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

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.

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