and aunts bring her directly into the activity. The child can clearly hear the voices. While there is much to be upset about, including the child is actually a gift. What would Bishop have grown to be if indeed her grandmother and aunts had kept the door closed? (an unanswerable but relevant question). By “Leav[ing] her door open,” they give the child (and the poet) access to a fuller understanding of the forces at work on the mother ─ give the child a dialogue of life which mitigates to some degree the depth of loss because she has a wider context.

Though the cacophony eases, echoes persist (the bell, the rattle of wagons, voices) “for a long time.” Indeed, it can be argued the echoes persisted until Bishop was able to write “In the Village.” The child tries to settle down, tries to “Go to sleep,” “I suppose I go to sleep.” This construction echoes the “I suppose I shriek.” These provisional phrases frame the drama. Their tentativeness signalling that the night is not yet over. The intensity and excitement, the destructiveness of the fire, has a profound, lasting impact.


I wake up and it is the same night as the fire.

This brief, poignant section is the bridge between what was and what is to be. As day dawns the grandmother, aunts and child, and the village itself, emerge to the scope of the damage. “It is still dark and silent” soon turns to “No, not silent,” then “It is gray.” There are still echoes: “one wagon rumbling far off, perhaps crossing the bridge”; and voices, “a skein of voices...saying the same things over and over, sometimes loudly, sometimes in whispers.” Here again is a door ─ not the child’s but the mother’s ─ slamming, opening. The talk in this section is a distillation of the last section, a lyrical condensing of the struggle, an acknowledgement of a terrible fact. It reads like a poem:

“Hurry. For heaven’s sake, shut the door!”
“Oh, we can’t go on like this, we...”
“It’s too dangerous. Remember that...”
“Sh! Don’t let her...”
A door slams.
A door opens. The voices begin again.
I am struggling to free myself.
Wait. Wait. No one is going to scream.

This passage is packed with rhyme, alliteration and cadence. It is another site in the story where “everything” is told in as few words as possible. This passage is the nexus of the shift, after which, “Slowly, slowly it gets daylight.”

The child re-enters day “by myself,” older and wiser, more independent. She connects with her grandfather for the first time, alone and more independent, too: “He has made the oatmeal himself.” His account of the fire, which he helped put out, reveals that all was not lost ─ and somehow he can be cheerful about it. The impact of the fire, however, is more devastating inside the house: “But neither of us is really listening to what he is saying; we are listening for sounds upstairs. But everything is quiet.” This image echoes the earlier one with the grandmother, “We are waiting for a scream. But it is not screamed again.”

And daily life must be attended to. The child takes Nelly to the pasture; the ebb and flow continues. The child, with her perennial curiosity and new independence, needs to see the evidence for herself. Arriving at the scene of the fire she is confronted with a profound paradox: “Everyone seems quite cheerful there, too, but the smell of burned hay is awful, sickening.” This sentence echoes one of Bishop’s most famous lines, and the epitaph on her gravestone: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.”

The barn can be rebuilt, the hay replaced. But the impact of the fire on the mother is forever.


Now the front bedroom is empty.

With this simple, quiet, matter-of-fact statement (akin to "The child vanishes."), Bishop signals that the emotional tide has turned utterly. The ebb and flow of the absent/present mother has ended. As Bishop invoked the absent mother in objects earlier in the story, here she represents the finality of the absence in an empty room. Why is this configuration more powerful than just saying, “The mother is gone,” as she says, “My older aunt has gone....” The empty bedroom is figuratively and literally more logical because although the mother has had a bodily and lingual presence, principally she has been her “things.” The bedroom is another of those rooms in “homes” which fill this story.

The finality of the change occurs in the continual ebb and flow of daily life, in which the child immerses herself again. The necessity of this immersion is one of the great imperatives of all life.

The next two paragraphs in this section are a curious memory/interlude about “a new pig.” While Bishop means this account to be quite literal ─ and clearly the grandparents introduce him to distract the child ─ this “new pig” can also be read as a metaphor for the child. The brutality of the pig’s fate ─ “this pig is butchered” ─ does not literally correspond with the child’s or Bishop’s experience. However, the disappearance of the mother is in many ways a kind of death, not only of the mother but of the child. After all, Bishop graphically wrote at the beginning of the story, “The child vanishes.”

In many instances in her poems and stories Bishop wrote about strange or curious non-human creatures ─ and identified herself, or parts of herself, with these creatures. The most obvious example is her prose-poem suite “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics,” with its “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab” and “Giant Snail.” Thus, it is not surprising that Bishop would link her child self to a pig: “He was very cute to begin with....He grew and grew.” The strange sunburn the pig gets is a kind of transmutation attended to by the grandmother, who trims his “brown and scorched” tail, “and it doesn’t hurt him.” This is all preparatory for the ultimate transformation of death. Being a farm child in a village where the source of food lived in the backyard (hens, cows, pigs, sheep), this death is part of the order of things ─ though it is still painful, and the trio of women (“my grandmother, my aunt, and I”) cope with it by accompanying the death with music, which both pays homage to life, “Out in the Fields,” and acknowledges the violence, “War March of the Priests.”

This interlude ends abruptly and quietly with an echo: “The front room is empty. Nobody sleeps there. Clothes are hung there.” Each of these tiny sentences echo something which had come before, and point the reader towards the forever of the mother.

What follows is a sustained echo of the fourth section of the story ─ another inventory, a listing of contents of “a package” the grandmother prepares and sends to the absent mother. The inventory itself is filled with its own echoes ─ the most prominent one being “Fruit, cake.” The package is an act of love and caring, which anchors the sadness of the terrible fact: “The address of the sanitorium is in my grandmother’s handwriting, in purple indelible pencil, on smoothed-out wrapping paper. It will never come off.” Here is the truth of the absence ─ and it is linked directly to the purple fabric and forever.

The child participates in this care-package ritual. Doing so takes her back out into the village ─ another errand of urgency for the mother (like the humbug errand) and the pattern is the same ─ the child executes it with determination. She doesn’t let herself be tempted by the blacksmith shop: “I pretend I don’t hear him. But at any other time I still go there just the same.” Moreover, the child has now entered the realm of self-consciousness, hiding the address from the blacksmith’s eyes. Now the “pretend” is no longer connected to play, but to serious purpose.

This errand puts the child in contact with the post office and its master, the description of which parallels that of Mealy and her shop. Indeed, the child links the two sites directly. Although the child is self-conscious, this does not make her retreat from the village. Indeed, the post office and its master are truly comforting and sympathetic. Mr. Johnson’s “Well, well”; “Good day, good day”; “Let me see. Let me see. Let me see. Hm.”; and “Yes. Yes.” are all genuine and soothing, echoes of much of what has come to her before from the villagers, “saying the same things over and over.” This man is “very old, and nice.” ─ he is the quintessential representative of the village, the person who administers one of the principal means of communication in the child’s world. What is communicated to the child is that even in the midst of tragedy (Mr. Johnson has his own wounds), humanity must engage the world with compassion. Mr. Johnson concludes this complex section (essentially a synopsis of the story) with the gentle, quiet acknowledgement, “Your grandmother is very faithful.”

The principal purpose of this section, however, has been to put the child outside, re-immerse her in the world, and to move the reader back towards the scream, back towards forever.


Every Monday afternoon I go past the blacksmith’s shop with the package under my arm, hiding the address of the sanatorium with my arm and my other hand.

Another echo ─ a variation on a theme ─ recurs in the last section (the echoing has gradually become more noticeable as the story moves towards its close): “Every Monday afternoon.” Whereas the opening section evokes “a scream” in the here and now, the final section explains how “a scream” got to be there in “that dark, too dark, blue sky.” This echoing phrase though brings the reader right back to the present of the opening section, past and present merging. This section also explains how the scream has become like an element. This happens because the child, standing on the bridge, lets the currents of the human and natural worlds flow over, under and through her ─ she is the site where they merge. Walking through the village “with the package under my arm” (essentially holding the absent mother), she stops on the bridge and stares into the water. Fish and Ford mingle. This paragraph is a lyrical evocation of “all the untidy activity” ─ listen to the sounds: “rushing in flank movements, foolish assaults and retreats, against and away from the old sunken fender of Malcolm McNeil’s Ford.” The “f” alliteration is the sound of the mind, spirit and body breathing: “And everything except the river holds its breath.” This line also embodies the ceaseless ebb and flow (“assaults and retreats, against and away from”) of existence ─ the irony of its futility and inevitability.

The child stops and stares, but she also listens to the sounds and silences. And once again the “Clang” returns and with it the scream. Has it “settled slowly down to earth” or does it still “float up, into that dark, too dark, blue sky”? Holding the package, the absent mother, under her arm all the while, the child enters a revery, a kind of hypnotic trance: “The leaning willows soak their narrow yellowed leaves.” The child is in service here to herself, her mother and the world around her. She is being, not without questioning, which is part of being. The child immerses into “everything.” Everything of humanity and nature merges.

This merging is most fully represented in the grammatical ambiguity of the sentences, “It sounds like a bell buoy out at sea. / It is the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water.” The “It” refers to the “Clang,” but the immediate antecedent subject is, in fact, the scream, “surely it has gone away, forever.” Indeed, “It” is both the scream and the Clang, humanly created sounds which have become “elements speaking.” “All those other things” ─ and here is the final distillation of the inventory of “In the Village,” of life and death ─ are both frail and mortal, and elemental and forever. As long as humanity can remain close to its elemental spirit, it will only be “almost-lost.” Scream and Clang (sounds rather like Strum und Drang) cannot be separated if we are to maintain our humanity ─ one will always resound in the other. With a gentle relentlessness, as the story progressed, Bishop linked and layered inner and outer worlds. The interconnections are mind-boggling, too intricate to be simply explained; they must be felt. They are structured through the dynamic of “echo”: what exists and its aftermath ─ both the tangible, “things,” and the intangible, “time.”

The triumph of the tragedy of “In the Village” is that the child and the poet conclude this brilliant evocation of harmony and paradox, love and loss, not by demanding the scream and Clang stop, but by commanding Nate to “strike again!” This is true artistic courage and vision.

Elizabeth Bishop's village

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 5

Every morning I take the cow to the pasture we rent from Mr. Chisolm.

This brief section is also set inside the home. It is “Every morning” and “This morning” ─ the sun is rising again, the day “brilliant and cool.” Indeed, the sun ─ the mother, “She” ─ appears, smiling (sunny), an echo of grandmother’s laugh. However, the sun still wears black (it is eclipsed). Essentially, nothing has changed.

The child is engaged in her usual morning ritual: porridge and preparation for chores. The grandmother and child are alone until the mother appears and tries to participate in the familiar routine: “She...feeds me the rest of the porridge herself.” The child resists the mother’s attempts to see how much she has grown (an oblique but poignant demonstration of her absence). Rather than linger with the adults marvelling over her, she “slide[s] out from under them” and escapes to her chores, escapes to the wider world – the main chore being taking the cow to pasture.

This section functions as a transition, or bridge, between all the interiors of the previous sections. The natural or elemental world has not been absent, but, essentially, except for the first section, the story has unfolded by revealing a set of inner, home-made spaces. The return of direct dialogue frames the dilemma for the child who wants both to “Hurry up” and leave, and also to “Wait a minute” and linger. The pull of outside is too strong however ─ as it is for most children.

This section begins and ends with Nelly the cow, a creature immensely fascinating to the child (just as the horse in the blacksmith shop). Nelly is always just what she is ─ transparent yet mysterious: she “could probably go by herself just as well,” yet she “is waiting for me in the yard, holding her nose just under in the watering trough.” Young as she is, the child has her domestic tasks to perform. These are a satisfaction, even a salvation: “I like marching through the village with a big stick, directing her.”

Scrabble Hill Road, Nelly's route through the village.


Nelly looks up at me, drooling glass strings. She starts off....

Having slid out from under, the child goes off on her march through the village. What follows is the longest section of the story (about five pages), which describes the child’s full immersion in this village, how much she is a part of it. The sensory and elemental matrix reaches its apogee on this journey ─ which is simply a child taking a cow to pasture, but which is also a metaphor for all journeys. The structure of this journey resembles the journey Bishop wrote about in “The Moose”: the evocation of the landscape and community; the memory of all that “talking, in Eternity”; and the revelations produced by a mysterious creature. Nelly does not appear suddenly; she is there all along (how many times have they made this walk? for it is “Every morning” and “This morning”). In the end, though they shared part of the journey, they must part: “she goes off to join a black-and-white friend she has here.” This section reveals that the specific journey Bishop described in “The Moose” had in fact happened over and over to her when she was a child.

This section contains a number of echoes from previous sections. The Presbyterian church “dazzling....and secretive” reappears; its steeple “like one hand of a clock pointing straight up.” Overalls reappear “hang[ing] high up in the air on hangers.” “Forever” also surfaces “in one fell swoop.” “Complete houses” with “rooms inside”; shoes and hats mostly in bright colours, though there are black ones; and the “unlovely guilded red and green books, filled with illustrations of Bible stories” all reappear. The child has accumulated a comprehensive set of touchstones. This journey gives her many more: the “black iron fence with open work four-sided pillars” looking like “birdcages for storks”; the deaf, old dog Jock who is beloved by his owners and has “caterpillars for eyebrows”; the “unhappy apple trees”; the view of Minas Basin “with the tide halfway in or out”; and all the people she meets and talks with along the way: Rev. Gillespie, Miss Spencer, Mr. McLean, Mr. Chisolm, Miss Ruth Hill.

The child’s senses are on high alert, taking in every shade of colour: gray, blue, gray-blue, greenly, pink and blue, yellow, flamingo-colored, black, navy blue, dark-green, black and white and yellow ─ and on and on, reaching the exquisite description of the view with its sky blue and lavender-red (more echoes). The child listens intently to every sound “in the quiet morning”: “Switch. Switch”; “Whack!”; “Flop, flop”; “Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.”; “deep, cracked, soft barks”; “mooing”; and all that talk, those pleasant or unsettling conversations with neighbours and friends. Taste and touch are less direct but still present, clustered in the arrival at the pasture: the “scratchy and powerful” taste of mint, the “scratchy and powerful” lick of Nelly’s tongue. Smell is implied everywhere.

This journey traverses both the human, home-made world and the natural, elemental world. While separate, these worlds still closely co-exist in the village. The road (the path of the journey) is defined by the “dark, thin old elms; grass grows long and blue in the ditches.” Miss Spencer’s house is defined as much by the lilacs outside as by the hats inside its windows. The Chisholm’s back yard is inextricably linked to its perspective of the wider world: “one always stops to look at the view” ─ the vista of elemental sky, sea, earth. The vast marshes and tide hold within them the constructed faith of the inhabitants ─ you can’t see one without the other. Only in the pasture, “the squishy, moss-covered...swampy part,” is the child potentially separate from the human world ─ a tempting wild place to stay and play in, but the child knows the pull of her family cannot be ignored.

The details of this lengthy section (just as with the shorter ones) cannot be fully disentangled ─ nor should that be any reader’s or scholar’s aim. This reading manages only to note the interconnections on a superficial level. The pervasive paradox Bishop grapples with is everywhere here: the healing yet destructive and ultimately disinterested elements outside are linked with the painful, comforting and charged circumstances inside. This knowledge is etched in “Mrs. Chisolm’s pale frantic face” and Mr. Chisolm’s sombre prayer. Even staring intently into Nelly’s “unexpressive” face generates mixed feelings in the child. The pasture is both safe and lonely.

The structure of this journey appears to be linear ─ the child walks along a road to an apparent destination. But she must return, circle back to what she left. Did she ever really leave? The hand of a clock might be straight, but time spins through the day. One day follows another, but memory returns us to what was. The tide ebbs and flows. Bishop locates the old adage “Time and tide waits for no man” ─ a saying she likely heard in the village ─ in her own experience. She explores the implications and ramifications of this reality.

The view from Scrabble Hill, looking towards Cobequid Bay.

This section ends with the child nearly back home again, visiting with her mother’s friend. This quiet closure to the expansive journey puts the child back in her family circumstances, but not in an unhappy way. The child once again is begifted: ring, coin, and now “a Moirs chocolate.” The community is aware of the sadness and reaches out to the child in various ways. This friend gives the child more than a gift of a sweet. She gives her a sweeter gift: concern and loyalty, and even more, “a funny story about when they were little.” The child is given a direct link to her mother’s past ─ a memory, a story ─ of a time when she was not ill, a time when the mother was, perhaps, the same age as the child. The child returns to the house itself wiser about her mother, though still powerless to make use of that wisdom. Still, she tries. (It was left to the adult Bishop, the poet, to make use of the wisdom by writing “In the Village” and begifting her readers.)


That afternoon, Miss Gurley comes and we go upstairs to watch the purple dress being fitted again.

This section could be described as an interlude of hope ─ just maybe, the child thinks, “Everything will be all right.” “This morning” has turned into “That afternoon” ─ the same day of the “immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness.” The child re-immerses in home life. The dressmaker is back, “cheerful and talkative”; indeed, “everyone talks and laughs.” Bishop signals the possibility of “all right” in two ways: “The dress is smaller now” ─ it has begun to take on manageable, defined boundaries, the fabric has shape. The other signal is the direct talk among the women with its words “becoming” and “change.” Change is a colour. It is also a dress: “the purple is real, like a flower.” All this hope floats around the mother who has been distilled again, this time to her “thin white hands.” These hands are like the ghosts of her illness.

The child takes in this hope, registers the possibility, but registers, too, its complexity. Her gaze falls on “a gleaming little bundle of flat, triangular satin pillows ─ sachets” (a gift to the mother from Boston ─ an echo of the place where the illness began). Each moment in our lives is a “different faint color” and “a different faint scent.” But life cannot be lived discretely: “But tied together the way they came, they make one confused, powdery odor.” Just as the horse travels in his “cloud of odor,” so we are carried in “one confused, powdery odor.”

The mother ─ “She” ─ strangely participates in this hopeful tableau (“She walks slowly up and down.”), yet is also somehow, through her reflection in a mirror, “miles and miles away.” And her thin white hands seem to embody her desperation, “‘I have no idea!’ It turns to a sort of wail.” Can change (hope, possibility) be real if the scream persists?

Immediately, as the wail is heard, the woman’s voices “soothe” and the blacksmith offers “Light, musical, constant sounds.” Interestingly, at this very point the focus shifts to the child, as though a camera lens has turned from the tableau to the audience. Though the child has been appealed to already, here she is directly brought into the possibility of hope. She herself recognizes that the request she receives is a good sign. Moreover, the errand in service to the mother’s whim for humbugs is something she can do. She is not, after all, entirely helpless.

This errand takes the child back outside ─ into the village. Unlike the meandering walk to and from the pasture, this errand is a commission (with stress on mission), and the child is determined to carry it out. Even the fascinating blacksmith shop will not distract her. The only concession to her abundant curiosity is “to slow down long enough to find out the years on the pennies.” King George reappears ─ the authority of Empire and commerce. We are brought into the commerce of the world almost from birth. The irony of this errand is that it is a forerunner of a similar, but much sadder errand in service of the mother.

The remainder of the section describes Mealy’s (“Her real name is Amelia”) shop and the execution of the errand. There is much to see and hear: Mealy’s bell in a echo of the “musical” sounds of the blacksmith shop and of the cow bell “chiming”; the shop itself is a precursor for another cosy, curious, communicative site ─ the post office ─ which will be part of the future sad errand. The details still appeal to the child, but there are decisions to make. The child’s urgency prevails over her desire to observe: “I must get back quickly, quickly.” The errand completed, she “start[s] hopefully back.”

This trip to and from is the same pattern of the previous section (a walk through the village). Both the child’s senses and the world’s elements are “constant”; but the child’s focus is on the mother, on an inner imperative: hope and urgency. Where the mother had ebbed and flowed in and out of the child’s life, the child herself ebbs and flows in the village. And our emotions ebb and flow ─ loneliness and hope, back an forth.

Note: Like John, I am away for a couple of days. I will post Part 6, the final part of this reading of "In the Village," later in the week.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 4

Nate sings and pumps the bellows with one hand. I try to help, but he really does it all....

This short section is a humorous and provocative description of life inside the blacksmith’s shop, in its own way another domestic realm, but with links to myth and archetype. Bishop says of the men and animals who inhabit it, “they are perfectly at home.”

The child herself is too young to know the classical and literary life of the blacksmith (e.g., the myth of Hephaestus or Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith”), though Bishop and her readers can bring such knowledge to the story. However, a blacksmith’s shop is intrinsically a mysterious, even magical, place to a five-year-old. Bishop keeps sophisticated allusions out of the description for the most part (there is a nod to the mythology in her reference “to the underworld”). She has the child directly describe the sights and sounds. However, the people, objects and animals of this interior still take on an almost supernatural quality because the child regards them with awe. Even though the instantly-made ring is only a horseshoe nail, even though the horse is only a work horse whose harness “hangs” (note the echo) like loose suspenders, the child marvels at all the details. This wonder invests the ordinary with extraordinary resonance.

This section is packed with shape, colour and other sensory stimuli, which seems to emanate from the ring: “big and hot,” “blue and shiny,” “flat oblong head, pressing hot against my knuckle.” The child is enclosed in this world and primed to absorb everything directly through her nerve endings, the pores of her skin. The elements pervade the shop, revealing that while it is an interior, it is inextricably linked to the natural world. A blacksmith’s work involves harnessing the elements. Indeed, the shop is a place where humanity and nature come together in harmony.

One of the reasons the child’s description is so affecting is simply because she observes everything (or as close to everything as Bishop can make it) ─ not only the magical ring and the medals on the horse’s chest, but also the bodily functions of the inhabitants of this “home”: the men, “chewing or spitting tobacco, matches, horseshoe nails ─ anything, apparently”; the manure piling up behind the horse “suddenly, neatly” (“His rump is like a brown, glossy globe of the whole brown world.”); the “clear bright-green bits of stiffened froth, like glass...stuck around” the horse’s mouth. In polite company these things might be regarded as excrescences, yet they are entirely natural, even polite, here and the child senses this organic congruity and logic: “they say pleasant things to him,” “he doesn’t seem to mind,” “he expresses his satisfaction.”

One of Bishop’s serious interests as a writer was the idea of Beauty: what is beautiful? what is ugly? Cultures set standards which, of course, shift over time. Bishop grew up in a world still closely linked to land and sea (the elements) and was essentially home-made. Bishop’s standards of Beauty emerged in part out of this world of the artisan. Her interest in bodily realities, her view of them as natural and interesting, earned her the phrase “flicker of impudence” from her mentor poetic Marianne Moore. Bishop, however, saw something humanly meaningful and artistically relevant in this layer of experience, though she always introduced or explored it with the utmost modesty and consideration.

In may ways this brief section of “In the Village” is an aesthetic treatise. Bishop does not expound the idea that our measure of Beauty should extend beyond classical or popular fashions and reach into the ordinary physical world. She does not say this directly. Rather, through the eyes of the child she was, she describes a “whole brown world” with such delight and awe that her reader cannot help but share ─ and see anew: “the cloud of his odor is a chariot in itself.” The horse, finally shod, backs “into the shafts of his wagon” and the journey continues, the scene shifts to the inside of another home of another artisan.

"Nate" the blacksmith (right) at his shop, he was actually Mayhew "Mate" Fisher.


The purple dress is to be fitted again this afternoon but I take a note to Miss Gurley to say the fitting will have to be postponed.

This domain, a room in a house, is also a mysterious place, though more unsettling and even dangerous because, domestic as it is, the absent mother is present in uncanny ways. Here the threads of the story are picked up again ─ literally so: “The purple stuff lies on a table; long white threads hang all about it. Oh, look away before it moves by itself, or makes a sound; before it echoes echoes, what it has heard.” Here is the scream materialized. (Note the repetition of “hang.” Note how the purple is a visual echo of the blue and violet of the opening section.) The fabric and the mother are inextricably linked. The fabric and the child have witnessed the scream. The fabric is the nexus of connection between mother and child. For the first time since the opening section Bishop is explicit about echoes. “Echo” relates not only to what happens but also to how Bishop tells the story, her method of composition.

The dressmaker’s house is as full to the brim as the blacksmith’s shop ─ a site of immense sensory experience: “tissue-paper patterns”; “shapes of A,B,C, and D”; “threads everywhere like a fine vegetation”; “laces and braids, embroidery silks, and cards of buttons of all colors...little glass ones delicious to suck.” (This last image echoes the “clear glass bulge, like an eyeball” in the previous section.) Interestingly, the objects in this realm connect not so much with the elements as with language.

The animals in this house are not as safe as those in the blacksmith’s shop. Indeed, sewing the fabric of life can be fatal. The story is that one gray kitten “got hanged on the belt” of the sewing machine. (Again, “hang” appears.) Another kitten is “in imminent danger of being sewn into a turban.”

Bishop omits the mythical connotations of this artisan ─ the sewer links to the Moerae, the Fates of Greek mythology: Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Measurer and Atropos the Cutter of life’s thread. The wonder and fear the child experiences in the encounter with dressmaker, machine and fabric is even more effective for being unselfconscious. The child animates the fabric because it is the only way she can fit it into the puzzle. She links it to herself by projecting her own fears on it. This act is not a psychological analysis. Though it is a the kind of “magical thinking” psychologists recognize in children. It is a logical transference in the mind and heart of the bewildered child ─ and presents a powerful and memorable version of destiny. What is our relation to life’s fabric? The child is at a pivotal point between credulity and questioning: “Or did she make that up?” What can we trust: our senses? our dreams? our stories? At this stage the child usually chooses to “look away” from the human realm and turn to nature. As an artist, however, Bishop knew the best art is a complex interplay of all realms of experience, as well as an act of faith and scepticism.

Though another interior, the elements do appear in a mysterious gift to the child, as wondrous as the horseshoe nail ring: “I know she is poor ─ [she] gives me a five-cent-piece.” True giving is a willing sacrifice. True receiving is a surrender to the gift. The child does not spend the money, but accidentally swallows it, ingesting “its precious metal,” as well as its social, economic and cultural implications. The coin is a currency and thus functions on a pragmatic level ─ Bishop introduces the issue of commerce in this section when she notes that “the very dress I have on” was made by the dressmaker for 25 [cents]. The coin is also a symbol of Imperialism (politics): “King George.” For the child, however, the coin is a work of art too, and thus a symbol of the natural world, like “salmon scales.” The child learns many lessons in this brief encounter with the dressmaker: “...as far as I know, it is still in me, transmuting....”


To this point Bishop has fashioned form and content as Nate shapes rings and horseshoes, as Miss Gurley sews dresses and turbans. The blacksmith and dressmaker appeared in the second section and are symbolically evoked in the third. Each now receives their own section. To this point Bishop has layered image upon image, evoking tangible sensory and elemental realms, establishing textures of domestic and natural worlds, showing how they interconnect, support and reflect each other. All this detail is the framework surrounding the central characters (mother and child ─ and their family). Bishop never fully describes the mother or child. We learn about them principally through their interaction with their environment. Both characters are real and unreal at the same moment, specific and general. This duality is effective because it reflects the paradoxical nature of all realities. How do we define ourselves? (“against or away from” others?) In “In the Village” Bishop attempts to define identity by merging a vast cosmic (historical, mythological) realm with a precise, intimate domain (sensuous, natural). Ultimately, Bishop locates identity in one of humanity’s most peculiar mediums: language. The true transmutation for Bishop is through the art of writing, which metaphorically can be linked to the hammer and anvil, to the needle and thread.


Back home, I am not allowed to go upstairs.

This home matters most to the child. It is the centre of her universe, but it is a place as unsettling as it is comforting. This section is a poignant evocation of the absent/present paradox. The mother is in the house but she is upstairs, where the child is not allowed to go. The mother’s presence is registered by another sound, “a tin wash basin falls bump in the carpeted upstairs hall.” The child does not say directly that the mother is there, but the reader puts her in silently, just as the child does. That sound means mother has been well established by this point.

This section focuses on the child’s relationship with her grandmother, a relationship Bishop evoked elsewhere, for example in her poem “Sestina.” In many ways this section is an early version of this poem, which was written a few years after “In the Village.” The child and grandmother are close, so close that the child can detect the grandmother’s sorrow in the potato mash she is making. All our senses directly register in our minds, but sometimes the most unmediated experiences are with the senses we prize least: taste, smell, touch. Yet these senses are often the most visceral, the most elemental. Tasting the potato mash, the child directly realizes something profound about the world she lives in: “wonderful but wrong.”

The child watches her grandmother try to cope with her sorrow by keeping busy with domestic chores, by doing things which are familiar: fixing her hair, rocking in her chair. The child participates in the grandmother’s small rituals. They are trying to distract and comfort each other. Fascinated by the “many celluloid combs” in the same way she was fascinated by the “red and blue celluloid rings,” the child seeks to ground herself in something she can hold in her hand.

Elizabeth and William Bulmer (Gammie and Pa), Elizabeth Bishop's maternal grandparents

In spite of the ill mother hovering upstairs (the sky of the house), the child delights so much in the intimacy with her grandmother that she can play, or “pretend to play” (but isn’t all play pretend anyway?). She plays pretend music and makes her grandmother laugh. Here is the nascent artist practicing her craft, though Bishop does not overtly lead the reader to such a lofty conclusion. This intimate moment is followed by another acute, real taste: “a rusty, icy drink” of water. The elements re-enter almost with a jolt, bringing this duo immediately back to what hovers “unheard”: “We are waiting for the scream. But it is not screamed again, and the red sun sets in silence.” The family revolves around the mother, a galaxy of planets and moons circling a dying star.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 3

She stood in the large front bedroom, with sloping walls on either side, papered with wide white and dim-gold stripes. Later, it was she who gave the scream.

A central technique of any story is voice ─ the perspective of the narrator. The first two sections of “In the Village” are told by an omniscient narrator, a perspective which overlooks the characters and events, a voice which functions outside or above the story. This choice of voice at the beginning allows Bishop to provide context or background (“Later, it was she who gave the scream.”) This third person narration introduces the principal characters of the story: “she” (the mother) and “the child.” It introduces the principal sounds: “a scream” and the “Clang” of the blacksmith.

The omniscient narrator also allows the story to move through time. The first section of “In the Village” is in the present tense. The second section begins in the past tense but shifts back and forth through tenses. Gradually, the second section moves from the past to the present tense ─ from “She stood in the large front bedroom” to “Now the dressmaker is home.” In essence all these events are in the past, but shifting from past to present tense gives the reader a feeling of an eternal presence (and, ultimately, absence). The tenses shift as they do towards the end of the second section in part to signal a shift of voice from an omniscient narrator to the first person ─ to the voice and perspective of the child: “I had watched,” “I had once lived,” “I had come from there,” “I remembered.” The remainder of the story is told from this point of view, placing the story in the past ─ but because memory exists in the present, the verb tenses ebb and flow like tide. Bishop’s narrative shift and the shifting verb tenses (and the actuality of events being in the past, being remembered in the past, yet existing in the present in memory and on the page) produces at once a strange elusiveness and a startling clarity. The story embodies our experience of time as being both linear and non-linear. It is difficult to know exactly which state dominates at any given moment:

The pure note: pure and angelic.
The dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes.

This brief, grammatically complex, yet acutely direct passage in the second section is an example of the intense compression. Essentially, it encapsulates all the events and the fundamental form of the whole story. Bishop offers these kinds of lyrical vignettes throughout “In the Village.” All the exposition in the world, however, will never have the power of these few words, possessing as they do a “dazzling dialectic” (a dialogue) between lost and found, between wonder and fear.


Gertrude Bulmer Bishop in Great Village, circa 1900, before the "mourning."

The second section of “In the Village” is an onslaught of sensory experience and description. There are many colourful sights: gold-striped wallpaper on sloping walls; a new purple dress being made; red or green gilded books with Bible stories; a gray roof with moss; lilac bushes, heavy green elms, honeysuckle vines with wasps; ruby wine. The colours contrast with underlying shadows embodied in the woman with thin white hands who has worn only black, who is resisting all the colours around her: “Is it a good shade for me? Is it too bright? I don’t know. I haven’t worn colors for so long now....” Not all shadow worlds are frightening. The blacksmith’s shop is a dark realm of intense energy where “things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things.” (Here is “hang” again directly linked with the blacksmith’s “Clang.” This “things” is a premonition of the appearance of “things” in the next section.) This darkness contains too many fascinating things to be frightening. It is awesome.

Sound also continues in this section and its register widens: the pure and angelic note “Clang” ─ “Oh, beautiful sounds”; the “hissing, protesting” water as the horseshoes, “bloody little moons,” are drowned; the wasps, the creaking bellows, the horse’s stamping foot. These sights and sounds are accompanied for the first time by the other senses. Smell: “straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay”; “a smell of red-hot metal and horses’ hoofs” ─ and those lilacs and honeysuckle. Taste: “sour, diluted ruby: raspberry vinegar.” Touch: the “almost touch noses” between horse and dog; granite disks “too hot to touch”; the dressmaker “holding the dress to her heart.”

The elements are present too. Earth: trees, moss, flowers, grass, stones. Air: the hot summer afternoon, shade and shadows, the bellows. Fire: the red-hot metal, the bloody little moons, the hot millstones. Water: the diluted wine, the tub of night-black water. This confluence of sensory and elemental experience speaks to the richness of the world the child inhabits and contrasts with the struggle of the mother who is very thin, who “had not got any better,” who screams.

In this section Bishop writes directly about the life of this woman. She provides a poignant, highly compressed chronology of that life: “First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.” What keeps this account from being mere reportage (for it is factually accurate) is that Bishop has turned it into a song, a chorus. The repetitions not only describe facts, but produce an ebb and flow cadence.

Bishop records the “frightening expenses” of the mother’s illness and its affect on the child who is “unaccustomed to having her back.” This mother’s scream causes the child to vanish. Yet the child is in the midst of myriad sensations, a plethora of stimulation. Having written, “The child vanishes.”, Bishop then returns the child to the reader by shifting voice in the third section, allowing the child herself to take up and finish telling the story.

Absence/presence, lost/found ─ our sensory experiences make a deep impression on our minds. Human events and emotions do the same. Everything passes ─ “vanishes” ─ yet in memory it can be recalled; in art recreated. Art is the same and not the same as experience; but essentially, both life and art are human processes: “It is the most beautiful material she has worked on in years...and heaven knows how much it cost.” Bishop’s beautiful story cost her a great deal. Did “In the Village” redeem the loss and pain in any way? Can any art do that? Bishop would have said, “perhaps.”


Before my older aunt had brought her back, I had watched my grandmother and younger aunt unpacking her clothes, her “things.”

In “The Moose” Bishop recorded an inventory of individual and communal life experience:

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened....

This inventory resides in “Grandparents’ voices,” “Talking the way they talked,” “talking, in Eternity,” remembered by Bishop and retold in the poem. This “Eternity” echoes Bishop’s “forever” in “In the Village.”

The third section of “In the Village” is essentially an inventory, in this instance of “things” belonging to the absent/present mother. At this point, the child takes over the narration. She is the direct witness of people, places, events ─ and, here, objects. The child links herself immediately with these objects: “...they had finally come from Boston....even I had once come from there.” Thus she objectifies herself, but she also equally animates the objects. They resonate for her in overwhelming ways. The list is extraordinary and evocative: “mourning hat,” “large black roses,” “mourning coat,” “housedresses,” “black grosgrain bows,” “pearls in a little wreath,” “white hat,” “white embroidered parasol,” “black shoes,” “mesh bag,” “calling card case,” “silver-framed photograph, quickly turned over,” “handkerchiefs,” “a bottle of perfume,” “postcards,” “barrels of china,” “cake basket,” “another photograph,” “a tablecloth,” “little ivory embroidery tools.”

In the previous section Bishop distilled her mother’s life in several short, rhythmic sentences. In this section she creates a portrait of the mother herself ─ bodily absent yet tangibly present ─ through an inventory of her “things.” How many of us can be described this way? These present things are all the more poignant because the person they belong to is ill, troubled, even lost. Yet these things are also harbingers, signals for the arrival of the mother, preparing the child for the future.

The things explain emblematically the principal circumstance of the mother: she is in mourning. They also bespeak her illness and unstable state: the postcards have metallic crystals which are “crumbling, dazzling and crumbling”; the china is broken; the tablecloth “isn’t finished.” The shape and texture of the life of this woman, this mother who is only called “her,” unfolds poignantly in this inventory.

In this section the narrator records other voices ─ as Bishop did in “The Moose.” The child hears her grandmother and aunt “exclaim, and talk, and exclaim, over and over.” The inventory is spoken. The voices introduce the child to the complexity of language: “But always I think they are saying ‘morning.’ Why, in the morning, did one wear black?” These voices also offer the first instance of a “dazzling” dialogue:

“It’ll just have to stay in the barrels.”
“Mother, you might as well use it.”
No,” says my grandmother.
“Where’s the silver, Mother?”
“In the vault in Boston.”
Vault. Awful word.

This talk adds dimension to the objects. The objects reside not just in the silence of their “trunks and barrels and boxes,” but within lived experience and oral history. The objects have stories attached to them.

Moreover, the absent mother, her things and the child reside in a sensory world: the starched, stiffly folded dresses; the bright sunlight; the “marvelous scent” of the perfume ─ “It doesn’t smell like that here” ─ the postcards looking like a colour wheel: “brown...black...blue,” “silver, gold, red, and green”; the “rough, jeweled lines on the postcards” which the child touches with the tip of her finger, “over and over.”

Because this inventory is essentially an interior, home-made one, the elements are at the periphery. However, in the end, the child symbolically returns the objects to the earth: “I abscond with a little ivory stick with a sharp point. To keep it forever I bury it under the bleeding heart by the crab-apple tree, but it is never found again.” The inventory concludes with a desperate bid for “forever” ─ this time the sky is not holding a scream, but the earth is receiving an ivory stick (a tool of the mother’s creativity). The child buries it beneath a perennial with a powerfully evocative name: bleeding heart. The hope of the child for forever is, however, “never” realized. Some things will always remain lost.

Bishop does not explain any of this directly ─ rather, she evokes it through metaphor, symbol and question: “What are the messages?” The messages she seeks and gives are those connected to how we know, remember and honour the joy and sorrow of our lives.

In 1978 Bishop remarked about childhood, “You are fearfully observant then. You notice all kinds of things, but there’s no way of putting them all together” (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop 125). The child is faced with a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Only through experience can a person begin to put the pieces together in a coherent, meaningful way. The inventory in this section of “In the Village” is part of the raw material of Bishop’s puzzle. Though the objects, voices, sensory and emotional “things” are her own, the process of creative transformation ─ of art ─ puts this particular puzzle into a realm which her readers can access and identify with. She says only: This is my puzzle. By doing so, each reader is given an opportunity to return to his or her own puzzle, and may find pieces that were missing.

The dense accumulation of detail in this section establishes a textured domestic realm: clothes, crafts, communication. It is interesting to note that the first title Bishop chose for “In the Village” was “Clothes. Food. Animals.” (One Art 249). This realm helps to establish “the village, where we live, full-size, and in color.” Many of the objects and subjects of this section appear elsewhere in the story, and in Bishop’s other poems and stories. The repetition of words and images reinforces the cadences and rhythms of the overall form. Within each section there are echoes of what has come before and hints of what will follow. “In the Village” is one continuous echo.

The domestic, private realm of this section and the personal struggle it evokes always exists in tandem and often intersects with the archetypal world of the blacksmith shop. Both these realms are contained within the natural or elemental world. At any given moment these realms are in communication with each other: “Black shoes with buckles glistening like the dust in the blacksmith's shop.” One of the marvels of "In the Village" is its seamless interconnectivity.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 2

“In the Village” is too lingually dense, allusive, elusive, symbolic and literal to analyze fully here. The subjects of “In the Village” (Bishop’s mother’s illness, breakdown and hospitalization; the impact this had on Bishop herself; the role Great Village played in Bishop's development) were active forces and subjects throughout her life, and appear in oblique or obvious ways in many of her writings. I explore the autobiographical foundation of this story is explored at length elsewhere.

This reading will not describe, summarize or examine the events of the story. Rather, what follows will look closely at the elemental nature of the story and its language ─ the sensory experience Bishop incorporates, the environmental forces she engaged, and the way she perceived their affect, even creation of, emotional response.

Essentially, Bishop sought to recreate her story from the point of view of the child she was (a five-year-old) when the events happened. The child would not have had a full lingual or intellectual capacity, or the lived experience, to describe and understand her world. She perceives it through her senses and embodies experience in objects (the child making concrete what is intangible). “In the Village” is one of Bishop’s most sensory pieces of writing. This reading explores sight, sound, taste, touch, smell ─ links these to earth, air, fire, water ─ demonstrates how both realms connect with joy and sorrow.

Sight is light and darkness. Sound is voice and silence. Taste is sweet and sour. Touch is soft and hard. Smell is fragrance and stench. Earth is growth and decay. Air is openness and emptiness. Fire is energy and destruction. Water is quench and flood. Bishop did not believe in rigid dichotomies or polarities. She believed in a “dazzling dialectic” (Complete Poems 185) between opposites, between worlds. For her the myriad forces in life do not exist as one or the other, but as both (or, sometimes, neither) ─ as combinations which created new physical, emotional and spiritual realities. As she wrote in “The Bight”: "All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful." (Complete Poems 61)


“In the Village”

A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotia village.

In this opening sentence an elemental world is established. This world is comprised first and foremost of a sound: a scream ─ and its echo. Immediately, what is actual is linked to an aftermath. While an echo is itself a physical phenomenon ─ a reflection of a sound wave in the air ─ it is perceived as a shift in the original sound, diminished in intensity and appearing to be generated outside the source of the sound. Still, an echo is startling and significant. This scream, and its echo, does something: it hangs (like a cloud? like the sword of Damocles?), but not just anywhere; it hangs specifically “over that Nova Scotian village.” An actual geo-political entity is named, but its function is as an adjective not as a noun. The ultimate location is “that...village.” More than a place or time, this noun evokes a way of life: rural, communal, provincial.

A scream is a human sound; it is a sound connected to fear or pain. Yet the direct simplicity of this sentence does not automatically generate a negative or dark reading ─ though “hangs” holds haunting, even ominous, implications. The concreteness and simplicity of the words in this sentence actually generate an odd neutrality or matter-of-factness of tone, allowing the reader to bring his or her own set of assumptions. How does one respond to the idea of a scream hanging over a village? Curiosity? Disbelief? Does such a disarmingly simple statement generate interest or indifference or puzzlement?

Bishop cannot actually reproduce the sound of the scream on the page. The words which have an onomatopoeic relevance ─ screech, squeal, shriek, etc. ─ are harsh and limited. Bishop writes, after all, that the scream “was not even loud to begin with.” Bishop chose to evoke the scream by linking it to the verb “hang.” The reason for this link becomes clear as the story progresses for “hang” is a rhyme with “Clang,” the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer and anvil ─ a highly onomatopoeic word. Bishop subtly signals and sets up the frame for the resonances of her story in this opening sentence: echoing sound.

The thirteen words of this opening sentence contain a wide range of meanings and connotations, signs and cyphers. The grammatical structure of the sentence ─ its dependent clause set off, like the echo itself, from the rest of the sentence; the simplicity of the present tense indicating that somewhere the scream continues to exist ─ is far more complex than the surface suggests. Indeed, what Bishop does in this sentence is write something at once particular and universal, private and archetypal. The fact and myth in these lines function on both levels. Bishop’s choice of symbol ─ a scream ─ links the actual, daily world to the cosmic, imaginative world.

“In the Village” is comprised of a series of sections which proceed chronologically, though not rigidly so. However, it commences in the here and now, signalling immediately to the reader, before he or she can logically register it, that the past events which follow remain always present. Where, finally, does “a scream, the echo of a scream” reside so that it can be at once “in the past, in the present, and in those years between”? “In memory,” of course.

The opening section of “In the Village” is a discrete paragraph and each sentence could generate the same kind of reading done here for the first sentence. What this read of the first sentence is meant to show is that at the core of Bishop’s often startlingly simple language, is a complex and honed form which she created both consciously and unconsciously.

Why, for example, would Bishop choose a scream as the entrance into and anchor for such a complex evocation of her past ─ a scream which she goes on to say “hangs there forever”; is “a slight stain”; is “unheard, in memory”; “was not even loud to begin with, perhaps”; a scream whose “pitch would be the pitch of my village.” The scream is a deeply private autobiographical experience for Bishop, yet she knew it would resonate on archetypal or symbolic levels for readers; it would provoke emotional responses (e.g., fear, sympathy, abhorrence). The sentences which follow the first one function not only as a preface for the story as a whole, setting up the sensory world the reader will soon enter (sight and sound; earth and air being the elemental realms most fully evoked); these sentences form in themselves a separate prose poem ─ structurally, it is part and whole in the same instance. Experience, and the memory of experience, is like that.


In the first section of “In the Village” the primary sensory experience is sound. Even though Bishop says “no one hears it” and claims it is “unheard, in memory,” the sound still exists. It “hangs there forever...not loud, just alive forever.” The reality of sound is that we perceive it by immersion. We can hear sound from any direction. Whether or not we see the cause of the sound, we can still hear it. Moreover, Bishop writes that we ourselves can reproduce the sound, or a quality of it ─ “its pitch”: “Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will here it” (bringing in an oblique reference to another sensory realm: touch).

The scream is not only a sound. It is also “a stain” ─ it is a sight/site connected to the palette of colour Bishop introduces: “too dark, too blue,” “cloud of bloom,” “violet.” Both this sound and sight are connected principally with the sky, the element of air. One of the connotations sky/air has is that of transcendence. Bishop links this realm directly with “forever.” Even though individual memory does not exist forever, Bishop says, however, that the scream is “alive forever.” By putting the scream (and many of the other sensory experiences of her childhood) into art, Bishop transfers the actuality and her memory of it outside herself, giving it a life closer to forever than her own temporal existence would permit. Of course, forever is a debatable reality, which none of us can know directly. What Bishop implies more manageably by her writing about the scream is that it is a valid subject for art; its continued existence has meaning. Art is also a new reality ─ it is more than just a repetition of what was; it is an intrinsic creation, different from anything else in experience. Art is one of humanity’s endeavours to establish permanence and continuity in the midst of ephemerality and transience.

One of the techniques Bishop used in writing “In the Village” was compression: “I’ve just compressed time a little and perhaps put two summers together” (One Art 477). She compressed not only the facts (content), but also the form (structure). The principal way compression occurs in form is through language. In content and form compression is in part a selection process. Bishop made choices about what to include and omit. Her choices for this story are usually linked in some way to sensory experience. Because most of the story is told from the child's perspective this choice is logical, but one result of the necessity of the senses is that the story has an immediacy and concreteness which enhances its energy. In language, compression is enacted by word choice, of course. But in “In the Village” it is also manifested in word concentration. Again, the focus is on words which link in some way to sensory experience. One of the most obvious concentrations is onomatopoeia: the “Clang” (sometimes italicized so that it looks like it sounds) of the blacksmith’s hammer and anvil is meant to look like the sound on the page ─ and to sound like it when read aloud. But more than this, this small word is given immense weight in the story. It carries tremendous meaning. Bishop asks this sound to be redemptive in some way. She asks it to represent a holistic world, “pure and angelic,” as the scream is emblematic of a world “damaged and lost.” Rather than try to explain the sound (as she does to some degree with the scream), Bishop allows the sound to be simply what it is. Thus it carries all its possible meanings with authority.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 1

As I did in March with Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Moose," I am going to post a series of short pieces that comprise a reading of her story "In the Village." While not as detailed as the reading of "The Moose," I hope it will add some insight into the sources and structure of this poetic masterpiece.

Great Village around the turn of the twentieth century. Bishop's grandparents' home is the small house on the left of this image.

In contrast to the poem “The Moose,” it took Elizabeth Bishop only a few days to write “In the Village.” Arguably one of the most important works of art of the late twentieth century, “In the Village” evokes the time, place, people and events of Bishop’s Great Village childhood in language both sensuous and haunting.

Bishop always said that “In the Village” was “completely autobiographical” (One Art 291), but it is not simply a factual account of her early life. Yet when “In the Village” is read something essentially truthful is learned about who Bishop was. However, because “In the Village” speaks so powerfully about a particular experience in profoundly organic language, this work of art also operates on a universal level. For example, each reader knows love and loss in some way; humanity’s history can be viewed in part as a record of love and loss. “In the Village” is about a particular love and loss, but because Bishop evokes it so honestly, humanely and elementally, all love and loss are implicated.

What follows here and in subsequent posts is an exploration of the structure and texture of “In the Village.” This reading will focus on form: What genre is “In the Village”? a short story, memoir, reminiscence, prose poem? How does Bishop select, combine and unfold the myriad details of time, place, people, event? How does she transcend them? This reading will also focus on language ─ the way a vocabulary of the senses emerges and evolves: the way sight, sound, taste, touch and smell (the elements of human perception) connect with earth, air, fire and water (the elements of nature). And how both of these realms speak to the emotional elements of life and death: love, grief, joy, fear, hope and so on.

Structure: The Genre Question

Elizabeth Bishop usually argued, “I’m not really a story writer...never meant to be at all” (One Art 285). Her Collected Prose shows, however, that she spent a good deal of time writing prose of one sort or another. Some of her prose pieces are essentially fiction (e.g., “The Baptism,” “The Sea & Its Shore,” “In Prison,” “The Farmer’s Children” and “The Housekeeper”), but they are not conventional short stories in part because Bishop incorporated many factual, even autobiographical, elements into them. “The Baptism,” for example, is substantially derived from experiences Bishop witnessed or heard about during her Great Village childhood. “In Prison” is a slightly surreal evocation of what it means to be a writer (though Bishop never names herself as that writer), derived in large part from a series of personal experiences (trips, dreams, memories), which Bishop herself had and wrote about in journals and letters.

Further, Bishop’s stories often have a parable-like quality. For all the literalness of the details, Bishop allows these details to function as signs or symbols for larger issues ─ though she rarely uses them to make overt moral statements or judgements. “The Sea & Its Shore” is about a solitary man trying to cope, not very successfully, with an overwhelming world. While clearly an imagined scenario, even here Bishop draws on her own life. She names this man Edwin Boomer, a rather obvious cypher for Elizabeth Bishop. Boomer’s experiences are often traceable to Bishop’s own, but they also resonate as allegory for the larger world. “The Farmer’s Children” is a moral or cautionary tale, but it too was triggered by ‘real life’ ─ a newspaper account Bishop read. She also incorporated many personal childhood symbols into this story and lets this mix of personal and public run to the larger issues of childhood generally.

Thus, even her ostensibly fictional stories derived in significant ways from actual or dream experiences. The fictionalizing functions in part as a kind of cloak to cover the more obvious elements of fact (autobiographical or otherwise) ─ or as a kind of vehicle to take the facts beyond their literal confines and into the larger realm of allegory. For Bishop, the source of art was a place in the mind and on the page where sensory experience, memory, dream and imagination converged.

By far, most of Bishop’s prose writing was non-fiction: accounts of the people, places and events of her life. However, all her non-fiction reaches beyond mere reportage. It often enters the realm of meditation, or, as Bishop called it, “contemplation.” Bishop’s non-fiction writing includes travelogue (“To the Botequim & Back” and “A Trip to Vigia”); memoir (“Gregorio Valdes,” “Mercedes Hospital,” “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore” and “Memories of Uncle Neddy”); and autobiography. This latter category is the largest of Bishop’s non-fiction writing. Indeed, she wrote the autobiography of her childhood and young adulthood in a series of discrete stories (some of which she never finished or published). Those she published (in the order of childhood chronology) were: “In the Village,” “Primer Class,” “Gwendolyn,” “The Country Mouse” [*Note below] and “The U.S.A. School of Writing.”

“In the Village” is included in this list because it is the central work connected to Bishop’s childhood ─ and, as mentioned above, Bishop always stated that it was “entirely, not partly, autobiographical” (One Art 477). Yet Bishop also knew that “In the Village,” in spite of its myriad details, was not simply a conventional retelling of the facts of her early life, or even a straight forward rendering of her memories. Bishop always called “In the Village” a story, but she also referred to it as “prose-poetry” (One Art 272), “poetic prose” (One Art 291) and “a prose-poem” (One Art 431).

“Story” is a word which can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction. The Concise Oxford defines it as “an account of imaginary or past events; a narrative, tale, or anecdote.” Bishop often said of her poetry and prose that the events she described actually happened, that much of what she wrote was factual, or as close to fact as she could make it. Yet she often set these happenings and facts in imaginative narratives, which resonate with the facts in complex ways. In essence, all of Bishop’s prose writings are stories. She preferred to explore and contemplate “the human situation” (Letter to Anne Stevenson) through a story rather than through exposition or commentary. Thus, even autobiography incorporates techniques of fiction or drama (e.g., the use of monologue or dialogue, character and plot development). Another way Bishop turned what might have been mere exposition into story was by using the kind of language structures she employed in her poetry (e.g., figurative techniques such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia). Read aloud, her stories possess cadences and rhythms which are more commonly found in poetry. It can be said, too, that reversely Bishop's poems often possess prosaic qualities (e.g., colloquial or idiomatic vocabulary, direct speech literally in quotation marks, long lines with lots of dependent clauses).

What all this means is that while Bishop acknowledged that there are two general categories in writing ─ prose and poetry ─ she regularly brought together elements from both. Just as the source for her art was the convergence of senses, memory, imagination and dream, so the source for the form of her art was a kind of convergence of poetry and prose.

In the case of “In the Village,” Bishop herself acknowledged that its genre was more “prose-poetry” than straight prose. M.H. Abrams defines “prose poem” as “densely compact, pronouncedly rhythmic and highly sonorous compositions which are written as a continuous sequence of sentences without line breaks” (A Glossary of Literary Terms 151). Technically, by this definition, “In the Village” is not a prose poem (for one thing, it is too long); but parts of it, such as the opening section, are very much a version of Abrams’s definition. However, in some way clear to Bishop, “In the Village” is not a typical story even in her unusual prose oeuvre. Bishop was a poet of hybrid genres, combining aspects of poetry and prose in ways which are both startling and effective. Bishop offered no stated treatise on what she was doing technically, or why she was doing it. She was suspicious of generalizations and explanations. She wanted her poems and stories to speak for themselves ─ and they do so, idiosyncratically. “In the Village” is a master work of memory and imagination. In it Bishop determined to use all the techniques of form which best served her story, regardless of what realm ─ poetry or prose ─ they came from. In the next parts of this reading, I will dig deeper into these ideas and this story.

*Note: Bishop started a story about her years living in Revere, MA, in the 1920s with her Aunt Maude and Uncle George, titled "Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs," but she never finished it.

To hear Halifax, N.S., storyteller Claire Miller read “In the Village,” visit the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia website at: www.elizabethbishopns.org/media.html

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Our Prospect Bay, N.S., correspondent writes:

Recently, Prospect Bay, N.S., writer Jan Morrison spent time at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Jan has a blog, Living the So-Called Simple Life, and she's put up some lovely images of her time there, which I wanted to share with you. You can also read more about Jan on her other blog: www.labanan.blogspot.com

Though she has read Elizabeth Bishop's work, this visit was Jan's first to the Elizabeth Bishop House and might then be seen as her "First Encounter."

Jan's interest in the old patterns that are found in the Elizabeth Bishop House seem to echo John's "Today in Bishop," and Bishop's concern about the dying out of local culture.

Friday, April 1, 2011


It’s going to be a dazzling combination of music, food and poetry on April 2, 2011 at the Palace Theatre in Pictou when Read by the Sea presents "Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil". Halifax poet and professor John Barnstead will recite selections of poetry and prose from Bishop’s life in Brazil, while the music of Cocada will take you on a journey to the country where this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet made her home for almost twenty years. To enhance the Brazilian flavour of the evening, tapas will be served.

The evening will be introduced by Sandra Barry, one of the founders of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, which is marking the hundredth anniversary of Bishop's birth with a series of celebrations -- from concerts to art exhibitions to a literary festival in Great Village. Bishop spent much of her early childhood in Great Village, at her grandparents’ home, and wrote some of her most famous poetry and prose about being a child there.

Cocada, with Brookfield piano teacher and composer Joanne Hatfield on guitar and vocals, Jef Wirchenko on double bass, and Dawn Hatfield on flute, began with Joanne’s interest in Brazilian music and her learning to play and sing many Bossa Nova standards. Dawn, a music educator, composer and performer, is a versatile musician who plays baritone sax, flute and ukelele. Jef began his professional career at age sixteen with singer/songwriter Shirley Jackson. Well known as a blues bassist, Jef also explores many styles of music, playing in a variety of ensembles. In addition to Brazilian music, Cocada’s repertoire includes original compositions.

This program was first performed in 2009 as part of the “Brazil in Great Village” weekend. Read by the Sea is delighted to present this encore performance at the Palace, the historic theatre building recently re-opened at 41 Water Street in Pictou. The theatre is on the second floor and offers ample parking in the lot behind the building. Doors will open at 6:30, the performance will begin at 7:00. Tickets for this Read by the Sea fundraiser are $20 and are available at the Village Florist in Tatamagouche, the River John Library, online at www.readbythesea.ca., or at the door.