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

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Elizabeth Bishop as inspiration

Poets, painters and composers have been responding to, inspired by Bishop’s work perhaps from the time North & South was published in 1946. Since her death, that response has been steadily increasing and intensifying. Now and then, something truly special materializes. I think of the amazing settings of Bishop’s poems done by Canadian composers Christos Hatzis, Alasdair MacLean, Emily Doolittle and John Plant in 2010-2011, to mark the Bishop centenary. Last fall I was the recipient of three special publications in which Bishop figures as inspiration, revealing that the engagement continues apace. This post is intended as only a mention of these works in the hope that it will prompt readers to seek them and their authors out. The foundation of these brief accounts is my keen admiration for the works and their creators. These notes come with my highest recommendation.

The first publication I received was Nova Scotia artist Basma Kavanagh’s In Its OwnTongue: Tools for Reading the River, a letter press folder containing poems and images about a river Basma and I know well, the Annapolis River in the Annapolis Valley. Lines from Bishop’s poem “The Riverman,” about the Amazon River, serve as entrees into Basma’s own deep meditations on space-time-memory-dream. Basma created this text on every level, including its elegant physical structure. In Its Own Tongue is a limited-edition, multi-dimensional, hand-made elegy to moving water, something which also fascinated Bishop. It is an honouring of Bishop’s own fascination with the way thought, feeling, language, text and texture exist on a continuum. I received this unique publication (#10 of 25 created) from Nova Scotia poet Janet Barkhouse, an overwhelming gesture for which I am deeply grateful.
The second gift I received was Irish poet Anne-Marie Fyfe’s No Far Shore: Charting UnknownWaters (Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 2019), a profound, poetic memoir of past, place and pilgrimage that ebbs and flows like the tides on the shores of the great Atlantic beside which Fyfe grew up. Fyfe’s explorations of her own memories are woven through journeys to places significant to writers and artists whose work resonates for Fyfe. One of the many artists who appear in this elegant, eloquent, evocative book is Bishop, whose life and work speak directly to Fyfe, so much so that she visited the EB house in Great Village and travelled around Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, finding echoes everywhere. Bishop appears many times in this book, filled with essential elements that also fascinated Bishop: lighthouses, shipwrecks, islands, harbours, distant horizons, both real and imagined, and mothers.
(Anne-Marie Fyfe on the verandah
of the EB House, Great Village, N.S.)
The third gift came from Irish writer Seán Street, The Sound Inside the Silence: Travels in Sonic Imagination (Palgrave 2019), the third in his series of books on Sound Poetics. Bishop does not figure much in this book, but her masterpiece “In the Village,” a text filled with sound, receives its own section (25-7), so there is a lively and appropriate engagement with one of the finest pieces in her oeuvre. I include this book because this detailed, textured, scholarly exploration of the profound importance and meaning of silence and sound is one that would have fascinated Bishop herself, especially Seán’s meditations on the sound inherent in visual works of art. Seán has also visited the EB House in Great Village and has other strong interests in Nova Scotia, having done BBC Radio documentaries on the Halifax Explosion and on Sable Island, two subjects that held abiding significance in Bishop’s own life and work.
(Sean Street.)
I have been moved, inspired and edified by all these works and appreciate each author’s connection and response to Bishop and her art. I highly recommend them.

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