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

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sorrowful Anniversary

In the darkest hours just before midnight on 2 September 1998, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed off the south coast of Nova Scotia, killing everyone on board. This tragedy sent shock waves across the province and across the world. I was living in Halifax at the time and the next day, when the full scope of the sorrow became apparent, I walked to Point Pleasant Park, profoundly shaken by what had happened, just to stare out into the Atlantic and try to comprehend. The poem below emerged from my thoughts.

Already twenty years have passed, but its affects still haunt all those who lost loved ones and those from the area who went out immediately onto the water to search for survivors. While this event has nothing to do with Elizabeth Bishop, still, she and her family were directly affected by the horrific tragedy of the Halifax Explosion, which marked its centenary in December 2017. While Bishop’s mother, who was at the Nova Scotia Hospital when the explosion occurred, did not die; she was seriously destabilized and was never the same afterwards.* This post is just a small way to honour all victims of violent tragedy. The quotation of the title comes from Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The photograph was taken by my younger sister more or less on the same spot where the poem emerged.
“Out of the Ninth-Month Midnight”

In memoriam, Flight 111 (2 September 1998)

Late afternoon, wind off the land.
Mountainous clouds backlit by sun.
The water is quicksilver.
Systaltic ─ now and then, now and then.
The harbour is a heart, whole
and shattered, held together,
torn apart by its own pulse ─
the circle of sun, the season,
the millennium.
Suddenly, two quivers of light
as though far away has epitomized.
Plovers, a pair, semi-palmated,
winter-ready, rare
on this bit of beach at the Point.
My gaze caught on their bright white
airborne bellies;
I follow them to the shoreline.
They become stones.
Have they come to answer the question
I ask of the Atlantic?
They have come to rest in the midst
of their imperative ─
the space between them
is the moment between contractions
when eternity relaxes
and the chambers of the world
fill with silence.

With my binoculars I see their dark
brown eyes keeping watch,
the single dark breastbands,
the nearly all dark beaks.
So still, so alert
they are perfectly aware of survival’s
fragility. They simply know
the temperature of tomorrow.
It is me who holds us
inside a compass,
a dial; but there is no circumference
except what I need to cradle
my desperate longing.
Time is broken and mended
in every breath, and the ocean
ticks strangely in the blood....
Here, on a September littoral,
where late afternoon sun slants seaward,
with a warm wind blowing off the land,
on a long journey between now and then,
these two together pause
because life and death will not.

(Photo by Donna Barry)

*Note: Coincidentally, the first conference about Bishop held in Nova Scotia happened in September 1998 at Acadia University in Wolville. Its title was: Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place. Memory and place took on a new meaning for many people earlier that month with the tragedy of the Swiss Air crash.


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