Feb. 8, 2003

First Death in Nova Scotia

by Elizabeth Bishop

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "First Death in Nova Scotia," by Elizabeth Bishop from Questions of Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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?

It's the birthday of John Grisham, born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). He's the author of A Time to Kill (1989), The Firm (1991), and a dozen other novels, all bestsellers.

It's the birthday of Kate (O'Flaherty) Chopin, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1850). She's best known for her novel The Awakening (1899).

It's the birthday of Jules Verne, born in Nantes, France (1828). He wrote A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1874).

It's the birthday of Henry Roth, born in what is now Ukraine (1906), but his family soon moved to New York City. His first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934 during the Depression; it attracted little attention at the time, and only a few copies were printed since his publisher went bankrupt. But when it was republished in the early sixties, many critics called it one of the best American novels of the century.

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother was taken off to an institution, crazed with grief; Bishop never saw her again. She grew up being passed from relative to relative; she lived in four different households before she was eight years old. Finally she ended up with an aunt, who sent her to Vassar; there she met the poet Marianne Moore, and decided to become a poet herself. Her poems referred to geography -- the geography of her life. She was attached to Key West, to Brazil, and she cherished until she died the memory of the coast of Nova Scotia, where she had spent her earliest years. She said, "Have you ever noticed how you can learn more about other people-more about how they feel, how it would feel to be them-by hearing them cough or make one of those inner noises, than by watching them for hours? Sometimes if another person hiccups, particularly if you haven't been paying much attention to him, why you get a sudden sensation as if you were inside him-you know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions, aspects which are, really, indescribable to another person and must be realized by that kind of intuition. Do you know what I am driving at? Well... that's what I quite often want to get into poetry…"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show