Elizabeth Venart (1937 – 2008) was born in Halifax to an unwed mother from Port Greville, Nova Scotia. Given up for adoption, she suffered abuse and malnutrition in several homes before she was adopted, at age four, by a couple in Springhill, NS. At sixteen, she attended nursing school in Halifax—but nursing didn’t satisfy her, so she applied and was accepted to Mount Allison University, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English. Working as an English teacher in Temiskaming, Quebec, she met mechanical engineer James Venart, fell in love, and married. They moved to Scotland, where she taught briefly before becoming a mother to the first three of her seven children.
Elizabeth had the mind and attention of a poet, but she did not always have the confidence to believe in her vision and voice. She spent the 1960s and 1970s raising her family in various homes in Britain and Western Canada before settling permanently on a farm in Elgin, New Brunswick. In the late 1980s, when she had raised most of her children, she worked full time on her farm, selling lamb, wool, milk, butter, and geese, among other things. At this time, she also began writing seriously.
Elizabeth kept a journal and during a writing workshop at Mount Allison (a four-hour round trip to attend), she began writing poetry and fiction. She received encouragement in that workshop and support from a writing group in Sussex. Elizabeth’s work began to win prizes. At that critical time, Elizabeth was also given some financial support by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, and her work flourished. She claimed a room in the family’s farmhouse as her writing room and had her husband install French doors and two long desks. The windows to this room faced an apple tree that overlooked an interval and a river. The other window faced several bird feeders and one of her flower gardens. Around this time, Elizabeth won a fellowship to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to work on a novel, which has yet to be published.
Much of Elizabeth’s work remained unfinished at the time of her death. She produced a manuscript of poems, a short manuscript of stories, and, of course, her novel. She also wrote thousands of pages of journal entries. According to her daughter, the poet Sarah Venart, this journal writing—unrestricted, unquestioned, and unedited—is some of Elizabeth’s best. It chronicles the quotidian work of family and farm life in a sparse, exact, and uniquely Elizabeth voice. According to Sarah, her mother’s work “influenced the way that I see the world in every conceivable way.” Sarah Venart’s 2020 poetry collection, I am the Big Heart, brings some of her mother’s journal writing.
Sarah Venart remembers Elizabeth as being “most satisfied and content when she was producing words in her writing room with her chosen view of apple blossoms and the sipping hummingbirds.”
Like so many writers, Elizabeth wasn’t confident about her writing. Yet when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, she underwent surgery but declined chemotherapy so as not to disrupt her plans to spend the fall and winter writing her novel. Cancer returned a few years later, and Elizabeth died on July 9, 2008.
Elizabeth Venart came from very little and worked hard every day of her life. She was acerbic, witty, fiercely loyal, incredibly intelligent, and proud. She missed nothing at all: her attention to detail was fascinating and alarming. When she read her words in public, she mesmerized audiences, leaving them profoundly silent with wonder.
On the Day I Cut Cabbage
by Elizabeth Venart
On this day I cut rows of cabbage;
leave them sitting on the ground like
buried to their shoulders,
Winds blew those ancient Chinese soils.
Rain washed their blood into the seas.
A sift of sand piled their stories
here and there
upon stacked streets where
peasants wrote their lives
between the lines of sow and reap.
Loosed from their yellow clay,
blown over the rim of silence
their soundless offering
this highest form of thought.
Silence blowing over, flowing under
shifting soiling empires
until no peasants write their lives
between the lines
upon our weighted streets.
the ducks would rise from the river
the sky would darken
the birds would stop singing
the smoke would come in at the windows
the cake would fall in the middle
the dog would be lost
the dishes would never get done
the grass would turn into wildflowers
the rocks would pile at the edge of the water
the crows would find him
At the Foundling Home *
there were always little children you could hug
and older children who’d touch you.
The Dress *
I am like a dress–
a clean dress
over a terrible wound.
The dragging of a belly
is under my dress.
The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia thanks Sarah Venart and the Venart family for permission to republish the above poems, for providing details on Elizabeth Venart’s life & work, and for generously supporting the endowment for the Elizabeth Venart Prize.