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

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Dear Elizabeth Bishop Enthusiasts:

Magpie Productions is casting this Tues Nov. 29th in Halifax and possibly one other date later for a 5-7 year old girl to play the precocious and very aware poet, Elizabeth Bishop, when she's almost 5 years old. I'm sending along a pic in case you might have any leads. We're shooting Jan 14-15 in Great Village for a day and a half. It's a paid gig -- $225.00.

Do you know anyone? Do you know anyone who would know someone? We would be very happy if you could forward contact info of any parent who may have a daughter who might be interested.

We're doing an adaptation of one of Elizabeth Bishop's poems. We're also looking for the girl's mother, Gertrude, (mid-thirties, dark hair). That's a smaller role but also paid.

If you know please forward any information to our producer Walter Forsyth who is arranging the casting sessions.


my best,


John Scott
Associate Professor, Ithaca College

Monday, November 14, 2011

Click the poster for further information.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Wonder Question VII: Bishop and Mather?

The past week or so I have been reading The Oxford Handbook of THE ELEGY, a substantial collection of survey articles edited by Karen Weisman. In it, in his essay "The American Puritan Elegy" Jeffrey Hammond quotes from Cotton Mather's "Memoirs of the Life and Worth: Lamentations for the Death, and Loss of the every way admirable Mr. URIAN OAKES," who writes:

Well! Reader! Wipe thine Eyes! & see the Man
( Almost too small a word!) which Cambridge can
Say, I have lost!

This has brought to mind the following passage from Bishop's "Poem":

Our visions coincided - "visions" is
too serious a word - our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?

Bishop's poem, too, is a kind of elegy -- but an elegy in anticipation: Mather's Oakes has been felled; Bishop's elms are yet to be dismantled. Both Bishop and Mather place themselves within double lines of succession as elegists. And perhaps it is not a mistake to hear in EB's self-exhortation (Write it!) in another elegiac poem, "One Art", a distant echo of Mather's plea to Harvard (Own it!) in his praise of Oakes.

Bishop's acquaintance with Mather went back as early as her senior year at the Walnut Hill School, when she wrote an essay about him entitled "Assisted by the Holy Author." The occasional undoing of Mather (if not phrase by phrase, then by the occasional polemic rewriting of a significant phrase: "too small" ==> "too serious"; "Own it" ==> "Write it") might seem an amusing pastime to the poet who as a saucy student had written of one of his more exhaustive projects "So the Church History was conceived, written, and published with God assisting (sometimes reluctantly) at every step of the way. And indeed, why should He not? He was figured as a character, as the most important character playing the largest role, on every page of the book; as Mather pointed out to Him discreetly, it was to His advantage to see the Book through the press. If the Lord is going to motivate the events of History, He must somehow lighten the burdens of the Historian. And by recording the latter we can get perhaps as much insight into the ideas of Mather and his God as by studying the CHURCH HISTORY itself."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Memoriam: Phyllis Sutherland (1926-2011)

She said that one of her earliest memories (and she was a very little girl, two or three years old) was seeing Elizabeth Bishop doing cartwheels in the driveway at Elmcroft, in Great Village, N.S. The teenage Elizabeth was visiting her beloved aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers (Phyllis’s mother). Much later, in the 1970s, when Phyllis was a mother herself and living near Tatamagouche, N.S., Elizabeth visited regularly, flying or driving up from Boston. Phyllis’s children have their own early memories of “cousin Elizabeth” – David, for example, remembers Elizabeth bringing him the gift of a “Grateful Dead” album, a rock band he had never heard of – he still has the album.

These stories are the intimate and quotidian memories of family, seemingly incidental, but actually deeply bonding. Phyllis told me these and many other stories during the long friendship we shared. I will be forever grateful to her for this gift of a glimpse into the private realm of her family.

Phyllis would have loved everything about the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations in Nova Scotia – she would have been at every event, if it had been possible. But it wasn’t possible. Her illness confined her to a nursing home and slowly took away her capacity to engage with now. Above her bed hung the famous portrait of Elizabeth Bishop taken near the house at Samambaia in Brazil, in the mid-1950s. Elizabeth had sent a print of it to Aunt Grace, signed with love. This photograph hung in Phyllis’s home – it was there when I meet Phyllis in 1991.

Phyllis died on 19 October 2011. Elizabeth once wrote that numbers were mysterious. It seems significant to me that her death happened the year Elizabeth would have been 100 if she were alive. It seems significant that it happened in the same month when Bishop herself died (6 October 1979) and ten days before “Sonnet” was published in The New Yorker (29 October 1979 – thanks to John for finding out this small but important fact).

Phyllis’s sons David and Wallace asked me to speak at her service, which took place on 23 October in Tatamagouche (coincidentally, the minister who officiated knew my maternal grandmother, who was also born in 1911). I was deeply honoured to share some of my memories about Phyllis. It is those words I want to share here:

Phyllis and her mother Grace, circa 1940. Courtesy of Acadia University Archives

I met Phyllis – and Miriam – in the fall of 1991. I intended the visit to be brief, simply to introduce myself and tell her about the work I was doing on Elizabeth Bishop. I had no idea that she had already been visited by a number of American Bishop scholars, about whom she had a wide range of opinions. I arrived around 10:00 a.m. She welcomed me warmly. Later I learned this was not only her habitual way of being with all visitors to her home, but also because I was the first Nova Scotian to come asking about cousin Elizabeth. She invited me in and almost immediately began to show me items of the family archive she had in her possession. Six hours later, I was still there – talking, talking, talking, and looking at things.

It was Elizabeth Bishop who brought us together – and the depth of my gratitude to Phyllis for the gift of her memories, knowledge, and perspective about the Bulmers and Bishop is beyond words. But even more than this connection, which became a bond between us (and we certainly had many interesting moments in those early days of the Elizabeth Bishop Society) – even more than this bond, what I am most grateful for is my friendship with Phyllis – and Miriam; knowing them changed my life in lastingly good ways. That first visit turned into hundreds of others stretching for twenty years.

Phyllis immediately began to introduce me to the family – everyone was so welcoming to this stranger who was being nosy about their famous relative. Phyllis also began to take me around to places that were important to the family. Many times over the years, Phyllis, Miriam and I drove around Colchester and Cumberland Counties – Phyllis enjoyed driving – and she told me countless stories. There is no better way to understand the complex truths about life and death than through memories and stories, through sharing memories and stories. In the twenty years since we first met, my friendship with Phyllis has given me some wonderful and cherished stories that I have shared.

One of our first outings took us to Spencer’s Point, near Great Village (where the family had a cottage long ago). It was a November day, a wild wind was pushing the heavy clouds and churning up the Bay. I remember that we stood on top of the cliff looking at the waves and had to shout to be heard. It was beautiful and unsettling to be so exposed to the elements.

I wrote a poem that I titled “Spencer’s Point,” which I dedicated and gave to Phyllis. She said she liked it – and I believed her because she was perfectly capable of saying she didn’t. Being a reader of Bishop’s sometimes enigmatic poems, Phyllis was more than able to grasp my effort to express the beauty and danger of the elemental scene we shared that day. The poem now has become elegiac for me, speaking about the ephemeral nature of the body and the eternal nature of the spirit. I want to conclude by reading it (it is quite short). It has an epigraph that I took from The History of Great Village, a wonderful little book that Phyllis and I talked about many times. The epigraph is from the section about Spencer’s Point.


Spencer’s Point

“White Light visible eleven miles.”

for Phyllis Sutherland

The Bay is red as blood.
Tide swollen with rain and shoved
by a rampant southerly, peculiar
to November, strips the cliffs of flesh.
Centuries have witnessed such feasts.
Huddled on the brink of dissolution
ancient apple trees adhere to the soil
littering shivered grass
with spoiled harvests.
I stand for a moment in the blast
and erode irrevocably,
blinking past my own blistering tears.
Suddenly, remembering bones,
I pull back from this instant
resisting return.
The Light is gone.
Ships that fed the shore
and fed the sea no longer guided by the need
to see, no longer needed.
The farms disappeared as the high tides
washed the earth
into the Bay, widen-
ing the Bay, narrowing the farms.
The keeper is gone.
All that remains is the undertow,
waves seasoning the wounded stone.