Elizabeth Bishop, At the Fishhouses

The Poetry Foundation provides the text of Bishop’s masterpiece “At the Fishhouses” (1948) along with a recording of the author reading it (not necessarily as well as it could be read).

She introduces the color silver early and returns to it often. In fact:

    All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
    swelling slowly as if considering spilling over …

But nothing in the poem is actually silver. That is just an appearance, a misleading feature of the surface of things. For instance, “the silver of the benches … is of an apparent translucence …” The wheelbarrows look beautifully silver because of the “small iridescent flies crawling on them.”

The opposite of false silver is the profound and true depth of the sea. “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear” is the comma-free phrase that Bishop strikingly repeats. The temptation in the poem is to plunge through silvery appearances to the real “element bearable to no mortal,” the ocean water that would kill by freezing or drowning. It is a temptation that Bishop suggests early and then repeatedly defers or avoids. Immediately after first invoking the “cold dark deep,” she digresses:

    … 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.

Singing Baptist hymns to a seal is amusing. Even if you don’t happen to find it funny (as I do), I think you will agree that it has the form of a joke, meant to deflect the question of how to relate to the “clear gray icy water” that would ache your bones and burn your hand if you entered it. Buried in the joke is the serious idea of “total immersion.” Plunging into the ocean at Nova Scotia would be like facing the ultimate truth that we try to defer. Of that water, Bishop writes,

    It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
    dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free …

If silvery surfaces and deadly depths are two crucial ideas in the poem, a third is the human observer. The poem begins with apparently objective and scientifically precise description. But then the narrator comes in:

    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. …

The narrator, like all mortal beings, inhabits a world of change. All the things she observes have developed and will cease, like the wheelbarrows that have come to be “plastered / with creamy iridescent coats of mail” or the cod that will disappear from overfishing. The last line of the poem says explicitly that “our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.” You cannot truly experience the freezing depths without dying in them: a metaphor for the unbearableness of truth. The poem is about flinching.

Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore had written “A Graveyard” about a similar view of the ocean. In that poem, an unnamed man stands in the way of the sea, annoyingly blocking the view. But Moore tries to forgive him because it is natural to want to immerse oneself:

    it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing
    but you cannot stand in the middle of this:
    the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.

In Bishop’s poem, the ocean seems to come from a living source, even a human one:

    drawn from the cold hard mouth
    of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
    forever, flowing and drawn …

I would normally resist a biographical interpretation, but Bishop inserts herself in the poem (“he was a friend of my grandfather”) and reminds us that human knowledge is temporal and personal. So it is relevant that Elizabeth Bishop had to move to her grandparents’ home in Nova Scotia at age five, after her father had died and her mother was institutionalized with mental illness. In this poem, the frigid, salty water flows from breasts that should feed a daughter warm, sweet, sustaining milk. The metaphor (stated in a line of iambic pentameter) is agonizingly lonely. But Bishop’s seal friend, her grandfather’s dwindling connections, her love of surfaces–“beautiful herring scales”–, her subtle homage to Marianne Moore, and the writing of the poem itself show how we can digress and postpone what we know that we know.

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