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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Green Notebook Entry: October 29, 2008

“Only dimly did I hear the pupils’ re-sigh-tations of capital cities and islands and bays,” Harold Cooke, a student at the Great Village School, is reading aloud from “Primer Class” as we slip into a high-backed pew at what is now St. James United Church, caddy corner from Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home. The front has been painted fairly recently, but the sides are peeling, and perhaps a visit from the steeplejack would not be amiss. Funds are needed, too, for the next panels in the Great Village Pergola Heritage Project, and we are here to help raise them, as part of the “Word in the Village” celebration held the last weekend in September. “I must go into the classroom now and join in the usual morning” – a pause as Harold catches his breath –“ songs.” A paragraph or so later we are descending the steps past the village children’s prize-winning haikus and cinquains about manners, stories of their own first days at school, and a framed photo of one of Uncle – no, Great Uncle George’s paintings. We’re going to the church hall, where a lovely corn-chowder-with-or-without-onion lunch, with biscuits and homemade strawberry jam, will be provided at a small charge for the benefit of the Great Village Community Association.

Afterwards, summoned by the tolling of the recast and rehung church bell, we return to the sanctuary to listen to “In the Village”. The walls of the sanctuary are painted in trompe-l’oeil stone blocks with somewhat disproportionately diminutive keystones over the arches. The central arch bears the motto “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” with the word ‘the’ carefully centered at its apex. It has no keystone. Today Bishop’s portrait as a child has been blown up and placed over the left-hand slotted board that in the old days would have borne two figures: the amount of last week’s collection and that of a year ago. Balancing it on the other side of the arch is the hymn-board: nos. 506 (“Take My Life and Let It Be”) and 544 (“In Gratitude and Humble Trust”).

Sandra Barry, tutelary spirit for matters Bishop in Great Village, begins by reading lines from “One Art”, to prepare us for the unfortunate, unavoidable last-minute absence of CBC Radio One Mainstreet’s Carmen Klassen. There will be six readers, she tells us, and we shall proceed without intermission “right straight through”, as Bishop did the National Geographic of February 1918 (a copy of which, found in a second-hand shop in Evansville, Indiana, and purchased for a song, is kept now in the drawer of the desk in the library of her childhood home, caddy-corner across the road).

The reading begins. At once we are more aware than ever before of the music of Bishop’s prose: “Swiss skies – horizon – rims of eyes” as Anne Simpson reads. The story doesn’t suffer from disruption when the voices change, as we feared it might, -- whether from Lisa Lindo’s beautiful contralto to Alexander MacLeod’s deep baritone, or from Brian Bartlett’s New Brunswick twang to Susan Crowe’s lovely vowels and consonants, so familiar from her songs. A deepening, echoing silence fills the church as Susan reads from her thick edition with its two dangling book marks. The light from the green lamp on the pulpit catches the interlocking rings of her earrings, so that they flash figure-eights as her head moves. Clang. Slp. Tears come to our eyes (I asked afterwards – I wasn’t the only one) when we reach the sentence It sounds like a bell buoy out at sea.

The reading stops. There is silence, and then there is long applause. Later there will be an old-fashioned ham and baked bean supper that has to be moved (on next to no notice) to the Legion Hall because so many more than expected will be there. We make our way down the aisle. At the back there are portraits of all the ministers since Saint James was founded and Presbyterian – an early one is just a blank frame, since no picture could be located, but Dr. Gillespie is there, round-faced, and somehow slightly sanctimonious or sinister without his black straw sailor. “That was good, eh?” says a woman in a lime green jacket with its collar upturned. We head outside.

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