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
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
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up
to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls
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,
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
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life's end is death.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...