“My Mother is a Fish”

By Peter Balakian b. 1951 Peter Balakian


My mother is a fish
and the sky is low and orange,
and the long grass rises   
in the still air.
The mud is black   
and worms turn   
their cold segments   
at my feet.

      I used to walk   
      with an old lady.
      It seemed far from water
      and the ground sank.
      Weeds were higher
      than my head.   
      Slugs slept
      in the mud.

My mother is a fish
and the sky swallows my head.   
A fine rain comes
and softens the ferns.

In March before the crocus   
and the lily,
eggs bunch in the shoal   
of green jelly.
Crabs glide through them.   
A kingfisher is dead
on a rock.

My mother is an eel   
winding a light
around the rock.   
Even without a moon   
the black glows.


The sun grows like an egg
over the bridge,
the first birds are silver
and swoop down for my mother.

      When the lady came
      we jumped—
      She took us to find worms   
      we could squeeze
      in our hands.

      I went with my father
      to the dark water.
      I went with a bucket
      of mud.
      When we doubled the worm   
      on the hook and it coiled,   
      I could hear how a bass
      could thud.

      I grabbed it
      with a wet hand,   
      and watched its eye   
      go black
      as I dropped it
      in a metal bucket.

      Hack it along the gill
      and throw the head to the gulls.

My mother is a fish
and flutters in my bucket.   
The sky is a fleck of stones   
on the night water.
Turns my arms silver.

The wind calls my father   
out to where bigger birds   
call and caw and spin,

where my father goes
and leaves me with the mud   
and gulls on the patchy water.

Peter Balakian, “ ‘My Mother Is a Fish’ ” from June-Tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Balakian. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: June-tree: New and Selected Poems (2001)

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Poet Peter Balakian b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Pets, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature, Relationships, Animals

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Peter  Balakian


Peter Balakian is the author of several collections of poetry, including June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000. His recent book, Ziggurat (2010), wrestles with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11. His poems have been widely anthologized, including in the 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and have been translated into several languages. He has published essays on poetry, culture, and art in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Pets, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature, Relationships, Animals

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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