Fishhouses and Water

Sometimes graduates come back and tell me about some interesting book they have found or been assigned; sometimes we look at something they haven’t encountered before. That happened last weekend, when a graduate came by and we discussed Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”

The fishhouses of the title are located on the austere coast of New England or the Maritime Provinces of Canada, where Bishop spent much of her girlhood. They “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 speaker of the poem—let us call her Bishop—finds that “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.”

“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.” There she and an old man, a “friend of [her] grandfather,” smoke Lucky Strikes and “talk about the decline in the population / and of codfish and herring / while he waits for a herring boat to come in.” I don’t suppose there is too much else to talk about: “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.” Of the fish Bishop says, “The air smells so strong of codfish / it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.”

Water, “cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / element bearable to no mortal” except “to fish and to seals….” Bishop has “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….” “If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, / then briny, then surely burn your tongue.”

From the water comes the old man’s living through codfish and herring, and thus the fishhouses. Bishop’s living also came from this water since she had a private income settled on her by her father’s New England family. These waters are “bearable to no mortal,” and both lives are hard. (After all, Bishop also wrote “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “One Art.”) But in this poem she ends by saying the water “is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.”

The arresting simile brings us by an unexpected means to an understanding of knowledge. Of course the water in this poem is a harsh water; a Minnesotan dropping a hook for walleye in a lake on a placid summer’s day lives on another water, another knowledge. But this poem is not about the Minnesotan (although another poem might have been). Poetry, like other arts, works with a particularizing energy, as the teacher and, increasingly, his former student understand.

One of these arts is the art of teaching (‘ars docendi’ in Latin). It, too, works with a particularizing energy–the energy old Professor Barzun called ‘perpetual discretion’. It may have to deal with the light-filled waters of Minnesota as easily as with waters “drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world.” Knowledge, like humanity, is various; and teaching by human beings is needed to help students realise that.

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