In a way Elizabeth Bishop was neither fish nor fowl when I was in university. She didn't fit into "Can Lit" and seemed not to be (yet) in the canon of American literature. And she still had eight years to live when I graduated, so there was no patina of death. Still, I had a professor who was an ardent fan of hers (and has since moved to Nova Scotia) and I saw the connections between her and the Maritime poets. And now - hey - we have practically kidnapped her as our own. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Elizabeth Bishop and Nova ScotiaElizabeth Bishop’s poems are infused with the iridescent landscapes of Nova Scotia, where she grew up. On the centenary of her birth, Lavinia Greenlaw celebrates this most remarkable of American poets. By Lavinia Greenlaw
When the poet Elizabeth Bishop was five years old, her mother had a breakdown. One day while being fitted for a dress, she started to scream. She was committed to an institution and while she lived a further 16 years, her daughter never saw her again. The shock to the child was perpetual: “A scream, the echo of a scream hangs over that Nova Scotian village … Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”
Bishop was born 100 years ago this month in Massachusetts, and while she is justly celebrated as one of America’s most important poets, it was not America that formed her. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother returned home to Great Village, Nova Scotia in Canada, when Elizabeth was three.
It was an agonisingly uncertain time as the autobiographical story “In the Village” shows: “First she had come home with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again … The dress was all wrong. She screamed. The child vanishes.”
The young Elizabeth stayed with her grandmother for just three years but retained her connection with Great Village all her life. Nova Scotia is the setting for many of her best poems, and its geography of vast skies and wild Atlantic coastline is present as a sense of being on the edge of something deep and dangerous into which she might disappear and into which she might want to – an ambivalence that is one of the most striking aspects of her writing.
Bishop transforms uncertainty into the dynamism of poetic vision, concealing great swoops of focus and scale beneath her measured surfaces: “As we lie down to sleep the world turns half away/through ninety dark degrees/the bureau lies on the wall … ”
While childhood trauma is formative, it’s not enough to make a good poet. Bishop was as precise as she was receptive and always in control. She knew that while poetry is driven by the self, it enlarges out of that into something more broadly human, an imaginative act that depends upon discipline and technique in order to succeed. The intimacy of her poetic voice is not one of sharing the self. What she shares, to a remarkable degree, is how she sees.
Nova Scotia is where Bishop discovered her preoccupation with pattern, process and form. Even then she was weighing up aesthetics and arrangements: “The summer before school began was the summer of numbers, chiefly number eight … Four and five were hard enough but I think I was in love with eight.” When she got stuck on “g” she decided with characteristic independence of judgment that “My alphabet made a satisfying short song, and I didn’t want to spoil it.”
The plain and forthright music of her poems comes from another childhood influence: “My Nova Scotian grandmother was a great hymn singer. I grew up with those sounds, and, in fact, still have hundreds of them floating around in my head.”
The hard brightness of the light in Nova Scotia concentrates its colours. The iridescent firs, blazing red barns and luminous bare fields explain why Bishop writes so often of this landscape as if it were painted: “You know about the Bay of Fundy and its tides, I imagine, that go out for a hundred miles or so and then come in with a rise of 80 feet. The soil is all dark terracotta color, and the bay, when it’s in, on a bright day, is a real pink; then the fields are very pale lime greens and yellows and in back of them the fir trees start, dark blue-green. It is the richest, saddest, simplest landscape in the world … ”
After university, Bishop embarked upon a life full of travel and impromptu adventure during which she lived in Florida and Brazil. Wherever she was, she sought out what the critic David Kalstone called “the intimacies and improvisations of village life”. Whether encountering an Atlantic iceberg or a Brazilian jungle, her perspective is that of the village: peripheral, provisional, intimate and tough.