The Fish, II (following a recent post by Camille Dungy)
Gabriel Metsu – “Maid Broiling Fish”, mid 17th century, Flemish
Gary Winogrand, one of America’s greatest street photographers, working in the tradition (or rather reworking the tradition) of Henri Cartier-Bresson, said that he was not interested in reality, per se, but what it looked like in a photograph. Camille’s passionate reading of a Bishop poem recently allowed me to make a connection I would have otherwise never made. Or at least that is what I assume, or I probably would have already made it. But, it was Camille’s picture of the poem, her version, what she highlighted and chose to include in the frame, how Bishop’s poem looked in her post that put me in mind of Padre António Vieira.
Padre António Vieira? The connection would not have been lost on Bishop, since she was, how shall we say, an honorary Brazilian, having lived there for fifteen years. She was also fascinated by the culture of Latin Letters. He was a 17th century Luzo-Brazilian priest who left behind him one of the great bodies of Portuguese prose. It is hard to imagine that she would not have come across his work, or at least learned something of his life.
It is one of his sermons, given three days before he was to leave to return to Portugal to push for legislation to free the indigenous peoples of Maranhão State from slavery that suddenly shed new light on the Elizabeth Bishop’s “This Fish”. A few years ago I had translated and excerpt of Padre António Vieira’s “Sermão de Santo António aos Peixes” [Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish], an indictment of the vanities of his compatriots. It shares much with Bishop's poem in terms of figures, metaphors, description (the suffocation of the fish in what Bishop calls the “terrible air”, the hooks and tackle of the trade) and above all the subject of human vanity. The sermon is composed as an allegory. Bishop’s poem turns allegorical through the pressure she places on the visual. Both authors rely heavily on anthropomorphism.
One of the most exciting qualities of Padre Vieira’s prose is how close to necessity it is. This necessity is larger than the author, and yet he invests himself in it, in the guise of Saint Anthony, as though he is the only one that actually understands the true extent of the problem. His stance is almost Socratic in the way he uses the rhetorical question and statements of the obvious to make his audience feel their own thoughtlessness; and not only that, like Socrates he takes actual risks in preaching what he has to say. So there is drama; though it is not displayed so much as implicit. The art of it is that it is so beautifully fluent and so unflinchingly pertinent to the task at hand. The irony, the critical eye, even the grace notes are subsumed in the unwavering logic. Each sentence wields a dialectical edge. The parodic attention to fish, and their fine scales draws comedy to itself in isolation, but as a component of the argument it lays bare its antithesis in a rather miserable depiction of human vanity. Bishop’s poem has much in common. They both, after all, describe the life, character and motivations of a fish.
“The Fish” must be one of Bishop’s most anthologized poems. That is because it is one of her most accessible, even though it doesn’t work that differently from “At the Fish Houses”, “The Bite” or even “The Moose”. They move, these poems, from banality via crescendo through ever deepening riffs of observation until enough pressure has accumulated that epiphany must ensue.
It is only natural that after a few readings of the poems I have just mentioned, the veneer of naturalness becomes increasingly thin and we are forced to look at them as pure aesthetic constructs, assembled with a watchmaker’s care, rather than realistic narratives of the poet immersed in the act of examining her world. We know there won’t be a crisis – things in a Bishop poem are always very precise, emotions always a bit gauzy. How unlike Emily Dickinson, another naturalist, where the movement from natural to metaphysical is always a sharp, somewhat insane leap of faith.
In “The Fish” descriptive virtuosity is ennobled, to a certain extent, at the cost of its subject. The life of the fish, its history of conquest over adversity for which it carries its medals hooked to its jaw; the portrayed fish, with its wallpaper skin and the isinglass eyes – all of this is gorgeously rendered, yet finally somewhat improbable. They are details that, after we have read the poem enough times, tend to become cloying rather than expressive. Vieira’s fish is a rhetorical fish as well. The difference is that we assume this from the beginning. That’s the premise. Released from realism he manages to be more realistic.
The verisimilitude of the poem’s narrator, what there is of her, depends as well on the description of the fish. She uses the fish to justify her own presence as observer. Besides her keen eye she is hardly there, or made so discrete that she seems hardly there. “I caught”, “I looked”, “I held”, “I starred and starred”. There is absolutely no introspection. Two issues come to the fore in this poem, both concern the narrator: on the one hand her rather disembodied presence as an actual person sitting in a boat and catching a fish, and, on the other, her exaggerated, painterly precision which increases in power as the depiction shuttles line to line gathering force.
Epiphanic structure, especially when used as a method of closure, typically releases its charge upon the character or narrator who has had the epiphany. James Joyce’s use of epiphany in the short stories of Dubliners is one of the 20th century’s great examples of shattering denouement through sudden realization. The reader, having gradually merged with the narrator is also meant to take the brunt of altered knowledge, in which the story we have just read, thinking one thing, suddenly begins to flicker and shift, like those old-fashioned mechanical arrival and departure boards in train stations and airports. Poets have always relied on this device. “And in the garden, cries and colors.” The last line of one of John Ashbery’s short obscure little poems from Rivers and Mountains is an epiphany wondering what it’s doing at the end of the poem it is assigned to, “Last Month”. And yet the poem would not be complete without it. One of Bill Knott’s great poems, published in Selected and Collected Poems (Sun Press, 1977), “To American Poets”, uses an anti-epiphanic ending to extraordinary effect. Because it is a political poem (one of the most successful ever written by an American in my opinion) we have felt the blood and flesh narrator throughout, as though he were mounting the barriers of 1848 and shouting, like Baudelaire, Il faut aller fusiller le Général Aupick! A bas Aupick! Aupick was Baudelaire’s much-loathed stepfather.
Because the narrator in the Bishop poem is as thin as air, the final epiphany simply discharges, to no effect, into that very same air. The more we read the poem, knowing that that final line is there, waiting to impress us, the more artificial the description of the fish becomes. Is it building towards the epiphany, or is it description for description’s sake? Likewise, the more remote and unlikely the narrator seems to us, the more meaningless the epiphanic structure with its melodramatic penultimate line of repeating rainbows finally is. Like all epiphanies, this one is meant to transcend, and to a certain extent replace the poem with new meanings. But we are not sufficiently invested in this opaque narrator to receive the charge. Any moral line, drawn between narrator and subject (the idea that the narrator has learnt something) is shot to hell by the baroque perfection of the poetic eye – at one remove from the speaker and finally the main subject of the poem. The failure of the poem is that we want the life of the person describing the fish to be sufficiently there to care about. But she’s not. Instead of cathexis there is diffusion. This misalliance grows the more we read the poem, and I’ve been reading the poem for thirty years. I first became uncomfortable with it when I tried to teach it about fifteen years ago, when, naturally I read it many times over a short period. Since then I have hardly read it at all. I finally realized there was a problem when, after reading Camille’s post, I tried to read Bishop’s poem once again for the umpteenth time and found it a labor, not of love.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...