Brett C. Millier: On "At the Fishhouses" (2)

The image of water that is flammable, dangerous, about to explode recurs frequently in Bishop's poems. And it occurs most often in her most self-reflective poems, poems whose composition corresponds in time with Bishop's most difficult negotiations with alcohol. This is not to say that those poems are "really" about alcoholism, only that when Bishop assesses herself in her poems, she is extraordinarily honest in that assessment.

The best-known fiery body of water occurs in Bishop's great poem "At the Fishhouses" (1948). Conceived during her trip "home" to Nova Scotia in 1946, the same trip which produced "The Moose" and the inspiration for The Prodigal," the poem records a visit by the poet with an old fisherman "netting, / his net, in the gloaming almost invisible," outside the fishhouses of a small port. After nearly fifty lines of luminous description of the physical scene, the poet is tempted to personal or philosophical speculation, but retreats from it:

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals ... One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening.

She goes on to describe her humorous encounters with the seal but is drawn again to the meaning of the scene, only again to retreat: "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water... Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin." And then, unable to avoid the pull of the water any longer, she mentally plunges in:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, icily free above the stones, above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

The water so cold it burns is first, of course, a physical description of the icy cold water of the North Atlantic. But at the same time, in a poem in which Bishop is considering her origins--on her first visit to her mother's home since her death in 1934--the cold water reflects the absence of maternal warmth in her life, and perhaps the drug with which she medicated that sense of loss. The shifting sea of knowledge is both general, communal ("It is like what we imagine knowledge to be") and highly personal, as the startling image of rocky breasts makes her speculations suddenly physical again. The fleeting nature of both kinds of knowledge remind one of the "shuddering insights, beyond his control" of "The Prodigal," and we see that this is another exiled figure, trying to make her mind up about her place in the world. Here she contemplates the choice between the impoverished but beautiful land and the tempting oblivion of the paradoxical, and alcohol-like, sea: cold but burning; like knowledge, but promising death.

[. . . . ]

One sees imagery related to fiery water in a few other poems of this period; but the image all but disappears from Bishop's poetry during her happy years in Brazil, and by the time she came to write the poems of Geography III in the early seventies, the cultural revolutions of the sixties had made it possible for even Elizabeth Bishop to make explicit reference to drinking in her poems.

"Crusoe in England"'s home-brew comes to mind, and the "grog a l'americaine" of "The End of March." But several critics have noted the startling and ubiquitous presence of volcanoes and lava-like substances in the poems of Geography III, and we are once again in the realm of "fire-water"-in the deeply self-assessing "In the Waiting Room" (1971), "Crusoe in England" (1971), and "The Moose" (1972), at least.

From "The prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and alcohol." Contemporary Literature 39.1 (Spring 1998)


Title Brett C. Millier: On "At the Fishhouses" (2) Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Brett C. Millier Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and Alcohol
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