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Although “At the Fishhouses” consists largely of description, it also seems to offer a formulation of the relation between humans and nature, or humans and truth, which approaches that achieved by some of the poems of Robert Frost, in which daily occurrences are made to yield deeper meanings through a juxtaposition with larger themes. In this poem, furthermore, the precise descriptions that in many of Bishop’s works are simply a fact of style come to take on the quality of content, being put in context by the sudden shift to abstraction of the work’s final six lines.

The self-effacing narrator begins by description, sketching the old man who sits mending his nets, until nearly halfway through, where he or she appears for the first time in a possessive pronoun: The reader is told that this man “was a friend of my grandfather” (the word “I” is not used until even further down). The reader is given the silver surface of the sea, the benches, the lobster pots; even the tubs are lined with iridescent scales on which walk iridescent flies. Suddenly the man becomes real: He accepts a cigarette, a Lucky Strike. A line break introduces the reader to the theme of the water, that element from which come all these silvery riches and that forms the source of this man’s life and livelihood. This separate section of six lines is tied to the first through the theme of color: In the water lie silver tree trunks.

The next section starts again with the water, an “element bearable to no mortal.” The narrator waxes whimsical with memories of singing hymns to a seal, then returns to the water. This is the same sea that the narrator has seen all over the world, yet here it is so cold that no one would even want to put in a hand, for it would make one’s bones ache; if one tasted it, the water would burn the tongue. This, the narrator reflects finally, “is like what we imagine knowledge to be.” The narrator then enumerates the qualities ascribed to knowledge that, in fact, are possessed by this water:

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.

Knowledge, one imagines, is all around, but at the same time it is an element in which one cannot live or even dip one’s limbs. Knowledge, furthermore, is inherently historical: a great stream of time that surrounds humankind, relative to an individual’s own precise situation.

The suggestion seems to be that knowledge, paralleled to this translucent and inviting—but, in fact, inhospitable—element, is ultimately unreachable. The best one can do is live on the land, scraping the scales from fish that have been taken from this medium. One may imagine knowledge to flow all around, and in fact it is the font of those things necessary for human sustenance. Yet at the same time one can never attain it; indeed, it is a medium too fine for such corporeal creatures as humans to experience directly.

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