Bishop learns from Herbert: The Fish a poem for survivors

15th April, 2013 - Posted by Christine Perrin - No Comments

Bishop was a mid-century poet who suffered some of the same afflictions as Herbert—she was acutely aware of the weakness, disorder, darkness, that we are “a pile of dust,” as Herbert put it. She did not share his religious convictions, but it is interesting that as a secular person she was able to embrace his poems and learn how to write poems from him. She who called herself “the loneliest person on earth,” was companioned by Herbert who book went with her everywhere.

When you start looking more closely at their work you begin to see some things she learned from him. They both had a fondness for the concrete image, around which the poem was built (think of The Pulley, The Windows/The Moose, The Fish) and from which the meditative lyric sprung. She wrote during a period where confessional poetry was popular (Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, etc…) but choose not to approach her material through that lense. In fact she said she “would rather approach such things from the Christian viewpoint, the trouble is I’ve never been able to find the books except Herbert.” She learned to write the meditative, morally seriously lyric from Herbert. In addition to the concrete image, the meditative poem, she takes Herbert’s tact of the disproportionate ending, where the conclusion is powerful, startling, transcendent, and often flips the momentum of the poem up until that point.

Take a look at her poem “The Fish,” where she does this. If you want to read further see my explication of the poem from The Art of Poetry. Notice the transformation under the pressure of the observer’s gaze. Here the speaker “stared and stared” and comes to empathize with the survivor—she and the fish are both survivors. The transformation to rainbow (emblem of God’s amnesty) comes from the most broken of circumstances–rusted engine, sun-cracked thwarts, oil spills.

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.

Elizabeth Bishop

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