During Elizabeth Bishop's final years until her death in 1979, no other American poet likely received more intense praise from her fellow poets. Though she won several awards in her life and a hefty selection of essays about her appeared in 1983, only in the past decade have critics truly started to catch up with the admiring poets. Almost every year now sees the publication of one or two books with titles like Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language, Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender, and The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics. The Elizabeth Bishop Society was born at Hartwick College in New York State in 1992, followed two years later by the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. In the past five years, conferences have been held at the Key West Literary Seminar, Vassar College, the University of Reading, and at Worcester, Massachusetts; another is scheduled at Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The first full-fledged biography of Bishop appeared in 1993. A year after that, more significantly, saw the publication of One Art, a selection of over 500 of her letters from about 3,000 unearthed. That book revealed her to be one of the most observant, vigorous, and engaging letter-writers in English since Keats.
All this interest and industry might make a skeptic cry, "Bandwagon!" Don't many of us feel that our encounters with a writer are somehow purer (but not deeper) before they get entangled with the apparatus of criticism and biography? I do feel a certain nostalgia for the months in 1981 when I first read Bishop, before the critical boom began. But for those who can name few poets whose writing seems as inexhaustibly rich as hers, this rapid growth in curiosity about her is an encouraging phenomenon in an often discouraging time.
Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to Her Life in Nova Scotia isn't where you'd likely start to appreciate one of the century's most individual poets. It's for readers already enamoured of her subtlety and humour, her virtuosity and perfectionism, her voice and eye (what Mary McCarthy called her "way of seeing that was like a big pocket magnifying glass"). While Sandra Barry's guide shows painstaking professionalism in its archival annotations, it's also made with a passion for its subject and a clear sense of mission. Despite the thriving jungle of American commentary, few articles about Bishop have been published in Canada. One of the aims of this new guide is to encourage a fuller appreciation of the roles her Maritime roots and her mother's family-the Bulmers and the Hutchinsons-played in her life and work. Barry's research shows just how much the poet was, in some senses, more a Bulmer/Hutchinson than a Bishop.
In a Globe and Mail printed the day I'm writing this paragraph, a reviewer complains that a new anthology of Maritime poetry "drags in a deceased U.S. poet, Elizabeth Bishop-if we need U.S. poets with Maritime connections, why not Mark Strand, born on Prince Edward Island?" One answer is, simply, that Bishop's connections to the region resonate in her poetry, and even more so in her Collected Prose, far more than Strand's P.E.I. heritage does in his writing. Such poems by Bishop as "Cape Breton", "At the Fishhouses", and "The Moose" move into psychological and metaphysical territory beyond their geographical grounding, but they still show Bishop's extra-keen sense of place and integrate themselves with Maritime scenes as closely as any poetry written this century.
To be sure, as Sandra Barry says, the Massachusetts-born Bishop actually lived in Nova Scotia only for about two and a half years from 1915 to 1917. In her early years she was shaken by at least three hard facts: her father's death when she was eight months old; her mother's nervous breakdown that placed her in a mental hospital for the rest of her life; and the child's sense of being a "kidnapped" orphan when she was pulled away from her nurturing maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, by her aloof paternal grandparents from Massachusetts. As outlined by Barry, Bishop's later trips to Nova Scotia were scattered but numerous: summer or Christmas returns every year from 1919 to 1930; three visits in the late '40s and early '50s, following a sixteen-year absence; then, after another long absence during her years in Brazil, several pilgrimages in the '70s. (The American poet Alfred Corn is obviously mistaken when he says, in an essay about his own pilgrimage to Great Village, that most of Bishop's writing about Nova Scotia is "based on impressions acquired before her fifth year.")
An autobiographical sketch Bishop wrote in 1961 gives extensive attention to her Maritime ancestry. Aside from her actual visits back to the region, her attachments to it surface in other ways, far beyond mundane evidence like the Nova Scotian jellies and preserves on her shelves in Brazil. Late in life she appreciated the historical and geographical links between the Maritimes and her residences in Boston and North Haven, Maine. Much earlier, in a letter from 1952, she wrote of her Brazilian home with her long-time companion Lota de Macedo Soares: "What I'm really up to is recreating a sort of deluxe Nova Scotia all over again in Brazil. And now I'm my own grandmother." When she spent several years translating from Portuguese a book that would appear in English as The Diary of "Helena Morley", she identified with the child author and wrote to Marianne Moore that the diary's stories "took me right back to Nova Scotia." As Sandra Barry wrote in a review a few years ago, "The brilliant Brazilian blossoms cannot be severed from the long, tough roots buried in Great Village."
On the other hand, after reading more than 600 pages of Bishop's letters in One Art, I was struck by how Canada outside the Maritimes hardly seemed to exist for the letter-writer Bishop, and how thoroughly American was her placement of herself as a poet. An article by David Staines in Canadian Poetry published the year after her death, partly a memoir of conversations with Bishop while they were colleagues at Harvard University, speaks about her meeting Northrop Frye and reading Pratt, Klein, Page, and Atwood. But her loyalties to Canada seemed primarily regional, nourished by her interests in family history, Maritime geography, and the values of small-town communities rather than by this country's history and literature.
While Bishop sometimes wrote longingly of Nova Scotia, it remained the site of one of her deepest losses. Anyone who knows her prose masterpiece "In the Village" dramatizing her mother's descent into mental derangement can hardly sentimentalize what Great Village meant to her. Fittingly, it was a small Maritime press that recently published an essay chapbook adapted from a speech given in Great Village by the American scholar Thomas Travisano, Expulsion from Paradise: Elizabeth Bishop, 1927-1957 (Jolicure Press). The title is partly ironic; paradise isn't where you lose your mother forever. Travisano argues that in some respects Bishop predated and inspired her close friend Robert Lowell in her exploration of childhood trauma. If Bishop's Maritime connection can be seen as one germ of confessional poetry, that too has its ironies, since her poetry mostly treated her unhappiness and haunted memories through understatement, metaphor, or projected fictions, and she harboured strong suspicions about kinds of frankness found in poets like Sexton and even Lowell.
In an introduction written for Barry's archival guide, Gary Fountain quotes Bishop's friends saying things like this: "I didn't even know if Elizabeth was American or not," says the great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank. "It wasn't clear because she spoke so much about Nova Scotia"; another friend thought that "she never got over Nova Scotia. Elizabeth was always the slightly Henry Jamesian character in a cosmopolitan atmosphere." This second comment almost comically muddies the question of nationality. The James allusion places a supposed Nova Scotian transplanted to America in the shoes of an American transplanted to Europe; in a curious twist, America has become for a bluenoser what Europe was to a New Englander. That way of describing Bishop's emotional loyalties doesn't account for the fact that many Maritimers once felt more continuity with New England than with any part of Canada. (My parents honeymooned in the 1940s in Boston, and I can recall country uncles and cousins in New Brunswick rooting for the Red Sox, tuning into games broadcast from the States. Until the 1960s or so, many Maritimers thought of Boston as their region's major metropolis.)
Peter Sanger, who has written more about Bishop's Maritime connections than anyone except Sandra Barry, warns: "Defensive, dismissive, or possessive chauvinisms, either Canadian or American...have more to do with the nature of those who spread them than with the essences of Bishop's art." If it remains safe to say that Bishop is more usefully considered an American rather than a Canadian poet, she still escapes comfortable categorization-not surprising for someone who lived in Nova Scotia, Worcester, Poughkeepsie, Paris, Key West, Ouro Preto, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Seattle, Mexico, Boston, and North Haven. In the end, the most useful tag for Bishop's cultural-national character remains Lowell's description of her as "Half New-Englander, half fugitive/ Nova Scotian, wholly Atlantic sea-board," reminiscent of her self-description "New-Englander-herring-choker-bluenoser."
Any good reader of Bishop will want to keep in mind the breadth of her experience: her reverence for George Herbert and Charles Darwin, her omnivorous reading, her friendships and disagreements with Lowell and Moore, her lesbian relationships, her interest in art and her painting of watercolours, her frustrations teaching at various U.S. universities late in life. Vast areas of her experience, inevitably, aren't examined in Barry's archival guide. It doesn't pretend to present us with the complete Elizabeth, but focuses on one crucial dimension of her life.
Sandra Barry guesses that her kind of archival endeavour is "one which the poet herself would have approved." For Bishop, items of local and family history had more than intrinsic interest; they reminded her of grass-roots communities in earlier generations, and of familial bonds all the more valued because of her early losses and her restless changes of residence. In a letter to Lowell, referring to both Brazil and Great Village, Bishop lamented that the "dying out of local cultures seems to me one of the most tragic things in this century.broken-down trucks arrive bringing powdered milk and Japanese jewelry and Time magazine." Barry discusses Bishop's keen interest in family history, artefacts, and oral history. In grateful letters, Bishop thanked her aunt for providing family photos and a copy of History of Great Village. All evidence suggests that Bishop wasn't simply being genial to her favourite aunt. (This is her Aunt Grace to whom, in several letters printed in One Art, she writes wittily at the expense of one of her Bishop aunts in Massachusetts. Sadly, the parameters of Barry's project have excluded some 300 letters and postcards Bishop wrote to her Nova Scotian relatives, since Vassar College has bought them from the family. As a future project, could Barry examine and edit that correspondence?)
Barry writes that Bishop "was deeply interested in things historical, not on a grand, worldly scale-not the History of Great Men or Nations-but on the everyday, the individual, the particular level." This seems true in relation to most of her work. Even poems like "Pink Dog" and "Going to the Bakery" ground her political sympathies and angers in very concrete scenes. Fortunately, Barry also acknowledges that Bishop's "images are always connected to underlying contexts." After all, she does make acute generalizations in the final lines of "At the Fishhouses" (knowledge seen as "historical, flowing, and flown"), and she writes with broader political expanses in poems like "Roosters" and "Brazil, January 1, 1502". Too great an emphasis on Bishop's affection for time-rubbed artefacts and humble heirlooms could also risk ignoring, say, her attraction to dream-like states and fable-like scenarios, and her reflections upon the rhetoric of her heroes like Herbert and Hopkins. (In fact, Barry has published an essay on Bishop's indebtedness to Hopkins.)
In documenting the culture of Great Village, the archival guide provides clear proof that caricatures of the village as an unsophisticated provincial outpost in the first decades of this century leave much unsaid. Barry's survey of cultural activities in Great Village during Bishop's childhood-including a Literary Society-backs up impressions available in other sources, such as an interview during which Bishop herself said: "In some ways the little village in Canada where I lived was more cultured than the suburb of Boston where I lived later." In her '61 autobiographical sketch she wrote, "My mother's family seems to have had a taste for wandering, also for writing and the arts," and she cited a book on navigation written by her great-grandfather, a novel published by one of her two great-uncles (both Baptist missionaries in India), and the paintings of another great-uncle. According to Peter Sanger, when Bishop writes in a memoir about being taken to Massachusetts from Nova Scotia "to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates," she does so ironically. In one poem when she describes the village as "a literal small backwater," there's little doubt that she writes again with tongue at least partly in cheek.
Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to her Life in Nova Scotia is divided into three major parts: "Family Reconstitution", "Archival Heritage", and "Bibliography". The first and third sections will invite the closest examination and the most re-reading.
"Bibliography", including a bibliographical essay, should be consulted by any future biographer. "Family Reconstitution" encompasses a flood of facts yet is admirably compact. Many of the details, of course, have only the most marginal connection to Bishop; they will be enjoyed mostly by readers with some interest in family history as one of the more modest branches of historical study. We discover, for instance, that one of Bishop's aunts nursed for two years during the 1920s in Cuba, where she met her future husband, another Nova Scotian; and one of Bishop's cousins married a man who "was one of the first North American contractors to build wooden pre-fabricated houses in Palestine during the late 1940s." (I do appreciate knowing such facts and stop to wonder, with some amusement, Why?)
Of greater value for most readers of Bishop are details that provide sources of moments in her poems and prose. Barry outlines the lives of Grandfather Bulmer, the inspiration for the old man in her poem "Manners", and of Grandmother Bulmer, the basis for the weeping woman in "Sestina", that heartbreaking poem of unspoken grief. It's commonly known that Bishop never saw her mother after 1916, but Barry provides a fuller picture by noting that Grandmother Bulmer continued to send parcels and letters to the Dartmouth mental hospital, as well as contributing money to it, until her daughter's death. Barry also gives capsule biographies of a great-uncle whose paintings inspired two Bishop poems, and of an uncle whose quirks inspired the prose piece "Memories of Uncle Neddy", a man whose drinking might have made him especially vivid in his alcoholic great-niece Elizabeth's memory.
The middle section of Barry's book, using guidelines established by the Bureau of Canadian Archivists, is an itemized, meticulous listing of the family "fonds" now in private and institutional hands. Some suggestive nuggets rest embedded there. We learn that Bishop owned a version of Hardy's Return of the Native, and that she once gave to her Aunt Grace a copy of Sarah Orne Jewett's Northern Maine classic The Country of the Pointed Firs, writing that the stories "always remind me of N. S. very much." The fonds also contain many obituaries, a record of birth, a teacher's licence, a probate agreement, a case file, an autopsy protocol, etc. Facts are rarely just facts once a mind starts to meditate upon them. Trying to imagine Bishop herself reading the archival guide, one can even imagine something like pathos emerging from vague descriptions of Bulmer and Hutchinson family photos: "Unidentified greenhouse", "Unidentified windmill", "Unidentified woman holding fan", "Unidentified infant on scale".
In his final collection, A Scattering of Salts (published posthumously), James Merrill addresses Bishop in "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia": "What tribute could you bear/ Without dismay?" Yet surely Barry is right that Bishop would have found much to ponder and savour in this archival guide. Famous for her valuing of privacy and her dislike of glaring publicity, she would no doubt be embarrassed by the proliferation of critical studies of her work and the springing up of Bishop societies, but she'd likely cheer the great attention the archival guide gives to others, to the wide reach of her mother's clan.
After reading the guide, I returned to Bishop's poems and in no time found confirmations of her fascination with minutiae. "The Sandpiper" includes the simple phrase "no detail too small", and her view of the restless, endlessly seeking sandpiper seems balanced between empathy and amusement. In "The Monument", Bishop writes of the desire "to cherish something./ The crudest scroll-work says `commemorate'.." Another passage that leaps out comes from her translation of a poem by Octavio Paz:
Monuments to every moment,
refuse of every moment, used:
cages for infinity.
Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice,
pins, stamps, and glass beads:
tales of the time.
Reading these lines, I like to imagine unwritten Bishop poems based on items in the archival guide: "snowshoes.hypodermic syringe.graduation pin.napkin clip.water goblet.finger bowl.soup ladle.china cat.compass." In getting to know a poet as responsive as Bishop, we can find the most banal objects transformed. In reminding us of this, in providing the most detailed available documentation of Bishop's maternal ancestors, and in encouraging further explorations of her writings and life, Sandra Barry has performed a valuable service for readers of an inimitable writer.
Brian Bartlett is a Halifax poet whose newest collection is Granite Erratics (Ekstasis).