Lynn Keller: On "At the Fishhouses"

"At the Fishhouses" begins, as a poem by Moore might, with a description of a scene that seems eternally suspended. The verbs in the opening section are stative -- "the five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs," "all is silver," "the big fish tubs are completely lined," "on the slope . . . is an ancient wooden capstan," etc. Yet what Bishop chooses

to describe differs from what Moore would present. When Moore tells us, for instance, that "eight green bands are painted on the [plumet basilisk's] tail -- as piano keys are barred by five black stripes across the white," we know that both lizards and pianos have always looked like that and will continue to do so in the future. But Bishop's description insists that the scene she observes is the product of continual changes caused by both people and nature: The man's shuttle is "worn and polished," the ironwork on the capstan "has rusted," the buildings have "an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls." Such details make us aware that a future visitor would find a different scene in which these processes of erosion, decay, and growth were further advanced.

The fixity of the scene at the fishhouses is further undercut as the speaker becomes an active participant, offering the old man a Lucky Strike and engaging him in conversation. Reminders of historical process now become more overt; "he was a friend of my grandfather" implies her grandfather's death, and "the decline of the population" tells of broader changes. Moreover, Bishop's enchantment with this place emerges as a fascination not so much with the visible world people inhabit as with the unknowable sea it borders. She is attracted to this silvered village because it bears so much evidence of the sea's touch, while her real desire -- like that of her "Riverman" or of Lucy in "The Baptism" is for "total immersion," though she admits that would be "bearable to no mortal." Drawing a message from the scene very different from any Moore would offer, Bishop presents the sea as a symbol of "what we imagine knowledge to be: . . . 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." In suggesting that our knowing anything is itself imaginary, in adhering to a vision of unending process, in believing revelations in this harsh world fleeting and costly, Bishop stands firmly in the mainstream of contemporary art.

 

From Re-making it new: Contemporary American poetry and the modernist tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Lynn Keller: On "At the Fishhouses" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lynn Keller Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Sep 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags fish, fishouses, Moore, grandfather, history, sea, passage of time, symbolism

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