Monday, February 14, 2011

"At the Fishhouses" by Elizabeth Bishop

John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote on February 9, 2011: "Like many people, I associate my discovery of Elizabeth Bishop with the day I came to poetry.  In my little local library, on a deserted 1968 afternoon, I happened upon  'The Fish' - and 'The Man-Moth.' ... I could not stop reading.  I ransacked the (very few) poetry books on the shelves for more Bishop.  'The Man-Moth' was Schwartz's first Bishop too. [Poet Lloyd Schwartz was a friend of Bishop's and was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Criticism]  He was sitting on the floor, he says, 'but if I'd been in a chair, I would have fallen off.'  Then he speaks for thousands of readers and writers about their first Bishop, their next Bishop, the Elizabeth Bishop of their lives...."

My (Brian M. Biggs) first Bishop was an excerpt from "At the Fishhouses" printed in The Oregonian by David Biespiel.  In his article, "High praise for Elizabeth Bishop's artistry and humanity" (12/26/2010), Biespiel states that Bishop is "one of the most widely praised poets of our era as a chronicler of the fusion of self and culture."

When I read the excerpt (the first half of the poem) it was as if I was there on the dock at twilight listening to a local woman talk with this old fisherman who sits in the shadows to repair his net.  The words are so perfect and precise that I smelled the codfish "so strong it makes one's nose run and one's eye's water."  I saw the rust stains "like dried blood" spilling down from the iron work on "an ancient wooden capstan."  And I heard the old fisherman talk of codfish and herring and wondered how he made it in that tough environment.  He told the woman he was waiting for the "herring boat to come in" so he could purchase more bait.  Maybe he was in for a large haul.  After all, the woman offers him a "Lucky Strike" and he accepts.

I had to read the end of the poem, and when I sent Biespiel's article to Clackamas Community College Poetry instructor, Kate Gray, she immediately sent me the link to the entire poem.  It was amazing, like nothing I've ever read.

However, the poem takes an abrupt turn after the final line in Biespiel's article.  According to Vicki Graham, (in The Explicator 53.2, Winter 1995) "A single line of perfectly regular iambic pentameter divides...Bishop's 'At the Fishhouses' neatly in half, separating a detailed and restrained description of an old fisherman, the Nova Scotia shoreline, and the tools of the fishing trade from an equally detailed but more passionate description of the ocean itself."  (The single line and final line in the Biespiel article is: "the blade of which is almost worn away.")

Brett C. Millier (in "The prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and alcohol." Contemporary Literature 39.1, Spring 1998)
notes "The image of water that is flammable, dangerous, about to explode recurs frequently in Bishop's poems. ....The best-known fiery body of water occurs in 'At the Fishhouses.'  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. ....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."

That choice is what children experience when going for their first swim in the ocean.  The water's cold and the waves are scary so they turn back to look for assurance from, not the "dignified tall firs" but their moms or dads. 

In his biography, Elizabeth Bishop LIFE and the Memory of It, Brett C. Millier tells us that on this return trip to Nova Scotia, Bishop made several notebook entries that contributed to poems.  "At Lockeport Beach on the Atlantic Ocean,....'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.'  Earlier,...she had noticed

                   a million Christmas trees stand
                   waiting for Christmas

"Elizabeth had a poem in mind when she made these notes; next to each of the ideas that eventually contributed to 'At the Fishhouses,' the notation 'GM' --explained once as 'Geographical Mirror' and suggesting that the trip and the later poem were part of an attempt to find herself reflected in the land and sea."

It is interesting that she crossed out "great rocky breast."  Robert Lowell suggested she take the phrase out but luckily she left it in.  Millier says that "The chill maternal image at the end of the poem is startling but reminds us that Elizabeth Bishop's Nova Scotia is her motherland, the scene of her disturbed and disturbing childhood. Having spent a good part of the previous two years working with Dr. Ruth Foster on the origins of her depression and alcoholism, Elizabeth must indeed have felt that her inheritance from her mother , what she "derived" from that troubled relationship--her "knowledge" of herself and her Nova Scotia past--was indeed "flowing and drawn" and hopelessly temporal and irremediable, "historical, flowing and flown."

Vicki Graham suggests that "the work of the fisherman scaling his fish becomes an analogy for the work of the poet who shapes a perfectly regular line. ....Motion predominates in the second half of the poem. ...The line of iambic pentameter marks a boundary between shore and water, stasis and motion, which the speaker is reluctant to cross. ....To go beyond it, she must invent a new rhythm and enter a new realm with a different order, both poetically and thematically.  She hesitates, tensed against immersion in the sea.

''Total immersion' in the poem, however, is metaphorical; the speaker never touches the water - she doesn't even dip her hand in.  But literal immersion is not necessary; what matters is for the poet to bring the poem into alignment with the sea.  The line of iambic pentameter at the center of 'At the Fishhouses' suggests that Bishop intended to direct attention to work and to the mastering of craft.  She meant us to understand that we can't get to the sea, to knowledge, without work.  Adam's curse falls on fisherman and poet alike.  Both must labor.  Like the old man working in the twilight, the poet must handle her knife precisely, using her craft to release beauty."
And to me, she does exactly that: release the beauty.

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