How Beautiful a Fish Can Be

September 1, 2010

This evening is the first time that I have read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish”. Before now, my only contact with the poem was through a spoken performance given in my Literature in Performance class one year ago. When I first heard the poem I couldn’t really focus on it and it was hard for me, a lot of the time, to follow what was being said, i.e. the basic narrative. However, upon this reading, silently, at first I was much more involved in the poem and found myself lost in the splendorous “victory” the speaker feels at catching the fish after it’s having got away so many times.

I loved the way our understanding of the fish built up and up, at first unimpressed by his “grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely.” It is almost easy to miss that key word–venerable–in lieu of the numerous derogatory adjectives: “his brown skin…like ancient wallpaper” or “full-blown roses / stained and lost through age”. Again, we are led to a pleasant description–the “full-blown roses” only to be disappointed on the following line through their shriveled metaphoric state. It is easy to find yourself disgusted by the “barnacles,” the skin “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” or the impoverished state of the “rags of green weed” hanging beneath his body.

And yet, Bishop takes us by the hand, walking us through her own evolving perception of the fish. We begin to see that the creature isn’t entirely helpless, that, in fact, if we are not careful in how we handle him, we may be “cut so badly” by his “frightening gills”. His “coarse white flesh,” forcing us to think about the skin of the fish, is described (instead of in scaly terms that might bother many who are unaccustomed to finding beauty in such humble places as fish) as being “packed in like feathers”.

She goes on to describe his eyes as “far larger than mine,” usually taken as a good quality, though she does qualify this line, making them “shallower, and yellowed”. It seems as though the speaker would like to raise the fish to her level, but must ultimately face the truth of reality: she is the fisher, it the catch. This goes on until she has elevated the fish still further, turning the “five big hooks” into “medals with their ribbons / frayed” and the “old pieces of fish-line” into a “beard of wisdom”. From here, she has turned this “homely” fish into a veteran of war and thus her simple catch into a feat deserving of victorious celebration. The “oil” becomes beautiful in her eyes, a “rainbow” that spreads to all around her “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

And finally, the anti-climactic last line: “And I let the fish go.” At first, we may wonder why the speaker does this. But upon further reflection, and a second reading, we remember that the fish “didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” The repetition of the lack of will on the fish’s part along with the short length of the lines adds emphasis to them. We must acknowledge, as the speaker ultimately does, that, if the fish is anthropomorphized into a noble war veteran, he must be treated as such. One can almost see it, swimming in its lake, tired of being caught, tired of being let loose, tired of being the object of human’s pleasure at his own physical expense. And just as quickly as it came, the victory has left.

On another note, related to my introduction, after reading this silently to myself and thinking about all that I have written here and more, I decided to read the poem to a friend of mine. Curiously enough, upon the first reading to them, despite the feeling I put into the reading, they (like me) didn’t follow the narrative. After reading it aloud to them a second time they were better able to understand the poem. But, I wonder why this is. Does it have to do with our disposition towards things that we listen to on a daily basis? Are we as attentive as we should be or as is required to appreciate (or even understand on a more basic level) the things we perceive? Seems like an unrelated and more philosophic point of inquiry, but it never hurts to get the wheels turning a bit. I hope you all enjoyed this poem as much as I did.

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