Jul. 10, 2003

The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Poem: "The Fish," by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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 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.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, born in Chicago, Illinois (1867), to Irish immigrant parents. He was known for the character he created, Martin Dooley, an Irish barman who spoke in a thick brogue. Mr. Dooley shared his thoughts on politics in newspapers all over the country. He said, "Trust everybody, but cut the cards." Dunne published eight volumes of his dialect essays, including Mr. Dooley in Peace and War (1898) and Mr. Dooley's Philosophy (1900). The books were so popular that there was even an unauthorized edition, What Dooley Says (1899).

It's the birthday of writer Alice Munro, born in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She never meant to be a short story writer, but as a mother with three children she found there simply wasn't time for novels. So she wrote stories during nap times and in between feedings. It took her nearly twenty years to finish her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). She sets her stories in small Canadian towns similar to Wingham, where she grew up. She has published eleven books, including Friend of My Youth (1990), Open Secrets (1994), and Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (2001).

It's the birthday of novelist Marcel Proust, born in Auteuil, near Paris (1871). He was a frail boy, and had asthma most of his life. His mother looked after him until he was 34 years old. He adored his mother, and when she died he secluded himself in his room for two years. He lined the room with cork to keep out noise, he kept the windows tightly shut, and he spent most of his time writing in bed. He slept during the day and wrote at night. He worked on his masterpiece, the only novel he ever wrote, Remembrance of Things Past, which was published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. It's an autobiographical work that focuses on the importance of remembering details about life that seem insignificant. Proust wrote in long sentences that often took up more than a page. Remembrance of Things Past ended up being more than 3,000 pages long. He said, "All the great things we know have come to us from neurotics. It is they who have founded religions and created great works of art."

It's the birthday of theologian John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, born in Noyon, France (1509). His teachings form the basis of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. He studied for the priesthood, but as Martin Luther's ideas spread to France, Calvin became uneasy about his Catholicism. When he was 22 he experienced a "conversion," in which he felt that God had called him to forsake the Catholic Church. He went to Switzerland and wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), and it became a rallying point for Protestants all over Europe.

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