Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Poem for Halloween ~ My Contribution for Bill West's 2013 "Great American Local Poem Genealogy Challenge"

I am more than pleased to participate for the first time in Bill West's Fifth Annual Great American Local Poem Genealogy Challenge. To find links to each of the blogs that are taking part in the challenge this year, tune in to Bill's blog, West In New England on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 2013.

For Bill's challenge I chose a poem about Nova Scotia (my maternal ancestral home) and about death. This poem, by renowned American poet Elizabeth Bishop, elicits a variety of emotions for me, from the poignant subject (the death of a child) to the stark isolation of Nova Scotia itself.

As family historians, we are often drawn into the events surrounding death and dying. In so doing, we feel compelled to document "the where and the when," while the human need to understand "the why" is ever present in our subconscious.

Bishop was born more than 100 years ago in Massachusetts. However, it was not America that formed her. After the death of her father, the 3-year old Elizabeth was taken to Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she stayed with her grandmother. Nova Scotia is the setting of many of her best poems.

In "First Death in Nova Scotia," she remembers a cousin's body laid out in the parlor, his loss of color and detail dissolving him into the snow outside. 

From Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1956), here is:

First Death in Nova Scotia

In the cold, cold parlor 
my mother laid out Arthur 
beneath the chromographs: 
Edward, Prince of Wales, 
with Princess Alexandra, 
and King George with Queen Mary. 
Below them on the table 
stood a stuffed loon 
shot and stuffed by Uncle 
Arthur, Arthur's father. 

Since Uncle Arthur fired 
a bullet into him, 
he hadn't said a word. 
He kept his own counsel 
on his white, frozen lake, 
the marble-topped table. 
His breast was deep and white, 
cold and caressable; 
his eyes were red glass, 
much to be desired. 

"Come," said my mother, 
"Come and say good-bye 
to your little cousin Arthur." 
I was lifted up and given 
one lily of the valley 
to put in Arthur's hand. 
Arthur's coffin was 
a little frosted cake, 
and the red-eyed loon eyed it 
from his white, frozen lake. 

Arthur was very small. 
He was all white, like a doll 
that hadn't been painted yet. 
Jack Frost had started to paint him 
the way he always painted 
the Maple Leaf (Forever). 
He had just begun on his hair, 
a few red strokes, and then 
Jack Frost had dropped the brush 
and left him white, forever. 

The gracious royal couples 
were warm in red and ermine; 
their feet were well wrapped up 
in the ladies' ermine trains. 

They invited Arthur to be 
the smallest page at court. 
But how could Arthur go, 
clutching his tiny lily, 
with his eyes shut up so tight 
and the roads deep in snow? 

Where I discovered this poem:


Little Peter's Grave, Pembroke Cemetery,
 Colchester Co., Nova Scotia

Peter Suther Hamilton

Born 4 February 1945
Upper Stewiacke, Colchester County, Nova Scotia

Died 6 September 1946
of Croup
19 months old

1 comment:

  1. Pam, I think this may one of my favorite poems from this Challenge. It's such a sad subject, but it is a beautifully written poem and I can see the scene in my mind's eye.

    Thanks for taking part in the Challenge!