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The Fish

By Camille Dungy

yellowfin tuna

Once or twice a year I shut off my cell phone and computer and spend a stretch of time in the great wide open.  Or in some approximation of the great wide open.  I always get plenty of juice out there, and I come back refreshed and full of ideas.  That’s where I’ve been the last couple weeks, Harriet, running out in the great wide open.  (Cue sound clip for open breeze.) This summer’s trip took me to the Monterey Bay, site of North American’s largest underwater canyon (think the Grand Canyon, submarine style), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, more Steinbeck placards than even I, an avid placard reader, could read, and a fish or two. All the fish, fishers, and fishing boats got me to thinking of my favorite fish poems.  Now that I’m plugged in again, I thought I’d share a few.  As ever, I’d love to hear what fish poems strike you, too.

First, of course, there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”  Rarely do I hear the word “rainbow” without thinking of the way Bishop’s poem streams towards its last lines.  I love nearly everything about this poem, the flowing description of the “tremendous” fish caught by the speaker and held “half out of water” beside her boat; the skin that “hung in strips/like ancient wallpaper” (not the way I think of fish at all, and yet (yes!) I see it when Bishop describes it so; the barnacles and “fine rosettes of lime”; even the “tiny white sea-lice.” I see the gills “breathing in/ the terrible oxygen,” the fear she describes the fish registering, and I love the way, just at the moment she gives the fish feelings, she reminds us how tasty it might be thanks to its “coarse white flesh/ packed in like feathers.”  And then, as if to shame me for feeling greedy in this way, proprietary of this fish, Bishop takes me back to its resignation, and its fight, the “sullen eye” and then the description of all the struggles it has hitherto endured such that we witness, with Bishop, because of Bishop, the remains, “grim, wet, and weaponlike,” of “five old/ pieces of fish-line… with all their five big hooks/grown firmly in his mouth….Like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/ a five-haired beard of wisdom/
trailing from his aching jaw.”  And then this ending, an ending that knocks me out every time:

…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.

I can’t see a picture of a trophy fish without thinking of Bishop’s poem, and never do I see that pool of bilge one sometimes sees around water without hearkening back to Bishop’s description.  Here’s a poem that has rewritten the way I see the world.  What a tremendous fish, indeed.

My favorite creatures at the aquarium, creatures that changed the way I think about life on earth, were the leafy sea dragon and the brown sea nettle, but I don’t know any poems about them.  And I loved the blue fin tuna and the yellowfin.  Also the octopus.  (Martin, your recipe, if you ever send it, will reach me too late. I’ve officially sworn off eating octopus.  Hate to eat any animal that might beat me at chess.)  My husband was enchanted by the schools of sardines, and they were lovely, all silver streak and forward-rushing flash.  But every few mentions of sardines made me think of Toi Derricotte’s poem “My Dad & Sardines.”  And every time we walked past another placard reminding us of the history of the place where we stood, the millions of tons of canned sardines that passed across conveyor belts on cannery row, I thought it must have been to feed people like Derricotte’s father who “loved/ sardines– right before bed—with/ onions & mustard.”  Of course, the war effort, and fish feed, and the European and Asian markets helped deplete the Monterey Bay’s stock of sardines too, but, still, there must have been more than a few men like Derricotte’s father who relished the taste of canned sardines before bed.

For awhile, it seemed there would be plenty of the luminescent schools of sardines to keep all of these appetites satisfied. In the 1930’s, when the sardine factories in Monterey were operating at their peak, nearly three-quarters of a million tons of sardines were processed annually.  (If my unplugged-placard-reading-recollection serves me, the quota these days is set at about 80,000 tons a year).    All sorts of things drove the increase in sardine catches, one of them being a new style of fishing boat called the purse-seine.

I just love it when I’m geeking out on placards and run across some word or line or phrase that makes me think of a poem.  In this particular case, I thought, standing there in the absolutely wonderful (and rhyme-ful) Monterey Bay Aquarium, “Gee, they ought to post Roberson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine” here to give folks an idea of what such an enormous fish haul might have looked like.  Of course, the aquarium did not (despite all the lovely rhyming placards they had in the children’s section to make sure the kids— and their parents— carried their new knowledge home). For one thing, Jeffers’s poem is fairly long.  And a fair portion of it has nothing to do with sardines and the purse seine fishing technique at all.  I forget, sometimes, how Jeffers’s poem swings out wide, taking its lens beyond the ocean and its netted fish and sighing sea lions and up to a mountaintop, the better to look down on the city dwellers who depend on the fishermen’s catch and so much more without even realizing their dependence.  It’s a fascinating, telescoping poem, half lyric half preachy, part wistful part vengeful, a little bit melancholy and a little bit holier-than-thou.  The poem intrigues me, and also startles me a little, and that’s part of why I like it so much.

The aquarium did not include a copy of the Jeffers poem with its description of the purse-seine fishing fleet, but I will (adding here the caveat that Harriet’s blog software doesn’t allow me to indent at will and so Jeffers’s ragged margins cannot be repeated in this post, lo siento).  Since Jeffers has so much to say on the subjects of fish, fishermen, and the eaters of fish, I’ll let him have the final words:

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark
of the moon; daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net,
unable to see the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting
Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color
light on the sea’s night-purple; he points,
and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the
gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net.
They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great
labor haul it in.

I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible,
then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall
to the other of their closing destiny the
phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body
sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside
the narrowing
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up
to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls
of night
Stand erect to the stars.

Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light:
how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how
beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet
they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
powers–or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls–or anarchy,
the mass-disasters.
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria,
splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are
quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.

Comments (10)

  • On June 24, 2009 at 6:45 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    As someone who lived on the sea for many years and is now landlocked, as someone who has North Sea salt in his veins and now everything is seasoned with fish sauce, as someone who is carrying a winnowing fan over his shoulder and nobody even thinks it might be an oar, an aging Odysseus that far from the sea, I love this article, Camille. Such vivid marine language and visceral, sea-light colors–what a lot of radiance you bring home with your catch!

    Christopher

  • On June 24, 2009 at 7:54 am Aseem Kaul wrote:

    I’d love to hear what fish poems strike you, too

    Ted Hughes, Pike

  • On June 24, 2009 at 9:45 am Don Share wrote:

    Check out all these here fish poems:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/search.html?q=fish&refinement=poems&disp_type=Poems

    One of my faves is Frank Stanford’s “The Snake Doctors,” a rather scary poem.

  • On June 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm Ken Peterson wrote:

    This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing the poems that your visit inspired. Really remarkable writers, all. — Ken Peterson, Monterey Bay Aquarium

  • On June 24, 2009 at 3:06 pm thomas brady wrote:

    The Fish

    As a boy I learned to accept the fishes’ death.
    On fishing trips with my grandfather I silently hoped the fish
    Would somehow live. After a long drive from the lake,

    When the trunk of the car was opened,
    The pickerels would still be breathing,
    Their gills quivering in the murderous air.
    I sensed my grandfather’s indifference;
    Sorrow brooded without sound on my lips
    As I watched the straight, wet creatures staring,
    Their fins, nor their scales, able to help them.

    What pity I felt for stern fish who solemnly lazed in streams,
    Inscrutable monsters who lived in the flood!
    And now a sad excitement comes on me like a flood,
    Weakening everything in me but memory,
    Death disguised in dreams,
    Dreams of dream lakes, peering within.

    Fishing in dreams, the fish
    Of strange dimensions brushing by each other, writhing,
    Beautiful, mysterious, hidden partially by the dark.

    Before I hooked a worm or caught a fish, and sex
    Was only something I knew disguised,
    I dreamed of two creatures,
    One fat, one long, struggling to the death
    In a wooden tub of water, barely large enough to hold them,
    A scene which changed my innocence innocently.

    I founded my religion in a pond.
    You could see me hunched over on summer days
    In the slime where salamanders were hiding.

    I feared for the safety of worms
    We used for bait. Because fish devoured worms, I felt
    Less pity for fish and gradually I felt less pity
    And sorrow for all.

    I cannot describe what I felt in my heart when I saw a minnow
    In the mouth of a snake.

    Does anyone know what death is just before it happens?
    Some say we long to know it all the time.
    Poetry hints at it, with sounds of words
    Saying what is underlying, when snakes
    Sense what the child knows when unkindness is by.

    Here’s the brook, the forest, the hungry trout,
    The dream of sex which is not sex,
    The hungry sweetness of it all,
    The sunlight, the mist, the mad-life child.

    You returned from the woods with your books,
    After reading against a tree,
    Nature and flies annoyed you,
    You brought your books back; poetry failed you;
    Poetry in books was too full of silences,
    The wood too full of noises.

    And when sex, the adolescent feeling sex,
    Suddenly comes for the first time
    While just lying on your bedroom floor, alone;
    You live with it, you marry it,
    It keeps you company,
    Through the years,
    And poetry, lying in open secret,
    Becomes your companion too.

    If only we could get back
    To the dream of sex which is not sex,
    The prince, the arms, the tan face,
    The castle, the explanations, mother, father,
    Brother, sister, the conquering, the sand,
    The waters, the coughing, the poetry,
    The light just above you as you look up,
    You’re a fish, swimming towards the boy,
    The boy in the boat with his grandfather,
    The boy is listening to his grandfather tell a joke;

    You will interrupt, you will startle the boy’s line;
    You will be pulled up on the boat,
    You will be kept, to die, slowly,
    And the boy will no longer know what to think.
    But the idea was to die for him.
    The idea was to save his life.

    • On June 24, 2009 at 8:33 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

      Such a rich poem, Tom, and so much from the inside of childhood, sex and fishing. The most secret inside of it, the water under the little bank, the bare hands around it.

      In Scotland the salmon mount all the great rivers to spawn, and everybody knows the photograph of the fly fisherman with his waders, tweed hat and jacket casting for the trophy in the late afternoon water. But grown-up fishermen never get them all, now or ever, and the kings of the river continue up and up their dwindling domain over falls and rapids until, thin and pale and desperate, they slow to a standstill under the bank of a small rivulet way up in the Dumfries hills not far from the shepherd’s cottage. Tommy MacTaggart, tough but small for us age, knows that, and when no one’s looking he creeps out to the edge of the brook on all fours and reaches a long, thin arm down into the water as far as it can go under the bank until there’s a body moving between his fingers. And he grabs, with both hands now, and has the whole Atlantic in his hands!

      That’s called in the local Scot’s dialect “guddling,” and it’s illegal–but I never saw that deter a boy.

      Thanks so much for that, Tom–I think you’d be surprised how many times I’ll read it.

      And the other poem I have of course in mind is Stanley Kunitz’s “King of the River.”

      Christopher

    • On June 25, 2009 at 2:53 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

      Rich beautiful poem, Thomas. of being a boy. of being a man. who is human. merci.
      margo

  • On June 25, 2009 at 1:44 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Dear Harriet,

    As in all the few poems I’ve read by Thomas Brady, in other words the ones he’s accidentally dropped over the edge of the boat in which he’s still just cutting bait, like this one, he writes about everything but what he’s really doing which is getting ready for the really big strike, the one that will make all those years of anonymity and waiting worthwhile.

    This poem is no exception—for it’s about the ultimate poetry just as much as Seamus Heaney’s “A Daylight Art” is about the ultimate poetry, and just as good.

    And just as confident in its narrative art, and just as fine and free of clutter–not trying to be poetry because the craft has become the art.

    Does anyone know what death is just before it happens?

    Some say we long to know it all the time.
    Poetry hints at it, with sounds of words
    Saying what is underlying, when snakes

    Sense what the child knows when unkindness is by.

    . . . . . . . .

    You brought your books back; poetry failed you;
    Poetry in books was too full of silences…

    And the wonderful thing about this poem is that all you can do is read it again and again and let it happen all on its own. It’s not a good choice for a class or workshop, in other words, because you’re paid to talk about it there, not just read it. But if you don’t read it and let it happen in and through itself this poem doesn’t do its thing any more than those fish do in the trunk of the car continue swimming, betrayed by the murderous air. Like this:

    If only we could get back

    To the dream of sex which is not sex,

    The prince, the arms, the tan face,

    The castle, the explanations, mother, father,

    Brother, sister, the conquering, the sand,

    The waters, the coughing, the poetry,

    The light just above you as you look up,

    You’re a fish, swimming towards the boy,

    he boy in the boat with his grandfather,

    The boy is listening to his grandfather tell a joke;

    You will interrupt, you will startle the boy’s line;

    You will be pulled up on the boat,

    You will be kept, to die, slowly,

    And the boy will no longer know what to think.

    But the idea was to die for him.

    The idea was to save his life.

  • On June 25, 2009 at 8:41 am Don Share wrote:

    Must reading for fish-poem fans is this take on Bishop’s “The Fish” by Chris Justice, who’s been a salt- and freshwater angler for three decades:

    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/102198-elizabeth-bishops-enduring-lure/

  • On August 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm Don Share wrote:

    Carol Frost on Bishop’s fishing:

    http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2009-03/InnerEye.html


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 by Camille Dungy.