Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two poets, two fish -- Part 2

Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish:
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.
Yes, we see the words are broken up into short lines on the page, but it is not form that impresses us. We read the poem straight out, in the apparent rhythms of ordinary speech, and the line breaks seem incidental. What we are most aware of is the catalog of exact observations. The fish is hanging at the side of the boat, but it might as well be on a dissecting tray in an ichthyology lab.

How precisely the poet sees. The tiny white sea lice. The rags of green weed. An accumulation of raw data. Only slowly, on a second reading perhaps, do we begin to appreciate the poet's technical finesse, the rhymes -- breathing in/oxygen, lenses/isinglass, engine/orange -- the alliteration -- shallower and yellowed, tarnished tinfoil -- and the metaphor and similes -- the white flesh packed in like feathers, the pink swim-bladder like a big peony. One could spend an hour admiring the art that at first reading seemed so effortless.

And only then, only then, when all of this is contained within the parentheses of the poet's action -- I caught a tremendous fish/I let the fish go -- does the point of it all turn on like a light bulb -- rainbow, rainbow, rainbow -- the startling glory of this old dead fish worn out by life, magnificent in homely death.

Two ways of engaging the world: Fitting content to form; fitting form to content. We are all of us engaged, day by day, hour by hour, in both activities. Even in science we employ both methodologies. What is important is that we know what we are doing. Truth, to the extent we can find it, will emerge with a balance of judicious engagement and unprejudiced observation.