In their poems “At the Fishhouses” and “For the Union Dead”, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell respectively examine the landscapes of their childhoods as a means of determining what is lost in mankind’s strives towards modernity and what survives. Both poets utilize strong imagery to depict their worn locales and each narrator retains a childlike wonder despite, or perhaps due to, the crushing weight they bear as witnesses to a time gone by. But their perceptions of this loss create distinct representations of the same fate of fading in the Anthropocene: while Bishop’s little town will be lost just as Venice sinks into the sea, the downtown Lowell wanders will be lost in great strokes of tragedy as was done to Hiroshima. Those left behind in “At the Fishhouses” are witnesses, whereas those in “For the Union Dead” are survivors of history.
“At the Fishhouses” begins with a description of a scene that seems eternally suspended. The verbs in the opening stanzas are stative, “the five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs,” “all is silver,” “the big fish tubs are completely lined,” and, “on the slope . . . is an ancient wooden capstan.” Yet Bishop’s descriptions insist that the scene she observes is the product of continual changes brought on both by nature and the society which has resided within it: the man’s shuttle is “worn and polished,” the ironwork on the capstan “has rusted,” the buildings have “an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls.” Such details imply that, should she return in later decades, she would find a different scene in which these processes of erosion, decay, and growth were further advanced, but the settings she views in the poem would still be present. Despite the passing of time these monuments to the toils of man continue to stand resolute.
The fixed nature of the setting is further undercut once the speaker becomes an active participant in the narrative, offering the old man a Lucky Strike and engaging him in conversation. With her entrance the reminders of historical process become overt: “he was a friend of my grandfather” implies her grandfather’s death, and “the decline of the population” tells of broader changes occurring within the seaside town or within the sea itself. The knife the old man uses to scale the fish has been whittled down to nothing, however he continues his work and, “There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb” as there have assuredly been for decades. He remains, a testament to a time seemingly gone by, but still recognizable to the casual viewer within this physical space.
In being presented as a symbol for that which has seemingly passed, the old man develops an identity as the story’s witness: be it to a past that can no longer be touched by the narrator or to his own history being enveloped by the sea in real time. He exists as witness, rather than as survivor, due to the perceived passivity of his action. The old man continues in his daily toil, executing the same duties with pauses only to recall that which has fallen behind him. He is not responsive to the tragedy occurring, merely mentioning the “declining populations” rather than addressing them head on. Nor is he memorialized for the deeds he has done, the fading town watches in abject apathy as he continues to produce the same labors he always has, with his knife turned to a nub and the shorn scales of the fish the closest thing to a celebration of his efforts. In contrast to those left behind with Lowell, the old man retains his original form and sense of duty, where Colonel Shaw became a simulacrum and the other remnants became inorganic tools to be utilized, the narrator’s family acquaintance is permitted to continue his work, his purpose within society remaining widely unacknowledged but static until he presumably dies.
Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” expands upon this context of the individual experience of time and loss with senses distinct from those of Bishop. In his vignettes, Lowell presents the myriad ramifications of loss, and how each is remembered within the postmodern society of Boston; these grandiose expanses of memorials to things lost and the lost themselves contrast the narrower interpersonal perspective on history that Bishop’s provincial setting invokes. Vanished buildings, displaced monuments, misplaced childhoods, crumbling traditions, frayed dignity, and annihilated cities are represented in successive quatrains through the eyes of the poet reviewing the changes which have overtaken his native city.
As with Bishop, Lowell tellingly objectifies the process of loss by his persistent attention to visual stimuli. The first stanza is passive,
The old South Boston Aquarium standsin a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.The airy tanks are dry.
Lowell is merely examining, rather than reacting to, this testament to a time gone by. Now a diminished survivor, this aquarium is just the first of many attenuated monuments that populate the poem. Saint-Gaudens’s “shaking Civil War relief,” is now “propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake,” and the neighboring Statehouse has relinquished its own traditional centrality and dignity as well. Braced and held upright by girders and gouged out underneath to make room for a parking garage, it appears a symbolic victim of the modern, mechanical society that persistently displaces the traditional past in both this poem and, to a lesser degree, in Bishop’s.
These physical symbols of local cultural attrition provide the context for losses of a different order in Lowell’s poem. The death of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment during the Civil War represents a lofty philosophical significance in Lowell’s narrative that could not have been achieved without the visual of the “bronzed Negroes” immortalized in their fight in the twentieth century; a harsh reminder of the racially charged fight in midcentury Boston, where “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” as they fight for desegregated schools. Modern senses of loss and destruction are further represented by an advertisement of “Hiroshima boiling”, adding another modern balance to the losses presented by Colonel Shaw’s memorial.
Just as Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” presents its catalog of losses, it also presents a peculiar parallel for its survivors: as with Bishop, almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but still it stands. Its “cowed, compliant fish” may be no more, but a “bronze weathervane cod” still sits atop the roof, having, “lost half its scales” just as the fish in Bishop’s poem lost all that was beautiful about them, too. Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:
Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations of what once was. Some of the poem’s many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, living on in the form of monuments. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer the same physical erosion seen in “At the Fishhouses” and, in the opinion of Lowell, a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect. Distinct from the more natural processes of Bishop, there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial immortality.
This focus on the modern obsession with materialism and profit is not as present in Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” In “For the Union Dead” Lowell uses the temporary displacement of Saint-Gaudens’s bronze relief of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment in a context awash in parking lots, finned cars, and crass commercialization, to create “a plain and physically correct symbol” for the violent yet barely conscious displacement of mourning in the postmodern world he resides in. While Bishop did write on the disconcerting onset of a devouring commercialism, even going so far as to move to Brazil, in part to evade the mass-production culture that was increasingly dominating her native land, this poem does not exist as a critique of this cultural shift (Midcentury Quartet, 1999) . “The decline of the population” remains shrouded in ambiguity, and the only line which may vaguely hold the critical lens is that of, “a million Christmas trees stand/ waiting for Christmas.” The act of survival for Lowell, be it via memorial or mechanical service, inevitably pertains to a sense of material desire.
The displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors to the concept of the simulacrum. It preserves in vicarious stasis its “bronze Negroes,” who maintain a curious simulation of life mirrored by the “stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s],” who “doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns.” But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat” as an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in the bustling downtown of Boston. Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem’s protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized: Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing.
He is a reminder of the past just as Bishop’s old man is in “At the Fishhouses”. Both remain inflexible in their pursuit, and this places them on the margins of the contemporary culture the poets are exploring. For Lowell, “He is out of bounds now./ He rejoices in man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die—/ when he leads his black soldiers to death,/ he cannot bend his back.” Just as for Bishop, with the old man and the sea “I have seen it over and over,/ the same sea, the same,/ slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones/ free above the stones,/ above the stones and then the world.”Though Colonel Shaw represents an almost oppressive maturity, childhood remains a constant presence throughout the poem, and despite facing the great expanse of local history with all its losses, the gestures and wishes of childhood persist in the adult. The child’s awareness is introduced in the second stanza, which generates much of the poem’s continuing imagery. The child whose “nose crawled like a snail on the glass” of the aquarium parallels the adult who “pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence on the Boston Common.” The child’s impulse “to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish” suggests a temptation toward violent gesture that is echoed throughout the poem. Though the impulse to violence is later transferred to other figures, it is first seen in the speaker, with his yearning for “the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile” that reflects a yearning to reach back through the pre-moral awareness of early childhood to the amoral awareness of the “lower vertebrates.”
The body of the poem frequently echoes this yearning to escape from cognition and the pain of historical awareness and self-consciousness and responsibility, an escape that the leaders of Boston seem already to have achieved. It might also imply a yearning for the freedom to act on baser instinct, a freedom shared by the lower vertebrates but rejected by Colonel Shaw. The “Parking spaces” that “luxuriate like civic / sandpiles in the heart of Boston” suggest this lingering childishness in the minds of the city’s urban planners. But the speaker of the poem is not exempt. When he crouches before his television set to watch the “Negro school-children,” he is mimicking his own action as a child peering through the glass of the fish tank; despite his prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, unwittingly lost in wonder.Bishop remains tied to her own personal history as well, as she too feels the burden of understanding the fading histories of her hometown, though this is not expressed as explicitly as is done in “For the Union Dead.” In her seaside town scales plaster everything, just as young children are seemingly perpetually covered in glitter; the “sequins” turn her fading society iridescent, covering a harsh truth in a beautiful gleaming armor, a gold leaf preservation, hiding the cracks and the rotting wood. She listens eagerly to the stories of her elders and sings to a seal, personifying him with attributes such as curiosity and mannerisms such as casual shrugs. Despite the, “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,/ element bearable to no mortal,” that she is faced with upon looking out of this fading town, she, as with Lowell, retains a sense of childlike wonder, unable to remove herself from her most human characteristic as she examines the world and man’s effect on it in the widest possible lens.
In gazing through this wide lens, the question of what is lost and what remains seems a natural conclusion. For Bishop, the characters in “At the Fishhouses” witness the slow destruction of their history and carry on, whether due to or in spite of losing their footing in the Anthropocene is a matter of speculation. Regardless, the old man was able to persevere, gazing out to a changing scenescape but not irreparably changed as the characters in “For the Union Dead” have become. Lowell presents the loss of history as an occurrence that arrives with sweeping strokes: every step towards modernity leads to the eviction of swaths of the past. Despite their myriad similarities, Bishop and Lowell view the nature of time and loss from diametrically opposed positions. Bishop views the loss of the seaside town as an organic process; first the city grows and thrives, then it slowly fades into disrepair and unto death. Lowell, in contrast, sees the loss of Boston’s history as man-made, as choices, conscious or no, to gold plate certain memories and gut others.
The old man is witness rather than survivor because his place is to thrive and fall with the town: one does not survive the organic process of death, merely bears witness to it until it can be seen no more. The soldiers in Boston were able to become testaments to a message from the past much needed in Lowell’s present: they survived the city’s spring cleaning of its history because they felt they had no choice. Colonel Shaw had something to say about the present, the old man speaks only in comparison to the past. Loss in all its forms is inherently fraught and inscrutable, but in these poetic observations both Bishop and Lowell found ways to address and come to terms with the nature of their shifting Anthropocene, watching it walk past them as all they understand fades into memory.