Friday, 16 January 2009

Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses

Tonight S calls round and after a while we talk, as often, of books. She is interested in fiction and reviews it for the press, but she reads little poetry. I begin to talk about Elizabeth Bishop, about how I think she is a great poet and that this poem, below, is one of her greatest. Here it is.

Elizabeth Bishop
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.


Why is it a great poem? Why is that my whole body freezes and shivers at the end, and why I am on the edge of tears that are nothing to do with sentiment?

First we have what seems a long introduction describing every part of a scene in great detail, not only through the eye, but the nose. The image of silver hits us in line 13 and stays with us, transforming everything after it, almost as if the fish the old man had been catching for years had become the shore. We are chilled down, everything is strange, even a little exotic, but the language is plain, almost blunt, using words like the helpless exclamation, 'beautiful', as if the poet were stepping out of the scene for a moment, finding herself wordless and breathless. It isn't just glitter though. There is blood, and rust, and the Lucky Strike, and business, and look, the old man too is covered in silver.

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

Then we see the tree trunks and the stones and the hint of a descent into the water.

...down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

And now, for the first time, we feel the shock of the water. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear... It is ominous and staring us in the face. It is like our death yet it is no more than nature. It just is. Something, at least, there is that is cold dark deep and absolutely clear. But then follows an apparently light comical interlude with the seal. The speaker seems to have, or is rather playing at having, established communication with it. There is a joke about total immersion. She sings a Baptist hymn to the seal who appears to listen then disappears into that cold dark deep absolute clarity with a sort of shrug /as if it were against his better judgment.

The words are still faintly comical but are on the verge of leaving the comic for something else. And then the choric line returns. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear...

She looks back at the firs waiting for Christmas. Human festivals and human hymns, the ceremonial world of the human imagination.

But then she swings round again to the water that she has seen over and over again:

...slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world

And something begins to open up, partly in her, partly in the world. And then comes the thought, the possibility of entering the sea, doing no more at first than dipping a hand in, and immediately the bones would ache, and the hand burns

as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame

That dark grey flame unites ice and fire.Then she imagines its bitter taste. Tasting it comes the revelation that has been haunting the poem all this time, the sense of that this cold dark deep and absolutely clear thing has a meaning that is just out of reach:

...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...

It is knowledge of a sort, imagined knowledge, out of the cold hard mouth of the world, that mother whose breasts are of rock. But the sea is in permanent flow, flowing, drawn...

... and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

And there is the knowledge that has been at the tip of our burning tongue. It is historical knowledge, and since time passes and history is a product of time, it too flows. History is flown knowledge.

In great poetry knowledge flows out of the mixture of sensation, memory, thought and apprehension. It is historical knowledge. The old man, the seal, the hymns, the extraordinary otherworldliness of the ordinary tinged with silver, blood and rust and work is part of it.

Here is a place to start. A first poem against which others can be measured.


michael said...

i've always liked that poem too, you've just helped me like it more. thanks.

PJ Nolan said...

Ditto. Thanks for that. My favourite Bishop poem (just now) is The Sandpiper, which displays for me many of those qualities of that mixture of sensation, memory, thought and apprehension in its gracefully loaded endlines; The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray /
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Not forgetting rhythm.

George S said...

I want to make this poem the cornerstone of - a lecture about / exploration of - imagined knowledge and history. Bishop said she had dreamed the last six lines.

PJ Nolan said...

I did not know that. At a recent reading, a short fiction writer mentioned something about 'not writing our dreams' - its a cliche, apparently? News to me, I have to say. I find the emotional content of dreams very much a source.

Poet in Residence said...

A lovely phrase is "beautiful herring scales"

PJN says "the emotional content of dreams dreams can be very much a source" and it brings to mind Martin Luther King Jnr and of course:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
(Langston Hughes)

George S said...

I am never quite sure about dreaming things either. Images can appear in dreams, but rarely lines of verse in my experience. Lines may come to us in waking though, in that half-doze when the world is still arranging itself into normality.

It is Anne Stevenson's study of Elizabeth Bishop that is the source of the dream story, or rather, a letter Bishop wrote to Stevenson when Stevenson was a very young poet in the sixties.

PJ Nolan said...

I can't remember any instance of dreams delivering readymade lines (one lives in hope, of course!). But I have occasionally found imagery or narrative aspects of specific dreams hanging around, feeding into work afterwards. Lingering as emotional preoccupations or working on the material in some interrogative way. Subconscious flashcards, perhaps?

PJ Nolan said...

Lines may come to us in waking though, in that half-doze when the world is still arranging itself into normality.

Or, frustratingly, while slipping into sleep - with the notebook beached beyond the fingertips.

Poet in Residence said...

The redoubtable Graham Greene kept a dream diary and his own dream selection was published at his wish posthumously in paperback: "A World of My Own" (Penguin 116pp). The blurb says that GG "regarded dreams as central to his life and creativity".
I suggest that the dream content remains in the subconscious ready to be picked up. It doesn't matter too much if your fingers are not long enough to reach your pencil or whatever. With regular practice it's quite easy to recall dreams including any interesting dialogue.

George S said...

I hardly ever remember my dreams - unless I wake up from them. Nor have I ever dreamt lines of poetry. Peter Redgrove was the man for that.

And Coleridge, of course.

Background Artist said...

I started keeping a dream diary in November 2001, two months into starting a Writing Studies and Drama BA, when I first started getting serious about lying on the page. I have just re-read it, it's only five pages - as I kept it only for a month. I started again several days ago, using the snatch of dream to write a few hundred words.

The stuff i first recorded, charachters from TV soaps appear a lot, even though by that time I had not been watching for a good year. I won't recount it here, but I can remember the very day, the very moment I switched off the telly, or rather, cut my viewing down to watching nothing for months at a time, literally. A good seven years of no telly and now I only watch it because I write in a freinds place who does. Judge Judy and Ramsey being her faves. That Judge Judy is great, very funny, wise and compassionate, a real humanity to her.

This is half of the dream I recorded, from the night of Saturday 18 November 2001:

"...a manic guy speeds up to me in a car shouting at people I can't see. He runs fast into the shop. I am the target of a hit and three men shoot me. This is replayed and I escape by running into a field at the back of the shop. I am running under fibreglass and there is someone chasing me, who morphs into a girl and then we are boyfriend/girlfreind walking along a stone path in a castle type of place. I go back to Greame Souness's house and his family are there having dinner. I join them.."


I find when I am on a compositional bender, spamming all day, that I dream in language, a flowing full on stream of it, like messages scrolling along the bottom of the screen on the TV news chanels. But as soon as I wake, cannot remember a word, I am sure I have composed (and forgotten) at my most eloquent, when asleep. I occasionally sleep with a book by my side, to catch stuff, but like the Dream Diary, it has not (yet) become habit. I have a journal next to me, I have retrieved from the attic where I spent most of the time prior to moving downstairs into my pals when winter kicked in, and the only thing I can tell by the handwriting came in a dream and was in my head to be written immediately on waking, is:

"deep seated joy will bring us love in the call and return"

And though uncertain, I think this may have been written after being dreamed first:

"full frank expression unfettered my mental self-censor, hammer it into on purpose, unity and love."

Background Artist said...

oops, typo

full frank expression unfettered by mental self-censor, hammer it into one purpose, unity and love.

Poet in Residence said...

George, You might not remember your dreams but that doesn't mean they are not there, like your morning porridge, simmering on the backburner.

Anonymous said...

George, I just wanted to add that to truly understand this poem, you need to go to coastal Maine, and New Brunswick in Canada. Bishop often wrote about these places while she lived in South America. Place was so important to this piece. You are welcome to visit us there in the summer to see for yourself-

( Nancy & Hamish )

George S said...

How very kind of you, Nancy and Hamish. I would love to do that sometime.

Is it much the same still?

Anonymous said...

the image that stays with me in this poem is that of the knife blade, worn smooth, worn down by rubbing against the soft skin and the silver scales of herring...

The maritimes are haunting. Of course there has been change, but they are still under-populated, and reeling still from the decline of fishing:

George, it occurred to me that Bishop will probably have moved to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents the year before the great Halifax explosion.


George S said...

That's a marvelous picture. Not how I imagined it at all. I imagined more of a slope down, and a row of fishhouses with the fir trees behind them. Bleaker.

The silver and the knife blade are gorgeous of course. It is the moment of realisation about the nature of knowledge that blows me away, coming as it does, after all the detail.

Yes, the terrible Halifax explosion in 1917. And she did go to Nova Scotia in 1916, when she was only five.

The poem is remembering a much later time on one of the return visits. It appeared in the New Yorker in 1947. She offers the old sailor a Lucky Strike, and their conversation is assumes quite a long separation.

alligators shoes said...

very lovely poem. it touched my heart. it almost made me cry