Abstract for Week 5

by staffpostgraduate14

Elizabeth Bishop’s Work of Fire

“At the Fishhouses,” published in A Cold Spring (1955), is a metaphor for how art alters our relations to the present moment:

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.

Imagining what knowledge would be requires a transformation of thought and a shift in how we perceive and experience physical reality. The ‘Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,/the clear gray icy water’ is transfigured into the feel of burning fire, the elements transposed in the move from a visual perception of the water to a visceral experience of it. And what maps this metamorphosis? The individual human imagination coming into contact with reality, perceiving one thing as another in a poem or in ‘art in the present time’ as Emerson noted in ‘The Poet’ (1844). This paper reads Bishop’s understanding of the transfigurative nature of art in relation to Emerson’s concept of poets as the ‘children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted’ before moving on to consider this poem in particular alongside Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and Maurice Blanchot’s The Work of Fire (1949) to understand Bishop’s own take on the processes of art.

Dr Philip McGowan, Queen’s University Belfast