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

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment