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The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

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“…it worries me not writing, and yet it seems right and sensible to wait. But will inspiration come when I call it? No peace in this world for the poet! Poor poets!”

— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, in a letter dated 20 May 1948

How many times have I demonised my despair? How many times have I considered myself an Other? I think of the power of the gaze: your lover’s, your father’s, your Muse’s.

When I talk to friends about repetition in writing, Gertrude Stein has always been my go-to girl. She’s magnificent with it, the way she experiments with language, how she demands that I unlearn everything I know about reading, and start from scratch. But here is a secret: I want to say Bishop. It’s always been at the tip of my tongue, and yet I curl around her name in a protective embrace. What she means to me is beyond speech. Perhaps.

What does it mean to be caught, to be powerless? What does it mean to not put up a fight? To know that your own tremendousness is no match against the surprise, the unknown?

The fish is a poem.

The Fish
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 with 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 is from Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

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