birds, books, Brenda Barry, Elizabeth Bishop, flowers, Nova Scotia, photography, Poetry, poetry month, Roxanne Smith, Sandra Barry
Today I’m delighted to share a poem by my friend Sandra Barry, entitled “Old Rusty Metal Things.” Sandra is a poet and freelance editor and an Elizabeth Bishop scholar. She’s the author of a wonderful book called Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-Made” Poet, which was published by Nimbus in 2011, the centenary of Bishop’s birth.
Elizabeth Bishop went to stay in Great Village, Nova Scotia in 1915, and she continued to live there with her grandparents after her mother, Gertrude, was hospitalized for depression at the Nova Scotia Hospital in 1916. In the fall of 1917, when Elizabeth was six years old, her grandparents took her back to live in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she had been born. She never saw her mother again, even though Gertrude lived at the hospital until her death in 1934.
Over the years, Bishop made many trips to Nova Scotia and wrote about the place and her experiences here in both poetry and prose. As Sandra says in her book, she “referred to herself as 3/4ths Canadian, as American, as a New Englander, as a ‘herring-choker-bluenoser.’” Robert Lowell described her as “Half New Englander, half fugitive, / Nova Scotian, wholly Atlantic sea-board.”
“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?” Bishop wrote in “Crusoe in England.” “As important as her formal education, world travel, and poet friends were to her artistic development, Elizabeth’s childhood in Great Village and her mother’s family were her earliest and life-long influences,” Sandra says in her book. “Her grandparents’ house in the village was a home-made world,” she adds, saying that Bishop “maintained a deep respect and admiration for this time and place and these people her whole life.”
If you’re interested, you can listen to Elizabeth Bishop reading her poem “Crusoe in England,” recorded on April 14, 1974 at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Sandra’s dedication to Bishop’s life and work is truly extraordinary. She co-founded the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, spent a decade as the administrator of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, and posts regularly on the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary blog.
I first met Sandra at the Women’s Council House in Halifax in 2011, after she had given a reading from her book about Bishop, and a few years later, I spent a lovely afternoon with her in Great Village at the Elizabeth Bishop House. I took many photos on that trip, and I’ve been thinking of putting together a collection of them for a future blog post.
It’s a great pleasure to introduce “Old Rusty Metal Things,” which Sandra wrote some years ago after she had visited an old barn in Great Village with her friend Roxanne. Many thanks to Sandra for the poem and to Roxanne for the photo of the barn, which belonged to Logan Spencer.
Sandra writes that “One day years ago, the photographer Roxanne Smith asked me if I knew of any place in Great Village where she could photograph ‘old rusty metal things’—those were her exact words. I instantly thought of Logan’s barn—so we met at the EB House one day and went across the road and asked Logan if we could have a look. What a place it was—it has long since been dismantled—but the barn was ancient—well over 100 years old. I was so taken with the experience of just walking through this space and looking at everything, this funny little poem came out. Alas, the barn is itself a ghost now.” She says Logan is now “heading toward 90 and still out in his field. He was out there nearly every day during our visit to the EB House last August—we would sit on the verandah and watch him work clearing away alders and other brush from along a fence line at one side of his pasture by the river. We were simply in awe of him. He never hurried—just worked slowly and methodically—and he accomplished so much.”
Here’s a photo of Sandra by her sister, Brenda Barry, taken on the veranda of the Elizabeth Bishop House last summer. The house, she says, is “just a stone’s throw from where Logan’s barn used to be.” The photos that follow the poem are also by Brenda.
Old Rusty Metal Things
for Logan Spencer
The barn was built. Moved. Rebuilt.
Weather aged its wood grey as stone.
It has stood for a century.
Filled with old rusty metal things.
Tractors. Tools. Sleds. Pumps.
Anchors. Chains. Scythes. Shoes.
The stalls and chutes are shadows.
The loft a cavernous home
for countless pigeons.
The ghost of hay haunts the rafters.
Ladders climb nowhere; lie buried
beneath thick earthy odors.
Doors and windows crusted;
corners veiled with cobwebs.
In its heyday the barn was a hive.
It was alive with life and death,
a hinge of hard work and injury,
an axle of ancestral habit.
Now it is an ark afloat
on its own stories and waist-high
The barn is a mind
holding its own collapse
in a strange suspension.
It has forgotten nothing.
It knows it will disappear.
The empty space left to the air
a silent echo in the sun and rain.
Returned to the elements
the barn is homage to the world,
the word, to the whole of what
can be and not be known.
Thanks, Sarah. I love the poem, the photos, the reflections. But especially the poem.
Judith Thompson Professor Emerita/Inglis Professor Dalhousie University/University of Kings College
General Secretary and Archivist, John Thelwall Society “It is better to be immur’d in a Bastille, than to have the Bastille in one’s mouth, to lock up the tongue from all communication with the heart.” (John Thelwall, 1795) ________________________________
Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks so much, Judith. It’s wonderful to hear that you enjoyed Sandra’s work.
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Jill E MacLean said:
Lovely to see one of your poems on Sarah’s blog, Sandra – so many evocative images and sounds… a hinge…an axle…a mind holding its own collapse. Homage indeed. Thank you.