Visiting Elizabeth Bishop’s Maine
By Stephanie BernhardApril 13, 2014
IT IS DIFFICULT to describe the shape of North Haven, one of the dozens of tiny islands that fleck Penobscot Bay, about halfway up the coast of Maine. This island, particularly, sits well west of Deer Isle and just a little north of Vinalhaven, both of which are larger in size and population. If pressed, you might say North Haven looks like the head of a predatory bird, its threatening beak pointing west toward Rockland. Or maybe the bird’s skull, with a pond at its center for the eye socket. Blink, though, and the likeness disappears.
We couldn’t see the shape from where we stood, at the island’s highest point, the peak of a 152-foot hill called Ames Knob. I had climbed the hill with my boyfriend, Tom, just as the sun was starting to set. The trail was unmarked and hard to find, but the hike to the bald peak, through grass, brush, and low pines, took all of six minutes. Then Penobscot Bay was all around us and below us, and the sky was going orange-pink, and the tall firs were silhouetted black against the glinting water, and you could see where the shore was rocky and where it was marshy. We were not cool or hard enough to scoff at all the commonplace beauty, so we basked in it instead.
Or we were basking, until a huge pale animal barreled into my knees, almost knocking me over in its eagerness. It was a dog. Big, shaggy, retriever-like, but with stand-up ears that flopped over his face as he sniffed me desperately. He whined. He wanted to tell me something; I was sure of it. But I was afraid of him at first, a strange dog in the woods. Tom isn’t a dog person and didn’t want anything to do with the creature who was now sharing our sunset. I am a dog person, theoretically, but I have never lived with a dog and cannot read their signs with any precision.
This dog had a broad, open face, friendly and trusting. It was so obvious that he was a domestic people-loving dog that I forgot my fear and scratched him behind the ears. His fur was matted but healthy, and so thick that I didn’t see the collar until my fingers felt it and pulled it out. No tag with the dog’s name, no number to call.
The sun had set. The dog followed us down the hill. He raced ahead, as though abandoning us, only to be waiting when we turned a wooded corner. Back at the car, I waited for him to lead us somewhere — to a fallen master, to a lost child, to whatever was on his mind. But he didn’t, or I couldn’t interpret his language. There was nothing to do but leave him behind.
Back at the inn where we were staying, I found the number for the nonemergency police on North Haven’s one-page phonebook. I called it from the landline: cell service on the island is nonexistent.
The woman who picked up was in Rockland, on the mainland. She promised to note the dog sighting in case the owners called. That was all she could do, from 18 miles away.
I went to North Haven to see the place Elizabeth Bishop spent several of the last summers of her life. We know Bishop primarily as the eager traveler who wrote of distant, tropical locations and lived for many years as an expat in Brazil. She was that, of course, but she was also an aficionado of her native landscape and climate. Our canon’s consummate poet of geography, maps, and the mystery of spatial awareness loved the oddly shaped North Haven, which lies about halfway between Boston, where Bishop then lived, and Nova Scotia, one of her childhood homes. She returned to North Haven because, as she said with typical breathless lucidity in a 1978 Paris Review interview:
I sometimes feel that I shouldn’t keep going back to this place that I found just by chance through an ad in the Harvard Crimson. I should probably go to see some more art, cathedrals, and so on. But I’m so crazy about it that I keep going back. You can see the water, a great expanse of water and fields from the house. Islands are beautiful. […] The electricity there is rather sketchy. Two summers ago it was one hour on, one hour off. There I was with two electric typewriters and I couldn’t keep working. There was a cartoon in the grocery store — it’s eighteen miles from the mainland — a man in a hardware store saying, “I want an extension cord eighteen miles long!”
The electricity on North Haven works fine now. Though the island still awaits cell service, it isn’t as obscure as I thought at first: several New Englanders to whom I mentioned my trip were familiar with the island. A few had even visited. It was the same in Bishop’s day, when she used to invite friends to stay with her on North Haven. Robert Lowell, a particularly good friend, stayed not far off in the tiny mainland village called Castine, due north of North Haven. He set his famous poem “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to Bishop, in Castine. The relationship between the two poets received new attention with the publication of their complete correspondence, Words In Air, in 2008.
Bishop’s elegy for Lowell, published a year after his death in 1977, is called “North Haven.” A gorgeous, maddening, imperfect poem, it is not Bishop’s best, nor my favorite. Six stanzas long, it begins by describing North Haven’s natural summertime beauty, with some lines that are downright clunky:
The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
Where are the light-handed subtlety and personal detachment that mark so much of Bishop’s work? At first the poem’s unexpected rawness bothered me. Then it intrigued me. I kept returning to it and asking more of it. I wanted more from it.
Criticizing Bishop poems is a prickly business, and Bishop was famously averse to the endeavor. When she taught poetry later in life, at around the time she began visiting North Haven, Bishop would ask her students to read all the poems and letters written by two poets, but — as she wrote in an advice letter to a young poet — “I always ask my writing class NOT to read criticism.”
Bishop’s allergy to criticism is surely due in part to her general public shyness, which also led her to hide from the eyes of the American literati throughout her career. In many respects, she was the opposite of the friend for whom she wrote “North Haven.” Where Lowell published prolifically, Bishop published sparsely; where he became highly visible in the poetry world, Bishop isolated herself in Florida and the Southern Hemisphere and eschewed publicity. “Islands are beautiful,” indeed.
Bishop’s aversion to Lowell’s confessional style represents the most important difference between the two poets. If Lowell’s poetry pleased her, the era’s ubiquitous imitations of his self-obsessed style did not. She disliked the poems about their poets: their suffering, their disappointing families, their paralyzing depression, their consuming self-hatred and self-love.
Bishop never spilled her guts in verse. She could have: her father died when she was a baby, and her grief-crazed mother was permanently institutionalized, never to be reunited with Bishop, who was raised by various relatives in various towns. As an adult, she struggled with alcoholism, lived as a gay woman, and grieved through the suicide of her longtime partner. She could have kept busy at confessional. But she discouraged attempts to read her work biographically, and rarely touched the stories of her life in her writing.
Bishop also disliked giving readings of her poetry, which she explained in a 1978 interview:
I absolutely hate reading my work aloud under any circumstances. The first time I gave a reading I stopped for twenty-six years. Harvard is a terrible place for reading; they are famous for being cold and you feel your voice getting deader and deader. The further west you go, the better the audiences, because they’re not showing off. The nicest audience I ever had was children […]. They asked such good questions, like, Why did you choose this word instead of that. Simple, practical things, which is the way you write, of course.
How to think about a poet so hostile to critical reception? By extending Bishop the generosity, I decided, of considering her poetry on her preferred terms. Why did she choose this word instead of that? Fortunately, this might be the most useful question any reader can ask of a poem. It is, in a sense, the basis of all literary criticism, and perhaps of all good reading.
Reading “North Haven,” I wondered why Bishop started with so few color words and wound up with so many by stanza three, for example, and decided that the sudden explosion of “painted” color was Bishop’s way of calling attention to the artfulness of the form, and a nod to the fellow artist for whom she was writing it. I wondered why she repeated “repeat” and “revise” three times each in the poem’s most famous line: “repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.” Maybe the line’s extra foot — the rest of the poem is more or less in pentameter — was supposed to warn of the dangers of revising and reworking too much, as Lowell was known to do.
I liked these observations, but unlike other Bishop poems, “North Haven” didn’t come together as anything more than a collection of sad, beautiful thoughts. The connection between the poem’s first half, in which the islands “haven’t shifted,” and the second half, in which the deceased Lowell “cannot change,” felt too obvious for someone as subtle as Bishop. With apologies to Bishop, close reading only worked up to a point. Another method was required. So I decided to go to North Haven.
Tom and I were spending July on a small farm on the Penobscot peninsula, a little east and a lot north of North Haven. We were living in a one-room shack that had a slab of wood for a bed and a flyswatter hanging from a nail on the wall and not much else. The outhouse was 20 feet behind us, through tall grass and cow pies. Running water and the stove were in the big cabin, 20 feet in front of us. It was a luxurious life. We worked in the fields for half the day, lunched with the cheerful farm family and their apprentices, and drove to the fancy little town of Blue Hill in the afternoon to do academic work at its remarkably pleasant library. We rested our brains in the morning while working our bodies, and rested our bodies in the afternoon while working our brains. It was as good a scheme as any to avoid paying rent for a month.
After a couple of weeks, though, I wanted a bit of complete rest and a real shower, the kind long and strong enough to get all the dirt out from under my fingernails. The spigot at the farm sprayed about 90 seconds of hot water. North Haven required only an hour-and-a-half drive to Rockland and a 70-minute ferry ride from there. One of the island’s two inns offered us a “clean bed” and a private bathroom for the following Saturday night.
On the appointed day, we drove up our peninsula and down the coast along Route 1, glimpsing the glinting bay now and then on our left. From Rockland, a scruffy old port town, we caught our ferry and shared the ferry’s views of dark firs and granite and sparkling “blue frontiers of bay” with a good handful of vacationers, their cars, an excitable corgi, and a pair of blissed-out labradoodles. The ferry let our cars off at North Haven’s tiny commercial village, which looks, from the water, like an earlier era reanimated: a barn-red boathouse, buildings with steep-peaked roofs and facades of white-and-gray-faded clapboard. The people were all white and mostly gray, too.
In the process of exploring the island’s sparse commercial strip, Tom and I accidentally left it and found ourselves on private property, from which we were promptly shooed. We trotted back to town and took refuge in the library, a sweet old white wooden structure overlooking the water from a low slope. Inside was compact and neat and glowing with blond wood. The librarian, Kathryn Quinn, greeted us gladly. She lived on the island year-round, and her affability overturned every notion of the stony misanthropic New Englander. Her voice sounded like 1962, like the Kennedys, like an aristocratic New England that no longer exists. Like Robert Lowell, maybe. “Farm” sounded like “fahhm” when she said it, to rhyme with “Tom,” except it took about twice as long to say. Not quite like Boston, where “farm” almost rhymes with “jam.” I had never heard anything like Quinn’s speech and I wanted more of it. I asked her if she knew where Elizabeth Bishop had stayed when she visited North Haven.
She knew. The house was yellow, not far north (“fahh nowth”) of the village, set back from Main Street; we would know the long driveway, she said, by the collection of small items that the owner placed at the top of it to give away. The estate was once known as the Sabine Farm. But we should know, Ms. Quinn said conspiratorially, that Bishop had only stayed on the island for a few summers. Tradition matters in Maine, and “summer people” only prove their worth by returning to their selected towns and houses for at least a few decades. Repeat, repeat, repeat, indeed.
We found Sabine Farm early the next morning, after a pleasant dinner at the only restaurant in town and our crepuscular hike up Ames Knob and a restful night at the inn, where the bed was as clean and the shower as private as promised. As we followed Quinn’s directions, past low hills bright with high grass, past groves of dark skinny firs, never far from the sun-spangled water, I was thinking about the big, pale dog who wanted so badly to tell me something. He reminded me of “At the Fishhouses,” my favorite Bishop poem.
“At the Fishhouses” is set in Canada, not Maine. Different bits of it have obsessed me over the course of years. The bracing sensation of the line “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear”; the shift from sense to synthesis with the lines:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.
I liked that fluid image of knowledge, of mind space, the poem’s color play in the opening, the beautiful contrast between the poem’s gray weather — so different from our brilliantly clear day on North Haven — and its multi-hued objects, like the fish scales as “creamy iridescent coats of mail.” This summer morning, with the friendly lost dog in my thoughts, I returned to the philosophical seal who appears late in the poem:
… One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. […]
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
The speaker, here, occupies the same position as the speaker in “North Haven.” She looks out from the shore over water; she sees a view that is at once familiar and mysterious, wonderful and frustrating, terribly uncommunicative. The seal is curious about Bishop, and she about him, but the confounding truth is that they can’t share thoughts. No more than I could with the dog of Ames Knob.
Still, Bishop’s seal is more comic than tragic. The dog, too. He would be okay without my help; we were perched on a tiny, wealthy island, after all. And Bishop’s seal does not need her sympathy: he emerges from the water in almost the same spot into which he disappeared. Almost, but unlike the Maine islands that “haven’t shifted since last summer” in “North Haven,” the seal is not quite in the same spot. Death has not immobilized the seal. “At the Fishhouses” is not an elegy.
Which is curious, because the slow gray gloom of “At the Fishhouses” seems much less cheery than the summery landscape of “North Haven.” Why this glorious weather? Why the bright riots of flowers and birdsong?
The view from Sabine Farm looked just as Bishop describes it in “North Haven” — almost. You can indeed see “a great expanse of water and fields from the house,” as she said in her interview. We may or may not have been trespassing on private property, but no one was awake to care. The sun was glowing yellow dawn light onto the yellow house, a very old wood-sided New England farmhouse, its original core sensibly compact, but with decades of additions and appendages morphing it into an unwieldy amoeba of right angles. It had sprouted several outbuildings, too, including a one-time barn that now serves as a guest house, according to the property’s real estate listing. A station wagon was parked in the dirt driveway.
The water and fields were behind the house, and as bright blue and deep green and beautiful as one might hope. In a 1978 letter to Frank Bidart, sent from North Haven and about her Lowell elegy, Bishop worried that “maybe the whole poem is bad.” I had worried the same thing, but I no longer thought so. As she also wrote to Bidart, “The flowers & birds are the best part.”
We did not see any of Bishop’s wildflowers dotting the islands of Penobscot Bay, even though we were visiting in the same week of July during which Bishop wrote that letter 35 years ago. Maybe we weren’t looking hard enough for the flowers. Maybe the landscape has changed dramatically over the last generation. Or maybe the “purple vetch” and “daisies pied” only exist in the world of Bishop’s poem, a vibrant verbal bouquet for a lost friend, in a language that almost confesses the contours of the woman behind the work.
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