I can’t quite figure out how Elizabeth Bishop does it. On the face of it this is a rambling, unstructured piece, relaxed almost to the point of looseness, that shouldn’t really work, and yet I find it intensely pleasurable. Maybe the secret is Bishop’s own pleasure in the physicality of things, their hues and shapes and textures, coupled with a kind of wayward fidelity to the actual. At one point a seal makes an appearance and Bishop recounts how she used to sing hymns to it. ‘Aha’, the suspicious literary mind will say, ‘what’s that about then?’. I’m not sure it’s about anything, other than that relish of hers for the random quirks of reality. And yet the poem does build, slowly and subtly, to a kind of epiphany, with its extraordinarily sensuous vision of water towards the end, and you realise that it is after all about something specific, about knowledge, and more particularly about the kind of knowledge that is at the heart of true poetry: primary knowledge, unmediated, based on the poet’s own experience and observation, and infused with that loving delight in sheer existence that her preceding lines exemplify so well. And yet, in the closing lines, all this seems to be tempered by a wistful recognition that this knowledge is not our true element, or at least, that its painful exhilaration is not one we can endure for long: that we can do no more than dip a hand into that cold clear stream as it passes, its source and destination both equally apart from us and beyond us.
At the fishhouses
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.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
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
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.
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
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.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
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.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
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.
Another thing that struck me on re-reading this after so long, is how every thing is the scene for human plunder: the codfish, all the sea fish basically, and the fir trees ready for Xmas. All part of human industry.
Is there perhaps a repulsion running through the poem? And layered with that an appeal to a higher realm of beauty, or at least a better balance of being, as suggested by the religious element? The repulsion is a human emotion, but of one who feels separated, cut off, from what is given here as ‘normal’ life, and even the ‘world’.as the last lines suggest. Unless the different types of ‘world’ are elided in this. Here, perhaps, is also an autobiographical element.