- Why Should We Read and Study Harvor?
- Literature & Analysis
- “Pain Was My Portion”
- Analysis of “Pain Was My Portion”
- “Down There”
- “We Walk Into Our Gowns”
- “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach”
- Analysis of “Down There,” “We Walk Into Our Gowns,” and “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach”
- “The Favourite Flies Home”
- “Cold Day in August”
- Analysis of “The Favourite Flies Home” and “Cold Day in August”
- “Blowtorch Alchemy”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Short story writer, novelist, and poet Elisabeth Harvor was born in 1936 in Saint John, NB to well-known Danish potters Kjeld and Erica Deichmann. She spent her formative years on the Kingston Peninsula northeast of Saint John, a witness to the artisanal life of her parents, which included the “romantic” deprivations of Emersonian living: no running water, no electricity, etc. After attending a one-room schoolhouse in Summerville for her primary education, she boarded in Saint John for secondary school. She then trained as a nurse at the Saint John General, but left before finishing, marrying and travelling in the years that followed. Always aware that writing was her vocation, she published her first collection of stories, Women & Children, in 1973, that collection establishing her reputation as a first-class writer of fiction. An expert at capturing the subtleties of manners and character, her stories and novels probe the mostly female experiences of marriage, sexuality, domestic life, fidelity, illness, mothering, despair, and love. Her poetry, later to emerge but just as assured, covers similar ground, though it is much more personal and rooted recognizably in the Kennebecasis River Valley of her childhood and adolescence.
For a much more detailed biography of Harvor, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- Like Elizabeth Brewster and Alan Wilson, Elisabeth Harvor is one of those New Brunswick writers, now increasing in number, who grew up in the province but moved away in early adulthood, never to return permanently. That displacement is uniquely manifest in her work. Most recognizable as a writer of the kind of fiction that is placeless in its preoccupation with character and modern living, Harvor turned to poetry later in her career to explore and interpret her New Brunswick beginnings. Her poetry, then, has brought her back to New Brunswick and to the renewed notice of readers who seek to understand artists as the accumulation of experiences, one of the most formative of those experiences the encounter with place. To read Harvor’s work is to witness its arc back to formative beginnings, that arc pointing to what is fundamental in our lives. Though we may deny formative influences, and even at times agree with declarations of rural and social backwardness, there is no denying that each of us, as Harvor has, must take the measure of New Brunswick if we are to understand ourselves fully.
- We should also read Harvor for the sheer delight of her technical skills. She is a master of suggestion, especially in fiction, creating characters that are as unique as they are familiar. What reader will not know the odd-shaped, opinionated American couple that summers in New Brunswick, the couple at the centre of “Pain Was My Portion”? Harvor’s ability to construct the couple’s peculiarity is masterful, as is her ability to nuance the consequences of that peculiarity in the life of their only daughter, a child, also familiar to us, who suffers from the over-protective bullying of her mother. Few stories are as poignant (or as expertly paced) in revealing how adolescents learn about death. Harvor’s artistry in the story, specifically her restraint and lack of judgement, bears close study for aspiring writers.
“Pain Was My Portion”
They ate their picnics as they sat shored up against the graveyard wall – on the living side – with a view down into a far field where there were cows. Even from that distance they could see how the cows’ fly-warding tails kept swinging with the languid regularity of bell-ropes, while much closer they could feel, warm and cracked at their backs, the sun-warmed cemetery wall.
Ralph’s wife, Gladdie, always held her head high. It came, Ralph said, from an Edwardian childhood of too many blouses with high dog-collared collars, all in starched and unyielding cotton. Ralph had a theory about clothing styles changing the physiognomy of whole generations. “No receding chins in that era,” he would say. And he liked to point out to Gladdie how her hair was always seeking its Edwardian beginnings – how no matter how tightly and classically she wound it up on top of her head in the mornings, it still, as the day wore on, worked itself out from its mooring of pins and became more Gibson Girlish. His own hair was in a silver brush-cut, his eyes were military-looking (they looked toughly into a secret distance), his clothes were in restrained colours, except for the one light touch of powder blue sneakers. In fact, most people hadn’t even thought they were Americans when they had first come. Not by the way they dressed or talked. They weren’t like the ones who came up with their loud plaids with voices to match. The Fraziers, when they wore plaids, wore dark plaids that looked as if they had been steeped in pots of tea, and their specialty-shop sweaters looked as if they had been cut from hairy peat-bogs and had dull pewter buttons on them. And they were not wild pleasureseekers either; they did research, their own project, supplying information from the gravestones of the Kingston cemetery to the Hampton Historical Society which, in an earlier summer, they had helped to found.
Their place of research was very windy and dry. The trees were too big. What had begun as shelter had ended as deprivation, and the graveyard lay like the environmental equivalent of a pale and overprotected child. It seemed as if the wind never stopped moving in the tops of the big trees – a wind that made the leaves fly-cast their spotted shadows across forgotten mounds and faded grass. But the Fraziers had been gradually changing all that. Even after heavy rains had pelted the graves with leaves (“like walking in wet cornflakes,” Gladdie said), they were sometimes to be seen there, in milky plastic raincoats, gathering more evidence to help in the reconstruction of the history of the early community, kneeling to their researches like supplicants, tenderly feeling along the fronts of stones through crude pock-marks and embossed granite-coloured moss to find clues to names and dates. “A kind of braille in reverse,” Gladdie called the incised letters. And on fine days they sometimes did charcoal rubbings. There was one verse that Gladdie particularly loved, one that she had made rubbings of for the kitchens of all her Boston friends:
PAIN WAS MY PORTION
PHYSIC WAS MY FOOD
CHRIST WAS MY PHYSICIAN
WHICH DID ME NO GOOD
They marvelled at the anger and the humour of it. “Anger turned to humour,” Ralph said, “by the alchemy of rhyme.”
The early graves belonged mainly to United Empire Loyalist dead. That great exodus had long since reversed itself and gone back the way it came; now there was only the most irregular travel from south to north – made up of big loud prodigal sons who came to “Canader for the summah, Florider for the wintah,” and who lived in places like Boston and Springfield in between; or there were the tourists who came up to the northeast coast of the continent for a quick change of country and a slightly cooler climate; or there were the draft dodgers and deserters whom the Fraziers didn’t like to think about. They didn’t approve of the war their government was fighting either, but they didn’t think that dodging the draft should be necessary in a country that had universal suffrage. “Universal suffrage?” someone had cried, and when someone else had pointed out to them – and it was a Canadian who had pointed it out – that a boy could be shipped back home, neatly tucked in his coffin and wrapped in flags, long before he was ever old enough to vote, they had to agree; and when someone else, another Canadian (the Canadians were getting just as argumentative as the people back home) pointed out that the Loyalists had also been draft dodgers, the Fraziers had to agree again, but still emotionally they preferred those draft dodgers of the past, who had left their Georgian legacies along all the richest river valleys. A Canadian neighbour they had once been fond of made the mistake of saying that as a reason for not fighting in a war, the Fraziers preferred King to conscience. In self-defence the Fraziers decided that this man had become bitter and cynical. And so they continued annually to resolve their difficulties by trying to live, for the summer months of every year, not only in another country, but in another century of another country. Their summer house was an early Loyalist one, which they had got cheaply and restored expensively – though simply. Ralph would occasionally remark that it cost a lot to live such a simple life – as he scoured the countryside for early maple and butternut cabinets to use as fronts for electric dishwashers and hi-fi equipment. In fact, the twentieth century ran through the house in hidden veins of pipes and wires, not talked about, but there, like a crude word for a functional thing. On the surface though, everything was “period.” They had found a Boston store that carried black and brown gingham wallpapers and fabrics of early prints. They had found early glass for the windows and early brick for the stairs, so that even if they suffered from astigmatism as they looked out at the brilliant mornings, even if they felt as if the stairs would crumble beneath them as they ran down into the brilliant mornings, they could still assure themselves that the reproduction they lived in was a faithful one.
Marian was their only child and had been born late in their marriage. She was a sad-necked girl with long, weakly gold hair and poor eyesight. Gladdie didn’t like glasses (she was a tyrant for the natural), and she would frequently lift the glasses from the face of her pale helpless-eyed Botticelli daughter and advise her to go to her room and practice her eye exercises. When the eye exercises didn’t seem to make an improvement, she thought of various compromises – having the glasses attached to black velvet reins, or to a chain of braided human hair so that they could hang down on the front of the bosom (“What bosom?” Marian had asked) and be swung up to the eyes in times of emergency. Marian, who still had a small guilty residue of respect for the opinion of her peers, carried the glasses in the pocket of her jeans. Gladdie didn’t care about Marian’s peers. Or their opinions. The ones in Boston were too fast; the ones in Hampton were too dull. In fact, what connection these empty-eyed teenagers had with their salty keen-eyed grandparents, Gladdie simply could not see. In two generations – and in some cases, one – all the naturalness had been drained from these people; she could not imagine any robust haystack sex preceding the large annual yield of illegitimate babies; instead, she thought of the girls lying obedient and dull as cows in the backs of cars, their white thighs flopped open, their eyes looking up at nothing, even at the height of the act, chewing gum. Chewing cuds! (When Ralph listened to Gladdie lamenting the passing of robust haystack sex, he kept his mouth shut. A gentleman never tells, he thought, giving that old saw a new, piquant and strangely opposite meaning, for only he was in the unfortunate position of knowing that Gladdie’s sexuality was locked back in the eighteenth century – like her taste.) And the clothes they wore! Gladdie went on. She had seen them at the Saturday night dance wearing rhinestone imitations of the Queen of England’s necklaces (and the Queen of England’s taste was certainly nothing to stand up and cheer about) and dresses made from maroon taffeta with a large grain in it like plywood. Their teeth had potato-eyes in them from what she imagined to be a constant diet of root beer and lime rickey – that is, the ones who had their teeth, for it was their collective ambition (and probably, Gladdie thought, the only ambition they had ever had) to have all their teeth pulled out by the time they were twenty. She averted her eyes from them in embarrassment and pain – she loved “character” and “naturalness,” and she tried to make Marian see how wrong they would be as friends. “But what about the kids in Boston?” Marian had asked. “They’re natural.” And she thought of the kids of Boston, the girls without make-up and wearing long hair and faded pants. Or else they wore short calico dresses, demure, high-necked, smocked. Gladdie saw red when she thought of those cocoa, blue and slate-coloured dresses that were made of calico patterns appropriated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and cut off at thigh length. They reminded her, she said, of Georgian houses cut down into ranch style. And this was how she won all the arguments. With her perfect taste and her feeling for the authentic. “And the kids in Boston have no character,” Gladdie told Marian. “They have poor posture and no ambition.” And so Marian, who also had poor posture and no ambition, went everywhere with her parents: to timeless afternoon teas with two old sisters in their high old house at the helm of a large loose garden, to the sour parlours of people too proud to go to nursing homes, to endless mornings on the sunken verandahs of the town characters, for long country drives hunting down Canadiana, on picnics, and to the graveyard near Kingston.
Marian’s memories of the graveyard were both peaceful and bizarre. Most of her childhood seemed to have been spent there among its moss-mottled stones and she could remember strange (strange because so casual) meals eaten at a large family gravestone made in the shape of a table, accommodating at least six people above ground and what appeared to be a whole dynasty below. She seemed to remember ham sandwiches being carefully divided out over IN LOVING MEMORY OF, and milk spilled on dark eroded stone, and the careful recording of how long the people had lived, how long outwitted a cruel fate, not just the pathetically meagre years only, but often the more generous months and days as well. But then with Marian memory often lacked the quality of an accurate recording of events, and seemed sometimes to be imagination in retrospect.
But as the years passed by, the Fraziers spent less time in the Kingston graveyard. Their passion for Loyalist statistics gradually became sated, they became preoccupied with the restoration of their house, and they often had long visits from American friends.
The summer Marian was fourteen, Esther Abrams came to visit. None of the Fraziers had ever met her before she came, but they felt as if they had known her for years for she was the sister of one of their oldest friends, Helen Helpmann. They had got a letter from Helen early in July asking if it would be all right if she and Esther arrived the following week. Esther was sick, Helen wrote, so they were taking the plane rather than the train for reasons of comfort. Also to save time: for Helen also wrote that the doctor had given Esther four – at the most, five – more months to live. The Fraziers rose to the challenge of this disheartening news, terribly aware of its irony. They had wanted for years to meet Esther, and now at last their wish was going to be granted, and they would all meet, only to know that they would never meet again. It had the boomerang quality, the malevolent charity with which wishes are granted in fairytales, and Gladdie lamented for Esther, for Esther’s husband, for Helen, for themselves, as she cheered up the room at the top of the stairs. She rounded up the brightest-coloured cushions from the other bedrooms and unpacked the red and white quilt made by the Ladies’ Aid. She took down “Pain was My Portion.” She took down a Currier & Ives engraving called “The Farewell” and put a Dufy poster in its place. She imagined the kinds of flowers she would pick, not the heavy-scented creamy ones like peonies and roses, but molecular peppery ones – Queen Anne’s Lace, caraway, lupins – and vigorous ones – tiger lilies, Devil’s Paintbrushes – all gathered into gay improbable bouquets. She took Marian aside and explained about the cancer, that it was incurable, that Esther Abrams herself knew she was going to die.
“We’ll try to make it a very happy visit, dear, and I want you to know the facts about it so you don’t start talking about cancer or dying or anything like that.”
And then, propelled by her own kind of tense bustle, she was off to the clothesline with a pan of washing. Marian came down the steps after her, and stood watching.
“Where is it, Mother?”
Gladdie pegged the last sheet to the line, then rolled the pulley out. It was one of her limitations that she frequently found the truth to be in bad taste. “There is nothing they can do,” she said, hoping that would do.
“But where is it?”
“Last year she had a breast removed,” Gladdie said in a far-off voice; “they thought they’d got it all out, but they hadn’t.”
Marian continued to stand there, waiting.
The sheets, filled with wind, moved in solemn columns.
“There’s nothing more to tell,” Gladdie said sharply; “go to your room now, and tidy it up.”
Much as they may have felt prepared for Esther, the Fraziers were all surprised by her. She seemed so incredibly alive, and for a woman who had only four months to live, she seemed very sure of herself. And she had big breasts. Marian was cross with herself when she realized how much this surprised her. Surely she hadn’t expected her to come with one half of her bosom limp and fiat like a war-amputee with his empty fiat sleeve tucked into his pocket. How stupid can you be! she thought sternly to herself. Still, she found herself keeping her eyes carefully averted from Esther Abrams’ breasts, and even from her face.
“Dear, try to be a little more natural,” her mother said to her one afternoon, giving her a fiercely reassuring smile.
“Yes, Mother,” Marian said, sighing heavily, walking up the stairs – Yes mother, yesmother, yesmother, yesmother.
She did soon become more relaxed, though. It was Esther who did it. She put them all at their ease, all of them, even Marian. “She’s remarkable!” Gladdie and Helen were constantly reminding each other, in their new, low, charged voices, even when they could see Esther through the kitchen window far off in the field picking wild flowers, even when they knew she was far away at the beach, they spoke in their new low voices. They would do anything not to be her, anything. Bestow any praise, renounce any pleasure. They spent their days conspiring diversions: trips, picnics, bonfires, charades. And Esther tried not to be one of those tiresome invalids who never needs anything done for her. She allowed herself to need almost everything, the hot toddies at night, the warm pine baths in the later afternoon, the wild batik of Gladdie’s made up into an amusing dressing-gown, the impulsive flights into town to see the grade-B movies that they snorted over like demented teenagers, the back-rubs, the rests after lunch. And Gladdie put a great deal of love and care into the meals. Breakfast was made to be Edwardian – ample with omelets and bread dipped into eggnog and fried, with Scottish marmalades, English jams, Oriental and South American teas. Sometimes they let breakfast go on for hours. They told a lot of stories and laughed a lot and were afraid of silences. Every breakfast was distinguished by the desperate gaiety of the Titanic going down. It was as if they were trying to pretend they could control time, but in the end, thought Marian, anxious to go swimming, they only wasted it.
Marian came to idolize Esther. “Esther down yet?” was the first thing she would say when she came down to breakfast in the mornings, and “Where’s Esther?” when she came in from swimming in the afternoon – “Esther in?” Gladdie and Helen both noticed how Marian adored Esther. And one day when Gladdie was puttering in her room, Marian came by. She was on her way to the neighbours’ to get some eggs. She needed money from her mother, got it, then hesitated a moment. Gladdie was wearing a sensible black bathing suit, but she was one of those fortunate people on whom the sensible looks classic.
“What is it?” she asked her daughter. Marian had been looking pale lately, she thought.
“I was wondering.”
“What is it? What were you wondering?”
“Something about Esther.”
Gladdie listened for a moment, in the direction of downstairs, with her eyes.
“Are they all out?”
“I was wondering what kind of padding she puts in it – I mean in the other half of her brassiere.”
Gladdie looked shocked. Looking shocked was a ploy she had occasionally used with children. All parents do, she imagined. Nice people don’t ask such things, her look said.
“Oh well,”· said Marian, defeated, “I just wondered...,” and she went down the hall and slowly descended the stairs in a series of sad little hops.
“Marian.” Her mother’s voice, behind and above her. Her mother was standing on the landing. Her high blades of cheekbones looked polished – she must have been creaming her face. She towered there at the stair top, an icon in a channel swimmer’s bathing-suit. And, “She has a kind of foam-rubber pad built into her brassiere,” she said, quickly, like a child saying something she’s been dared to. And at that moment the broad handsome planes of her face fragmented, buckled up, became a terrible terrain of fear, of terror. She jerked her face away from Marian so that her own daughter would not see the shame of her fear, and went quickly down the hallway to her room.
Marian fitted the money into her pocket and just before she stepped out into the sun, she cupped her hands under her own small breasts. Then she deftly darted her blouse into her shorts and started off for the next farm. Lately she had begun to wake up at night, needing to use the toilet. She didn’t try to discover why (too much cocoa? too few blankets?) and so prevent its recurrence; she only stumbled, bewildered but dutiful, downstairs to the bathroom, then upstairs again and at once back to sleep. One night though, she made the mistake of trying to orient the sky to the night (is it near morning? she wondered) and she made her way through wicker mounds to one of the sunporch windows. It had turned cold for summer and although the hills around the house were dark, the sky was not very dark, it was medium blue. But cold. And speckled with stars. Everyone’s asleep, she thought, the living and the dying. Those words “the living and the dying” came to her without warning and they filled her with such immediate and spontaneous terror that her only thought then was to get upstairs as fast as she could, and she fled to the stairway. And all the way up it was as if a powerful hand was clutching for her ankle, filling her legs with tremors so that thrills of terror ran down them, so that they seemed to have the consistency of running water, like legs in dreams. At last she got to her room, got the door closed tight behind her, stood leaning hard against it, everything roaring and pounding inside her. “Ideas rose up in crowds,” she thought, remembering a line from a book in her father’s study. And that quickly turned into “ideas rose up in shrouds.” She had always been able to terrorize herself by rhyme. And she had kept the light on till morning that night; it wasn’t till the sun rose and began to fill her room with pallid early life that she had finally fallen asleep.
A few days before Esther and Helen were due to leave, Gladdie got saddled with some kind of committee meeting at her house, and she suggested that the two of them go off for a drive and take Marian along as their guide. “Esther looks tired,” Gladdie said in a low voice to Helen. Esther, coming down the stairs in a dark wool skirt and a blue sweater, did not look especially tired, but there was, among the others, almost a ritual of anticipating exhaustion on her behalf. Marian ran up to her room for her cardigan, and when she came down again the three of them set off on the north-bound road out of Hampton. Sussex, “the dairy-centre of the Maritimes” according to the map, did not particularly entice them, and soon after they left Hampton they turned left and took the road down the Kingston Peninsula. Marian suggested they visit the old Merritt-Wetmore house, now restored, and once the home of one of the first Loyalist families in the district. Tea was served there too, Marian said. It had started to rain. They decided to go to the MerrittWetmore house. The black car moved under a roof of dripping leaves and came, beaded with black rain, out into the open near Kingston.
They found the house and looked around and had their tea. When they came back to the car, there was a long glaring underbelly to the navy sky – did it mean more rain or did it mean clearing? It had turned cold, it seemed like a day in October. They got into the car and started out toward Hampton.
“What church is that?”
“The Kingston Anglican church. We can turn left here, if you’d like to see it.”
Helen turned left and they soon swung in beside it. Their thighs felt stuck together, their legs stiff. They got out. It was curious, Marian thought, she had not been down here since last year, and now the church looked dilapidated, blotched with rain. The paint had mostly worn off, what was left was flaky silver, and the stained-glass windows, so gaudy from the inside, only looked black from the outside, and a little rough, like black water the wind had lightly blown over.
They went inside. In there it smelled of the sweet damp of an old and closed building. It had some hideous bits all right (the Victorian windows donated in advance by wealthy parishioners in memory of themselves, for instance), but on the whole it was a beautiful building. “Preserved in a state of original sin through lack of funds for modernization,” was what Ralph always said about it, adding that he would contribute only to its upkeep, but never to its renovation. He had even composed a small prayer that contained the words, “Preserve us, O Lord, from marbled arborite and chrome.” Marian quoted this, and the two women smiled. They came outside, blinking in the strange after-rain light.
Marian led them into the churchyard and showed them the tombstone with the angel smoking a pipe, and the lovely sentimental ones with weeping willows, and the ones with shapely limp hands laid over roses. Then there were the six little Elizabeths all in a row, all daughters of one of the early ministers of the church. It was a rather terrifying case of stubborn optimism, Marian explained. He had named his first daughter Elizabeth and when she had died as an infant, the second-born child had been named after her, and so on right through the sixth birth and death. A man who had refused to be intimidated by omens, and who had lost. That was how Ralph had put it, anyway. And at the end of the row was the father’s own grave and the grave of his wife who, after such an orgy of tragedy, had also died young. Marian took them to the knoll where the tombstone in the shape of a table was, and she pointed out to them the four table legs made in the shape of burial urns, then she led them down into the lower reaches where she found and read aloud the inscription beginning “Pain was my portion.” After a little searching she was also able to locate the grave of the Wetmore who had built the house they had visited earlier in the afternoon.
“Well! And where all did you go?” Ralph asked as they sat down to supper that night. Helen said that they had gone down the peninsula and had visited the Merritt-Wetmore house. And she immediately launched into a discussion of the house and its chairs: Hitchcock, thumb-back, Acadian. Marian was waiting for a chance to add that they had also visited the Kingston church, and was just on the point of saying so when it suddenly struck her: she shouldn’t have taken Esther there! Oh God, don’t let Helen tell Mother, was all Marian could think, all through the meal, please God, please God, please.
And that night she watched them, kneeling to her low bedroom window. She was wearing one of her mother’s long satin nightgowns – this one had insets of beige lace and a beige lace butterfly appliquéd on it close to the ankle. Not for her the baby-doll pyjamas of her peers. And down below her, down in the garden, down by the pond where the singing of the frogs was like beeps from outer space, the two women, Gladdie and Helen, walked, their arms linked, murmuring like doves in their houndstooth checked slacks. She wondered what they were saying, but all the same she was grateful that she didn’t have to know.
The day that Esther and Helen left was one of tense ebullience. Ralph and Gladdie had anticipated, they felt, all the emotional snags, and with a loving cunning circumvented them all. They had got presents for both but the presents had been hidden in the car to be saved for the airport – for the last ten minutes before take-off. They presented Helen with hers first: a buxom velvet box. “Oh you shouldn’t have – ” she had already started to say, before opening it, and when she did undo the clasp, expecting as she said later, “a diamond necklace at the very least,” a jack-in-thebox green monster leaped out, causing all the grownups to shriek and roar till tears streamed down their faces. It was Esther who in the end got the necklace – a nice silver one, simple and tasteful (but that’s what people say about gravestones, Gladdie thought, struck with horror) – for they had decided against liquor or perfume since both so obviously lacked permanence, and the necklace was given to Esther in an immense cardboard carton. She had to go through what appeared to be a year’s supply of newspapers to reach it at the bottom and this caused more hilarity, and a general need for drinks. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,” Ralph said ringingly, when his wife, according to plan, expressed a desire for drink, and he pulled a thermos up from the picnic basket, and some paper cups. “The man who thinks of everything,” he said, handing the cups around. He even gave one to Marian. “Learn now, pay later,” he said, although “Fly now, die later,” was the horrible counter-slogan that hovered immediately unbidden in his mind. The drink was quite weak, concocted to get them over the worst, but not of a strength to start crying-jags.
Esther did not die in four months after all, or in five. After she had got back to Seattle she was put on a new drug which for a while seemed to hold her disease stable – for a while she even seemed to improve, but toward the end of winter whatever hold the new drug had had weakened, and she was put into hospital. Her husband and Helen and Helen’s husband spent many hours of every day there with her, for her condition was now so serious that there were no visitors’ restrictions. The room seemed to Helen like a starched white apron seen through a thick lens; white light hitting so much white linen and bouncing off and welling round so many glass and chromium fittings. The only human thing about it was the smell of dying, not quite hidden under the stepped-up smell of ointment and flowers. And Esther was like a child in her johnny-shirt – sickness and institutions had brought out the waif in her – and yet not like a child at all, but like a figurehead, a woman at the prow of her pain. It was only in the movement of the legs that the pain showed, her legs were restless in the bed, bending and straightening and bending again, forever moving in the small sea of her bed, as if through the agency of her legs she was trying to dissipate her pain. And so up there, in the top of the hospital, in Esther’s glass and chromium shrine, the level in the intravenous bottle kept dropping like the level of sand in an hourglass – even that, even the intravenous that was supposed to prolong her life, reminding them, with every drop, how her life was running out.
That summer the Fraziers went to Hampton as usual. While they were there, early in July, a letter came from Seattle. Gladdie opened it, then went immediately into the back garden to find Ralph.
“Ralph!” she called in an urgent disintegrating voice, “Ralph!” He turned and saw her face, her eyes like flags of pain. “Esther?” She nodded and he came to her and took her in his arms. After a little while they went in to make themselves tea, then carried the lukewarm cups, shaking in their saucers, out to the garden. They cried as they drank. Even when you expected it, it was still terrible.
“Poor Marian, I hope she doesn’t take it too hard.”
“Where is she?”
“Gone into town. To the store.”
“Well maybe you’d better go to meet her; that way she’ll know something’s up.”
But Marian, turning into the long laneway from the main road saw only that her mother was coming to meet her. She didn’t know that something was up. She waved to Gladdie. Gladdie raised her arm in a stiff salute, then let if fall abruptly to her side.
“I think I remembered everything!” Marian called. Gladdie came up to Marian and took her free arm and without saying anything began to walk with her.
“Something’s wrong,” Marian said, after a few minutes.
“We got a letter from Helen. Esther’s… gone.”
Marian didn’t cry after all. All afternoon her parents kept plying themselves with tea, kept reaching over and clasping hands, kept looking, Marian thought, like thunderstruck spaniels. Finally she took a walk to the field and took a book with her. And for a long time she sat up on the field hill, stubble piercing her bum, trying to remember what Esther looked like. But she could call forth no clear image of Esther. The shock of a sudden visual image hadn’t jelled; maybe she’d looked at Esther too steadily instead of being surprised into remembering her. There were so many other things she could remember. She could remember the first day Esther had come and how they were showing her her room, she could remember how off and on all that afternoon wide bands of dark had been moving down across the hills whenever clouds crossed the sun. And while they’d been showing it to her, Esther’s room was suddenly steeped in dark. Then everyone had started to talk at once, a bad sign, always, and then, after what had seemed forever – ten seconds? fifteen? – the sun had come out again, and the lace-like flowers seemed made of sun and fire, and the red and white quilt from the Ladies’ Aid shone out with its ritual backwoods geometry. “What a marvellous room,” Esther had said, taking it all in. And then Marian remembered how sometimes when she had been younger and they had been doing research at the Kingston graveyard (her father, her mother, herself) how sometimes there would have been a new death, a fresh grave, and they would never work near it, wanting to keep their distance from it, with its harsh green raffia square of fake grass on it, not colour-coordinated to the real grass, but looking like a scatter-rug on the great tawny dried-up floor of the cemetery.
Supper that night was late. It was a convalescents’ supper – more tea of course, and cold leftovers from the fridge. Every man for himself. Gladdie was feeling very upset about Marian’s lack of sorrow. She remembered what Helen had told her about Marian taking her and Esther to the Kingston cemetery and dragging them over every inch of consecrated ground. An exhaustive guided tour of the dead. And a strange business too. The phrase “psychiatric help” had been mentioned between them, rather tentatively at the time. Now Gladdie looked at her daughter with shrewd anxiety.
Marian helped with the supper dishes, then said she was going upstairs to bed. It was late to be finishing dishes, after ten. “I seem to have lost all sense of time,” Gladdie said, leaning into her husband’s embrace. He kept patting her on the back. As if losing all sense of time was some sort of achievement. Marian, making no comment, and no comment was disapproval enough, climbed the stairs. Through the open window she could hear how the eleven- and twelve-year-olds were singing down on the beach. They were singing “Red Sails in the Sunset,” dragging the words so slowly over the melody that the melody was lost almost entirely. In another year or two they would be able to go to the Saturday-night dances and dance to it. “Red Sails in the Sunset” was what was always played for the final dance of the night. “A dirge in three-quarter time,” was what Ralph usually called it, trying to make Marian feel better about not being one of the crowd. Walking along the upstairs hall, Marian could hear the singing quite clearly, all the way up from the beach.
Gladdie soon detached herself from Ralph and went up the stairs. “Marian?” she said, outside her door. “Okay if I come in for a minute?” Oh it was hard, raising daughters. Hard.
Marian was sitting on her bed, unbuttoning her blouse. What a closed expression her face has! Gladdie thought, alarmed.
“Esther was very fond of you.”
Like a vulture for grief, her mother seemed to her now, with her bright prominent eyes fixed on her in a hard assessing way.
“Yes, I know.”
But Marian couldn’t cry. Gladdie stood in the doorway a little longer, then it became awkward, her being there, and neither of them saying anything. “Good-night, then.” But I am disappointed in you, her eyes said.
After Gladdie had left, Marian folded her blouse and shorts and put them on a chair. Then she leaned over and unhooked her brassiere, a precious extra thing to put on and take off (since last month). As its straps slid down her arms, she suddenly felt the most intense burning pain in her throat. She lay down, pulled the sheet up to her armpits, then lay still as a statue on the catafalque of her bed. The moonlight drained her arms of tan. And her long burning painful column of neck kept separating her stony head from her anguished heart.
Analysis of “Pain Was My Portion”
This celebrated and often-anthologized story (it appeared in the prestigious Best American Short Stories of 1971) challenges us to think about Harvor’s intent. What does she want readers to take from the story – and, thus, what is it about? Though that might seem to be a too-simplistic and obvious way of approaching the story – after all, doesn’t the consideration of every story begin there? – this particular story is more complex than it first appears, a complexity that invites us to consider its multiple points of entry and address. Is it, then, a story about summer migrants, those often-idealistic Americans who move further and further north to try to recapture the romance of wilderness or heritage (in this case, the romance of Loyalist beginnings in New Brunswick)?
Alternatively, is the story about an adolescent’s first intimate experience of death, about the relationship between a domineering mother and her impressionable daughter, or an occasion to contrast, more generally, the fanciful delusions of parents with the more grounded realities of children? The simple answer is that the story is about each of those things, for each impinges on the character of Marian, the daughter, in tangible ways.
Marian is the child we all know: the impressionable, over-protected, and often-bullied child of aging parents. In this story, she is the child of Americans with a fondness for Loyalist heritage, New Brunswick cemeteries, and historical societies. Ralph and Gladdie Frazier, her parents, are misfits who are running away from the cold light of American republicanism, “trying to live, for the summer months of every year, not only in another country, but in another century of another country.” They buy an old Loyalist house, restore it, and fill it with antiques, that impulse supporting a real estate and antique (junk) store economy in rural New Brunswick that has always been a significant, if rarely considered, aspect of the provincial economy. Their goal is to live “in a period,” which translates as living in a delusion or a bubble. They have garrisoned themselves in New Brunswick, refusing to integrate into time or place (they see, for example, only American friends).
Their act of seeking shelter in the myth of a Loyalist pastoral finds parallel in how they treat their fourteen-year-old daughter, who they similarly garrison. More than normal, Marian is suffocated by their attentions, their conservative timidity, and their fears. Her mother Gladdie polices her world, not caring “about Marian’s peers. Or their opinions.” In her mind, the “ones in Boston were too fast; the ones in Hampton [New Brunswick] were too dull.” “‘[T]he kids in Boston have no character,’ [she] tells Marian. ‘They have poor posture and no ambition.’ And so Marian, who also had poor posture and no ambition, went everywhere with her parents.” The tactic is clear: by rebuking what is outside, Gladdie ensures that her child never ventures out.
When the terminally sick Esther comes for a visit with her sister Helen, Marian must deal with the profundities of death alone, for she has been sheltered all of her life from the realities of mortality. What she learns throughout the course of the story is that people die, sometimes young, and that women are especially susceptible to a form of cancer that attacks the symbolic centre of their personhood: their breasts. For an adolescent girl aspiring to womanhood, that is a profound lesson, one that is learned through the fallout of her mother’s haranguing, her mother’s shock at direct questions, and her mother’s insistence on an obfuscating political correctness that often defies Marian’s own first instincts. The result is that Marian is made to learn about death through unnecessary instances of self-doubt and self-reproach. To read the story carefully is to be assaulted by the accumulation of those doubts. Growing up, we are reminded, is not easy. And the most profound things to learn are carefully packaged to protect the innocent, as the saying goes. Life’s vitally important things like death and dying are to be discussed only in roundabout, metaphoric ways. To do otherwise, or to abandon oneself to natural inclinations, as Marian does in taking Esther and Helen on the tour of the Kingston Anglican church that she knows so well, having been there with her parents many times before, is to risk censor – in Marian’s case, the suggestion of “‘psychiatric help.’”
While the action of the story is skilfully rendered, it is the way that Harvor orchestrates character interaction (the way characters impinge on each other causing timidity and self doubt) that is so deftly handled. We feel the narrowness of Marian’s world in our gut, and by the end of the story we feel the judgement of her mother’s sidelong glances, disappointed looks, and unworded disdain. The story then becomes more about growing up than about death, delusions, or dreams.
Harvor does not simply tell us a story but brings us into a fully realized world, what might be called a felt environment. We recognize the story’s place as the Kennebecasis River Valley, and the story’s tensions as those of family and youth. Typical of Harvor’s style, the story is evocative, emotionally charged and quietly rending, and told in a voice that wavers between the satirical and serious. Like all her stories and novels, character rather than plot dominates. What is special and somewhat unusual about this story is that it is set in the southern New Brunswick – and, it must be said, the emotional family/maternal world – of the author’s youth.
The water in the hot water tank
had to be saved for the dishes,
washing floors, and so
on fall and winter mornings
and on spring mornings, too – the peeping
lilac bobbing at the cramped bathroom window –
my mother and sister and I would take turns
squatting in the hollow tub to
pour a tin jug of warm water over ourselves
down there. Rural hygiene! Only in July and August
would we be free of the jug
with a quick dip from the dock.
Some hot and windy mornings we were even
too sleep-stunned to swim and
would only stand,
up to our throats in the water,
our fists on our puckered, elasticized hips,
our legs in the military At Ease position,
a sexual way for a young girl to
stand in a river, feeling the water
offering its play of
thrilled, rippled coldness.
I was taught, in the purposeful, deadly bright light
of a hospital morning, the sleight-of-hand of
lifting drugged hips onto warm bedpans, the
clinical magic of pouring a tin pitcher of
warm water – this time marked with the
formal braille of measurement – over post-operative
women patients down there, the trick being to
trick the body
it was already doing
what it must do.
I did not recall then, as I recall now,
those girlhood ablutions.
You need time for that, that kind of linkage,
memory begetting memory
as water begat water.
But oh, those hospital questions!
So like the questions a
child might ask of God or a parent:
Can you make wind?
Can you make water?
“We Walk Into Our Gowns”
Hour before sunrise
and we roll off
stretchers high and narrow as
ironing boards on wheels and
stumble into the Scrub Room
to scrub our arms and hands with
cold emerald-green soap.
Scour our arms and hands until they are raw,
until they tingle and freeze to our
fingertips. Odd – to have hands and arms
that are awake, alive, when legs and eyes
and thoughts are still so
dead with sleep. But now we turn,
now we turn to go in to be
gowned and gloved,
now we go in to set up
the first table of knives.
We back the door open, our hands
held up in surrender. The Circulating Nurse
holds up a gown, then another gown. Cool as young queens,
we walk into our gown. She is not impressed,
she ties us up in the back as if we are children.
Now we are gloved, now the nurse
moves among us, a masked hostess. She offers us
long trays of hooks, long trays of blades,
a museum row of scalpels and needles
displayed under an inch of stinging chartreuse
disinfectant. Here is a hook we need, here
is a suture needle shaped like a sickle,
we fish it up for our table with our blunt tongs.
We talk and joke as we lay out clamps and blades
Why should we worry?
We will never grow old
we will never get sick
we will never die
when we get out of this place we will never
We dream of lovers
We dream of the beach
we dream of breathing in forever the
smell of oiled sand and ocean sun on our skin,
we dream of boys kneeling
to rub suntan lotion down the long
curve of our backs, we feel their hands
knead us, we feel them watching
our bodies for telltale
winces of pleasure, we feel them
imagining they are already
our husbands, in our dreams
we are smiling into the crook
of our arms.
“Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach”
You hear him cry in the
dark. The air smells of floor wax,
cold duck fat, the tree
shedding its needles down into the
room whose bay window looks out on the
winter ocean. You even think you can hear,
above the roof’s peak, how the new
snow is steadily falling
on the ice crust of the old year.
You feel for your kimono, to the
right of a hulk of sleeping shoulder,
the dark hull of a husband going
down in a sleep-floe. You
cross the floor to the cold window;
see a snowfall of soot falling
between your mother-in-law’s house
and the boathouse, the only white flakes
flying into the cone of light
shining down on the ice-glazed path to the beach.
Shivering, you yawn down at the snowed-on lawn
as you wrap one half of your kimono over the
other half, like a thought of something sombre
you long ago promised yourself you’d remember.
Out of the Bay of Fundy night
it comes back to you: the vow to be less bitter, happier,
a different person. You pad through
the white cottagey gloom of the cold hallway;
old summer clothes spy on you – a once-brave
bathing suit, now salt-faded and puckered,
a scarecrow-short raincoat, smelling of rubber
and the beach. Now you’re close enough to hear
him start to coo in response to your sleepy
progress of creaks. He is small
and audacious, and so you imagine
you can imagine what he is imagining: that
the two of you are in league, cahoots,
two lovers in love with the night.
In answer, your breasts start to
prick with new milk, making small
moons of damp on the kimono’s pale silk. When you
duck into his low loft, he waves his legs,
he’s so happy to see you. You lift him up,
hitch him onto a hip, take him to the window
to see the way the soot-snow
is falling in front of the
He’s so deep flushed! His hair is
damp grass still warm from his pillow,
his leggings have been
knit out of curdled white string,
his nightgown’s a dwarf’s surplice – roses
washed till they look like clover,
made littler, reduced
by time and detergent
the new year’s fogged
Analysis of “Down There, “We Walk Into Our Gowns,” and “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach”
The first two poems above come from Harvor’s debut collection of poetry, Fortress of Chairs (1992). The poems signal a change in her creative disposition: both enact a more personal approach to exploring and revealing her own background, that personal approach perhaps explained in the lines “You need time for that, that kind of linkage, / memory begetting memory / as water begat water” (“Down There”). Perhaps distance and duration, then, were necessary before she could undertake a more personal statement. The tendency to storytelling is still central, as we imagine it would be for a writer of fiction – in fact, much of her early poetry is of the “narrative” form – but the poetic stories she tells are much more intimate in the ways that they describe her own growing, surroundings, and formative relationships. The refracted self of her fiction is unobscured in her poetry, the “I” becoming assertive. The result reveals the person behind the artist who suffered, hoped, doubted, and stumbled.
The two early “nurse” poems are good examples of this change. Both revisit the days of Harvor’s training, each revealing instances of normally unspoken intimacy at the heart of the profession and her life. The first of those intimacies relates to how she was taught to manage the bedpan function, a somewhat-godly act (as she describes it) that links back, over time, to a similarly intimate practice of her youth. The effect is disarming: these are the moments of a life (graphic, unadorned, shameful in retrospect, and thus normally private). To reveal these moments is, on the one hand, to humanize oneself, and, on the other, to reconcile oneself to the peculiarities (the harms?) of family life. For Harvor, who has been quite frank about her years of psychological therapy, the objective is likely part of the process of reconciliation.
Less psychologically dense is the poem “We Walk Into Our Gowns,” another student-nurse narrative. In this poem, the young nurses are depicted as automatons sleepwalking through morning tasks as they are instructed and gowned by the cheerless “Circulating Nurse.” Like all young people not yet ready for the realities of life, they make of their tasks an elaborate fiction that is part denial and part dreamwork. “Why should we worry?,” the older poet imagines her younger self thinking; “We will never grow old / we will never get sick / we will never die.” What else would student nurses, doctors, chaplains, firefighters, etc. tell themselves? While procedural routines are poorly learned, the young become expert at denial. It is how we survive childhood. Both poems, then, use episodes from the poet’s early life as portals into childhood and adolescence, which are the actual subjects of her remembrances.
The same focal operation – foreground illuminating background – occurs in “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach” and “The Favourite Flies Home.” In the first poem, the young mother (Harvor presumably) wakes to the cry of her infant son in the early hours of New Year’s morning. That experience is familiar enough. But less familiar, for the truth of it is rarely voiced, are the unsaid aspects of that (normally) romantically charged experience for a young mother. Harvor furnishes her poem with elements that make that “unsaid” clear. She is alone and objectified, cold and uncomfortable in her mother-in-law’s house. The second-person perspective captures her disjointedness: “You hear him cry,” “You feel for your kimono.”
She is on autopilot, following someone else’s stage direction. Resentful and alone, she recalls the resolution she made just hours ago: “the vow to be less bitter, happier, / a different person.” What young mother does not make those compacts? What young mother does not go through the anguish of not living up to the maternal ideal, an anguish she must never voice, for to do so would be to invite the harshest scorn? (Patriarchy has pathologized the maternal, decreeing that mothers who resent mothering are mentally unfit.) Instead, she does what she must do, offering herself to the needs of her infant. There is no bond there, for the idea that the mother and son “are in league, cahoots / two lovers in love with the night” is what she imagines her son is imagining. Rather, she is aloof, son hooked to breast as she contemplates the new-fallen snow. The poem communicates what no mother, says our social code, should ever admit, but the admission is a welcome challenge to the overly Romantic and highly constructed narrative of mothering that we have.
“The Favourite Flies Home”
I envied her the tenderness
her grief earned her, down there
at the back of the bus
where she was sitting with her husband’s calm arm
around her. He was rubbing
his thumb again and again
in the world’s smallest circle
on her shoulder. Consolation a slow-motion
horse race – the drowsy circular
surge of it around and around the thumb’s
stadium. The decorum of mourning
said she did not need to acknowledge it,
all that was required of her
was that she continue to commune with her sorrow
through the bus’ green window. But consider it:
All her passive taking! It seemed almost an act
of love in itself. We were sitting three seats
ahead of her on a road that turned
and swung past low hills pale as tundra
but gone green from bus-glass
as if we were underwater and the grass
swimming all around us. She was
no older than I was, not long out
of high school, and already she had a death
and I had a baby. And more: I was seven
months on my way to the next one. I stood up
to pull a book and my husband’s soccer jacket
down from the rack up above us. An excuse to
peek back over my shoulder to check
on the progress of mourning.
We dipped and turned,
the straw dunes came at us
in a pleasingly monotonous breast stroke.
Death, I thought, secretly
thrilled as a sightseer. Did a raven fly
over the streamlined bus while I thought it?
While the dunes of stubble
swam backwards past the sealed airless windows?
The following Sunday, a little after two
in the morning, my father died
without warning in the middle of
that night’s darkness. Sad-eyed
hero of my childhood,
his death was the one death I had believed
I could never live through
and on the way out to the airport
I felt nothing but the euphoria
of having survived it.
We flew as the crow flies, two thousand miles
into the dying light of a June afternoon
while below us the innocent world kept
steeping itself in day-dark
then shifted itself into long strips and allotments
of light and dimmed light.
In the late June afternoon
we walked up the lane to the farm,
pale green and grey cars
feeding at both sides of the house like fishes.
I dreaded the first sight of my mother’s face,
her ill-guarded hatred for her oldest daughter,
feared her first look might kill me, and
wincing against the fog the next morning
while I was spreading strawberry
jam on my husband’s scratchy toast
looked out at the black bluff,
arisen from the mist at the end of the first field –
a row of caped, thin-ankled
mourners, the front ranks of the cedars.
I didn’t cry at the funeral, or afterwards either
when I stood at the grave
in the borrowed black cocktail dress
my mother had zipped me into, my belly
a giant black satin tomato, I felt
nothing at all when I heard the brief June hail of earth
on the coffin, I walked hand in hand
with my little boy in the field of clover
next door to our town’s clapboard cathedral.
People remarked on it. One neighbour –
I will never forgive her for it – said
“Your sister seems to be taking it a lot harder
than you are.” The whole town
a hymn to a time gone to seed, I was
glad to leave it. Back home that October,
hearing the radio play a song
my father used to whistle, I
lifted the baby who’d been named for him
up in his baby crouch
from the cooling water of his bath and
recalled the grieving girl on the bus
the Sunday before the Sunday
he died. Walking into time backwards,
I searched for clues, looked for a premonition – for
the wish for my father’s death, even.
Feeling at my heart
the bird’s heartbeat
in that rosy
baby boy’s body
I stood in the October morning,
jelled cold, jelled golden.
“Cold Day in August”
In the sun-pen
our father built for her
so she can start in on her tan
while there’s still snow
on the ground, she’s
flat on her back up on the
slant of roof that looks down
into the snowed-in
It’s still only March,
but already hot, the roof’s
asphalt shingles smell of tar
and burn through her back,
she must feel it, that painfully
coarse industrial sugar,
while high up in the woods
the farmers are making their way
down our ice-aisle between pine trees,
fragrance of torn tree-skin,
down the steep
lumber road from the bluff,
their jingling horses
dragging the final chained logs
along the pegged ache of the winter.
These men must get a nearly
aerial view of her, our little mother,
tiny naked penned woman
turning pink to the
jostling and high sexless
chime of the bells’ little jingles....
* * *
But was she a tease? Afraid of sex?
Pretty woman who shone and shone
until there were no
scraps of leftover light
for her two daughters?
Who now sit, locked in a car
on the ferry sailing out to the Point,
all around us the bay’s
broken bracelet of islands,
their steep walls
a sketched darkness
by someone who must have
kept whispering, You will
learn nothing here, there isn’t
even the relief of a meadow –
only the monotony
only grey water lapping
at eroded tablets
of rock, shored up by grey
pebbles and the wetter
smaller pebbles at the ledge
of blacker, deeper water
while we, now mothers ourselves,
pull all the bad old words
out of the family hat,
the tea in our thermos
tasting of tar and old smoke.
But how sad and thrilling
these little talks are!
Sad and thrilling
and almost erotic, I can
feel the sex of them, two inches
down the inside of each thigh,
the fine wince of the personal,
all this is in August,
cold day in August,
rain coming at us
over the darkening water.
Before we reach the far shore
it hits our windshield
in an aimed scatter,
but as we turn,
all the while
while heavily shedding it,
the storm comes
at us from behind,
attacks us full-force
on the car’s long-eyed back window –
Even so, it’s still
assault of the rain,
its little winter
Analysis of “The Favourite Flies Home” and “Cold Day in August”
These two poems are some of the finest examples of Harvor’s absolute candidness, her wish to turn poetry toward what is closest to her heart. Both poems deal with her parents, the first with the 1963 death of her father, the second with the life and legacy of her mother. Her relationship to each parent is made clear, her father the “Sad-eyed / hero of my childhood” (“The Favourite Flies Home”), and her mother the “Pretty woman who shone and shone / until there were no / scraps of leftover light / for her two daughters” (“Cold Day in August”). In interviews, Harvor has been frank about the difficult relationship with her mother, so the poems, which both hold her mother in their gaze, are not sudden revelations of family dysfunction. Rather, they skilfully position her mother in the poet’s backward glances. As children of parents, we know how that process works: we can never completely remove parents from the rear-view mirror. One or both always appear. So it is with Elisabeth Harvor.
What the first poem discloses without saying directly, however, is the extent to which the young writer has removed herself (at least physically) from the grip of her mother. What Harvor grasps at the funeral of her father is the hand of her “little boy in the field of clover / next door to our town’s clapboard cathedral.” Only when a neighbour mistakes that fortitude (that forward march) for a lack of empathy does she speak clearly about her escape, “[t]he whole town / a hymn to a time gone to seed, I was / glad to leave it.”
And so does she herald the death of her father, seemingly pleased that “I felt nothing but the euphoria / of having survived it.” She survived, in other words, the one death that she never felt strong enough to “live through.” Implied also is that, unlike her father, she survived the ordeal of living with her mother. As those emotions are sorted in the weeks after the funeral, she reasserts her independence, her baby boy the measure of her distance from her mother. Tiny though it may be, “the bird’s heartbeat / in that rosy / baby boy’s body” is enough, for it allows her to stand apart from her mother, “jelled cold, jelled golden.” She is free.
Or is she? “Cold Day in August” states emphatically what we also know: that though we might remove ourselves physically from parents – in Harvor’s case, from a (presumably) “narcissistic” [and] “hostile” mother – we can never completely exorcise them. They are the weathers in our environments, “the storm[s that] come / at us from behind” and “attack us full-force.”
These examples illustrate Harvor’s considerable poetic force. Her poems are direct, personal, sensuous (often sensual), evocative, and brutally honest, many narratively charged. Whereas character development and interaction are usually at the forefront of her stories, the actions of mind and memory, especially in bringing the poet back to her past, predominate in her poetry.
In coming back to the New Brunswick of her childhood in poetry, Harvor is able to return to her father who, she told Anne Compton, “was a very kind person, a stable person. The landscape and my father were the couple. My mother was the volatile lizard or cyclone” (123). “Blowtorch Alchemy” from her latest collection models that return.
Great fire’s fed roar
on April nights of joyful
terror among stars
as we skip rope
or play hide and seek
up in the rafters,
up in the forbidden
dust of the hayloft
while down in the new kiln barn
our father fits on his goggles,
then draws on his asbestos
gauntlets as he drops to one knee
to aim his new blowtorch,
blasted pure heat
aimed into the aperture
in that squat house of bricks
where an army of teacups
waits to turn blue
(from the cobalt)
or red (from the copper)
or green (from the iron),
a green specked with impurities
first thing before breakfast
we’ll listen to the kiln
give off its weak tinkles,
a debilitated music box
we’ll dismantle for prizes,
but overnight we’ve
five short weeks ago
we lived with the kiln
below us and every
Saturday night our father
jumping down into the kiln pit
to toss a dozen logs into its two
roaring windows while we in our beds
were turned into three children in a fable,
falling asleep to the sound of our
Saturday night giant crackling paper
in his happy and volatile fists of pure fire
► The timid, shy, and confused Marian of “Pain Was My Portion” bears comparison with the high-spirited Adele from David Adams Richards’ Nights Below Station Street (see The Literary Miramichi). Adele is fifteen, Marian fourteen. Each is experiencing the world emotionally, and each is testing boundaries, yet under different circumstances. Harvor and Richards enable us to see and feel the milieu that each character inhabits, a milieu of unusual parents, community judgement, and awkward first steps. The social class of the girls’ parents is the most striking feature of their difference, yet, when that is set aside, both girls share similarities that belie class as the sole determinative of character.
► Given what readers will now know of Harvor’s background and of how she interprets generic allowance – that character and memory, the refracted and the real, are differently constituted in her fiction and poetry – it is worth thinking more deeply about the personal in her fiction and the personal in her poetry. The personal is present in both, as she has said, adding that to deny the personal in one’s art is to be disingenuous (Compton 125, 134), but, that said, the personal in her fiction is disguised and refracted by the creation of personas not her own. Poetry presents no such surrogacy: the voice is often the poet’s. That difference invites us to consider how the personal is packaged and how it is received in her fiction and poetry. How is each configuration of the personal differently nuanced? How is each differently affective and arresting, differently convincing? What if the personal were deployed in her fiction as directly as it is deployed in her poetry? How would we read her fiction differently? Finally, is it true that to deny the personal in one’s creations is to be disingenuous? Is it possible, in other words, to supress the personal when we construct something; is it possible to invent something completely outside of ourselves?
Strategy 1: Date the References (“Pain Was My Portion”)
Students may not be able to distinguish the 1970s references in the story from references to earlier eras; they would likely also have difficulty picturing things like Gibson Girl hair or a Dufy poster. While reading, have students highlight or write down the references that they do not understand. After reading, student groups can investigate one or more references and report back on to the class. Perhaps students might even create a slideshow for future students of this story to view. If they do, ask them to note the era of the references. Are most references contemporary to the story, or from earlier eras? What can students infer about Gladdie’s personality based on their research?
Extension: Like Gladdie, the protagonist in the 2011 film Midnight in Paris dreams of escaping to another era. He travels through time and falls in love with a woman from the age he idolizes, 1920s Paris, only to discover that she wishes to escape back to the 1890s. Harvor’s story and the film could contribute to a writing assignment on nostalgia. Discussion areas might include: What eras are romanticized in contemporary New Brunswick? What eras are students drawn to and why? When eras are romanticized/mythologized, what aspects of life in those eras are ignored? (In the story, Marion is the one who notices the devastating “six little Elizabeths all in a row”).
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Access, select, and research, in systematic ways, specific information to meet personal and learning needs
Strategy 2: Significance of Title and Epitaph (“Pain Was My Portion”)
The darkly humorous epitaph in this story is an altered version of a more earnest and pious epitaph found in British and American churchyards: “Pain was my portion, / Physic was my food, / Groans was my devotion, / Drugs did me not good. / Christ was my Physician, / He knew what way was best, / To ease me of my pain, / He took my soul to rest.” Ralph marvels that the story epitaph is “Anger turned to humour … by the alchemy of rhyme.”
- Can students extrapolate from the title and lines of verse in this story to learn anything about the heritage and the character of New Brunswickers? Is the altered verse more characteristic of the province than the original? Which verse do the students prefer?
- Later in the story, Marion “terrorize[s] herself by rhyme” by translating “ideas rose up in crowds” to “ideas rose up in shrouds.” Ask students to imagine how Gladdie would react if Marion shared her own alchemy of rhyme. Would she, for instance, be impressed at Marion’s cleverness? Would she be comforting? Dismissive? What evidence from the story can the students identify to support their view?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 3: Examining the “Parental” in the Personal (“The Favourite Flies Home” and “Cold Day in August”)
Musicians and bloggers are often criticized for mining their own lives for creative material. Since they have the public stage, they are the ones controlling the narrative about their relationships and the people in their lives. To what, if any, extent do the relatives and friends of those with a public stage deserve privacy, or a generous portrayal? Students can apply their view on this question to Harvor’s unvarnished treatment of her mother in these two poems. Is it fair? She has said in an interview with Anne Compton that “I don’t give a damn if my mother, or my enemy, reads it” (134). In considering this question, it is worth comparing Harvor’s “The Favourite Flies Home” with Tammy Armstrong’s “Carol,” another poem in this module (Current and Contemporary Voices) about a poet’s mother.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
Strategy 4: Experiment with Perspective (“Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach”)
The unusual second person perspective of this poem emphasizes the mother’s disjointed or dreamlike experience, likely familiar to those who have experienced the sleep deprivation of nursing a newborn. Challenge students to rewrite a verse of the poem using several different narrative perspectives. For example, students might rewrite as the mother using the first-person “I,” or as another character observing (baby/husband/mother-in-law) using the third-person limited or third-person omniscient. How does changing the narration alter the atmosphere and meaning? Which perspective do students prefer to write in, and why is that perspective employed (or not employed) by Harvor in this poem?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning
Strategy 5: Compare the Perceptions of Mothering (Harvor’s “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach” and Kay Smith’s “When A Girl Looks Down”)
Kay Smith (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment) had no children; Harvor did. Yet Smith presents the somewhat Romantic view of mothering, while Harvor does not. Is it easier to adopt a Romantic perspective from the outside of an experience? To explore this question further, students could consider who is most likely to romanticize fame, wealth, fighting in a war, living off the grid, travel, or youth.
To extend the discussion, you might also ask whether romantic/unromantic depictions in the media or in literature influence how people experience things such as nursing a child. If young women have seen numerous depictions of serene/angelic breastfeeding mothers are they more likely to inhabit that role when they first nurse? Or to judge those who do not inhabit that role? These are questions, of course, about how we learn what is acceptable and what is not – and about who are our most powerful teachers.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how media texts construct notions of roles, behaviour, culture, and reality
Bridge, Krista. “Between Words and Wordlessness: Interview with Elisabeth Harvor.” Books in Canada 31.5 (August 2002): 11-12.
Compton, Anne. “‘The Theatre of the Body’: Extreme States in Elisabeth Harvor’s Poetry.” Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews. Ed. Anne Compton. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 119-138.
Greco, Heidi. “Let Me Be the One.” Paragraph 21 (1997): 34-35.
Harvor, Elisabeth. All Times Have Been Modern. Toronto: Viking, 2004.
---. An Open Door in the Landscape. Kingsville, ON: Palimpsest, 2010.
---. Excessive Joy Injures the Heart. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.
---. Fortress of Chairs. Montreal: Signal Editions (Véhicule Press), 1992.
---. If Only We Could Drive Like this Forever. Markham, ON: Penguin, 1988.
---. Let Me Be the One. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1996.
---. The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring. Montreal: Signal Editions (Véhicule Press), 1997.
---. Women & Children. Ottawa: Oberon, 1973. [Rpt. Our Lady of All the Distances. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1991.]
Kirchhoff, H.J. “Harvor Returns with Roar After Prolonged Silence.” Globe and Mail [Toronto] 16 Feb. 1988: C8.
Kruk, Laurie. “A Humiliation a Day.” [Interview] The Antigonish Review 90 (Summer 1992): 143-62.
Kubacki, Maria. “Excessive Joy Injures the Heart.” Rev. of Excessive Joy Injures the Heart. New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal 30 Sept. 2000: R6.
---. “Not the Beth of Little Women.” [Interview] Books in Canada 27.4 (May 1998): 4-6.
Leggat, Alexandra. “In Which Kay Learns About Love.” Rev. of All Times Have Been Modern. The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 18 Sept. 2004: D17.
Pacey, Tish. “Harvor’s Latest is an Extraordinary Novel.” Rev. of All Times Have Been Modern. The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 06 Nov. 2004: B7.
Ross, Cecily. “Recovering Obsessive.” [Interview] Globe and Mail [Toronto] 14 October 2000: D20-21.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Harvor, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Elisabeth Harvor for allowing us to use the fiction and poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of this work, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“Pain Was My Portion” comes from Elisabeth (Beth) Harvor’s collection Women & Children. Ottawa: Oberon, 1973. 14-32. “Down There, “We Walk Into Our Gowns,” “Four O’Clock, New Year’s Morning, New River Beach,” and “The Favourite Flies Home” appear in Harvor’s Fortress of Chairs. Montreal: Signal Editions (Véhicule Press), 1992. “Cold Day in August” appears in The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring. Montreal: Signal Editions (Véhicule Press), 1997. “Blowtorch Alchemy” appears in An Open Door in the Landscape. Kingsville, ON: Palimpsest, 2010.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.