Thursday, July 16, 2009

454. "The Fish" By Elizabeth Bishop, A Highly Influential Poem

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
[[complex emotion]]
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
[[animal --> human metaphor]]
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper: [[animal --> human metaphor]]
shapes like full-blown roses [[animal --> plant metaphor]]
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
[[animal --> plant metaphor]]
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,
[[animal --> animal metaphor]]
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. [[animal --> plant metaphor]]
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil [[animal --> human technology metaphor]]
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass. [[animal --> human technology metaphor]]
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, [[animal-human relationships, gas chamber 5x]]
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 [[human technology --> human ornament metaphor]]
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
[[animal --> human emotion metaphor]]
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. [[complex emotion]][[simultaneous triumph of capture and letting go, you go girl!]]

(And besides, no one wants to keep a fish full of parasites.)

This poem is NOT A STANDARD FISH STORY. Fish story being (1) corporate dude in suit and tie goes out fishing on a pond on a lazy weekend day (2) fishermen catching a great white shark or any other MobyDickish big fish or whale story. This story demonstrates more complexity of emotion, compassion and triumph all at the same, time, a moment of capture, but then finally letting the fish go. Many metaphors are animal --> human domain. Some metaphors are comparing animal --> animal (or plant).

I suppose I like this poem because I am having very similar experiences, and I feel I have an chest-beating ego that can do a better job than this poem, I am working on a fisherman-fish dialogue story as we speak, exploring metaphor, translation, and complex-simultaneously conflicting emotions as I was inspired by Samuel Beckett's minimalism. Though this poem is metaphorically layered, metaphorically rich, I feel that if there are so many metaphors, the metaphors should construct a patterned layer. The poet reaches out for random metaphors, some from fish to plant, some from fish to other animals, like birds, and even comparing fish parts to human pieces of technology, though they are colorful, they are random, and the lump sum of random metaphors may build emotion but not necessary leap into an alternative universe. I prefer more consistency in metaphorical construction. And? I think Jules would like the poem as well.


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