James McCorkle: On "At the Fishhouses"

At the end of "At the Fishhouses," the narrator moves from the shore and its human population, to the seal, and finally to the elemental, the water itself:

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.

Knowledge for Bishop comes to be "derived" from concretes and is itself phenomenal: "dark, salt, clear, moving," the sea itself, the primordial grounding of form, formlessness, and life. In the phenomenal resides mystery: the constant and erosive flux; thus, the object can never be simply objectified or held fixed and distant. Likewise, our knowledge is "flowing, and flown"; subject to change and decay, knowledge is temporal and governed by linguistic constructions. The relation between things, such as knowledge and sea, rather than distinctions, is expressed in the final repetitive and connective music of "flowing and drawn ... flowing, and flown."

Definition exists only in terms of relation, where each thing is linked to another, shadows the other, ebbs from the other, and overflows with the other:

The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them.

The scales plaster everything here, and everything turns iridescent. Seeing links things physically and syntactically with the repetition of "iridescent." The connectedness blooms etymologically, for "iridescent" links with the iris plant, the iris of the eye, and the rainbow. The rich descriptions link the narrator to the world described as, analogously, seventeenth-century Dutch paintings re-present the world. Taxonomic detailing draws the narrator (or viewer) into the landscape and begins the process of meditative self-reflexivity--where, as Merleau-Ponty writes, "the perception of a thing opens me up to being." Everything resides in the events of being, in the commonality of the perceptual field of one another. Thus, Merleau-Ponty continues, "the perception of the other founds mortality by realizing the paradox of an alter ego ... by placing my perspectives and my incommunicable solitude in the visual field of another and of all the others." The solitude of the poet, mapmaker, and traveler necessitates not only active looking but also the lucid regarding of the copiousness of others. The visual description in "At the Fishhouses," and throughout Bishop's poetry, insists the observer enter into the perceptual field and come into relation with others, and thus, however provisionally, stave off isolation, silence, and death.

From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets. Copyright © 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.


Title James McCorkle: On "At the Fishhouses" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James McCorkle Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets
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