Elizabeth Bishop–“At the Fishhouses”

I wanted to write a little something about Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” after I read it, but kept getting bogged down, so I thought I’d go ahead and write about it now that I have the chance. In class we contrasted her style with the more dense work of the modernists, but I wanted to express an appreciation for the poem itself. Perhaps it is because I tend to side with the Transcendentalist way of viewing the world, but Bishop’s poem seemed to take her reader back to the contemplation of a natural force much greater than the self, but a force which the self also feels a need to contemplate. Her use of imagery is soothing in its simple rhythm, and the repetition of “All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea…the silver of the benches” and the “iridescent” scales of fish, and small flies, the “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear” water of the sea all create a feeling of almost being out-of-body, of being submerged in that “element bearable to no mortal” (13, 15, 24, 47, 48). She equates the vision of the sea with the idea of “total immersion” and that that immersion can recall a spiritual or even religious experience–a Baptism (52). She weaves a link between the ever-moving waters of the sea and the search for knowledge. Knowledge can be grasped only in the moment before it is “flown” because it is forever being redefined, it is after all, only “historical” (83). Although we long to submerge ourselves within it and be Baptized in its image, it can also overwhelm and overpower. It can drown us in our quest for truth.

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1 Response to Elizabeth Bishop–“At the Fishhouses”

  1. ldhare says:

    I agree with your observation that Bishop’s work “[takes] her reader back to the contemplation of a natural force much greater than the self, but a force which the self also feels a need to contemplate.” She does seem to be influenced by the Transcendentalists in this way. I love the poets who seem to have mastered observation; they provide these poems which seem to be simple observations of their surroundings, but these observations elucidate the “utter strangeness and engulfing power of the world” (2398). The simple inclusion of these often overlooked images can create powerful images for a reader. I read “The Fish” as well which directly precedes “At the Fishhouses” and actually cried out of a strange mix of awe and nostalgia when I read lines 65 through 75. There is so much behind the observations. I love it.

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