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.