In my early twenties, when my ambition to become a writer was still nine parts yearning to one part writing, I came under the sway of John Updike’s great gift for describing things in painterly detail. For years, I believed that fine writing was, in fact, this exquisite illustrating with words. Now I accept that most writers have much plainer eyes. They call a fish a fish and get on with their stories. But on the rare occasions that I come upon Updike-level observations I thrill anew to the evocative power of such close and precise description. Roaming around the brand new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century of American Poetry edited by Rita Dove, one of the highlights of my reading year, I stopped by a famous poem I hadn’t read in ages. Who has ever described a fish better than Elizabeth Bishop?
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
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,
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.
I didn’t reread this poem when I worked up my childhood memories of a cod fishing trip out of Seal Harbor, Maine into a poem about my mother’s long stay in a nursing home after her crippling strokes. But, surely, I must have had a vestigial memory of it when I did my best to describe the fish in this poem that appears in Love in the City of Grudges.
My Mother’s Codfish
By Will Nixon
Her cork bulletin board’s crumbly
with thumbtacks and photos, memories
she doesn’t remember after strokes
confined her to a wheelchair. I Kleenex
smudges and dandruff off her glasses,
unpin the curled Kodak to hold before
her wandering eyes, tell her again
the rest of us caught nothing
but dogfish the charter boat captain
dehooked, bending their gray snouts
to crack loud necks behind gaping smiles.
He tossed their two-foot corpses in our wake,
toy models of deadly sharks below.
She sits in her lighthouse bathrobe,
my gift to remind her of Maine vacations,
but she thinks Maine is her diaper nurse now.
I tell her again she reeled in the champ.
The captain grabbed gills like duffel handles,
dumped the codfish on the deck with a thud.
It wore its hook without expression, button eyes
turning milky blind. We sponged water on its gills
to help the giant die in peace. On the dock scale
her catch hung taller than we boys stood,
squinting for the Kodak. Thirty years later,
I smile at our uniform blond bowl cuts,
but wonder about our grave faces.
I tell her again she had the best idea:
on our vacation diet of pizza and ice cream,
we had no use for such a fish, so we brought it
to Herman’s in the village that handled everything:
fishing gear, groceries, baseball magazines, the mail.
The wooden floor smelled a hundred years old.
By folding the tail, Herman squeezed the codfish
into an old-time soda chest filled with picnic ice bags.
“She’s a monster,” he said. “But we got her all in.”
His overalls, smeared with cod scales, sparkled
like a movie gown. “Shall we dance?” he asked,
gathering two boys in each arm, his beard ripe
with cherry tobacco. He spun us round the floor
and sang us whaling songs to calm our dizziness.
My mother knew them all from childhood.
I’d ask her to sing one now, but she slurps tea
through a straw. Her afternoon snack
brought by the nurse is what she’s waited for.
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