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

Friday, August 12, 2011


Rosalee Peppard celebrates the life of poet Elizabeth Bishop (Courtesy Rosalee Peppard and Mayflower Music) www.rosalee.ca

Rosalee writes:

"In November 2009 I was invited to join master storyteller, Claire Miller, at her home for a house concert. Afterward she introduced me to Sandra Barry. We had a delicious chat and when I mentioned that we owned our ancestral home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, she passionately introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop. EB had wafted around my psyche for a couple of years but we hadn’t met. In 2008, I had even arranged a tour of EB House (of which I was previously unaware!), for a couple who had stayed with us and subsequently gifted us with the then new Library of America EB “bible”, which they had worked on.

"In that fateful meeting with Sandra, I learned of EB’s upcoming centenary celebrations which included multimedia expressions of art celebrating EB’s art. Since my work has been to transcribe women’s stories into song, Sandra and I seemed destined to broach the subject as part of the centenary celebration. In an early telephone conversation with Sandra, she said that while her poems had been set to music by many illustrious composers throughout the years and especially for the centenary, to her knowledge, no one had written EB’s life story in song. Her advice: read Elizabeth, not about Elizabeth. The gauntlet had been dropped. So I set to.

"For a year I did EB immersion. I was tossed on the Fundy tides of her dramatic life. My mind was chilled by the depths of her insight and calm wit, and my soul exhaulted by her wealth of our language and its nano-precision. How to paraphrase, to transcribe into poetry and music a literary and lush life such as EB’s? The more I read, the more surprising similarities I found with my own life. My “Peppard People” are from Great Village. Though not as tragic, I had been separated from parents at an early age. I have allergies and like EB anaphylactic to cashews. I am very sensitive; I too have an “artistic temperment”. I have an addictive personality. I Love poetry and literature. I Love music of all kinds. I’m artistic and have a good sense of humour. We met on many common pages of our life books.

"The more I read EB’s poetry, the more I found I became irritated and rather depressed. I felt as if I were riding along the road through her dream world full of shadows of shame and sorrow. The light licks of humour were not enough to awaken my soul of its sadness and sadness for EB. I felt at the bottom of her bottomless glass, thirsting for a reality that had been ever-evaporating. As she wrote to Anne Stevenson, “There is no “split.” Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important. ... What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (In this sense it is always “escape,” don’t you think?)”

"Then I read her prose. I was home. Fascinated. She wrote place and characters from the inside out and insisted I “come in”. I was in my ancestral village, with every one of my senses filled with life. There. Yet there through Elizabeth. She was it and is it. Her song would have to reflect that: that when you go to Great Village, you go to Elizabeth Bishop, and when you read Elizabeth Bishop, you read Great Village.

"I continued and read Elizabeth’s letters. The grounded reality. The solid opinions. The wealth of language and languages. The apologies. The later stark allusions to childhood horrors and hurts. The bitter resignation of connection with her uncle. Then the artistic insights: The love of visual art and many kinds of music, and which ones. A person who filtered life through her acute senses, raw, dramatic earth shaking keeping the most precise, minute, details as microscopic mosaic word tiles with which to express life. And yet, in the flow of her writing, the ever present self-questioning and second guessing. A pervasive sense that there is no ground.

"Then I went back to her poems with her “key” and was enriched. Got the wit. Revelled and marvelled in the imagery. It was if she opened a back stage door and I saw the fragility and the humour of the flimsy, rough supporting 2 x 4’s that were holding the painted Set up on the stage of her and my life. Wow. Elizabeth Bishop’s voice was powerful and absolutely unique. And so, with those seeds, the song began to write itself..."

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