THE FISH

April 22, 2014

I’ve known Dave since I was seventeen; in the intervening years, he has taught me a great deal about a lot of things, but especially about poems and paying attention.  This guest post reflects so much of what I’ve learned from him and what I respect and treasure about him.  –Nishta

On the bus to work, I realize I haven’t seen a single thing for fifteen minutes.  Yes, yes: I have in some limited way seen the road and its yellow lines, the gray buildings lining the street, the outlines of people standing.  But I haven’t really looked, not like I could, not the real kind of looking.  My eyes are still asleep.

A reflection on Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" on Blue Jean Gourmet

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is an alarm, set to the highest volume.  The poem describes what it is like to catch a fish.  It also describes what it is like for a human being to wake from visual slumber and pay real attention to the world.

We learn that the fish is “tremendous,” that he is an ancient creature who has survived multiple attempts on his life.  His eyes are shallower than a human’s, but like human eyes they can “tip” toward the light.  Though he is a distinguished fish who seems to hail from a time before men, he now must breathe the “terrible oxygen” of the world.

 Unlike the fish’s eyes, we do not look into the speaker’s.  Rather, we look out from them– though they are nothing like a camera. They do not faithfully record the entire frame in front of them.  They roam from thing to thing and pluck out a vibrant detail: not the whole fish but his “brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper.”  The speaker follows these details to all the unusual places they lead.  The meaning, if you want to call it that, is in how the imagination links one visual detail to another and forms a narrative of images.

 “The Fish” describes what it is like to really look.  Such a simple task for a poem, yet the poem isn’t simple at all.  The only things that “happen” occur in the first line and the last.  The rest is looking.  But this looking is so consuming there is no time to pause, no time for long words.  The rhythm drives forward with no room left for a stanza break–hardly enough room to finish a thought before a new line must begin.  One sight leads to another, until we find all the colors have run together.

 Poems do many things. One thing they do is tell us to remember to look.  Perhaps what we will see is so rich and unusual that we must tell others about it.  “The Fish” reminds me why I read poems on the bus: to wake my eyes for the day.

The Fish

Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a 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,

and infested

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,

or four and a wire leader

with the swivel still attached,

with all their five big hooks

grown firmly in 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.

David Berry

David Berry grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Secret City of the Cumberland Mountains.  He met Nishta, a fellow Tennessean, at summer camp in 2000, and they have been friends ever since.  Since 2001, he has lived in Houston, where he more or less acclimated to life on a coastal plain.  Dave reads and sometimes writes poetry and is grateful to live in a city with a rich literary life.

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