Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester,
Massachusetts. Her father died before she was a year old; four years later, when
her mother suffered a mental breakdown, Bishop was taken to live with her
grandmother in Nova Scotia. Although her mother lived until 1934, Bishop saw her
for the last time in 1916, a visit recalled in one of her rare autobiographical
stories, "In the Village."
Bishop planned to enter Cornell Medical School
after graduating from Vassar, but was persuaded by poet Marianne Moore to become
a writer. For the next fifteen years, she was a virtual nomad, traveling in
Canada, Europe, and North and South America. In 1951, she finally settled in Rio
de Janeiro, where she lived for almost twenty years. During the final decade of
her life, Bishop continued to travel, but she resumed living in the United
States and taught frequently at Harvard.
She was an austere writer, publishing only four
slim volumes of poetry: North and South (1946); A Cold Spring
(1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Questions of Travel (1965); and Geography
III (1976),which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award. The
Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1984) was published after her death, as was a
collection of her prose. Despite her modest output, she has earned an enduring
place of respect among twentieth-century poets.
Visit the links
page for Elizabeth Bishop sites.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside my boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in the corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip--
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
of four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly into his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.