What We Imagine Knowledge to Be: James Gleick Reads Elizabeth Bishop
“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…”
By Maria Popova
This question of how we wade through the darkness of the unknown to evolve the way we see and understand the world was at the heart of a very different poem that became a highlight of the second annual Universe in Verse — “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979), found in her posthumously published Poems (public library). Reading it for us, with a magnificent prefatory meditation, was James Gleick — not only a science writer of that rare enchanter category, but a philosopher of science and unparalleled historian of ideas; a writer who, whether he is exploring time travel or the history of information or the life of Isaac Newton, takes the facts of things and wrests from them something larger, something more interconnected — a kind of knowledge about knowledge out of which arises the lattice of understanding we call wisdom.
What a rare privilege to have one of the greatest science writers humanity has produced read and reflect on one of the greatest poets.
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.
For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha reading Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov, poet Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, and poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, then revisit Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life.
Published August 31, 2018