“The North Haven Journal, 1974-1979”

By Elizabeth Bishop

North Haven Library Inc., North Haven, Maine, 2015

80 pages, paperback, $18.95

Maine has in a way dual literary traditions, one of which is a propensity to grow accomplished poets indigenously (I’m not sure what state or region does not make this claim, but anyway, see Off Radar, July 23), and the other, a little different from other places, is that non-native writers also tend to make Maine home either seasonally or perhaps for a few years. I’m thinking of, for some recent examples, poets such as Philip Booth, William Hathaway, Tom Sexton and Richard Blanco who read at President Obama’s second inauguration. Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley had regular ties here. I’m sure I’ll be reminded of others.

Notable among poets in this strand of our literary history was Elizabeth Bishop, who spent parts of six summers on North Haven island. This is an interesting little nook in American letters, and the North Haven Library has added a piece of the puzzle by bringing out a transcription of Bishop’s journals written on the island during the summers of 1974-79.

Bishop was a Massachusetts native whose family broke up when she was very young, and she spent part of her childhood in Nova Scotia. She later lived in New York, Florida, Brazil and back to Boston, was awarded a Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1956, and by 1969 was poet in residence at Harvard University. Central to this latter affiliation was her 30-year friendship with Robert Lowell, whose poem “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to Bishop, was drafted during a stay in Castine the summer of 1957. Her own oblique elegy on Lowell’s unexpected death in 1977, “North Haven: In memoriam: Robert Lowell,” is included as a sort of preface to “The North Haven Journal.”

Bishop’s ever-growing literary reputation is built on an extraordinarily precise ear for the music of English as we actually speak it, and on the scrutiny of “landscapes whose strangeness was simply a fact,” as one literary historian aptly put it. The summer journal entries, meticulously edited by Eleanor M. McPeck, give indications of the everyday things that attract that kind of poetic attention – birds, flowers and conditions of weather on the island, sometimes in minute, if fragmentary, detail; neighborhood gossip, rarely in much detail; and in various ways the whole feel of summer-visitor island life – her July and August sojourns there were clearly relaxing, mostly easygoing escapes from the literary city. A few pages of notes toward her editing a collection of Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories perhaps provide the contrasts in tone that highlight the sense of summer ease.

The front-to-back reading of this book is a stop-and-go activity, partly because the entries are not in strict chronological order — notes on a July day in 1975 might be tucked between July days in 1977. But an industrious reader with a good ear may uncover some found poems (e.g., maybe, “The birds seem to get / more fearless / every summer / We had five barn swallows / on the deck — / all gone now”). And people with an interest in the details of the Maine coast’s literary history will find, along with illustrative black and white photos, the names of some significant, but not often thought-of guests at Bishop’s digs at Sabine Farm. It is overall a neat, and neatly made little book that helps detail a niche in the visitor tradition of Maine letters.

The North Haven Library will hold a symposium on Elizabeth Bishop and her place in American poetry on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 14-15, at Waterman’s Community Center on the island. Scheduled to participate are Farrar, Strauss & Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, writer Susan Minot, of North Haven, and Blanco, among others. Also available through the library is a broadsheet image containing the poem “North Haven,” created by island artist David Wilson. Tickets to the symposium and more information are available through http://eb.northhavenlibrary.org.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].


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