“At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop (Favorite Poem Project)


I’m Alex Scherr and I’m a law professor the University Georgia in Athens. I am 45 years old. I was born in New England. Lived out west for a while in the
midwest now live on a farm about 15 minutes away from where I work. We have horses and the land has three fields on it. And a
real nice barn. So it suits to them. The trees are just beautiful here. There’s a real nice fit between where the building sits and
where the land is. Everything seems aligned just the right
way so when I’m here I really feel like I’m settled down in a place I wanna be. “At the Fishhouses” is a poem that I’ve read for years. I think I first read it
when I was in college 25-30 years ago. It speaks at least
in part to my background from the rocky New England coast cold water, ocean, and the very harsh
landscape that exists at that spot. I have a real admiration for Elizabeth
Bishop’s method of paying attention to small domestic, really tiny details. It’s a
preference of mine to look carefully at things and try to understand things the
way they are. I have the complete book of her poems which I keep around either in my office at home or at my office at work, but I used to carry around a paper
version of it, but actually have one of those little palm pilots that I have
it on and when I need to, I sling it open and read it to whoever I can persuade ought to hear it. So… I try to keep it pretty close. I’ve long had the feeling that life has lotsa hard edges to it. We all have suffering that comes
to us in one way or another either from our own doing or from
circumstances beyond our control and it’s often hard to get a feel for why it’s
happening or just had a understand it and stay steady and stable and keep your balance. The thing that’s wonderful to me about
“At the Fishhouses” is the way that she looks at all these things in the world
she locates everything including the human being,
the fisherman at the beginning, in the midst of this world, responds to
it, and then allows herself to get the sensation of knowledge which she speaks to at the very end that encompasses everything that she’s seen and gives us a real… it’s a dark
sensation but a real reassuring feeling that however hard things might be, we can look at it, and understand it, and come to terms with it. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop. 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. / “The Favorite Poem Project” is made possible by The National Endowment for the Arts
fostering America’s creativity and investing in our living cultural
heritage. Additional funding has been provided by
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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