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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
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.

This poem is about a fisherman who catches an old fish (wow what an astute observation!), and is so awed by the fact that this fish has survived so long that he lets it go. She also seems to be rather humbled by the fact that the fish itself seems to nobly take defeat, instead of flailing around like a fish out of water (mind the pun), it just sits there, accepting the fact that it has finally been overcome. Bishop compares the fish to an old war veteran, the old overgrown hooks in its mouth are said to be "war medals."The author refers to parts of the fish as flowers or other things related to vivid coloration, even though the fish itself is dull and has skin like "ancient wallpaper," and then seems to see the beauty in every part of the fish, down to its entrails and the lice living underneath its scales. The thing that finally seems to make the fisherman let the fish go though, is the fact that she begins to see rainbows everywhere, starting from the oil on the surface of the water and soon spreading to everything she sees. This is probably a metaphorical rainbow however, and instead the author has come to realize something about herself through the fish, and so she lets it go.

1 comment:

  1. you stink. like a fish. which, by chance, smells like a bradford pear tree in bloom.

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