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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Elizabeth Bishop’s Ancestry: A study in migration

In May 2003 I attended an American Literature Association conference in Boston. I was invited to present a paper on a panel about Bishop and her New England connections. My paper was entitled: “Elizabeth Bishop and the ‘Boston States’.” I had only fifteen minutes to say something on this subject, so I decided to write a poem exploring Bishop’s ancestry, which had deep roots in both the Maritimes and New England. Earlier that year, Muir MacLachlan, a dear resident of Great Village and a Bishop contemporary, had died. I took his death as the anchor for my talk. I have been wanting to post this talk on the blog for some time, but various things have delayed me doing so. The other day I began to read Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Knopf, 2017). This well-written, nuanced, insightful book begins with a dive into Lowell’s ancestry, as so much of mental illness has a hereditary aspect. Reading Jamison’s insights brought me quickly back to my little poem, an attempt to summarize the impact of ancestry on Bishop’s life and art. So, I thought I would share that long ago conference paper now. Apologies for all the text, but sometimes pictures are not enough. There must be words.

There was another little girl in Primer Class, besides me, and one awful day she wet her pants, right in the front seat, and was sent home. There were two little Micmac Indian boys, Jimmy and Johnny Crow, who had dark little faces and shiny black hair and eyes, just alike....Almost everyone went barefoot to school, but I had to wear brown sandals with buckles, against my will. When I went home the first day and was asked who was in Primer Class with me, I replied, ‘Manure MacLaughlin,’ [sic] as his name sounded to me. I was familiar with manure – there was a great pile of it beside the barn – but of course his real name was Muir, and everyone laughed. Muir wore a navy-blue cap, with a red-and-yellow maple leaf embroidered above the visor.” (CPr 9)

On January 3, 2003, Muir MacLachlan died in Great Village, Nova Scotia. He was 92 years old. If she were alive today Elizabeth Bishop would be 92 years old. What does Muir MacLachlan have to do with Elizabeth Bishop and the “Boston States”? Nothing directly, but he has a great deal to do with Elizabeth Bishop and Great Village and Nova Scotia; and Great Village and Nova Scotia historically have quite a bit to do with the “Boston States.”

Muir’s death marked the passing of an era in Great Village – he was perhaps the last person there who knew Elizabeth Bishop as a child. Muir’s advanced age and his death in January are linked in my mind to an article I read a short time later, which coincidentally was published in the January 2003 issue of Smithsonian. Written by Mary Duenwald, the article is entitled “Puzzle of the Century.” It examines the phenomenon of the large number of centenarians living in Nova Scotia. To explain why this article is a chain link in my thinking, I quote a passage:

“Yet the province’s cluster of centenarians has begged for a scientific explanation ever since it came to light several years ago. Dr. Thomas Perls, who conducts research on centenarians at Boston Medical Center, noticed that people in his study often spoke of very old relatives in Nova Scotia. (To be sure, the two regions have historically close ties; a century ago, young Nova Scotians sought their fortunes in what they called ‘the Boston States.’) At a gerontology meeting, Perls talked to one of [Dr. Chris] McKnight’s Dalhousie [University] colleagues {Dalhousie is in Halifax, Nova Scotia}, who reported seeing a centenarian’s obituary in a Halifax newspaper nearly every week. ‘That was amazing,’ Perls recalls. ‘Down here, I see obituaries for centenarians maybe once every five or six weeks.’ Perls says he became convinced that ‘Nova Scotians had something up their sleeve’ that enabled them to reach such advanced ages. ‘Someone had to look into it.’ (74)

In January 2003 Tom Travisano invited me to participate in this panel and speak about Elizabeth Bishop and the “Boston States.” Thus events, which might otherwise have remained discrete, became linked in my mind.

I have written at some length about the close historical ties between the Maritimes and New England, about the rôle this geo-political, socio-economic interconnection played in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood and adolescence.1 The metaphor I have used most frequently is that of migration – the continuous toing and froing between both regions, so regular in certain eras that it seemed a force of nature, it seemed as regular as tide. It was so for Elizabeth Bishop:

“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....So many things in the village came from Boston, and even I had once come from there. But I remembered only being here, with my grandmother.” (CPr 252, 254)

The idea of the “Boston States” is inextricably linked to the Maritimes. It is a Maritime phrase. It has lost much of its currency and relevance in today’s globalization, yet even in my childhood I remember it being used. When I was three my parents took a trip (still frequently done then), to the “Boston States” to visit Nova Scotia friends who had moved to Worcester.

I decided the best way to convey the organic quality of this ebb and flow in Bishop’s life was to write a kind of litany. I have chosen to frame this litany impressionistically. The facts are multiple and highly intertwined, fascinating in themselves but too involved to recount here. So I offer a poetic version instead. Keep in mind that Elizabeth Bishop knew a great deal about each of the relatives I mention, knew their stories. The “here and there” of this litany was her earliest “total immersion.” She was a full participant (willing and unwilling) in the tide of life between these regions.  I dedicate these words to the memory of Muir, and my apologies to Elizabeth Bishop for my awkward narrative (as opposed to lyrical) lines.

Her ancestors sailed from England
for every reason imaginable,
sailed towards the future, which is now
the unreclaimable past.
Fosters trace to William the Conqueror.
Bulmers trace to before William the Conqueror.
Bishops and Hutchinsons trace beyond memory.
Somewhere, so far back,
hidden in the folds of Fales, Meade, Hooper and Black,
the lines diverged from the seven clan mothers.
Somewhere, not so far back, the codes held
in these bones and blood washed up
on nearby shores: colonies of wilderness,
colonies of hope, colonies of construction
and deconstruction, and every ancestor must account.
Fosters trace to Massachusetts.
Bulmers trace to Nova Scotia.
Bishops trace to Prince Edward Island.
Hutchinsons trace to New Brunswick.

The matrix is artisans – weavers, farmers,
carpenters, tanners; seamstresses, gardeners,
healers, cooks – crafting from scratch
(she once wrote “in a pinch”) new lives
“in unthought of ways,” new ideas forged
from molten iron (the too hot imagination),
cooled into judges, deacons and politicians
with obedient or not so obedient wives.

The circle constricts towards the centre;
the trajectories lie in closer proximity.
What force in nature brings together
disparate lives as though on purpose?
She would have said “wanderlust.”
It must be a gene.

The matrix set inside a vast historical pattern
because the sea is the first highway,
an element of motion older than all pilgrims
combined. Its paradigm is tide. Time.

The wanderlust kept alive by the Hutchinsons
– master mariners and missionaries who sailed
around the Horn, sailed to Egypt,
to India and back to England. Sailed and spoke
the journeys – this line was the artists: writers,
translators, painters, orators.
Her affinity was always with the artists,
who settled and never settled, who appeared
and vanished, because that is what artists do.

John Bishop emigrated from Prince Edward Island
to Rhode Island to Massachusetts. He married
Sarah Foster; their large family included William.

William Bulmer took a young man’s tour
of New England, then settled in Nova Scotia.
He married Elizabeth Hutchinson;
their large family included Gertrude.

All the ancestral inclinations converged here,
at the turn of the twentieth century,
in a moment (lost to the record)
when this William and this Gertrude met.
It all happened for this one reason
(why not?) – it all happened for every
other reason imaginable or unimaginable,
remembered or lost. Is there a reason
to choose a nexus, study it,
realize, as she did,
truth is an imaginary iceberg,
visceral, looming, cold?
Her study of the consequences
of this lost moment lasted a lifetime.

Begin again: to Boston to Boston to train
as a nurse; home again, home again
because she was ill. Back to Boston
where he was ill; she nursed him
back to health.

The bond can only be imagined: She fled
to Great Village afraid of the power
of her love. He followed her to Great Village
determined to declare the power of his love.
In 1908 they were married. They sailed
to Jamaica, to Panama for their honeymoon.
Back in Massachusetts they lived and loved
their only child into being.
1911 was a year of life and death (isn’t every year?).
1911 began the back and forth of her imagination;
life began like a cradle rocking. Rocking gently
on the sea between worlds, both worlds home,
neither world home. She said the poet
“carries home within.”

Is there a reason
to choose? Let the rocking continue
her whole life: aboard the North Star
(ponder all the shipwrecks); aboard
the Königstein, the Normandy, the Britannic,
the Exeter, the Bowplate, the Jarlsberg,
the Prince of Fundy. Life began en route:
steam back and forth between Yarmouth
and Boston, ride the “unk-etty” train
between Londonderry Station and Boston,
motor the to and fro in early Fords and Chevrolets,
sit in the long bus limbo on trips between
Great Village and Boston. Occasionally fly,
if you have to.

Great-grandparents did so.
Grandparents and great-uncles did so.
Maternal aunts and girl cousins did so.
Even Uncle Arthur, who never went anywhere
in his life, drove from the village to Boston
once or twice, to visit his daughters.
Look at him, he ended up in Brazil,
like she did. Willingly
and unwillingly she came to and left
Nova Scotia. Willingly
and unwillingly she came to and left
Massachusetts. Patterns as old as her ancestors,
as new as her own next breath.
Lost and found words were mantras,
she called them “first syllables,”
which vanished from her tongue
like her father and mother from her life.
Where does the historian, the biographer,
the critic, the artist locate the initial conditions,
the uncanny convergences, the accidents?
In her lines, in her vision (look, that is),
in her memory, which lift the weight
of uncountable yesterdays, as far back
as William the Conqueror,
and as close as old men named Muir.

1. See Sandra Barry, “Invisible Threads and Individual Rubatos: Migration in Elizabeth Bishop’s Life and Work.” In “In Worcester, Massachusetts” Essays on Elizabeth Bishop. ed. Laura Jehns Menides and Angela G. Dorenkamp. New York: Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 59-73.

Works Cited
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Duenwald, Mary. “Puzzle of the Century.” Smithsonian (January 2003), pp. 72-80.

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