”First Death in Nova Scotia” by Elizabeth Bishop
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It was the sadness of Bishop’s life that initially drew me to her before reading any of her poetry. Without parents from the age of five, feeling that she was “a ‘guest’ in her grandparents” homes and describing herself later on in life as ‘the loneliest person who ever lived’ was certainly intriguing. Her poetry has a haunting subjective quality that I particularly like. First Death In Nova Scotia, what I see as a memoir of childhood innocence about death, is ironically quite an amusing poem. Many years after the experience of her cousin dying, she recalls with remarkable accuracy the perceptions she had of the event. There is ‘the cold, cold parlour’ where Arthur is laid out. One cannot help smiling when she calls the white coffin ‘a little frosted cake’ and Arthur’s corpse ‘white, like a doll that hadn’t been painted yet. The innocence is amusing, and yet there is a logic to it also.
Arthur’s head of russet hair reminds her that ‘Jack Frost had started to paint him’ and then by childish association she links this with ‘the way he always painted the Maple Leaf (Forever)’. Autumn and Canadian anthem are mixed in a glorious jumble of ideas here that reflects the energetic activity of the child’s mind as she tries to make sense of the occasion. The absence of her cousin she puts down to his invitation to be page at court for the royal figures in the chromograph. Everything is explained and ordered in the imagination of this inventive child. The only unresolved problem for her is Arthur’s travel arrangements. How will he be able to get to court with his eyes closed and the snow so deep in the chromograph? Here Bishop captures the amusing innocence off the child’s narrative about her cousin’s tragic death. It was her ability to recall and recreate the perspective that I admired.