In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

unrestored daguerreotype

When we first saw the house in the fall of 2006, there was a small cased daguerreotype sitting on the pump organ. I thought about that old picture quite a lot. When we bought the house it was filled with such things, large and small. But this one photograph drew me back to it over and over. I wondered why it was still here. Elizabeth Hyde had once written that when she bought the house in 1961 many of the things inside it were already here. She wrote that it was as if the previous owners had simply gotten up and left one day, leaving their things behind. Could this photograph have been one of those things? Could it have actually been here since the house was built? The thought seemed both incredible and plausible, and it's odd, when you think about it, that a thought could be both.

But then after we moved in, Elizabeth's daughter told us that Elizabeth had actually bought most of the things that were now in the house at auctions here and there, over the years. But Elizabeth's daughter was just a small child when Elizabeth first moved in. So there really wasn't any way to know if this old photograph -- or any of the other stuff -- had already been here. Though I do think that the families who lived here before, first the Perrys, then the Gouldens, and last the Demings, would have taken their things with them when they left the island. It would seem so un-Nova Scotian to just leave things behind like that. But I couldn't know, really, whether the photograph had been a part of the house for a long time, or not.

If the daguerreotype had been here, then it could have been from the Perry family. William and his father Jonathan built this house in the mid-nineteenth century, and well before that the Perrys lived in an earlier house, down below the lower apple orchard, a place that's a ruined rock foundation now. There were several Perry daughters. Could these have been two of them? And yet, the styles in the photograph are from a generation earlier. The young women I was thinking of wouldn't have worn their hair like this, not in the late nineteenth century. It seemed more likely that Elizabeth had bought the photographs in some dusty antique store somewhere. And now they were here, two young women, sisters, maybe twins, from who knew where, gazing out at me. But they could not speak, because nobody knew who they were.

During our first year here I was beginning to research the history of the house and learn about the Perry family and Nova Scotia life in general in the time when the house was built. I returned to the picture over and over. It had such a hold on me. Could it be a window into the very world I was learning about? It was a mystery I wouldn't be able to resolve. But I did write a poem.

Unrestored Daguerreotype

Two young women are identically dressed in mourning.
They seem not interested in having their picture taken
and sit looking as if they'd rather be someplace else.
Their hair is curled in complicated ringlets
likely out of style by then
in Boston and Halifax and other centres of fashion.
The someplace else could be home again --
this wild fir-tipped island,
this house where they grew up,
a Nova Scotia fisherman's daughters.

The picture sits here still, slowly dissolving into its elements.
Their caught faces float pale on the surface glass
while all dark detail of hair and dresses and eyes has slipped away
to reveal a stippled disintegrating painted black background
layered underneath.
Nebulae wink in the folds of their sleeves,
comets arc through their heads
and if you look closely into their eyes you can see all the way to
the vast swirling night sky that reels above this place forever.

1 comment:

Janet said...

The picture of the two girls in mid victorian - 1860's? - style is haunting. I'm eager to read of your house's history when it is ready for publication - my house dates to the 1820's and is of similar construction and style. I have tucked away the child's shoe from the 1930's that was in the back wall when I rebuilt the wall some 20 years ago.