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

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.

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