Comparing Bishop

’s "At The Fishhouses" And Rich’s "Diving Into The Wreck" Essay, Research Paper Roger Gilbert Two of their most familiar and oft-anthologized

’s "At The Fishhouses" And Rich’s "Diving Into The
Wreck" Essay, Research Paper

Roger Gilbert

Two of their most familiar and oft-anthologized

poems—Bishop’s "At the Fishhouses" and Rich’s "Diving Into the

Wreck"—reveal some surprising affinities of trope and language while casting

into relief the fundamental differences between the poets, which revolve around questions

of knowledge, history, and, in a key metaphor for both poems, immersion. Most prominently,

both poems allegorize the sea as a medium of pure knowing wholly distinct from the

compromised, constructed world above. Bishop famously says of the icy water off Nova

Scotia that "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" (66). "Historical" in this final line

assumes a double meaning: Our knowledge is necessarily historical inasmuch as it occurs in

time and is therefore subject to the transience of all temporal things, "flowing and

flown"; but it is also knowledge of history, of the lives and events that precede our

own and give it meaning. Thus the history of this particular Nova Scotia fishing village

proves to be closely bound up with Bishop’s own painful childhood and its formation of her

present self. The old man the speaker meets near the water "was a friend of my

grandfather," she tells us, and like the "ancient wooden capstan" with its

"melancholy stains, like dried blood," his presence speaks of a past beyond

recovery. "We talk of the decline in the population," she reports dryly, her

euphemistic language failing to obscure that the real subject of their conversation is

death—her grandfather’s included, as the "was" in the preceding line

poignantly attests.

Rich’s allegory is no less clear-cut than Bishop’s, but she is not quite as explicit in

her association of the sea with knowledge, choosing at first to characterize it by

negation: "the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I

have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep

element" (Fact 163). The world of the "sun-flooded schooner" with

its "sundry equipment" of ladders, knives, books, and masks is governed, like

the human world at large, by the will to power, the effort to master and subjugate one’s

environment. But the sea does not yield to such efforts, requiring a different approach,

gradual, patient, "without force." As becomes clear in the course of the poem,

this is because the sea marks a dimension beyond the reach of change, action, or

intervention. Like memory, the sea preserves traces of past traumas that can only be

inspected, acknowledged, and laboriously brought to light, never revised or effaced. Like

Bishop’s sea, then, Rich’s is ineluctably historical, but unlike Bishop’s, the kind of

knowledge it contains is not "flowing and flown" but stable, solid, "more

permanent than fish or weed." The wreck is not going anywhere.

If both poems draw metaphorical maps in which the sea embodies a pure or imagined

knowledge beyond the reach of all human agency, they differ crucially in the ways they

approach this alien realm. The two poems share a fundamentally downward trajectory; both

begin above sea level and then chart an incremental descent that carries them past its

threshold. Bishop and Rich employ similar poetic devices to evoke this movement, crafting

strongly transitional passages that mimic in their cadence and syntax the sinking motions

they describe. Bishop’s passage is especially ingenious in its interplay of form and


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.

This passage itself forms the descending ramp it names, made up of regular horizontal

lines each containing "four or five feet." The corresponding passage in Rich’s

poem also gives a drumlike emphasis to the word down:

I go down.

Rung after rung and still

the oxygen immerses me

the blue light

the clear atoms

of our human air.

I go down.

My flippers cripple me,

I crawl like an insect down the ladder

and there is no one

to tell me when the ocean

will begin.

In both passages the transition from land to sea is measured and gradual, but in Rich’s

poem it is quite clearly a matter of active agency, a willed descent undertaken in the

face of enormous difficulty. Bishop is more circumspect; she merely registers the means of

descent without evoking an individual act. Her greater ambivalence toward this route may

be gauged by the clashing vectors named in her passage—" Down at the

water’s edge, at the place / where they haul up the boats, up the long

ramp / descending into the water" (my emphasis)—creating a push-pull

effect rather than the impression of steady, purposeful movement given by Rich’s lines.

Both poets also signal the transition to a more fluid medium by loosening or abandoning

punctuation; Bishop describes the water as "Cold dark deep and absolutely

clear," omitting the commas she would normally place after the first three

adjectives, while Rich makes a more dramatic elision to suggest the diver’s felt loss

of control in an alien element: "First the air is blue and then / it is bluer and

then / green and then / black I am blacking out and yet / my mask is powerful."

Again, however, what sets their approaches most dramatically apart is the degree of

willfulness each brings to the water and the dark knowledge it represents. Bishop’s

speaker does not, of course, physically enter the sea as Rich’s does, only surmising its

effects on her body ("If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache

immediately"); but even in her imaginary descent she seems halting and full of

trepidation, casting about for distractions in something close to a panic. After calling

the sea an "element bearable to no mortal," she offers the typically Bishopian

self-correction "to fish and to seals," thus opening the way for a digression

about a particular seal that briefly dispels the gathering sense of menace. Playfully

invoking debates over the proper method of Christian baptism, Bishop reports that this

seal is "like me a believer in total immersion," a line with clear implications

for the poem’s allegory of knowledge. Yet like Bishop’s speaker, the seal’s behavior seems

to belie such firm belief, as it anxiously hovers on the threshold between the two

elements: "he would disappear, then suddenly emerge / almost in the same spot,

with a sort of shrug / as if it were against his better judgment." The seal’s

tentative probing of the dangerous world above the water closely mirrors the speaker’s

reluctant engagement with the sea, an element she acknowledges to be "bearable to no


As though drawn irresistibly back to the water, the speaker next repeats her earlier

formulation—"Cold dark deep and absolutely clear"—then tears her eyes

away once more: "Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin." After

another quick descriptive interlude she returns for a last time to the sea, now forcibly

maintaining her gaze: "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." In a characteristic bit of metaphorical sleight of

hand, Bishop inverts the usual mapping of land and water, placing the sea "above the

stones and then the world" (my emphasis) as if to reinforce its status as a dimension

of knowledge detached from and indifferent to all worldly particulars. The hypnotic

repetitions in these lines hint at the speaker’s tormented relation to the sea, betraying

a compulsive, almost masochistic drive to enter its deathly space. She knows too well what

the results of such contact must be, though: "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."

I’ve already cited the allegorizing passage that ends the poem, disclosing in a somber

epiphany that this corrosive element that entices and destroys is knowledge in its purest

state. What the poem stages with great power is the profound ambivalence toward knowledge

that energizes much of Bishop’s work. Her poetry repeatedly locates itself on the

threshold between aesthetic and cognitive modes of apprehension, feeling and recording the

pull of each, yet unwilling to immerse itself completely in either. Bishop’s penchant for

picturesque description—the celebrated "eye" once invoked by critics to

relegate her to minor status—certainly appears in "At the Fishhouses,"

particularly the poem’s first half, with its lovingly textured account of a landscape

plastered with herring scales; but its presence there serves chiefly to set off the

colorless, homogenous, cold realm of knowledge that waits below.

Where "At the Fishhouses" remains uneasily poised on the margin that divides

land and sea, unwilling to do more than conjecturally dip a hand into the chill water,

"Diving Into the Wreck" takes the full plunge, in keeping with Rich’s more

aggressive stance toward knowledge. Rich’s diver is of course much better equipped than

Bishop’s speaker to enter the hostile element, with her mask, wet suit, and flippers; for

her the boundary is there to be crossed, not gingerly tested and probed. Thus, while

Bishop’s poem divides itself symmetrically between the fishhouses and the water,

positioning the ramp-passage as a kind of fulcrum, Rich’s poem takes place almost entirely

underwater, with only the most cursory reference to a world above. Indeed the language

used to narrate the diver’s initial descent suggests it is what she calls the "human

air," not the water, that threatens to drown her: "Rung after rung and still the

oxygen immerses me" (my emphasis). The dull atmosphere of ordinary human

affairs is itself an immersing element, Rich insists, to be cast off through total

immersion in the more bracing element of historical memory. Rich is as conscious of the

hazards the sea presents as Bishop is, yet she forces herself to confront them because the

knowledge she envisions there is not simply fatal but potentially redemptive as well. The

poets’ differing conceptions of knowledge are clearly reflected in their central tropes:

Whereas Bishop identifies knowledge with the sea itself—gray, undifferentiated,

numbingly abstract—Rich makes of the sea a medium through which more specific,

localized objects of knowledge like the wreck can be encountered and explored. Unlike

Bishop’s paralyzing generality, the cautionary knowledge Rich seeks can be put to use,

carried back to the surface and translated into action, and so warrants the kind of active

questing her speaker undertakes.

Another key point of contrast between the two poems involves the place of beauty in

their allegories of knowledge. In Bishop’s poem, beauty is located entirely above the

water, among the weathered fishhouses and tubs lined "with layers of beautiful

herring scales." It’s here that the speaker encounters the old man who has

"scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old

knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away." That scraping movement

serves as another powerful emblem for this poem’s vision of knowledge, which entails a

remorseless expunging of beauty and sensual particularity so as to arrive at the cold gray

substance of truth. Rich’s diver also carries a knife whose blade she dutifully checks,

but her excavations lead her toward beauty rather than away from it: Even as

the wreck bears witness to damage and disaster, she tells us, it has been "worn by

salt and sway into this threadbare beauty ." Again we can surmise that it is the

redemptive, nearly utopian potential Rich ascribes to the knowledge of disaster that lends

it beauty, where Bishop finds in it only beauty’s antithesis. By positing an aesthetic

reward at journey’s end, Rich shows that her impulse to descend into the harsh element of

historical knowledge is neither masochistic nor purely altruistic. If Bishop’s poem is a

psychodrama that stages or enacts a central ambivalence, Rich’s poem is essentially

didactic, meant to instruct and embolden us in our own quests for difficult knowledge.

from "Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne

Rich" Twentith Century Literature (Summer 1997)