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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

James Merrill reads in memory of Elizabeth Bishop

Here is a link to a 1993 reading of several Bishop poems (and some of his own) by James Merrill in Key West.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Glimpse of Dindy Vaughan’s Australian Fund-raiser for the Elizabeth Bishop Legacy Recording

On 28 October 2012, Australian composer, environmentalis and educator Dindy Vaughan (http://gallerywithoutwalls.com.au/artist/Dindy_Vaughan.html) held a fund-raiser for the Elizabeth Bishop Legacy Recording at her home. Her report was that the afternoon was enjoyed by all. Two of her students performed, as well as several professional musicians – and then everyone enjoyed food, wind and conversation. This event raised over $900 for the cd!

I asked Dindy to send me photographs of the event, and just today they arrived, and I want to share some with our readers – and it gives the EB Legacy Recording team another chance to say THANK YOU to Dindy and her friends, on the other side of the world, for supporting this project. We’ll have more updates about the EB Legacy cd in the weeks to come. Alas, except for Dindy herself, I do not know the names of the people in these photos, which I have chosen to convey the energy of what was, clearly, a lively afternoon. Thank you so much, Dindy!

 Dindy Vaughan herself.

Music in support of music. Violinist Ben Van Poppel.

Song in support of song. Soprano Jordie (Jordina) Howell.

Food, wine and conversation in the garden.
From left to right: Indigenous pianist Cass Richards, talking with
former school teacher Jim Lamb, and artists Mariette Perrinjaquet
and Graham Willoughby.

[Ed. Note. Thanks to Dindy for giving me the names of the artists in these photographs. Dindy tells me that those who attended this fund-raiser are now talking about having a follow-up day when the Elizabeth Bishop Legacy cd is released so that they can hear the music. The will be joined by a poetry-reading group who had, coincidentally, just discovered Bishop's poetry a few weeks before Dindy's fund-raiser. What a lovely story about the spread of Bishop's work "down under"!]

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXXVIII: Betty Bednarski Discovers Elizabeth Bishop

[Ed. Note: Betty Bednarski read her “First Encounter” to those gathered to celebrate Elizabeth Bishop’s birthday on February 10, 2013, at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, N.S.]

I’m going to be reading three quite short excerpts – passages of prose and poetry all very familiar to you, but “found” not very long ago by me.  I’d like to share with you some of the delight of my still fresh discovery and at the same time acknowledge my debt to Sandra and all the other people who made possible that discovery.

It’s true that I have come to the work of Elizabeth Bishop more recently – and later in life – than most, if not all, of you. It was through the different events of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary that I was able to finally get to know this writer. Until that point, she had only been a name and a reputation to me. Until then, I had not read a single page – a single line – by her.

There’s my “confession”!

But I’ve made up for it since. It’s hard to imagine now that time when I didn’t have her words inside me – because that’s where they have been ever since 2011 – well, 2010 to be exact: inside me. I can actually remember the circumstances of the very first contact….

The homecoming

It was summer. I’d just come home to N.S. after several months of travel in Europe. Sifting through the piles of mail that had accumulated, I came across a colourful brochure – a small leaflet (from the Elizabeth Bishop Society, I presume – you’ll know the one I mean) – announcing the events of the upcoming centenary year. I read the leaflet carefully and came in due course to the quotation of a brief descriptive passage from the story “In the Village” – a passage long familiar to you all, I’m sure. But to me it was a revelation, because never before had I read words that so perfectly captured the visual impressions made on me by a particular kind of N.S. landscape – the Minas Basin landscape. Many, many times I had tried myself to describe to people in other places, people who had never seen it, the spatial organization and the colour values of that landscape. And always, always, words had eluded me – in  particular words to convey the subtlety of coloration that results from the coming together of red mud, shifting tidal water, and luminous blue sky. Where I had failed (and concluded that there were no words, that language was inadequate), someone else had succeeded. I sensed here, in writing new to me, a supremely painterly vision (although I had no idea at that point that Bishop had actually painted). I recognized my own landscape at last perfectly rendered in the words she had written. That tiny paragraph was a gift to me – a confirmation of what my eye, from childhood on, had registered, and at the same time a confirmation of the power of words to render visual impressions, to make landscape present, to capture its essence. I read the passage and reread it, committed it to memory – and, in that moment of return, in my joy at being back in Nova Scotia after months and months in distant places, I lived it – lived this passage that I’m now going to read to you – like a homecoming.

1. “In the Village” (i)

“There are the tops of all the elm trees in the village and there, beyond them, the long green marshes, so fresh, so salt. Then the Minas Basin, with the tide halfway in or out, the wet red mud glazed with sky blue until it meets the creeping lavender-red water. In the middle of the view, like one hand of a clock pointing straight up, is the steeple of the Presbyterian Church. We are in the “Maritimes” but all that means is that we live by the sea.”

“…the wet red mud glazed with sky blue” – colour, then, not just mixed or overlaid with another colour, as I had always thought (“red” mixed or overlaid with “blue”, for example). No, nothing quite so opaque, so fixed, so solid, but colour overlaid with “glaze” – in other words, covered with a shining transparency, in which is reflected, from above, that other colour. Simple. Perfect.


Water was one of the things that struck me most forcibly in that prose passage. And it was the presence of water that would strike me again and again as I came to read and hear Elizabeth Bishop’s poems (particularly hear them, because it was quite a while before I purchased my wonderful 2 volume complete works and began pouring over the pages myself, and in the early stages of the centenary, it was through the voice – the singing voice of Suzie LeBlanc and the reading voice of Harry Thurston – that I came to know Bishop’s poetry). At the Symphony Nova Scotia concert of poems set to music by contemporary Canadian composers there was the ocean water of Cape Breton, so different from that of the Minas Basin:

“The silken water … weaving and weaving”

-- from the poem “Cape Breton.”

And, from a memorable evening at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic,

“… the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly, as if considering spilling over”

 – that’s from the poem “At the Fishhouses.”

And throughout that marvelous poem, the evocation of the contact of cold, clear rhythmically moving water and dark, hard stones.

But there is of course so much more than the visual or even the merely physical presence of that water, powerful though these are.

“[E]lement bearable to no mortal,”

that water becomes associated with something else. Listen now to this surely familiar excerpt, and try to discover anew, as if for the first time, as I did listening in 2011, Bishop’s association of ocean water flowing over rocks and the dark, flowing, fearsome, cold yet burning mystery of knowledge:

2. “At the Fishhouses”

… The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.

So, not just an evocation of the ocean water at a rocky shoreline as it appears to our eye, but as it is given meaning in our human consciousness.

Something else

Now, to end with, I’d like to return to that story “In the Village”, because, there, too, there is so much more than I could at first tell, reading my brief passage in that little leaflet, reading it innocently, out of context. At that point, I’d assumed it to be the opening of the story, when in fact, as you will know, it appears about midway through. Seeing it for the first time in isolation, I’d been sensitive above all to the visual, the painterly qualities.  I’d read it greedily, gratefully, in a kind of euphoria. It was a long time – about a year, probably – before I actually read the whole story, and discovered the real opening paragraph and its dysphoria. Here was the same Minas Basin landscape and its exquisitely rendered palette. But little had I known that hanging over that landscape, pervading it, “heard” in its colours, was the “scream”, that “primal” scream that would forever be a part of it in Elizabeth Bishop’s consciousness.

3. “In the Village” (ii)

“A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever, a slight stain on those pure blue skies, skies that travellers compare to those of Switzerland, too dark, too blue, so that they seem to keep on darkening a little more around the horizon – or is it around the rims of the eyes? – the color of the cloud of bloom on the elm trees, the violet on the fields of oats, something darkening over the woods and waters as well as the sky. The scream hangs like that, unheard, in memory – in the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forever – not loud, just alive forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”

“[T]he pitch of my village”, or to “[f]lick the lightning rod … with your fingernail”– what extraordinary notions these. What an extraordinary merging of sight and sound there is in the “stain” left on the sky by that scream. And then, is the darkening blue really at the edge of the sky, she asks, or at the rim of the eye of the beholder? What a startling confirmation this is of the power of the subjective to alter the very perception of colour. Colour changed by a scream.  Landscape and something else, landscape infused with – coloured by – the memory of trauma.  

I was grateful to Elizabeth Bishop, in my first ever – innocent – read, for her ability to make visually present through words – and thus reaffirm to me – elements of my own much-loved, familiar landscape. I am grateful now for so much more – not least of all for her painfully beautiful fusion of landscape with subjective experience. Her Nova Scotia – its pain and its beauty – is forever part of mine.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bishop. Thank you, Sandra. Thank you, John, Thank you, Suzie. Thank you, Harry… and thank you everyone who played a role in the wonderful celebratory year that introduced this writer to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Another lovely Elizabeth Bishop birthday party

Even though Nova Scotia was hit by an old-fashioned nor'easter winter storm, and snow was piled high on the sides of the streets, almost twenty Bishop fans braved the snow-covered roads and ventured to the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia this afternoon, Sunday, 10 February 2013, to celebrate Elizabeth Bishop's birthday (two days after the actual date, 8 Feb.), but since it is also Chinese New Year, we thought the 10th would be fine. We had the usual wonderful group of readers: novelist Valerie Compton, poet Mary Ellen Sullivan, retired professor Scott MacDougall, Russian professor John Barnstead, poet and novelist Jill MacLean, novelist Heather Jessup, translator Betty Bednarski, and yours truly. The readings were lovely and inspiring and the highlight of the afternoon. There was birthday cake and door prizes and good conversation. Hopefully, Bishop was pleased with this honouring of her, her words and her connection to Nova Scotia. Here are a few photos taken by novelist and volunteer extraordinaire Susan Kerslake. I would like to thank all those who attended for their warm good will and wonderful support of the Elizabeth Bishop House.

 The Audience

The readers: (l. to r.) Valerie, Jill, Mary Ellen, Betty, Sandra, John, Heather, Scott

 The Cake

The Toast

The Door Prizes

The Podium

Cutting the Cake

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Overheard at No. 39, Newbury Street --

"Madame has lost her mother's watch? Of course it could never be replaced, but perhaps we can... Ah, I understand completely. This bezel phobia... If Madame were in New York and this were Tiffany's I would pronounce the whole tragic situation hopeless from the beginning... as hopeless as expecting a miracle for breakfast... But Madame is, fortunately, in Boston and has had the wisdom to apply to Shreve, Crump, and Low, an entirely different sort of firm, for a solution... If Madame would care to consider this, perhaps?"...
[In early December, 1975, I went to Shreve, Crump, and Low's to find a present for my parents' silver wedding anniversary. Although my budget was extremely limited and my coat more than shabby, I was treated like royalty, and I've never forgotten it. I should also perhaps note that the salesperson back in 1975 spoke a less stuffy variety of English than the caricature I've adduced here, and that no invidious comparisons of cities or firms were made... --JB]

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Remark

It seems ironic (in light of a line in her poem "The End of March") that one of the anagrams of "Elizabeth Bishop" is "this bezel phobia"...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

First Death in Nova Scotia – Film adaptation now online!

Film-maker John Scott (Magpie Productions) reports, “First Death in Nova Scotia a new adaptation of an Elizabeth Bishop poem is launching today. It’s been published in TriQuarterly out of Northwestern University. John suggests checking it out at this link TriQuarterly.”

John says the film is also viewable on youtube but only looks good if you play it at settings HD 1080: http://youtu.be/4ts5dg2c6Ec

Check out a call for “cinepoems” also coming out of TriQuarterlycinepoems!

Help us spread the word about First Death in Nova Scotia. John says, “We’re seeking a wide audience for it in an effort to build energy and credibility for a longer documentary we want to make on the poet Elizabeth Bishop.”

First Death in Nova Scotia film as a facebook page: