Personal Response to ‘the Fish, ‘Filling Station’ and ‘the Prodigal’ by Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop is a woman full of memories and extraordinary stories to tell about her travels. Her poetry is based on everyday experiences. However, the way Bishop observes and meditates on these experiences makes them extraordinary, unique and fascinating experiences. The poetry of Bishop reveals a fascination with places and things that would not ordinarily be considered beautiful or poetic. In The Fish for example, she describes ‘The Fish’ in what I think is a horrifying way with grotesque images such as the insides of the fish.
She describes the boat as rusty, something that seems ugly and unpleasant to look at and far from picturesque. The Prodigal is particularly unpleasant and the stench is sickening. The imagery used in the Filling Station is also vivid and dirty. Bishop also has moments of insight where she reflects back on the topic of the poem and realizes the moment of epiphany. What I find interesting is the excellent way in which Bishop creates a story with a moment of insight and an incredible eye for detail. The Fish is based on an actual experience the poet had when fishing at Key West, Florida, and catching a huge Caribbean Jewfish.
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The poem is written as one long narrative with a beginning, middle and end. I think this is a great way to connect with the reader because it sounds almost like a fairytale that the reader might have read at a younger age. The unrhymed structure also creates an expression of a speaking voice, with the exception of the last two lines which rhyme and give a sense of closure to the poem. Her use of colour and vivid imagery makes it even more realistic- “fine rosettes of lime” , “white flesh” etc. I loved her use of repetition because it puts emphasis on the point.
The fact that “he didn’t fight/ He hadn’t fought at all. ” is a huge contrast to hi “five-haired beard of wisdom”. The fish was a survivor who had survived five battles and has the “five big hooks, grown firmly in his mouth” to prove it. I find it awe-inspiring that Bishop had a moment of epiphany and was able to see this in the fish and wanted to give it another chance to fight. She had a moment of insight where she “stared and stared” and realized that the fish had been through. She recognised her own survival instinct in it.
Her repetition of “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” made me think about the fact that the moment won’t last forever even though she “let the fish go”. The imagery in Filling Station is vivid and dirty- “Oh, but it is dirty! ” There is no introduction or explanation which I think might be because of the fact that the title sets the scene. The “Oh” is spontaneous and gives the word “dirty” extra force with the exclamation mark. In this as in The Fish and many of Bishop’s poems we begin with the place and Bishop’s description of it, but by the end of the poem, the experience has expanded to include wider, deeper issues.
The image of the filling station is a “a disturbing, over-all black translucency” . Bishop keeps emphasising the point that the filling station is dirty and gives it an air of masculinity to it by mentioning “Father” and “greasy sons”. I like the way Bishop questions whether they live in the station which in return makes the reader wanting the answers. The imagery she broadcasts becomes quite homely and domestic “quite comfy”, “comic books”. I find it really interesting when Bishop brings an air of femininity to the poem- “a big dim doily”, “a big hirsute begonia”, “embroidered in daisy stitch”.
She is fascinated to know what a family is like and realizes that whoever embroidered the doily, whoever waters the plants, arranges the oil cans “so that they softly say: ESSO-So-So-So”, is a “somebody” never named. There is, it would seem, always someone doing small, almost unnoticeable little acts of kindness which reflect our ability as humans to care, to shape, to bring order. They are not always names and they do not need to be named, but the world is a better place because of them. This “Somebody” personally reminds me of my mother who makes the place we live in, a home.
The last line is astonishing. It is a short sentence and is a comforting thought with which to end. Just like ‘The Fish’ it is the epiphany moment. It is a very effective ending when we see how this dirty filling station when observed closely reveals the truth and insight- “Somebody loves us all”. The Prodigal is written in a very interesting form- a double sonnet. Although it includes the imagery of a similarly disgusting place to the Filling Station or The Fish and also an epiphany, there is a difference. The epiphany is difficult and Bishop captures this really well in this poem.
I felt extremely sorry for the prodigal because he has to live in the “brown enormous odor” which is plastered with “glass-smooth dung” and a “sow that always ate her young” I found this particular image “sickening” and the fact that the prodigal just “leaned to scratch her head” showed me that he has become a part of that place. He hides his alcohol as if he’s ashamed to drink his life away but can’t seem to help it. Bishop captures this really well by putting it in brackets and I think it may have to do with personal experience what she knows the life and mind of an alcoholic- “(he hid the pints behind a two-by-four)”.
The use of “but” at the beginning of line nine indicates hope and “but” also beginning the second section/stanza of The Prodigal, this time to signal a change of direction. I found it really fascinating Bishop changes the “rotten” place to a comfortable and “safe” place. The farmer brings the light and makes sure that the animals are safe and “companionable”. I feel pity for the prodigal because no one is there to make sure if he is safe. The prodigal learns from the bats, similar to Bishop who learns from the fish. He “felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight”.
The fact that the bats are staggering, just like the prodigal, but they still take flight seems to make him realize that he could take flight too even though it would be an extremely difficult decision. The third “but” in the final sentence is used with great effect and indicating how it wasn’t an easy and sudden decision to return home. It’s a battle Bishop knows too. I could feel his fear and realized that it’s his pride at stake. He seems to realize he can’t continue drinking which is not easy for him. Home is a difficult place to go to and Bishop cleverly shows his by using the half-rhyme “Home” which is not in harmony and a little out of tune- “But it took him a long time to finally make up his mind to go home”. What I loved most in all three of Bishop’s poems is the moment of insight- the epiphany. I found it interesting how a woman with such great vocabulary used very simple language in her poetry instead. Bishop, in my opinion can tell a whole story in just a few lines and it would be more interesting than a novel to me. Bishop, for me is one of the best poets I have studied.