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.

C.K.Doreski: On "The Fish"

"The Fish" [NS], Bishop's most frequently anthologized poem, relies upon a Wordsworthian spiritual exercise to justify a rowboat transformation from plunderer to benefactor. The collapse of distinctions between land and sea, the air and earth of the speaker, obscures the borders between life and art. Bishop perceives the fish in land-language of "feathers" and "peonies" and "tinfoil" and "isinglass." Even as she works those changes, however, the fish works reciprocal wonders of its own. Passive resistance deprives the fishing poet of her triumph: "He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all." She soon understands that her knowledge of the fish is inaccurate.

Evidence of past encounters—"two heavier lines, / and a fine black thread / still crimped from the strain and snap / when it broke and he got away"—tells of a different fish. Earlier seen as "battered and venerable / and homely" (the line-break softening the accuracy of description), the fish now assumes the mock-role of tribal elder and hero:

Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw.

Deprived of the fight, the poet must contemplate her position as the harbinger of death. The "little rented boat" marks a closed world wherein the speaker represents the moral force of her species. Taken by the incongruity and insignificance of the colloquy, the reader is swept from the sensuous into the psychological, then moved beyond earthly particulars to a spiritual whole:

[lines 65-76]

As in the Christian parable, the oil upon the waters brings peace. It also engenders communication with the otherworldly. Through a rare Wordsworthian "spot of time," a genuine epiphany, the poet admits, somewhat reluctantly, a momentary conventional wisdom. This leap from perception to wisdom signals the arbitrariness so characteristic of the epiphany.

Though "The Fish" is certainly central to her canon, Bishop's boredom and dissatisfaction with the poem suggests a fear that the poem settles into sentiment instead of expanding into true wisdom.

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

Susan McCabe: On "The Fish"

[McCabe quotes the lines that begin "I looked into his eyes" and end "old scratched isinglass."]

What she discovers is not identity but difference, the eyes impenetrable and layered – mediated and distanced by the speaker’s language. That she describes his yes as "seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass" implicates both her vision and that of the fish as blurred and imperfect. Isinglass, a transparent gelatin from the bladders of fish and used, ironically, as a clarifying agent, only diminishes and reduces her ability to see the fish …

[McCabe quotes the last twelve lines in "The Fish."]

Only after seeing the fish can she see "the little rented boat," which, like the fish, becomes dynamized, its deficiencies metamorphosing to matter for exultation. The fish is only ugly or grotesque to the untrained or unempathic eye. As the small space of the boat expands, her multiple prepositions override "thwarts" and tie "everything" into relationship. The poem takes us two ways: into recognizing difference and into apprehending unity, into perceiving connection and its frailty. But to comprehend, to totalize would be to underrate. We recall that this is a poem about a visionary moment: it can’t keep, but must be let go. This poem, looser than others in this volume and preferring internal rhymes until its final couplet, highlights how fragile and unpredictable are our joinings and communions. …

From Susan McCabe, "Artifices of Independence," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 95, 96.