- The Principal Beauty of “At the Fishhouses”
I love Elizabeth Bishop’s love of travel. I admire her ability to place us in a familiar environment and then, seamlessly, transport us somewhere exotic. I moved to Tampa, Florida, almost four years ago and still find it exotic, feral even, with its love bugs mating midair. I want to recreate the Gulf Coast in my writing, tracing its lines, feeling both the weight of where I am and my perceptions of it, my awareness and my invention.
During my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins, one of my first poetry instructors introduced me to what is now my favorite Bishop poem, “At the Fishhouses.” I recently shared it with a student of my own as an example of the power of Bishop’s images. The images in this poem may not introduce readers to the lush exoticism of the tropics, but Bishop still invites me to a physical place I don’t know—the shores of Nova Scotia—and to a mental space I struggle to find in my own poetry.
I’ve only begun to discover Florida—but so much of it scares me. It’s as if there’s too much to perceive, let alone capture on paper. The Hillsborough River weaves through downtown Tampa; the Bay is always at my feet, the humidity on my back. It’s ironic that I find myself in a place so surrounded by water: I have an intense fear of fish. I don’t walk too close to the fish counter at the grocery store. When I visited Seattle this past February I was so scared of Pike Place Market and the fish flying through it, I took a step inside and stepped back out.
It seems doubtful, then, that I could love a poem called “At the Fishhouses.” But the poem, unlike Bishop’s iconic “The Fish,” is less about the physical animal and more about observation transformed into imagination. The title itself indicates that the poem will focus on the surroundings of the animals rather than the animals themselves.
To recreate the real-life sensation of observation through perception, Bishop downplays the physical presence of the speaker as well. We don’t actually see her moving, but rather witness the mind moving through the environment from one aspect of the setting to another. [End Page 33] The backdrop becomes the foreground of the poem. It illustrates what’s in the limelight of the speaker’s gaze.
In the opening stanza, Bishop uses several strategies to put us in the mindset of the speaker. “At the Fishhouses” begins with this sentence:
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.(lines 1–6)
Inverted syntax (placing a dependent before an independent clause), along with multiple modifiers and prepositions in a single sentence, leads us away from the actual subject of the sentence, as do weak to be verb constructions and passive phrasing. The result is a poem lively but static, moving but still, as something changes inside the speaker rather than in the exterior world. The images I shared with my student aren’t simply powerful. They are transformative for both speaker and reader.
We start with a wide shot, then briefly have a visual of the old man, the sentence’s only independent clause and declarative action. Bishop introduces us to the weather first, then the location, and then the subject of the sentence. But she doesn’t linger there for more than one line, instead moving to a description of his net—the object he holds, not the man himself.
The sentence only contains the to be verb when she writes about the man. She only implies the presence of is in the other places where it belongs: his net is a dark purple brown; his shuttle is worn and polished. By omitting the verb, Bishop removes the sense of agency. It’s not about agency. It’s about perception of what already exists.
Farther down in the first stanza, Bishop writes...