A few days ago, I headed out on a road trip to Great Village, Nova Scotia, to take some pictures at the Elizabeth Bishop House and visit with Sandra Barry, author of Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-made” Poet (2011) and Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia (2014). Sandra was spending the day at the house, and she kindly offered to show me around. The weather was glorious—it was almost hard to remember that it was November. Bishop is best-known as an American writer (she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956), but she spent part of her childhood in Great Village. Exploring the house that was so important to her prompted me to reread some of her poems and stories when I got home.
I took pictures in the kitchen, so I read “Sestina,” in which “The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove / and the child draws another inscrutable house.”
I read “Crusoe in England,” with its reference to “fifty-two / miserable, small volcanoes,” because Sandra showed me the room Bishop played in as a child, where a crumbling newspaper page on the wall shows “Vesuvius in Eruption.”
I read “January First” (her translation of a poem by Octavio Paz), with its concluding lines about the possibility of opening “the day’s doors” to “enter the unknown,” because I was fascinated by the doors and handles and latches in the house.
In “Primer Class,” Bishop talks about how much she loved her slate and pencils despite the “skreeking” noise when she practised writing the number eight on her slate.
I read her story “In the Village,” and took pictures of “the large front bedroom with sloping walls on either side,” and thought about “the echo of a scream” that “hangs over that Nova Scotian village,” the echo that “hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies…. Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”
The house is currently for sale—it’s been on the market for about a year and a half—and its future is uncertain. (If I had an extra $59,900 lying around, I’d be tempted to buy it myself.) For several years it’s been a retreat for writers and artists. You can read more about the history of the house in Sandra’s recent five-part essay on the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary blog:
She writes that the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia “has watched the trickle of pilgrims become a steady stream—not, it must be said, like the flood that occurs around ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and her creator Lucy Maud Montgomery in Prince Edward Island; but a serious, continuous flow of visitors from around the world.” I feel tremendously grateful that I had the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to this remarkable place on a sunny November day.
“For as long as people read Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose,” Sandra concludes in her essay, “there will a ‘common enough’ desire to see Great Village, to see the places that were so significant in her childhood and in her art, to see this house.”