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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, an international organization

It dawned on a few of us at a recent meeting of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia (EBSNS), a meeting to talk about EB100 plans, that we hadn’t yet posted anything directly about the society on this blog. There is a link to the EBSNS website in the list of permanent links (down this page on the right) and a few posts have announced EBSNS centenary activities, such as “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition (check out the EB100 link for references to these posts). It “behooves” us, as Bishop wrote in “The Imaginary Iceberg”, however, to make note of the society more fully.

Visitors to the blog have been steadily increasing since it appeared early in 2010. John has made a couple of reports about this increasing traffic. It struck us that perhaps all these visitors, especially those from outside of Canada, might not realize that the EBSNS is an international organization. Being the EBS of Nova Scotia might suggest that membership is limited to Nova Scotia or Canada, but that is certainly not the case.

The average yearly membership of the EBSNS runs around 125. Though not large, this membership has a remarkable diversity. It is comprised not only of academics, but also of a wide range of people from all walks of life (artists, scientists, teachers, students and doctors, all of whom are passionate fans of Bishop’s work). And there are members from around the world — from the United States, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and so on.

You don’t have to live in Nova Scotia to be a member of the EBSNS!

The EBSNS was formed in 1994 by an eclectic group of people who realized that Bishop’s connection to Nova Scotia deserved recognition and celebration — and who also were committed to raising awareness and educating Nova Scotians and the world about her deep roots and enduring bond with her childhood home. The EBSNS has always been centred in Great Village (i.e., there has always been people from the village on the EBSNS Board and most of the society’s events take place in the village), but its reach extends out to the world.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about my involvement in those early years of the EBSNS. One thing I would like to say about the society is that even with a relatively small, though remarkably steady, membership, the EBSNS has accomplished a great deal and it is a credit to the dedication of its board and membership — and a testament to the love and admiration for Bishop and her art — that is has lasted for so long.

A few highlights/achievements:
* Publication of a yearly newsletter
* Publication of a number of pamphlets and brochures
* Publication of Expulsion from Paradise: Elizabeth Bishop, 1927–1957, by Thomas Travisano, Anchorage Press, 1995 (the text of the “Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture, delivered in Great Village in the summer of 1995. Sadly, this booklet is out of print.)
* Publication of Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to Her Life in Nova Scotia (1996), by Sandra Barry (sadly, this is out of print, but much of it is online at Acadia University)
* Publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village: A Self-Guided Tour (2005), by Sandra Barry and Scott Dickson (definitely not out of print – see the EBSNS website to order)
* Financial contribution to the purchase of the Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds (Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family collective), which was deposited at Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S., 1996–1997
* Involvement with first Elizabeth Bishop symposium in Nova Scotia, “Divisions of the Heart,” held at Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S., September 1999, and out of which came Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place, Gaspereau Press, 2001 (this book is still available through the publisher).
* Construction of pergola-style historical display in Great Village, in partnership with the Great Village Historical Society
* EBSNS website, spring 2009
* Commissioning of setting of “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” by Dinuk Wijeratne, for EB100 celebrations
* EB Centenary blog, March 2010
* EB Centenary events website, autumn 2010
* “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition, 2011
* Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival, 19-21 August 2011

Ribbon-cutting for the Heritage pergola, showing the Elizabeth Bishop panels, Great Village, June 2007

Over the years, the EBSNS has been involved in a number of special is events in Nova Scotia, besides our Annual General Meetings:
* The Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture, by Thomas Travisano, Great Village, 1995.
* Elizabeth Bishop Symposium, Acadia University, Wolfville, September 1999
* “In the Village” Day, Great Village, September 2008
* “Brazil in Great Village” Day, Great Village, October 2009

With the arrival of 2011 and the EB Centenary, the raison d’être of the EBSNS has converged with an increasing global interest in Bishop. As the United States and Brazil (as well as other countries around the world) mark this important anniversary, Nova Scotia/Canada, with the support of the EBSNS, will mark it as well, staking our claim more strongly to our part of this great poet.

This brief profile is meant to highlight the purpose and activities of the EBSNS. As a co-founder, past President and current Secretary, I am proud of all that the EBSNS has accomplished. The EBSNS is taking the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary to renew its commitment to educating Nova Scotians and the world about her abiding connection with her childhood home. Events in 2011 will produce a number of legacy projects for the EBSNS. Stay tuned to learn what they will be.


Another purpose for this post is to remind all our visitors that you are welcome to become a member of the EBSNS, no matter where you live in the world. A one-year membership is only $10. A three-year membership is only $25.00. And for all new members, joining in 2011, the EBSNS is offering a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village: A Self-Guided Tour for half price, that is $5.00. Membership also brings with it our annual newsletter and the deep gratitude of the Board for your support of the society and its continuing activities.

Go to the EBSNS website and click on the membership link in the menu. You can pay online if you like, or the old-fashioned way, by mail. The EBSNS is a registered Canadian charity, so it can issue tax receipts for donations, but only for Canadians.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Christmas

John’s 10 December “Today in Bishop” and “Today’s Video” inspired this Nova Scotia Connections about Bishop and Christmas. When I think of Bishop and Christmas, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that she never liked this holiday, something she said/wrote many times in letters to family and friends.

Having lost her parents so early and having no siblings, this family holiday was fraught from the beginning. I wonder what her first Christmas was like: December 1911 — with her father dead only a few months and her widowed mother deeply grieving. Bishop was only ten months old, so too young, really, to have direct memory of it – but it is not hard to imagine how sad this time was for her and her mother and to suppose this sadness somehow sunk deeply into her. Without language, it would be hard to articulate such sorrow, which would have been visceral, rather than intellectual, of the body rather than the mind.

She spent most of her childhood Christmases with her maternal family, either in Nova Scotia (with her grandparents) or Revere (with her aunt and uncle), and there was some delight in these holidays; but they were always mixed with the looming shadow of her hospitalized mother. Bishop writes a remarkable memory of one Christmas in Great Village in the memoir of her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” This account is full of both humour and anxiety, an experience that brought to Bishop a complex meld of conflicting emotions. The memoir is the adult recounting a memory, with the perspective of time and experience, but the story still holds much of the wonder and surprise that the child felt decades before:

“One memory, brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years, or all one’s life, the details are so clear and so awful, is of a certain Christmas. Or maybe it was a Christmas Eve, because it takes place after the lamps were lit — but of course it grew dark very early in the winter. There was a large Christmas tree, smelling overpoweringly of fir, in the parlor. It was rather sparsely decorated with colored paper chains, strings of tinsel and popcorn, and a very few glass balls or other shiny ornaments: a countryfied, home-made tree, chopped down and brought fresh from the snow-covered ‘commons.’ But there was a few little silver and gold baskets, full of candies, woven from strips of metal by ‘the blind children,’ and clips holding twisted wax candles that after many warnings were finally lit. One of my aunts played ‘Holy Night’ on the piano and the candles flickered in time to our singing.

“This was all very nice, but still I remember it as ‘the Black Christmas.’ My other grandparents, in the States, had sent a large box of presents. It contained woollen caps and mufflers for Billy and me, and I didn’t like them at all. His set was dark blue and mine was gray and I hated it at sight. There were also mittens and socks, and some of these were red or blue, and the high black rubber boots I’d wanted, but my pair was much too big. Laid out under the tree, even by flickering candlelight, everything looked shapeless and sad, and I wanted to cry. And then Santa Claus came in, an ordinary brown potato sack over his shoulder, with the other presents sagging in it. He was terrifying. He couldn’t have been dressed in black, but that was my impression, and I did start to cry. He had artificial snow sprinkled on his shoulders, and a pointed red cap, but the beard! It wasn’t white and woolly at all, it was made of rope, a mass of frayed-out rope. This dreadful figure cavorted around the room, making jokes in a loud, deep, false voice. The face that showed above the rope beard looked, to me, like a Negro’s. I shrieked. Then this Santa from the depths of a coal mine put down his sack that could have been filled with coal, and hugged and kissed me. Through my sobs, I recognized, by touch and smell and his suddenly everyday voice, that it was only Uncle Neddy” (Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, Library of America, 630-631)

This “Black Christmas” was undoubtedly December 1916, the year Bishop’s mother went into the Nova Scotia Hospital. That the Bulmer family was sad, that the five-year-old Bishop was picking up on all this sadness, is no surprise. As with all the adults in her life at this time, on both sides of her family, the attempt to keep daily life as normal as possible, in the midst of much uncertainty and sorrow, was good intentioned but not successful.

Christmas in our culture sets up great expectations of love and peace and happiness — but the reality is that for many people, this holiday is one of the most difficult of the year. Bishop carried the sorrow of her earliest Christmases with her for decades, and often the strain of this sorrow was so great she often ended up in hospital herself. When Bishop reached Brazil and settled there with Lota de Macedo Soares, when she found what became the most secure home of her adult life, at least for well over a decade, when she was in the midst of a busy household with children, family, friends, pets, and neighbours, her Christmases became less fraught, even as she never really came to a full accommodation with this holiday.

This photograph of the tree in front of St. James United Church in Great Village, N.S., taken by Rebecca Colwell a few weeks ago, is so lovely, I wanted to keep it up for a little while longer.


During the 1950s and 1960s, from Brazil, Bishop wrote many letters to her Aunt Grace and there was always a Christmas letter, sent early or mid-December containing monetary remembrance for her beloved aunt — or she would order a fancy box of candy or some nice wine from a Boston shop and have it sent to Grace wherever she staying (sometimes in Ontario, sometimes in Nova Scotia, sometimes in Florida, sometimes in Massachusetts — Grace loved to “gallivant,” as Bishop wrote). On 15 December 1958, Bishop wrote a letter, from which I have excerpted a relevant passage, which shows that by this time, some of the old sorrow and fears of Christmas had eased, even if they never completely disappeared, that she had found her own traditions and practices to mitigate the dark memories of ancient sadness.

“You ask me if it’s warm at Christmas here...it has been the hottest November in 33 years —around 104 in Rio most of the time. (That is HOT.) Up here of course it never gets like that, but I never remember it being so hot, and we have been taking two dips in our pool every day, instead of the usual one, making sherbets all the time — it’s the season for wonderful pineapples, mangoes, etc. — We’ve had a lot of company, too — everyone trying to get away from the Rio heat. On the 22nd we are going away to Cabo Frio (“cold cape”) for ten days — the fishing-place we went to last year — friends of ours have a nice house there, on the beach. There is nothing to do but go swimming, fishing a bit, but it is beautiful scenery and we like it and it gives the maids a rest from us and us from them ... (I’ve been giving the smallest black baby here whooping-cough shots. I’d give them both Salk shots, too, if I could get the serum — it’s hard to get here.)

“When we stay home we do have a tree, of sorts — a tropical plant called graveta that blooms on the rocks at this time of year — it’s a huge thing, six or eight feet high, like a Christmas tree, more or less — anyway, with candles it is very striking, and we usually send a boy up the cliffs to cut us the biggest one he can find (we located one through binoculars one year!). But of course isn’t Christmassy at all. This year we are taking a ham with us as our contribution to our stay and will bake it and decorate it there, and I’m taking along a chocolate cake and tins of cookies! But we’ll probably spend the day swimming and lying in hammocks...” (Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Special Collections)

I expect there are a few Maritimers in cold December who think that spending one’s Christmas swimming and lying in hammocks is the best way to end the year!

World’s tallest floating Christmas tree, Rio de Janeiro.

Ed. note: I did a little internet search for graveta, but could not find what this plant might be. Anyone who knows, please send along a comment. Instead of Bishop’s Brazilian Christmas tree, I found an image of Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular 85 metre (28 storey) floating Christmas tree, which according to Guiness World Records is the tallest floating Christmas tree in the world. What would Bishop have thought of it, I wonder! According to the internet, this image is sourced from a site: www.sea-way.org.

A bit of business, because of the holidays:

I will be taking a break from Nova Scotia Connections until early in 2011 – the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary year! John, Suzie and I will be away, but I am hoping to keep the “Todays” going as much as possible. John has collected items for the remainder of the year and it will be up to me to post them, and I will do my best. We’ll get back underway in earnest as 2011 rolls in. It is going to be a banner year for Bishop here in Nova Scotia and around the world. Stay tuned!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Our New YouTube Channel...

Today we're launching a new resource for the upcoming Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival: our own YouTube channel, ElizabethBishop100. It provides convenient, organized access to the almost two hundred videos on YouTube inspired by EB's life and works, as well as giving us a presentation space for the various interviews, performances, conference panels, and the myriad other EB100 activities we expect to be recording for posterity during 2011. We hope you'll find it informative and entertaining.

Please consider subscribing to the channel, which will then be able to notify you automatically when new material is posted. The URL is:


Come visit us often, and dissolve in a dazzling dialectic!

Friday, December 3, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXX -- On Finding the Elizabeth Bishop-New Yorker Correspondence, by Joelle Biele

I found the Elizabeth Bishop-New Yorker papers soon after I started my dissertation. I made my way through the library stacks, taking books off the shelves, and underneath a listing for the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, which specializes in English and American literature, there was this entry: “Manuscripts Division.” That was it. I remember wondering what it could mean, so I asked a librarian. We talked a bit, and when she learned I was planning on visiting the Berg during spring break, she suggested I also go to the Manuscripts Room. “It’s just down the hall.”

I love the Manuscripts Room. I love the big, heavy tables and the green lamps. I love the glass cabinets and narrow stairs. The Manuscripts Room is at the far end of the main reading room behind tall, locked doors. I rang the bell, checked in, and asked the librarian if there were any Bishop papers in their collection. He said he didn’t think so, so I asked what papers he had. He told me they had recently finished cataloging The New Yorker Records. I ordered some boxes and sat down.

The Manuscripts Division stores its papers in the library basement and only has access to the freight elevator at certain times of day. Eventually, the doors opened and a young man wheeled in a small trolley with cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. My order was the tall gray boxes, big enough for several file folders standing up. I signed one out, brought it back to the table, and opened the top. Inside, flipping past folders labeled “Arno, Peter” and “Benchley, Robert,” I saw “Bishop, Elizabeth.” I pulled it out, having no idea what was inside.

Over the course of that spring break, I read the entire correspondence, year by year, box by box, trolley by trolley. Once I realized what the letters were, the insights they provided into Bishop’s writing process and the process of bringing a poem into print, I wanted to shout to everyone in the room, “LOOK! Look at THIS!” But I did not. I went downstairs to the pay phones and called my boyfriend. He listened quietly, supportively as I started talking non-stop about Elizabeth Bishop, and he has continued to listen to me, help me, talk about, write about my favorite poet ever since.

Joelle Biele is the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence and author of White Summer. A Fulbright scholar in Germany and Poland, she has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her essays on Bishop appear in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, and New England Review. She has taught American literature and creative writing at the University of Maryland, Goucher College, the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and Jagiellonian University, Poland.

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence is due out in February 2011 from Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Check out excerpts online. You can also read more about Joelle's discovery of Elizabeth Bishop here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Our Woman in China

Korkor Amartefio (Ghana) and Megan Williams (Canada)
exchanging gifts
at the International Cultural Industries Forum

[Megan Williams is Secretary of the International Network for Cultural Diversity and freelance arts consultant to the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival Committee. She presented an Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Pencil to her Ghanaian colleague Korkor Amartefio, International Network for Cultural Diversity Steering Committee member and Associate Director of the Institute for Music Development, who in turn presented Megan with a lovely CD of Ghanaian music. We are very grateful to Megan for her efforts to spread the news about the EB100 Festival during her trip to China.]

[The coveted Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Pencil is available upon application to the EB100 Festival Committee, which applications will be viewed with especial favour should they be accompanied by submissions to our "First Encounters" Department ~~ JB].

Monday, November 29, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXIX: The Art of Loosening by Chris Hosea

I took a leave of absence from college when I was eighteen. Frankly, I wasn’t inclined to go back. I felt I’d had enough. I began college early, saying farewell to my New Jersey public high school, without earning a diploma, to matriculate at Johns Hopkins in 1991. Arriving in North Baltimore at sixteen, I discovered I was part of a small group of early admits. We gradually located each other on campus, exchanging excited introductions as if we were far-flung members of a Masonic order. By and large, we were intellectually precocious and socially clueless. There was just no escaping the incongruity of our puny frames, our downy cheeks. And to their eternal credit, the vast majority of older students were patient and kind. They considered us hilarious and endearing, and petted us like mascots. I was soon as comfortable and happy as any college freshman, which is to say enthusiastic, spoiled, quick to judge, insecure, addicted to sudden binges of angst, and wildly exultant in my sudden liberty from parental oversight.

A lot can change in a year. At fencing practice I lunged and scuttled and ran the daily mile. I grew my hair out and started shaving more convincing stubble off my chin. Then Harvard accepted my transfer application. I had assured the Harvard admissions office I wanted to leave Baltimore because Hopkins’ philosophy department paled in comparison (actually Hopkins had world-class philosophy professors). Really, I confided in my close friends, I wanted a fresh slate—and why not try the knowledge industry’s leading luxury brand? Viewed in retrospect, my decision to transfer sprung from more complicated motives and pressures, and was more bound up in family drama, but I’ll delve into that in my memoirs. If I ever find the time!

My first year at Harvard was a bit of a sudden plunge into the frigid Charles. Dunster House, the dormitory to which I was assigned, was overcrowded. So I was roomed in a high-rise apartment project apparently airlifted from the suburbs of early-1960s Prague. The brutalist F. G. Peabody Terrace Married Student Housing Estate is just a short walk down Memorial Drive from Dunster House, where I took my meals in a dark-paneled dining hall with French windows and chandeliers. But back at my concrete suite with my roommates, all transfers themselves, I felt isolated in a lockless Chateau D’If.

Harvard students were smarter, fiercer, and quite delighted to call bluff on my bullshit. The classes were larger, the professors less easily impressed. I was at a bit of a loss, and for a time did little but attend classes, annotate assigned readings, thrash and sweat at the regular Lemonheads shows at T. T. the Bear’s Place (the band’s bassist, Juliana Hatfield, was a big crush of mine and every other lonely guy in the room), hang out with transfer students, read lots of nineteenth-century novels, and make mix-tapes from gloomy pop records to send to girls I knew back at Hopkins. After struggling through a particularly difficult, mind-bending class led by Derek Parfit, I switched my concentration to Engish. Though I attended and enjoyed a John Ashbery reading, I wasn’t especially curious about contemporary poetry. As far as I know I had never yet read a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

When I returned to Harvard after four years of working and backpacking my way through Asia and Europe, living for stretches of more than six months in India, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic, I was ready for a livelier approach to college. I’d carried pocket editions of Leaves of Grass and Illuminations on my travels, and somewhere along the way I’d become convinced I was a poet. I had no idea whether I would ever write a poem I would happy be with. And I was woefully disappointed with all my attempts thus far. But I knew I was a poet like the Pope knows he’s Catholic. I felt so solemn and pretentious I shivered with it. Poetry became one of the few things—aside from dating, which I also pursued with scattered success—for which I could summon the kind of unnervingly dense passion my friends roundly teased me about.

I hungrily enrolled in every poetry class I could. Helen Vendler’s expansive, virtuoso close-readings of Whitman and Keats discovered the wild world of signification that lives and breathes in poetic texts. The levels on which a poem may be read suddenly seemed endless. Vendler favored close readings supported by biography. She radiated the conviction that some readings are definitive. Yet she was quick to point out, correctly, that the sharp critical tools she taught could be fruitfully employed in service of any critical methodology. I adored Professor Vendler and devoured paperback copies of her books, including Part of Nature, Part of Us and Soul Says, collections of popular reviews she had penned mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Vendler’s stature as an arbiter of American contemporary verse was then at its zenith. I got to know student poets who resented her mostly mainstream tastes and the occasional testy dismissals that broke her general radio silence concerning language-affiliated poets, a group which included Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Ted Greenwald and Clark Coolidge, who certainly were publishing some of the most brilliant and exciting poetry to appear in the United States during the nineties.

I was ready to forgive Vendler anything and everything, though, when with the help of her essay collections I began parsing, exploring, and delighting in the works of Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Marianne Moore, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, and especially the wonderful James Tate, whose books became an addiction after I was unnerved by a brief, scathing review in which Vendler, taking an extremely uncharacteristic tone, unfairly mocked Tate’s razor-sharp Viper Jazz. My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop also came through Vendler’s brilliant essays. Vendler’s celebratory divinations drew heavily on quotations from Bishop’s letters and poems. Nevertheless, by some cosmic accident I didn’t arrive at the Collected Poems proper until the spring semester of my senior year, when I enrolled in Henri Cole’s Advanced Poetry Workshop.

At Harvard each creative writing workshop is reserved for twelve lucky students who win their place at the table by competitive application. When I showed up at Sever Hall for the information session and found I numbered among perhaps two hundred undergraduates chatting and biting their nails, I was crestfallen. Looking around, I saw I wasn’t alone in my mood, to judge from the wealth of wry frowns and boastful curses and twitching nicotine-stained fingers. Until I found acquaintances to commiserate with, I kept reminding myself about how none of my lyrics had ever been accepted by The Advocate, the college literary magazine. Even little campus journals that sprang up and died in a semester were rejecting my work, with the exception of the ephemeral “experimental” tabloid Cellar Door. By the time a bored junior professor read the rules of the application process from a Xeroxed sheet into a podium microphone, I was probably foggily trying to remember what movies were showing at the Brattle. Yet despite my poor batting average with student magazines, I was granted a spot in Henri’s class, much to my surprise and delight.

Henri is one of the most patient, helpful, generous, and constructive teachers of poetry with whom I have had the good fortune to study. The students in his workshop were a various bunch. There was a very young woman who had already published verse in national magazines, a few curious graduate students, a dancer, an older librarian or assistant, and a motley assortment of undergraduates who, like me, were clumsily groping at the materials of poetry, blundering along mostly happily, while sometimes catching disheartening glimpses of the dizzying difficulties of the quest. Henri smiled kindly at naive pretensions, and offered gentle critiques that helped many students make real steps forward. The most generative thing about Henri as a teacher, I think, is his keen ability to appreciate, encourage, and help to flourish all kinds of styles, even those that plough fields far distant from the masterfully disciplined and resonantly empathetic autobiographical lyricism that he has so successfully made his own.

There was a moment early on in the workshop when I let fly an inelegant remark. “There are so many feet in this poem,” I said of a classmate’s short sketch of Florida holiday ennui. “Feet walk across the floor. They waggle at the television screen. They have sand between their toes. But where is the person who goes with these feet?” After I said all that, or words to that effect, I saw tears well up in the poet’s eyes and at once knew I had badly misjudged the thickness of her skin. She surprised us all by standing up and fleeing the room. I felt awful, and turned to Henri, to plead my guilt and shame. He cut me off by laughing merrily and holding out his palms. In a calm voice he said, “Oh, don’t worry; she’ll get over it.” And so the workshop moved on to the next poem. The student returned the following week and everyone acted as if nothing unusual had happened. Which I later learned was essentially true, given the kind of blunders and fits of embarrassment that happen all the time in poetry workshops.

Not long after that little incident, Henri gave us each a photocopy of “One Art” and asked the workshop members to write a villanelle. The villanelle could be about any theme we desired, but it had to adhere to and vary from the formal requirements of the villanelle precisely in the ways Bishop’s did. This assignment proved a thrilling challenge. I wasn’t writing formal verse at the time—officially because I considered it “stuffy,” but privately because it was beyond my talents to create formal poems that were at once musical, new, and resonant. What was eye opening about Henri’s assignment was that he didn’t ask us to follow any old villanelle form, but rather to follow Bishop’s formal scheme in “One Art” exactly, paying close heed to all particular variations of intonation and structure. I spent a while mapping the poem, first for semantic meaning and resonance (here Vendler’s methods were especially crucial), after which I moved on to a phonetic and metrical analysis of “One Art.”

By the time I completed the project, I was in awe of the multiplicity of meanings that this poem carries. What seemed at first glance an enormously clever rendering of a philosophical commonplace about loss revealed itself to be a windswept, changeful sea of denotation. I saw the dark star in “disaster;” the “losing” loosening of “practice;” the wakes of massy vessels “filled with the intent / to be lost;” the notion that past places could return as visitations of what “it was you meant;” lapsed communities of “the hour badly spent,” the oceanic feeling of belonging to landscapes that overflows into a sense of ownership of “rivers, a continent;” a dark twinge of the inevitable disintegration of contentment that locates a frightening but also fertilizing and fructifying echo of (in)continence in the word “continent;” irresolvable, anxious doubts about one’s lover’s fidelity and one’s own ability to love in the “gesture” that may be as much a jester as “joking voice;” the awful struggles and sheer unfairness imposed on any woman attempting to become a—write it—“master” in an oppressively male-dominated literary world. We can all go on and on like this. That’s why Bishop’s great.

I have no memory of the poem I wrote for Henri’s assignment, and can’t find it in my files. My effort was likely technically adequate but rhetorically dull. I still haven’t mastered the difficult art of writing formal verse, and spend most of what writing time I have working with free and open forms. Nevertheless Henri’s assignment changed my life. I dashed to Lamont Library to check out whatever Bishop books I could find, and I soon discovered many Bishop poems that I now love even more than “One Art.” Last summer, my wife Cecily Iddings and I enjoyed the great privilege of studying and writing in the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Eleven years had passed since those early lessons in Henri’s workshop, and it felt like a kind of homecoming.


Chris Hosea was educated at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts MFA. His poems appear in 6x6, Swerve, Denver Quarterly, VOLT, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Wildlife, Eoagh, and Article: Art and the Imaginative Promise. He teaches high school English in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. Visit his blog at:


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections – Gasoline

In an interview with Leslie Hanscom in 1977 (collected in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro, 1996, pp. 69-71, reprinted from Newsweek, 6 February 1977, p. 8), Elizabeth Bishop recounted an early memory. As Hanscom recorded:

“Her own beginnings as a poet go back to the age of eight. Miss Bishop remembers a morning when her grandmother, preparing her for Sunday school, was sprucing up her shoes. The shoes were patent leather with white tops. To clean the tops, the grandmother used gasoline, and Vaseline for the patent leather. The little girl was intoxicated by the rhyme. ‘I went around all day chanting “gasoline/Vaseline,”’ the older Elizabeth Bishop said, ‘It may not have been a poem, but it was my first rhyme’.”

Illumination during Bishop’s childhood in Great Village in the 1910s came primarily from oil lamps, which during the day were lined up on a shelf in the pantry of her grandparents’ home. Elizabeth was responsible for polishing their chimneys. Even in Revere, Massachusetts, where she lived with her aunt in the 1920s, there were gas lamps, “that surely did give an ominous cold bluish light,” as Bishop recalled. “I can remember the awe with which I watched my aunt light up every night the one lamp that was kept burning—it had a ‘mantle’—and that I could make jump up into full awful glare by pulling a small balled chain” (“Mrs Sullivan Downstairs,” collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, p. 199).

That first encounter with shoe polish and the fascination with oil and gas lamps coincided with the advent and rise of the automobile, as the internal combustion engine, hungry for fossil fuel, revolutionized life in North America. With this appearance came the infrastructure needed to service this new technology – that is, the blacksmith shops gave way to service stations. The first such businesses in Great Village were A.L. Peppard’s Vulcanizing Shop and Ronald Jenks’s Garage, which operated during Bishop’s childhood.

Arthur and Mabel Bulmer and their daughters Eleanor and Hazel, circa 1910

Bishop’s Uncle Arthur Bulmer was one of the first people in the village not only to get a Model-T Ford but also, being a businessman with his own tinsmith shop, he realized that he could augment his living by selling gasoline to motorists. As Bishop remembered:

“Then I went away to live in the States and came back just for the summers. Perhaps two or three years went by, I’m not sure, but one summer a gasoline pump appeared in front of the shop. Cars stopped to be filled up; not very often, but there were more of them, although the road was still dirt and gravel, ‘crowned’ in the middle. Billy and I competed with each other as to which one had seen the most and the biggest trucks. If a truck stopped for gasoline, we rushed to examine it: read or blue paint, decorated with white lines or gold lines, with arrowheads, what load it was carrying, where it was going.” (Collected Prose, p. 248)

Uncle Arthur's station under construction

Arthur Bulmer gradually expanded his service station (originally a “Red Indian” and then a “Texaco”) and right beside it an Esso Station appeared in the 1930s. Bishop encountered this latter business for the first time in 1946, when she returned to Nova Scotia after a hiatus of sixteen years. It was with this encounter that one of her best known poems and evocations of gasoline emerged: “Filling Station” with it “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” environs and the “rows of cans” that “softly say: ESSO-SO-SO-SO” to those “high-strung automobiles.” (Complete Poems, p. 127-128)

Uncle Arthur's Texaco (his house is to the left)

Esso station on left. Bulmer family home top right. Layton's store bottom right.

The new Esso station, built in the 1980s

For someone so focused – obsessed even – with the natural world and wary of cities with their oppressive and congested traffic, images of oil and gasoline are remarkably persistent, a hint of the continuous dialogue in Bishop’s work with modernity. For example:

There is the sea in “The Sea & Its Shore”: “On nights that Boomer was most drunk, the sea was of gasoline, terribly dangerous. He glanced at it fearfully over his shoulder between every sentence he read, and built his fire far back on the beach. It was brilliant, oily, and explosive. He was foolish enough then to think that it might ignite and destroy his only means of making a living.” (Collected Prose, p. 174) Edwin Boomer also carries around a lantern with him wherever he goes, an echo of those childhood oil lamps.

There is “the pool of bilge / where the oil had spread a rainbow / around the rusted engine” at the end of “The Fish” making that “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” just as she let’s the fish go.

There is the “acrid / smell of gasoline” at the end of “The Moose” as the bus starts off along the “moonlit macadam.”

There is the “blue cloud of burning oil” from an old truck and the oil that “has seeped into / the margins of the ditch of standing water” in “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto.” Oil that “flashes or looks upward unbrokenly, / like bits of mirror – no, more blue than that: / like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.”

I am sure there are others, but these are the ones that spring to my mind instantly. The wonder of Elizabeth Bishop’s art is that in spite of the few poems and stories that she published during her life-time, there are endless subjects and startling images evoked and juxtaposed. And somehow, always, these subjects and images seem to have a path back to Great Village and childhood, seem somehow directly or indirectly connected to Nova Scotia.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Worcester Review Call for Submissions

The editors of The Worcester Review have announced that they are planning a special issue in honour of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary. They will be soliciting submissions for this issue, and are particularly interested in papers concerning individual poems. The tentative deadline for submissions will be May 11, 2011, with publication scheduled for the autumn. The Review is a publication of the Worcester County Poetry Association:


We will post further details as these become available.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


“It must be Nova Scotia”: Negotiating Place in the Writings of Elizabeth Bishop

June 9-12, 2011 in Halifax,

Nova Scotia, Canada

Call for papers

To mark the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth, and to celebrate her contribution to world literature, a special conference will be held 9-12 June 2011 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Working under the title, “It must be Nova Scotia:” Negotiating Place in the Writings of Elizabeth Bishop,” the conference will focus on Bishop’s examinations of place and placelessness, her fascination with borders and shifting cultural geographies, and her unique position as an artist who lived and wrote both for and against competing definitions of “home.”

We encourage proposals from scholars and creative artists who are engaged with Bishop’s work from a range of perspectives. Strong presentations might address, for example, the relationship between the local and the global in Bishop’s work, her sometimes contested status as a Canadian/ American/ Brazilian writer, or the importance of “questions of travel” and forced migration in her life and work. The conference will feature a keynote address by the celebrated Irish novelist and Bishop scholar, Colm Tóibín, and participants will have the opportunity to tour the Bulmer home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a place where Bishop lived through some the most formative and traumatic experiences of her childhood and a site she often returned to in her most celebrated poetry and prose. As part of the Scotia Festival of Music, an array of world-class musical performances inspired by Bishop’s work will also be incorporated into the program. Selected essays from the conference will be collected and the editors of the volume will seek publication from a leading university press.

Interested scholars are invited to submit a 300-word abstract as well as a brief CV (two pages maximum) to the following address: bishopns@dal.ca. Electronic submissions only, please. Deadline for submission is 10 January 2011.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

伊丽莎白·毕晓普 -- Elizabeth Bishop in China

Over the past six months the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Blog has had visits from eighty-five different countries. This week we hope to receive our first visitors from the People's Republic of China! Megan Williams, who through the good offices of Strategic Arts Management has been an enormous help to the Centenary Committee in its quest for funding of the year's activities, is visiting Beijing to attend a UNESCO conference on cultural diversity, and plans to bring the blog to the attention of the participants. In celebration of this extension of our international outreach work, we will be making posts throughout the week describing Chinese language resources for Bishop Studies.

Of all Elizabeth Bishop's poems, it is perhaps "One Art" which has been most widely translated. Here are three versions in Chinese:

















Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Those Mysterious Numbers!...

Since the EB100 Blog became fully active (on 19 March 2010) we have received 5,683 visits from 3,720 people living in 85 countries. Something in excess of a thousand of you have paid us the compliment of making return visits! The mind boggles...

We're enormously grateful for your interest and support. As the start of the centenary year approaches, we would like to make this place as informative, useful, and pleasant to visit as we can. To that end we welcome your comments on every aspect of what we're doing. What would you like to see more of? What might we do just as well (or even better) without? Please feel free to make your suggestions at the end of this entry.

We also encourage you to submit your own "First Encounter" for our Monday feature -- Elizabeth Bishop's writing enters people's lives in very different and often intriguing ways, and we'd like to learn more about them. Please send them to bishopcentenary-"at"-gmail.com (and please replace the -"at"- with the @ sign when you write us -- we're attempting to avoid being harvested for spam).

Once again, many thanks! -- JB

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Ships that Pass

Elizabeth Bishop and travel are intimately connected in most of her readers’ minds. She identified her link to this idea and activity directly in many titles, including a poem title that became a book title: Questions of Travel. Most people think of “place” when the idea of travel is broached, that is, the places to which Bishop travelled. Her peripateticism was life-long, indeed, it probably began in utero, so caught up was her mother in moving back and forth between Nova Scotia and the “Boston States.” Further, the places she travelled to were so fascinating – Florida, Mexico, Brittany, Cabo Frio, the Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Diamantina, Newfoundland, Leningrad, Sable Island and so on – there is an amazement when one contemplates Bishop’s destinations.

How she got to these places does not usually come in for much attention when thinking about Bishop’s travels, that is, her modes of transportation. Most of us see the getting from point A to point B as a necessity that is best tackled and then forgotten. Occasionally, it was so for Bishop, but usually she found the en route worthy of note, in journals, letters, stories and poems. Think of “A Trip to Vigia,” a trip done in an automobile, which is really about the en route more than the final destination. Bishop was not much of a driver of cars, though she owned two particularly interesting ones during her life (an MG and a Volkswagon Bug). She was a child during the era when the automobile was the harbinger of modernity and some members of her family (on both sides) were avid motorists. She travelled around Brazil mostly by car, especially between Rio and Petrópolis. Her accounts of these trips pepper her correspondence in the 1950s and 1960s. When she occasionally returned to the United States during these decades, she despaired of the ubiquity of the car and its impact on the landscape.

Interestingly, her first mode of transportation upon landing in Brazil in November 1951 was not the automobile, but the train – she took a train from Santos to Rio de Janeiro: “an apparently undreamed-of procedure, although I enjoyed it very much. The ‘roomette’ was just like those I’ve been trapped in before, except that all the instructions were in Portuguese which made it even more dream-like.” (One Art, Letters, p. 226) Bishop had known trains and train travel early on – during her childhood in trips through Nova Scotia (taking the Dominion Atlantic Railway from Yarmouth to Halifax and then the Canadian National from Halifax to Londonderry Station).

She writes about a particularly painful train trip in “The Country Mouse.” She travelled by train to and from the southern United States, during her years living in Florida. She took a train trip across Canada (west to east) and one across the United States (east to west) in 1968.

Bishop’s anxiety about flying is well-known, though by the 1970s she was using this form of transportation fairly regularly. Remember, Bishop was born at a time when flight was in its infancy. She was of the generation that saw flight transform from a specialized activity for a few hardy adventurers, explorers and dare-devils into a wide-spread commercial activity after World War II. Bishop flew from Boston to Halifax in 1951 on her way out to Sable Island. In her journal she wrote about how fascinating and surreal the clouds looked en route. There was no international airport in the city at that time, but a small regional one on the east side of Halifax Harbour. After landing and crossing the harbour on a small ferry, Bishop boarded the Coast Guard vessel Cornwallis for the voyage out to Sable Island. It is with the Cornwallis that we reach the mode of transportation which held the most significance for Bishop. This vessel was one of many ships Bishop travelled on during her life time.

She more than once noted that she was happiest being at sea and would choose this slower means of trans-Atlantic travel if she could logistically manage it. She loved the suspension of being on the water far away from land – but she also experienced the loneliness and disconnection being so far from land causes.

As we say in the Maritimes, Bishop came by her interest in the sea and seafaring honestly. Her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson was a mariner who was shipwrecked in 1866. Her great-uncle George Hutchinson painted large seascapes and ship portraits as a young man; they hung in her grandparents’ home. Her great-uncle John Robert Hutchinson made his own global sea journeys to India and back, nearly getting shipwrecked. Immediately after their wedding, her parents embarked on a sea voyage to Jamaica and the Panama Canal. Uncle Arthur Bulmer was fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (a year after Bishop’s birth), and Bishop remembered the books about the ship and a framed print of its sinking in her uncle’s house. Tragically, two ships played a devastating role in her mother’s life: the collision of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Belgian relief ship Imo in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917, resulting in the worst non-nuclear man-made explosion in history, destroyed the north end of Halifax and seriously damaged the Nova Scotia Hospital where Bishop’s mother was resident.

From the time Bishop was a child she travelled between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts by steamer. She spent time as an adolescent at Camp Chequessett at Wellfleet, MA, a nautical summer camp for girls, and learned to sail. One of her first major trips was a 1932 walking tour of Newfoundland, and she reached St. John’s by freighter. She made two trans-Atlantic trips in the late 1930s. She preferred travelling by steamer or freighter – she did not do “cruises” in the way we think of them now, except the last year of her life when she cruised the Greek Islands. Whenever she lived by the ocean, especially ports, she was a keen observer of shipping. Ships fascinated her.

For example, she was fascinated by the strange and mysterious tale of the Mary Celeste, which was found drifting off the Azores in 1872 without a soul on board and no sign of what had happened to the crew. The Mary Celeste was built in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia and, curiously, was originally called the Amazon.

The Mary Celeste

Some time ago I wrote a little Nova Scotia Connections post about one important ship in Bishop’s life, the North Star. She and her Aunt Grace were onboard in 1919 when it grounded on Green Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. I did not have an image of that ship at that time, but have acquired one from the Yarmouth County Museum.

The North Star, Courtesy of the Yarmouth County Museum

Its receipt has made me think again not only about this early shipwreck in Bishop’s life (linked as it is to many other actual and metaphorical shipwrecks), but also about other important ships in her life. For example, her first trans-Atlantic voyage was in 1935 aboard the Königstein. I found images of the exterior and interior of this ship on a fascinating site called Time Table Images.

Perhaps the most important ship of Bishop’s adult life was the Bowplate, the ship that took her to Brazil, landing her in Santos (from which came “Arrival at Santos” a poem about a destination but also intrigued by all the shipping), a trip that changed her life. Her account of the en route of that voyage – how she was acutely aware of crossing the equator; how a young missionary made them sing “Nearer My God to Thee” during Sunday service, the song that passengers aboard the Titanic supposedly sung as the ship sank.

The Bowplate took her to a new life that itself included more ships, particularly those that carried her on the Amazon. The Bowplate took her to another ocean perch in Rio, where with binoculars Bishop watched all the ships coming and going. The Bowplate took her to a new life where suddenly, in land-locked Samambaia, at the base of a 200 foot escarpment of granite, she found the first real home of her adult life with Lota, the love of her life, and began to write about her childhood, a long-ago time when she her life was shaped by sea-farers and sea-travel.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- The art of the home-made

Elizabeth Bishop had an abiding interest in the domestic arts. The one she practiced most regularly throughout her life was cooking. During her years in Brazil, she was often in the kitchen with the cook, teaching her North American dishes, learning Brazilian dishes, creating and serving meals to many visitors and guests.

Her letters to her Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers are peppered with stories of meals and often accompanied by recipes. Here is one, 19 June 1959:

“To make the Orange Spread, in the liquidizer – take 1 big orange (the softer the skin the better, the best seems to be navel oranges) – 1 lemon or lime – and cut up with all the skin, juice, etc., But with seeds. Put in the machine with 1 pint of water and 3 cups of sugar, and grind and grind and grind. (I found it was better not to put all the water and sugar at the same time, but that’s what the recipe says – also our mixer isn’t too good so I had to take out some tough pieces – but IDEALLY SPEAKING, with soft-skinned oranges, a good Waring mixer or liquid-izer, and stronger electricity than we have here – it works well) – When it is very fine, put it in a shallow pan and simmer until it jellies –45 minutes or so. You can do the same thing using half a grapefruit as well, and a cup more sugar, and that also turns out very well. Best of all, though, was one batch I made using the orange [insert: lemon] and about half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger, put in the machine as well. The ginger here is not good – tough – so I cooked it first – but with good ginger you wouldn’t have to. I have a passion for it – of course – Strange to say, it seems to make quite a lot for the quantities used – I’m going to make some more when we go to Rio – the current is stronger there! Also, there I have a big electric frying-pan, a wonderful gadget for jelly-making, I find, because it’s easy to control the heat, and very shallow –

I am learning to make my favorite Brazilian cake – a little cup-cake-like thing called Mae Benta (Holy Mother, I suppose! – Lots of sweets here have religious names, including Angel’s Kiss and Nun’s (excuse me, but it’s true) Little Fart – I imagine because they were all originally made in the convents by the nuns.) The last one, the Nuns’ L.F. is awfully good – just cream-puff batter, fried in deep fat in tiny balls, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Holy Mothers are made with rice-flour, eggs, and coconut cream – made by grating the nut and then squeezing the pulp. – I wish you could read Portuguese so I could send you some of the wonderful little books about the various sweets – Oh, the Angel’s Hair – thin bright yellow threads, just egg yolks and sugar – when Lota was a child they were always made for her grandmother’s birthday and they would take 50 dozen eggs. Very complicated to make, though…” (Vassar College Special Collections)

On more than one occasion she gave cookbooks as gifts. Two can be found in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University (one about jams and jellies and one about cookies). Her best known occasional poem is probably “Lines Written in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” which was given to Frank Bidart in 1971. Well, as “One Art” says, “It’s evident / the art” of cooking was a passion for her.

Of course, her first introduction to this art was in her grandmothers’ kitchen in Great Village. If one does a survey of her published work, references to her grandmothers’ food, to her childhood experience of food in Great Village generally, can be found liberally scattered throughout poems and stories.

The turn of the twentieth century heralded the wide-spread emergence of the “catalogue” – in Canada it was the T. Eaton Company that became synonymous with this kind of retail activity, which soon came to dominate shopping practices. As well, during the 1910s, when Bishop lived in Great Village, the community had several general and specialty retail stores where mass-manufactured items could be purchased. Yet, even with all this retail choice accumulating, many people still relied greatly, especially in rural Nova Scotia, on the home-made. The term “store-bought” was coming into the lexicon as Bishop herself remembered in “Memories of Uncle Neddy”: “Often, around time for ‘tea,’ Billy or one of the girls could be seen running across to the store, and a few minutes later running back with a loaf of bread or something in a paper bag. My grandmother was furious: ‘Store bread! Store bread! Nothing but store bread!’” Clearly, in the Bulmer family home, “home-made” remained the norm and Bishop was immersed in all the activities this domestic reality entailed.

Besides all the food encounters and memories, Bishop was also exposed to many other domestic arts of the non-organic and, principally, fabric kind, those connected with the crafts that supplied the household with useful items – arts such as rug hooking, quilting, knitting, tatting, embroidery, millinery and tailoring. (Bishop’s grandmother also made soap; her grandfather, a tanner, currier and shoemaker, more or less made all the tools and equipment needed around the house, along with the blacksmith whose shop was next door; her uncle was a tinsmith and made all sorts of pots, pans, etc. – one of his cookie cutters is in the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University).

Next to cooking, it was the domestic fabric arts that followed Bishop through her life. One of her most poignant memories, immortalized in “In the Village,” has the child abscond with one of her mother’s “little ivory embroidery tools” and bury it under the bleeding heart in the garden, where it is lost forever. Bishop’s mother, Gertrude, was known as a fine seamstress and had created beautiful linens for her trousseau – not unusual, most young women started their trousseaus as soon as they learned to sew. Some of Gertrude’s linens are also part of the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University. All the Bulmer daughters decorated their own hats, though the village had a highly accomplished milliner named Eleanor Spencer. Bishop has vivid memories of the clothes her grandmother and aunts made for her. As an adult, Bishop was known to wear beautifully tailored clothes, conservative but stylish.

Most of the things made by women in rural Nova Scotia in the early decades of the twentieth century were meant to be utilitarian, practical objects for every day use. Yet, there was also a great pride in the design and execution of all these objects, meaning that there was a keen aesthetic component; they were creative endeavours, works of art. Bishop absorbed this link, between usefulness and decoration, between practicality and aesthetics. A couple of quotations will illustrate her understanding of this link:

In a letter to Fani Blough, 5 September 1929: “The other day I got for myself out of the attic a patchwork quilt, one that my great-grandmother [Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley] made. It’s the Sunflower Pattern – big orange wheels on a white ground, and so many thousands of little while stitches that it pains one to look at it. I’d love to hang it on the wall of my room at school – a spur to conscientiousness, you know – but then I’m afraid it might make it rather like a padded cell. Well, I shall huddle under it in January and bless my great-grandmother. It should look well placed artistically near a bowl of calendulas.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 5)

One of Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley's hand-made quilts (Acadia University Archives)

In a letter to Marianne Moore, 28 September 1942: “I wish I’d known, years ago, that you liked hooked rugs. I could have got you all you wanted, beautiful ones, so easily. My grandmother’s house and my aunt’s house, in Great Village, were covered with them, of course, and all the women there hooked. I used to be able to do it myself. I went to several hooking parties with my grandmother, and one quilting party. I like the formal designs, with scrolls and Maple Leaves, etc., don’t you? In the Primer Class there we used to have to sing ‘O Maple Leaf, Our Emblem Dear’ every morning, as well as ‘Rule Britannia’.” (One Art, Letters, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 111)

Ultimately, Bishop carried all this “home-made-ness” into her art, where there is a constant “dazzling dialectic” between what is beautiful and what is useful – these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in Bishop, they come together. She locates the beautiful in the every day and the every day is often the springboard for the creation of beautiful art. Bishop defined “domestic art” in both simple and complex ways – and most certainly, looking at her poems, like looking at her great-grandmother’s quilt, is a spur to conscientiousness for all poets and artists – her words are like those tiny stitches, awe-inspiring.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Reading Elizabeth Bishop After the Click...

...is the title of a blog entry by Taline Voskeritchian I discovered in my early-morning search for material to use in our "Today in Bishop." It put into words (Read it!) a sensation I, too, have had.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: "Everything and Anything"

Recently, Suzie LeBlanc, who in late September/early October 2010 visited Ouro Prêto for the first time, gave me a wonderful object that had belonged to Elizabeth Bishop. This object was given to her by Linda Nemer, who, along with her brother José Alberto Nemer, have since 1982 owned Casa Mariana, Bishop’s restored eighteenth-century house in that beautiful city. I hope at some point Suzie will write about her visit to Ouro Prêto for the blog, as there were many wonderful “Bishop moments.” Our conversations about this trip triggered many memories for me, because in 1999 I had the great privilege to attend a conference in Ouro Prêto and I visit Casa Mariana, along with dozens of other EB scholars. The Nemers graciously hosted a garden party for the conference participants and we were all introduced to these two lovely people. I am sure they would not remember me because there was such a large group of people, but my memory of that afternoon will always be vivid.

The object, the gift, given to Suzie by Linda, brought thousands of miles to Nova Scotia, is now in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village. What is it? It is a tall, slender, metal, turquoise-blue coffee pot (percolator). Its metal handle has a pretty wicker covering (I assume to keep it cool to the touch). On the bottom is a stamp indicating that it was made in Denmark – perhaps it was a gift to Bishop from her friend Lilli Correia de Araújo, who was Danish and owned the hotel across the road from Casa Mariana. It is a thoroughly domestic object, but with an elegance that one associates with Elizabeth Bishop, her personal and artistic aesthetic.
Suzie and me with the coffee pot (Photo by Bill Barker)

You might not automatically assume that Casa Mariana and the house in Great Village have any direct link. While they are quite different in some ways (one is stone, one is wood; one is eighteenth century, one is nineteenth century; one is landlocked, one is by a river that leads to a bay – and so on), even so, when I visited Casa Mariana I felt an immediate connection between it and Bishop’s childhood home. I won’t enumerate those connections, as I perceive them (perhaps in another post), because I want to talk about objects.

One of the questions I get asked most often by visitors to the Elizabeth Bishop House is whether or not there are any objects of Bishop’s from her childhood or, generally, from her life. Alas, except for the house itself, perhaps the most powerful “object,” in Bishop’s childhood, there are no personal childhood treasures (Acadia University Archives holds a few such treasures), but there are a couple of other items that belonged to Bishop, which have come as gifts to the house.

What is it about objects that intrigues us so? Our curiosity is natural and aligns with Bishop herself, who had a fascination with objects – with their intrinsic existence, their link to lived experience, their evolution as subjects for art. Look at any Bishop poem and you find ordinary objects with extraordinary lives. Take “Sestina,” for example, a poem set in the kitchen at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Its utterly domestic stove, tea kettle and almanac are both familiar and strange in the same breath, the same beat – they are in a constant shifting relation to the grandmother and child, and the tears that both of them know; "everything and anything" are part of the unspoken sorrow that hovers and echoes in this powerful poem.

In a 1935 journal Bishop wrote:

“Sometimes I wish I had a junk-room, store-room, or attic, where I could keep, and had kept, all my life the odds & ends that took my fancy. The buffalo robe with moth-bitten scalloped red-flannel edges, my Aunt’s doll with the limp neck, buttons, china, towels stolen from hotels, stones, pieces of wood, beach-tarp, old hats, some of my relatives cast-off clothes, toys, liquor labels, tin-foil, bottles of medicine to smell, bottles of colored water – things which please by their neatness, such as small lined blank-books, blocks of solder. – Everything and Anything: If one had such a place to throw things into, like a sort of extra brain, and a chair in the middle of it to go and sit on once in a while, it might be a great help….”

In the Elizabeth Bishop House there is such a room – what we call the “back room.” Though unfinished and more or less empty now, it clearly was a storage room. One of the fascinating things about this room is that there are remnants of newspapers covering the walls (newspaper was used as insulation). What fragments remains indicates its vintage: 1898 and thereabouts. The subjects on these shards of the past have uncanny echoes in Bishop. But, again, that is another story.

A Visit to the Attic
Elizabeth Bishop House

When I read the above journal entry and other similar written observations by Bishop about the importance and resonance of objects, about how to store/preserve/engage them, I think about this very room – perhaps the prototype of all the other junk-rooms she knew, had in mind and needed during her life. (My recollection of Casa Mariana is that it has an amazing basement that might have served a similar purpose for Bishop.)

Bishop regularly asked Aunt Grace to send her “everything” that was left that had belonged to her mother, and “anything” that Grace might want to share that was connected to the family. She received genealogical information, paintings, books, maple syrup and hundreds of letters. Grace sent Bishop some of her mother’s hand-made, embroidered linens. Bishop also sent Brazilian gifts to Grace. Thus, that the turquoise Danish coffee pot found its way from South to North, all these years after Bishop lived there, is part of an old continuum.

As I mentioned, there are a couple other objects that belonged to Bishop at the house in Great Village: a red cloth, rubber-lined bag from J.W. Fredericks Co. in Boston (this bag transported a raw roast beef from Boston to Halifax in the early 1970s – but that is, again, another story); and a pair of wooden Norwegian Bonna cross-country skis, bought in Harvard Square, again in the early 1970s.

While none of these objects: blue coffee pot, red bag, wooden skis are particularly personal, intimate, symbolic, still they are intriguing and filled with energy – they have made long journeys in time and space to end up where they are, but their journeys may not yet be over.

Ultimately, the “objects” with the most power for Bishop, for us, are her poems and stories themselves. She honours the mystery and resonance of our connections with the things we create by creating art. So many objects of the world around her, of her own life and of the lives of her family found their way into her words and, the fact is, these objects become even more alive on the page, making our engagement with her art endlessly delightful, inspiring and generative.