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Poem of the Week: Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”

I feel a particular kinship with Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” The fishing in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts are different from fishing in Minnesota, but some images are similar. There are other lines within this poem that resonate with me and give me more understanding of Bishop as a poet and a person. I will be giving my own personal reaction to this poem. A more scholarly analysis of the poem can be found <a href="http://Baldwin, Emma. "At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop". <em>Poem Analysis</em>, <a id="site_link" href="https://poemanalysis.com/elizabeth-bishop/at-the-fishhouses/"&gt; https://poemanalysis.com/elizabeth-bishop/at-the-fishhouses/here.

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses

Before I venture much further into Bishop’s poem, I will point out why the first two lines of this poem strike a personal chord. The fishhouses that Bishop describes are different from the ones I know. The houses she describes

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.

In Minnesota, fishhouses are considered ice houses. My husband has had two fishhouses. One was a skid house that looked like a one-room cottage. The current one is a trailer with amenities similar to a camper. Circles cut into the floor provide access to the ice, and an auger is used to drill a hole for fishing. There are more tools and gizmos that accompany this hobby, but the idea of ice fishing is to stay warm and wait for the fish to take the bait. I wrote a post back in February about my most recent ice fishing experience. Bishop’s “cold evening” sounds warmer than that weekend. But, I think Bishop, who was a painter as well as a poet, would appreciate the tools I brought along to help me pass the time.

The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.

The fish in Bishop’s narrative poem are different from freshwater fish. As she describes codfish, lobster, and herring, I envision crappy, walleye, bass, and pike. Most of the fish I catch can be reeled in with a pole without the use of a net. I will remove the hooks from anything but a pike. The fish in Bishop’s poem are caught with nets.

Which is how she begins to describe the old man.

He was a friend of my grandfather.

Here is a rare glimpse at the personal. Bishop was raised by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and her maternal grandparents in Massachusetts. Based on the voicing of the poem, it seems that the paternal grandfather is the one referred to here. But, as a reader, I sense a deeper poignancy because of a familial connection. This is not a stranger. This is someone who knows someone of significance. There is a reason to have a conversation.

Then we meet another friend.

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.

Again Bishop shares a personal side to her story as she shares music with a curious seal. It is not entirely confessional, but the words “believer,” “total immersion,” “Baptist hymns,” “‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God'” hint at the roots of Bishop’s religious upbringing. In these specifics, I can relate to her. The symbolism of “seal,” “judgment,” and the seal’s reactions ought not to be missed. Bishop’s adult life may not have continued to reflect her spirituality, but her poetry harkens back to this experience to suggest not all of it has left her.

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.   

In these lines, we see the essence of Elizabeth Bishop’s precision with words and their deeper meanings. She invites us to experience her world. For this brief moment, we are allowed to feel the same “ache,” burn,” and “fire.” We, too, are able to “imagine knowledge” as “historical, flowing, and flown.” Reading these lines and connecting them with the previous images, I gain more understanding about this private poet and her unique vision of the world. I hope you will as well.

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