At the Fishhouses

Roger Gilbert: On "At the Fishhouses" and "Diving into the Wreck"

Two of their most familiar and oft-anthologized poems—Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" and Rich's "Diving Into the Wreck"—reveal some surprising affinities of trope and language while casting into relief the fundamental differences between the poets, which revolve around questions of knowledge, history, and, in a key metaphor for both poems, immersion. Most prominently, both poems allegorize the sea as a medium of pure knowing wholly distinct from the compromised, constructed world above. Bishop famously says of the icy water off Nova Scotia that "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" (66). "Historical" in this final line assumes a double meaning: Our knowledge is necessarily historical inasmuch as it occurs in time and is therefore subject to the transience of all temporal things, "flowing and flown"; but it is also knowledge of history, of the lives and events that precede our own and give it meaning. Thus the history of this particular Nova Scotia fishing village proves to be closely bound up with Bishop's own painful childhood and its formation of her present self. The old man the speaker meets near the water "was a friend of my grandfather," she tells us, and like the "ancient wooden capstan" with its "melancholy stains, like dried blood," his presence speaks of a past beyond recovery. "We talk of the decline in the population," she reports dryly, her euphemistic language failing to obscure that the real subject of their conversation is death—her grandfather's included, as the "was" in the preceding line poignantly attests.

Rich's allegory is no less clear-cut than Bishop's, but she is not quite as explicit in her association of the sea with knowledge, choosing at first to characterize it by negation: "the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element" (Fact 163). The world of the "sun-flooded schooner" with its "sundry equipment" of ladders, knives, books, and masks is governed, like the human world at large, by the will to power, the effort to master and subjugate one's environment. But the sea does not yield to such efforts, requiring a different approach, gradual, patient, "without force." As becomes clear in the course of the poem, this is because the sea marks a dimension beyond the reach of change, action, or intervention. Like memory, the sea preserves traces of past traumas that can only be inspected, acknowledged, and laboriously brought to light, never revised or effaced. Like Bishop's sea, then, Rich's is ineluctably historical, but unlike Bishop's, the kind of knowledge it contains is not "flowing and flown" but stable, solid, "more permanent than fish or weed." The wreck is not going anywhere.

If both poems draw metaphorical maps in which the sea embodies a pure or imagined knowledge beyond the reach of all human agency, they differ crucially in the ways they approach this alien realm. The two poems share a fundamentally downward trajectory; both begin above sea level and then chart an incremental descent that carries them past its threshold. Bishop and Rich employ similar poetic devices to evoke this movement, crafting strongly transitional passages that mimic in their cadence and syntax the sinking motions they describe. Bishop's passage is especially ingenious in its interplay of form and matter:

Down at the water's edge, at the place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals of four or five feet.

This passage itself forms the descending ramp it names, made up of regular horizontal lines each containing "four or five feet." The corresponding passage in Rich's poem also gives a drumlike emphasis to the word down:

I go down. Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me the blue light the clear atoms of our human air. I go down. My flippers cripple me, I crawl like an insect down the ladder and there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin.

In both passages the transition from land to sea is measured and gradual, but in Rich's poem it is quite clearly a matter of active agency, a willed descent undertaken in the face of enormous difficulty. Bishop is more circumspect; she merely registers the means of descent without evoking an individual act. Her greater ambivalence toward this route may be gauged by the clashing vectors named in her passage—" Down at the water’s edge, at the place / where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp / descending into the water" (my emphasis)—creating a push-pull effect rather than the impression of steady, purposeful movement given by Rich's lines.

Both poets also signal the transition to a more fluid medium by loosening or abandoning punctuation; Bishop describes the water as "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," omitting the commas she would normally place after the first three adjectives, while Rich makes a more dramatic elision to suggest the diver’s felt loss of control in an alien element: "First the air is blue and then / it is bluer and then / green and then / black I am blacking out and yet / my mask is powerful." Again, however, what sets their approaches most dramatically apart is the degree of willfulness each brings to the water and the dark knowledge it represents. Bishop's speaker does not, of course, physically enter the sea as Rich's does, only surmising its effects on her body ("If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately"); but even in her imaginary descent she seems halting and full of trepidation, casting about for distractions in something close to a panic. After calling the sea an "element bearable to no mortal," she offers the typically Bishopian self-correction "to fish and to seals," thus opening the way for a digression about a particular seal that briefly dispels the gathering sense of menace. Playfully invoking debates over the proper method of Christian baptism, Bishop reports that this seal is "like me a believer in total immersion," a line with clear implications for the poem's allegory of knowledge. Yet like Bishop's speaker, the seal's behavior seems to belie such firm belief, as it anxiously hovers on the threshold between the two elements: "he would disappear, then suddenly emerge / almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug / as if it were against his better judgment." The seal's tentative probing of the dangerous world above the water closely mirrors the speaker's reluctant engagement with the sea, an element she acknowledges to be "bearable to no mortal."

As though drawn irresistibly back to the water, the speaker next repeats her earlier formulation—"Cold dark deep and absolutely clear"—then tears her eyes away once more: "Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin." After another quick descriptive interlude she returns for a last time to the sea, now forcibly maintaining her gaze: "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." In a characteristic bit of metaphorical sleight of hand, Bishop inverts the usual mapping of land and water, placing the sea "above the stones and then the world" (my emphasis) as if to reinforce its status as a dimension of knowledge detached from and indifferent to all worldly particulars. The hypnotic repetitions in these lines hint at the speaker's tormented relation to the sea, betraying a compulsive, almost masochistic drive to enter its deathly space. She knows too well what the results of such contact must be, though: "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."

I've already cited the allegorizing passage that ends the poem, disclosing in a somber epiphany that this corrosive element that entices and destroys is knowledge in its purest state. What the poem stages with great power is the profound ambivalence toward knowledge that energizes much of Bishop's work. Her poetry repeatedly locates itself on the threshold between aesthetic and cognitive modes of apprehension, feeling and recording the pull of each, yet unwilling to immerse itself completely in either. Bishop's penchant for picturesque description—the celebrated "eye" once invoked by critics to relegate her to minor status—certainly appears in "At the Fishhouses," particularly the poem's first half, with its lovingly textured account of a landscape plastered with herring scales; but its presence there serves chiefly to set off the colorless, homogenous, cold realm of knowledge that waits below.

Where "At the Fishhouses" remains uneasily poised on the margin that divides land and sea, unwilling to do more than conjecturally dip a hand into the chill water, "Diving Into the Wreck" takes the full plunge, in keeping with Rich's more aggressive stance toward knowledge. Rich's diver is of course much better equipped than Bishop's speaker to enter the hostile element, with her mask, wet suit, and flippers; for her the boundary is there to be crossed, not gingerly tested and probed. Thus, while Bishop's poem divides itself symmetrically between the fishhouses and the water, positioning the ramp-passage as a kind of fulcrum, Rich's poem takes place almost entirely underwater, with only the most cursory reference to a world above. Indeed the language used to narrate the diver's initial descent suggests it is what she calls the "human air," not the water, that threatens to drown her: "Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me" (my emphasis). The dull atmosphere of ordinary human affairs is itself an immersing element, Rich insists, to be cast off through total immersion in the more bracing element of historical memory. Rich is as conscious of the hazards the sea presents as Bishop is, yet she forces herself to confront them because the knowledge she envisions there is not simply fatal but potentially redemptive as well. The poets' differing conceptions of knowledge are clearly reflected in their central tropes: Whereas Bishop identifies knowledge with the sea itself—gray, undifferentiated, numbingly abstract—Rich makes of the sea a medium through which more specific, localized objects of knowledge like the wreck can be encountered and explored. Unlike Bishop's paralyzing generality, the cautionary knowledge Rich seeks can be put to use, carried back to the surface and translated into action, and so warrants the kind of active questing her speaker undertakes.

Another key point of contrast between the two poems involves the place of beauty in their allegories of knowledge. In Bishop's poem, beauty is located entirely above the water, among the weathered fishhouses and tubs lined "with layers of beautiful herring scales." It's here that the speaker encounters the old man who has "scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away." That scraping movement serves as another powerful emblem for this poem's vision of knowledge, which entails a remorseless expunging of beauty and sensual particularity so as to arrive at the cold gray substance of truth. Rich's diver also carries a knife whose blade she dutifully checks, but her excavations lead her toward beauty rather than away from it: Even as the wreck bears witness to damage and disaster, she tells us, it has been "worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty ." Again we can surmise that it is the redemptive, nearly utopian potential Rich ascribes to the knowledge of disaster that lends it beauty, where Bishop finds in it only beauty's antithesis. By positing an aesthetic reward at journey's end, Rich shows that her impulse to descend into the harsh element of historical knowledge is neither masochistic nor purely altruistic. If Bishop's poem is a psychodrama that stages or enacts a central ambivalence, Rich's poem is essentially didactic, meant to instruct and embolden us in our own quests for difficult knowledge.

From "Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich" Twentith Century Literature (Summer 1997)

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)

C. K. Doreski: On "At the Fishhouses"

In "At the Fishhouses," from her second book, A Cold Spring, the language, having gained a good deal of momentum, becomes increasingly sensuous and specific, and claims, at last, through the trope of the sea, a thoroughly sensate and utterly transparent climax that invites entry, immersion, and transference:

[lines 71-83]

As a descendent of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Frost, and an antecedent of Susan Howe's New Englandly, noun-driven Language poetry, Bishop has been an (I)witness. Her account of a repeated phenomenon—"I have seen it over and over"—the indifferent seas slopping over and above the stony shore wholly recreates the implied experience, maintaining the illusion of witness by the seductive staging of the event.

First, the poet tempts her readers into the realm of possibility: "If you should dip your hand in, / your bones would. . . . " She then courts plausibility with the logic of sequence: If one takes the first step-immersion (earlier in the poem Bishop notes that she believes in "total immersion")—then one is primed for the tide of events that will surely follow. Her adherence to physical, sensate realities underscores her knowledge, and engenders belief. Though readers may not understand this experience, they feel it; they experience it. In this process of transference, the poet effaces herself by making the moment of perception the reader's own, demonstrating that "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." What, then, does it refer to? The sea, the water, the tides? Asked to make this metaphysical leap from the physical and sensory knowledge of the sea to the epistemological sense of it, one straddles the yawning chasm between what humans can know—"dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free"—and that which projects unmoored minds into the "historical, flowing, and flown." This educational disclosure is locked in the language, which reveals itself to be nonrepresentational after all, but a code. Here lies the unnerving power of the reticence that requires interpretation through recognition that language is experience. Like Thoreau's "johnswort spring[ing] from the same perennial root in this pasture," Bishop's slopping sea requires the sight of "infant eyes." Both flower and sea court an original relationship through an infant's expressionless impressions in hopes of rekindling that "visionary gleam."

Natural surfaces, the raw stuff of geography, require a language that mediates between nature and culture and marks their intersections. The surface of Bishop's sea, for instance, like most romantic water views, conforms in verbal purpose to the larger rhetoric of the life cycle. Though not as ominous as the ocean of Marianne Moore's "A Grave," the description of the sea of "At the Fishhouses" conceals through metaphors of precious metal and stone as much as it reveals through its verbs of massive and meditative power:

[lines 13-20]

The opaque but mirroring surface spills from sea to land, obscuring but transforming the shore world. This "mirror" offers no reassurance, no reflection of the meditating narrator. The shattered planes engender no correspondence between land and sea, and cannot function as a trope to link nature and culture. Instead, a counterresponse emerges unilaterally from the cold water. A rather incongruous doppelganger—the "curious," "interested" seal—exchanges "looks" with the poet. Like the exchange between the travelers and the moose, this marks a reflective self-confirmation. Without the penetrating presence of the seal, the sea would roll on without form, purpose, or direction:

[lines 65-70]

The uneasy confirmation of self involves a risk of immersion, an affirmation of faith, an acknowledgment of the efficacy of the metaphor of creation. The seal breaking through the surface of the unknown initiates that which must be completed in experience.

Mirrors, rather than water, offer the most reliable, if most mundane, "silver" surfaces, and keep the poem more safely, if less adventurously, within the bounds of human culture. Bishop's self- reflections, however, even when confined in the mirror, assume a variety of forms and moods.

In spite of her wide use of tropes of knowing, including the journey, Bishop only once defines the "knowledge" of her poems. The final movement of "At the Fishhouses" [CS] risks using the sea, a powerful and ambitious metaphor that postulates knowing as a fluid, expressive, but chaotic, absorptive, and formless process expressed by the modifiers of "knowledge," "dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." The line that introduces this closing metaphor asserts that the relationship between knowledge and imagination is definitive: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." Changed in the third typescript from "This is what I imagine knowledge to be," this line asserts the social, rather than the individual, import of this metaphor. Seasoned by a sensory immersion, the rhetorical flow must now abstract that sensational knowledge into the matrix of a historical yet nondogmatic understanding. Despite the firm antecedent link to the sea, this it shimmers with ambiguity. The poem struggles to remind itself that its ebb and flow of modifiers is securely moored in the sea, the figural, rhetorical function of which is as solid as its literal referent is fluid. The experience generated by the poem is primarily one of metaphor-awareness as a means of warding off or controlling the abstraction toward which all knowledge tends. Beyond metaphor lies metaphysics, in which, as Melville pointed out, it is easy to drown.

The personification of the shore world, immediately following the modifiers of "knowledge"—"the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts"—refuses accessibility to conventionally comforting ideas of motherhood in favor of raw origin. The security of the bedrock shore is the viewpoint it offers on origination and the concomitant peace of death, a physical vantage-point and a figurative irony. The sea, too, occupies both a figurative role (as knowledge, chaos, psychic depth, amniotic fluid) and a physically verifiable biological function as originary medium. To expect wisdom or nourishment from the known but imaginatively dead shore-world is an error, but to step from it into the dark, salt, flowing sea is to be a transcendentalist, and suicidal. Not even the language of transcendence, then, can generate a fiction adequate to both the senses (the physical self) and the psyche (which finds its analogue in the sea). Knowledge, that troubling abstraction, leads beyond metaphor, beyond the apprehensible world. The poet cannot follow, but remains on the rocky, unnourishing shore, and gazes at the abstract, unobtainable freedom beyond, and infers, if she dares, the mysteries beyond the range of the senses. Yet it is precisely the act of discovering this limitation that is "historical," accretive, "flowing," organic, and "flown," perishing.

In "At the Fishhouses" Bishop speculates upon the province and parameters of the available language of knowledge and, by extension, the limitations of the role of metaphor and other kinds of figuration in her writing. Unlike the childlike question-and-answer scenario of "Five Flights Up," this meditation defines knowledge (or rather, defines the nature of knowledge) without restricting the source of inspiration. That is, in its act of linguistic and dramatic self-discovery, "At the Fishhouses" privileges the power of meditation and the assertive gaze of the speaker, rather than a particularly configured scenario limited or empowered by the stance, age, or available vocabulary of the speaker. Though Bishop's measured tone and insistence on the social dimension of knowledge bear little resemblance to Emerson's "perfect exhilaration" (an exhilaration that might have thrust Bishop's persona into the cold sea), the return to "reason and faith" resounds throughout the poem. Like those of Emerson's "lover of nature," Bishop's "inward and outward senses" remain "adjusted to each other"—she refuses to abandon herself to the enticing fluid vagueness that would extinguish those senses. Her orchestrating personality directs and empowers this scene, and retains control despite the undeniable implications of her meditation. As Emerson would explain this process of discovery in Nature:

Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both . . . Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

The poet of this marginal "Fishhouse" world (and its later companion piece, "The End of March" [G]) engages nature with a full awareness of the problematic relationship between language and the environment. Like Lowell's inchworm, Bishop is always "feeling for something to reach something"; her movement toward knowledge is an associative process. Grounded by her commitment to the figurative language of the senses, she reaches beyond her grasp, but faces the full implications of doing so.

From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Robert Dale Parker: On "At the Fishhouses"

The rhetorical strategy of "At the Fishhouses," with all its uncharacteristic bravado at the end, is inductive. It begins with details that slowly accumulate as if to build up to and justify the broad concluding assertions--to justify them rhetorically, though never with the close logic of argument. For the logic of syllogism Bishop substitutes the enticement of atmosphere, of description that coaxes us to the strange from the perspective of one who knows it familiarly, yet is not entirely of it, who is both of the strange described world and of the ordinary world she describes it for.

Although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fishhouses an old man sits netting, his net, in the gloaming almost invisible, a dark purple-brown, and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of codfish it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water.

Immediately, the poem sets us into a deserted and distant place, and yet it sets us there as casually as if its world of seaside decay were our own world. It is not the world of many readers, and not even, any more, the world of the writer whose origin it evokes. The old man's world that fades into the metaphorical sunset (the gloaming) may come back the next morning, and for a few mornings after that, but its metaphorical morning is gone for ever. And yet the fading world comes across as if familiar, because words like "although" and "the" suggest in medias res that we already know about "the" fishhouses and about what fishermen do on cold evenings. The phrase "in the gloaming almost invisible" gives a sense, then, of something reduced to a latency that always has been and always will be. Though it refers to the net, it seems also to refer to the fisherman. Subject and object (fisherman and net) have both nearly evaporated into a nostalgic, twilight glow, leaving only activity itself. The activity they leave is the Fates' ancient metaphor, the transforming of time into culture, of the eternal into the temporal, whether by the fisherman's craft of tool building (net weaving) or, here, by the literary weaving of verbal art, the yet more fundamental medium and content of culture.

Such activity has gone on for a long time; the shuttle is "worn and polished." Bishop's presence will not change it, at least not for the fisherman or his world, which goes on, however fadingly, regardless of her. She feels immersed in his world, with its strong smell. His world affects her, making her "nose run and ... eyes water"; but she cannot affect it. She has changed from the earlier poems where she projects her imagined world out from herself and celebrates its imaginative power, as in "The Map," "The Imaginary Iceberg," "The Man-Moth," "The Weed," "The Unbeliever," and so on. Now, instead of projecting her mind onto the place, she tries, at least, to see the intransigent resistance of place, for it seems on the verge of overflowing in an unrestrained flood: "the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly as if considerable spilling over."

[. . . .]

"At the Fishhouses" (1947) and the placce-obsessed poems of Bishop’s middle career grant or submit to the authority of external place. They identify the issue as where we are: we are at the fishhouses. A somewhat later poem, "Questions of Travel" (1957), concludes by backing away from the turn to place only enough to reaffirm that the only place we ever see is that we project from within. In "Questions of Travel" Bishop looks back nostalgically toward wish, but with a jaded sound. Her opening words ("There are too many . . .") complain of the old where, by contrast, an early poem like "The Map" or "The Imaginary Iceberg" sounds excited to discover the new. Even there, though, she continues the preoccupation with where that dominates "At the Fishhouses."

Who she is, she implies in "At the Fishhouses," has grown out of where she and her people have been. But the place where they have been is about to disappear, which will transform their sense of origin into a memory forever severed from the actual place remembered:

The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in. There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb. He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, the blade of which is almost worn away.

Everything here appears on the edge of the end. The old fisherman is not a friend of Bishop's grandfather--he was a friend of him. That is gone now, the grandfather and the friendship with him, and the old fisherman seems about to follow. He acquiesces to the poet's distant manner of closeness, her friendly purchase of rapport. The bribe shows her distance from his world, even as his willingness to accept it shows her connection to it, an ambiguity that she presumably appreciates, setting her poem, as she does here and so often, on the edge where two worlds meet and overlap and never join. She gives him almost a parody of his profession—a lucky strike, as if to imply that is the only way he'll get any luck. In name, her little gift belongs to the sport-fishing world of "The Fish," where she can toss back her prize and feel heroic for it. It has nothing to do with this fisherman's fishing. In his commercial, unheroic, blue-collar salt's world, he must wait for his fish, for his "boat to come in"; and in some sense the boat he now waits for most, looks to and expects the most, is the soon-to-come ferry of death, his and his world's. He is almost worn away, like his knife, like the population that declines, as if in mores as well as in numbers, so unlike the unnumbered fish, which are always the same,

The unchanging world of the fish, finally, intrigues Bishop more. But she cannot turn to it easily. She spends half the poem working up to it by describing the land, then the fisherman, then, in a conspicuously transitional stanza, actually describing the ramp that descends from land to sea, as if she needs to find some feature in the physical landscape to draw her into the water, like a timid bather stepping in slowly. Then at last, and with tones of self-conscious profundity, she dives in:

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. He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.                     . . . . . Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, the clear gray icy water... Back, behind us, the dignified tall firs begin.

She introduces the water in an atmosphere of all-encompassing yet unspecifiable mystery. Its depth suggests an ultimacy, almost a ubiquity; yet it is also distantly cold, too dark and clear to see. She so romanticizes, on the one hand, the ocean's grandiose allure and, on the other hand, its ominous invisibility that the combination of almost opposed extremes implies that ordinary ocean has little to do with what so attracts and intimidates her. Instead she puzzles over the role that ordinary ocean can somehow figure in her own partly private and partly representative array of fears and wishes.

The impulses to such figurings are vague but threatful, and hence not easy to own up to. Every time Bishop gets a start at them, she soon backs away. If the element she ruminates over is "bearable to no mortal," then what draws her to it? Hence the glibly cliché evasion, "to no mortal," lets her rationalize a further evasion. She slides into an ellipsis and changes the subject to animal--that is, to unambiguously mortal--comic relief, nervously relaxing with a little satire of her immersion in place and her preoccupation with water. Then she can move on. Moving on, therefore, means moving back to the words she left off with, the words before her ellipsis that supposed to introduce her direct turn to the water, and that she left when she got fearful and distracted. But instead of returning to those words, she slides into yet another ellipsis, turning "Back, behind us" to the land of trees.

All this looping back adds up to a startling hesitation, as if both the length of her reluctance and the piling up of her repetitions measure the force of what she hesitates before. They evoke the sea's awesome breadth and uniformity; she can go back to it forever and always it will be "the same":

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.

The land changes, the sea stays the same. Both evoke her past, one a fading past that soon she will recover only through memory, never through immediate sensation, and the other a past she can always recover. Strangely, because the sea's past never varies, it is somehow almost cosmically more capacious, and therefore less tangible than the past that escapes ubiquity to lodge in memory. That cosmic suggestiveness exacts from Bishop an awed humility, in which her repeated words and phrases ("the same," "above the stones") build an incantatory sound that culminates in the closing lines:

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.

These lines define the difference between wish and where, a difference that shows in the way Bishop uses them, in effect, to revise the concluding vision of "The Man-Moth." The earlier poem ends with a melodramatic litany of ifs and a tasting of primeval waters, cool and pure. Here Bishop again closes with a sagacious-sounding if and a tasting of primeval waters. But this time the waters appear on an oceanic rather than a quaintly miniature scale, and they taste--or would taste--bitter. The change signals a movement from the nervous thrill of fantastic, individual wish to the settled disillusion of ordinary, public place. The public knowledge celebrated in the final line is historical, received, in contrast to the asserted, original knowledge of "The Map," in which the printer's excitement reveals emotion that "exceeds its cause," tempting Bishop to think that the "countries pick their colors." The wished-for open sesame of imagination in early poems like "The Map" and "The Man-Moth" thus gives way to a resigned-to satisfaction at natural specificity in the poems of Bishop's mid-career. In "At the Fishhouses," the final, cadenced hush before "it," before the ocean, betrays how desperately in the first part of the poem Bishop strives to keep the evanescent place from slipping away before she can trap it in poetic capture. She apparently hopes to arrest its elusiveness simply by surrendering to her grandfather's and her childhood's world at its last tide of fullness.

If in the first part of the poem Bishop tries not to lose, then in the last part she tries to recover what is inevitably lost. As "The Sea & Its Shore" is her "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," so "At the Fishhouses" is, more loosely, her "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." For the "it" that she describes takes on a resonance that works for her like a subtler version of the seaside aria that releases Whitman's solitary song. He feels the bird's inspiration, but somehow loses it again until he muses back over his past and recognizes how his song is bound intimately to an enabling vision of tragic loss, to the ancient muse of memory that inspires, that gives, by taking away. For Bishop, "it," as she obscurely pronominalizes her material here, is not a bird's song. It is the ocean, our evolutionary origin, suggestive also of our amniotic origins in our mothers (the cradle out of which we endlessly rock). Yet she stretches "it" out syntactically so that it starts to refer to knowledge as well as to the ocean. That blurring of reference is no coincidence, for knowledge is the earliest reach back of memory, and the first reach forward of ambition, and therefore, mythologically, biblically (the tree of knowledge), and psychologically, the beginning of the guilt through which memory breeds imagination. If Whitman displaces his anxiety over origins onto a pair of birds, as if foisting on them some traumatic but comfortingly distant displacement of the primal scene, then Bishop (coming after Darwin, whom she admired), a little more evasive, sees a more generalized ultimacy of origins in the oceanic waters, in something evolutionarily still more primeval. As Whitman pursues the recovery of his private origin, Bishop pursues the recovery of her public origin.

But it is unrecoverable. It is too "dark," which makes it invisible, and yet too "clear," which also makes it invisible, too fluidly "moving, utterly free." What it is, therefore, she cannot or at least does not say. Instead, she says "It is like what we imagine," and then turns to metaphor. Unable to recover the thing itself, she tries to recover its thrice-removed shadow, removed once by metaphor, and again by metaphorizing not "it" so much as what we imagine that, at the third remove, it derives from. Moreover, she tropes what it comes from in a way that reveals how reluctant we are and, as Derrida might insist, how impossible it is to imagine the independent mystery of our origins. We cannot help projecting onto the ancient past some feature from our present. Here Bishop sees in the past the bodily fears that provoke the very anxiousness that makes us wonder about origins in the first place. That is, she tropes what "it" comes from as what it leads to: the human. She invokes its central features as a mouth and breasts. Still, she complicates that bodily metaphor by pairing it with uncorporeal adjectives that figure its cold inaccessibility. Its mouth is cold and hard, its breasts, even more forbidding, are rocky. The mixed metaphors expose a mixed attraction and resistance to thinking of such elemental sources as human. For if they are human then we might bear more responsibility for them or more relation to them. She thus has a stake in failing to recover the primeval mystery that nevertheless fascinates her.

Hence even as she resorts, in part, to a more or less accessibly human metaphor, she evasively generalizes it in a way that obscures a yet more latent metaphor of the human. That earlier metaphor, suggested just enough for us to glimpse its repression, is of birth. She represses it by confining its expression to features that are not exclusively maternal--a mouth and breasts. But the repression shines through that pretense of generic reference because we associate the feminine and maternal with the idea of coming from something or someone who has breasts and a mouth. The carefully generalized anatomy and the reifying adjectives--cold, hard, and rocky--make the maternal seem irksome and defended against. Such adjectives betray a comfort in projecting onto our origins a forbidding discomfort. If the maternal is so harsh, then perhaps Bishop need feel less burden for the harshness of her own relation to her mother, or the fantasy of some harshness in her not being a mother herself. Her feelings here are as mixed as her metaphors. She metaphorizes maternal origin as something severe, and yet rests in awe of it as something that repeats itself in us but that in some sense we can never fully repeat.

All these complications and their aggrandizingly portentous phrasing lead some readers to dismiss the end of "At the Fishhouses," not implausibly and yet not quite satisfactorily, as a posturing for profundity. Such a response underestimates how thoughtfully the earlier, concrete parts of the poem lay the ground for the more reflective seascape to follow, where Bishop thinks about the water, and, in a sense, sees herself, even if she protectively metaphorizes herself as her origins. As the land calls up the specific associates of her recognizable past, so the water calls up the vaguer associations of a past intensely felt but nevertheless unrecognizable because it is "forever.. . , flowing, and flown." The small things of a familiar place, the wheelbarrows, lobster pots, fish tubs, and herring scales, contain the hard specifiable knowledge she can hold in mind and hand. But the largest things, in their ungraspably oceanic scale, she can never confidently specify and identify. Bishop thus uses the change in the poem both to suggest the specially ruminative aura of the ocean—"meditation and water are wedded forever," as Melville's Ishmael says--and to suggest the allure she feels in that reflectiveness. She likes to reflect, perhaps partly because she finds it difficult to know or understand what she sees when (in the other sense of the word reflection) her meditation reflects back on herself. "At the Fishhouses" is thus an intimately self-conscious poem, cautiously feeling out the relation between place and identity, and dissolving, finally, in the watery mystery of its own contemplation.

On its grand scale, then, "At the Fishhouses" does things much like some other poems from the middle of Bishop's career, where she works on a smaller scale geographically but explores just as keenly the relation between identity and place, whether someone else's place, as in "Filling Station," or a public place that corrupts the private, as in "Varick Street," or, as in "Insomnia," a thoroughly and even troublingly private place.

From The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Timothy Morris: On "At the Fishhouses"

As so often, the most discerning discussion of a poet comes from more negative assessments. Edwin Honig, reviewing Poems for the Partisan Review in 1956, finds the same surface qualities that appeared to Hall and Nemerov but fails to discover refreshing universals beneath. "The poems arrest one by their brilliant surfaces and transparency. But underneath is a curious rigidity, a disturbing lack of movement and affective life, betraying a sprained and uneasy patience." We are verging back on "frigidity" here, but Honig elaborates his argument in other kinds of terms as well. From the last line of "The Map" ("More delicate than the historians' are the mapmakers' colors"), Honig deduces "the poet's aim--a scrupulous representation of the world reduced in scale and line to something like a cartographer's depiction of geographical areas. It is a plan for suppressing rather than compressing contours, dimension, tonality, emotion. A slow hard gaze moves behind the deliberately drawn-out ironies.

Honig knows that he is begging the question whether a poetry based on suppression might not be just as valid as a poetry based on the more traditional lyric virtue of compression. His comment that Bishop's verse plans systematically to suppress the usual poetic qualities is highly suggestive. It offers a way to read behind and around the surfaces of the poems, to arrive at a sense of them as correlatives--though maybe not objective--for emotions that are at least the reader's if not reliably the poet's. Honig does not go as far as making that transvaluation; he sees the typical Bishop poem as "a baneful asking of meaningful questions of a meaningless or essentially unmeaningful object.... She fails with the image when trying to make it over into a symbol because the nature of the precise image is to defy symbolization. For similar reasons, her forced synaesthesia reduces reality not to poetry but to a dressing up of coy attitudes.... Instead of relieving, the devices call attention to, the flatness of her prosaic lines." From the perspective of the 1990s, Honig seems largely accurate in his characterizations; the question, of course, is whether Bishop's texts are to be read as exploiting, or as immured in, the limitations of their lyric method. As Honig himself says, "I recognize that what I have called her risks and failure may all be understood precisely as her successes by another kind of reader."

Indeed, it can be instructive to read a text from the 1955 Poems in Honig's terms, but with the value sign reversed. "At the Fishhouses" seems promising for the experiment, because it is prosaic, ironic, synaesthetic, and, starting in imagery, ends in symbolism. It is also characterized by what Honig particularly likes about Bishop's work, "good camera-eye realism":

Up on the little slope behind the houses, set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass, is an ancient wooden capstan, cracked, with two long bleached handles and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, where the ironwork has rusted.

But even that camerawork is prosaic; and the poem promptly wanders into glaringly flat passages:

The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in the population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in.

Coming from a poet who is supremely attentive to detail, this poem is one of an inability to pay attention, to concentrate. (Robert Bly would choose these very lines as the epitome of the flatness of modern American poetry, neatly ignoring the rest of the poem.)" Instead of compression/concentration, we sense suppression. The bloodstain-like markings on the capstan are suppressed in banal conversation, but the speaker's attention is then caught by the fisherman's knife--and keeps being drawn back to the water. The lyric necessity, which keeps butting up against the suppressions of the prosaic voice of the speaker, is to invoke the sea, to come to terms especially with its power to drown and its incipient fascination for the one who might drown in it. The lyric voice comes up momentarily, to be suppressed partially by a humorous aside:

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.

He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.

The sea continues to exert a fascination upon the speaker that ultimately purges her voice of anything but the lyric:

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 price of the lyrical "knowledge" that is drawn from this final symbolization is silence; the poem ends--and maybe the speaker too, if the poem is read as a dramatic monologue; the poem's dramatic situation ends in sleep, or trance, or suicide. But the poem's dialogic qualities make it hard to read as either prose sketch, lyric, or drama. Any of the genres that participate in it throw the others into disquieting perspective. If "At the Fishhouses" is its final lyric summation (as, for instance, Stevens's "Sunday Morning" in its final version is the passage beginning "Deer walk upon our mountains"), then the prosaic, ironic passages that proceed it are just so much waste of time (as the dialogue in "Sunday Morning" between speaker and questioning woman is not, being instead a productive dialectic). If the poem is essentially its "accumulated details," as Nemerov thought, then the final lyric summation is a false note, a "gnomic antictimax." And if the poem is drama, it is not very well realized drama; it is static and impertinent. "At the Fishhouses" is, then, something different, something created out of a dialogic confusion of genres; and Honig's sense that Bishop's "risks and failure" in such a poem could be revalued by other reading strategies seems to be borne out.

From Becoming Canonical in American Poetry. Copyright © 1995 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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.

James Longenbach: On "At the Fishhouses"

The final lines of Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" articulate the notion of historical understanding on which her poems, early and late, come to rest. Bishop speaks here of a sea so cold that, should you dip your hand in it, "Your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn."

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, dear, 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.

These lines offer a charged metaphor for the origins of knowledge, the rocky breasts, an image Bishop often associates with the Nova Scotia landscape where she lost her mother. At the same time, the lines caution that, like all metaphors, this one is made and therefore provisional--doubly so: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be."

The realization that "knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown" raises not only questions of poetic structure but questions of value. In "At the Fishhouses," Bishop links the Nova Scotia landscape with the female body but reminds us at the same time that the equation is historically contingent.

From Modern Poetry after Modernism. Copyright © 1997 by James Longenbach.

Albert Gelphi: On "At the Fishhouses"

… [I]n the last lines of the poem the absolute is mythologized not as the spirit Father whose Christmas Son seems not yet to have redeemed nature but as Nature the Terrible Mother whose "rocky breasts" feed her offspring chilling fire, whose "cold hard mouth" engorges what her womb has birthed. [Robert] Lowell tried to convince Bishop to excise the image of the mother, and in the journal notes of "Geographical Mirror" [working title of an earlier version of the poem] she had herself canceled out the phrase "a great rocky breast." By the time she was finishing the poem, however, she realized that she had to have as an image of the absolute fact of nature and mortality an image that was not just "awful but cheerful" but also sublime and awesome. In time and history the knowledge of the absolute is rendered in the elision from the present participle to the past: "flowing and drawn" becomes, in the metamorphosis of an internal rhyme, "flowing, and flown," knowing and known.

From Albert Gelpi, "Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop at Key West: Ideas of Order," in Wallace Stevens Journal 19.2 (Fall 1995), 163-164. 

Susan McCabe: On "At the Fishhouses"

[McCabe quotes the last six lines in "At the Fishhouses"]

In usurping and reversing the usual functions of tenor and vehicle, deliquescence becomes the central term and knowledge a way to convey it. Bishop’s epistemology makes knowledge "utterly free," makes it a diffuse and unlimited entity. The juxtaposition within the phrase "forever, flowing" heightens our sense of endless solubility and flux. And what force is "drawing" the paradoxically "dark" and "clear" water of knowledge? The only agent in this stanza is our imagination, which is deferred through the introductory "It is what." We only have approximation in time, not possession or final certitude; all knowledge is "derived." If our experience links up somewhere, it is with those "rocky breasts," the originary source of our knowledge, both feminized and resistant. The "cold, hard mouth" tells us nothing. Our language and imaginative act shows us ownership only in fluidity: Bishop has us flowing and flown at once.


from Susan McCabe, "A Conspiring Root of Desire: The Search for Love," Chapter 3 in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 136-137 

Brett C. Millier: On "At the Fishhouses"

[This excerpt from Millier’s biography of Bishop centers on a 1946 trip taken by Bishop to Nova Scotia, her first return in 15 years to her home village, occurring just after the publication of her first book.]

… From the many notebook entries of this summer, and the poems that grew from those notes, it seems clear that the trip was both deeply disturbing and deeply significant to Elizabeth in ways that it would take her years to articulate.

At Lockport Beach on the Atlantic Ocean, she made a note to herself: "Description of the dark, icy clear water – clear dark glass – slightly bitter (hard to define). My idea of knowledge. This cold stream, half drawn, half flowing from a great rocky breast " [the underlined words have been crossed out]. Earlier, in the evening sunlight at Ragged Islands, she had noticed

A million Christmas trees stand waiting for Christmas.

I know how they feel … The seals play (their barking) between 2 rocks leaping out of the calm water with small splashes you can see where they’re going to come up the water is so clear – the sun slides over their wet fur – … Surface of water swelling slowly as if it were thinking of brimming over.


from Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 181-182.