The Fish

Elizabeth Bishop, 19111979
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.

3 thoughts on “The Fish

  1. The Fisherman (William Butler Yeats)

    Although I can see him still—
    The freckled man who goes
    To a gray place on a hill
    In gray Connemara clothes
    At dawn to cast his flies—
    It’s long since I began
    To call up to the eyes
    This wise and simple man.
    All day I’d looked in the face
    What I had hoped it would be
    To write for my own race
    And the reality:
    The living men that I hate,
    The dead man that I loved,
    The craven man in his seat,
    The insolent unreproved—
    And no knave brought to book
    Who has won a drunken cheer—
    The witty man and his joke
    Aimed at the commonest ear,
    The clever man who cries
    The catch cries of the clown,
    The beating down of the wise
    And great Art beaten down.

    Maybe a twelve-month since
    Suddenly I began,
    In scorn of this audience,
    Imagining a man,
    And his sun-freckled face
    And gray Connemara cloth,
    Climbing up to a place
    Where stone is dark with froth,
    And the down turn of his wrist
    When the flies drop in the stream—
    A man who does not exist,
    A man who is but a dream;
    And cried, “Before I am old
    I shall have written him one
    Poem maybe as cold
    And passionate as the dawn.”


  2. how do you feel about this poem Harry? It tips the meter from romantic to humanitarian. I guess Lou is a vegetarian.

    Sent from my iPhone



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