Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of poetic intervention and invention is fairly clear. Early in the poem, Bishop alludes to another poet and gently mocks his kind of intervention in the observed world; she then sets about producing her own. A few characteristics of that vision are important to note since they contribute to whatever meaning might be drawn.

First, there is a suggestion of violence about the scene—the remnants of previous upheaval and the potential for some explosive instant to come. The water is “the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible” and is turning to gas, while the pilings are “dry as matches.” Pelicans “crash” into the surface of the bay, while above them soar “man-of-war birds.” Sharks have been harvested along with the sponges, and their tails hang on a fence, drying, memento mori from the sea beyond. The dredge itself brings up a “dripping jawful of marl,” personifying the mechanism with the traits of some carnivorous beast. The little boats have been piled up or stove in by the last hurricane. This impression of violence is countered with the simultaneous, ongoing actions of exposure. The water absorbs, but low tide has left much of the content of the bight revealed, and the work of the dredge is the “untidy activity” of bringing to light what is yet beneath the surface. Even the pelicans and the “frowsy sponge boats” are engaged in bringing something up. What is one to make of these impressions when...

(The entire section is 543 words.)