AT THE FISHHOUSES
by Elizabeth Bishop
Although it is a cold evening,down by one of the fishhousesan 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 codfishit makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofsand narrow, cleated gangplanks slant upto storerooms in the gablesfor 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, scatteredamong the wild jagged rocks,is of an apparent translucencelike the small old buildings with an emerald mossgrowing on their shoreward walls.The big fish tubs are completely linedwith layers of beautiful herring scalesand the wheelbarrows are similarly plasteredwith 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 handlesand 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 populationand of codfish and herringwhile 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 placewhere they haul up the boats, up the long rampdescending into the water, thin silvertree trunks are laid horizontallyacross the gray stones, down and downat intervals of four or five feet.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,element bearable to no mortal,to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularlyI 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 mesteadily, moving his head a little.Then he would disappear, then suddenly emergealmost in the same spot, with a sort of shrugas 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 standwaiting for Christmas. The water seems suspendedabove 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 burnas if the water were a transmutation of firethat 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 mouthof the world, derived from the rocky breastsforever, flowing and drawn, and sinceour knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
(Photo by Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
In my humble opinion this is simply one of the best poems ever written.
The long middle section of DEEP BLUE HOME takes place mostly in Newfoundland, with its extinct cod fishery and pilot whale "fishery," its capelin fishery, and the wonderful seabirds of Cape Saint Mary's. Elizabeth Bishop's poem reminds me of that world.
The poem also reminds me of Pete, the harbor seal from Monterey, a friendly guy who visited divers up close and personal back in the 1980s. (Does he still?) I liked him so much I made a sincere effort to cut him into every single film I ever made, no matter how long a stretch it might be to have, say, a California harbor seal appear in a film about coral reefs. I still remember his cameo lived on videotape #113 in my stock footage library. Lori, if you're reading this, you might remember that too.