ELIZABETH BISHOP’S ‘THE FISH’

I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Fish not just because it’s so technically well-crafted, but also because in the poem Bishop supplies us with a totally different perspective on what it means to go fishing.

In Bishop’s poem, the initial reaction of the poet (fisherman) to catching the fish is one of surprise.  The fish is a ‘tremendous’ fish, so extraordinary in fact that the poet holds him ‘beside the boat, half out of water’.  She notices that ‘he didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all’ – most unusual for a fish not to struggle or, at least, try to get away.

The poet begins to examine the fish more closely and discovers that his skin looks like ‘ancient wallpaper’ with a pattern of ‘shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age’; he is ‘speckled with barnacles’ and ‘lime’ and ‘infested with sea lice.’  He has ‘frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood that can cut so badly’.  The sight of this blood makes the poet imagine ‘the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny entrails’. 

At this point the poet becomes aware of her power over the fish, realising she is the arbiter of its fate.  She tells us that she ‘held him with my hook fast in the corner of his mouth’ until gradually he earns her respect because ‘he hung like a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely’ – in other words, like an old prize-fighter who has had one fight too many, a war veteran who has fought long and hard for survival with ‘five old pieces of fish line hanging from his lip’ like ‘medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering’. 

When she looks into the fish’s eyes ‘larger than mine but shallower’ she notes the way in which they resemble ‘old scratched isinglass’ (isinglass is a semi-transparent gelatine substance used for windows).  The eyes being the windows of the soul, when the poet looks deeper she finds ‘they shifted a little… like the tipping of an object towards the light’, as if the fish sensed that he might be looking at the light for the last time.

The more the poet examines the fish the more she sees, until by the end she tells us ‘I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat’ and then, suddenly, ‘everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!  And I let the fish go!’  Bishop’s final line strikes at the very heart of the reader – not in a sentimental way – more because the reader realises along with the poet that letting the fish go transcends the very notion of fishing as a sport, or simply as a means of passing the time.

Elizabeth Bishop described her poem The Fish as ‘a trifle’ – ‘if not like Robert Frost perhaps like Ernest Hemingway’. Ernest Hemingway was renowned for his macho image as a deep sea fisherman.  We find numerous photographs of Hemingway smiling out as he sports his prize catch, usually an enormous shark or some  giant cuttlefish.  It is this image of Hemingway most readers remember when they read his fiction.  Today we know that image to be entirely false, one that was generated to promote sales of Hemingway’s books.

Many of the summer months of my childhood were spent fishing on the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry in Ireland.  When I was aged about ten years or so I went to stay with a family who lived at the top of Killarney town.  During that time I spent many a tranquil summer evening fishing for trout on the lakes. The father and four sons were all avid fisherman.  The fish were not caught for sport but caught to sell and make a living.  Each evening after work father and sons would head for the lakeshore where they had a boat moored and I was allowed to straggle along behind.

It was, in fact, on the Lower Lakes of Killarney that I first learned to fish.  I learned how to spin and reel in tackle, how to send a line spinning out into a loop above the lake and watch it hang momentarily suspended in air before landing into the lake. The water would ripple and bubble up as the fly skimmed the surface before landing into the depths below.

No worms or bait was used, only flies with coloured feathers and sharp angular hooks that sank like anchors into the mouths of fish and would not let go nomatter how hard the fish struggled or pulled at the end of the line.  All that was needed then was to sit back and wait for the fish to bite which they inevitably did and which they inevitably will continue to do until the end of time – just so long as the fish stocks last of course.

Fishing for trout I quickly learned how to reel in my catch, dislodge the wriggling specimen from the hook, then leave it to hop and skip about at the bottom of the boat.  There the fish would flip and flop for a time before exhausting itself in the effort before finally giving  up the ghost.  There were a number of methods available to ensure instant despatch.  One was to hold the fish firmly in the hand then give a short swift tap to its head against the side of the boat which would, hopefully, render the fish instantly lifeless.  Another method was to place the forefinger into the fish’s mouth and snap the filament formed at the base of its gullet.

After a time I became something of an expert.  Indeed, the more successful I became, the more I was congratulated on my prowess as a fisherwoman. It wasn’t long before the desire grew to show off in this regard – which is probably one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway struggled so hard to maintain his image all those years ago.  The moment you show you can’t do it anymore that’s the moment you’re done for!

Ten years have passed since I last went out fishing on the Lakes of Killarney.  On that occasion it was once again a fishing trip rather than a pleasure cruise.  I didn’t catch any fish – instead, I watched others cast lines out over the lake while the water lapped against the side of the boat.  The men I went fishing with that day were hauling in rainbow trout.  I still like to eat trout whenever the opportunity presents itself and somewhere at the back of my mind I still like to savour the memory of how I once caught fresh trout in order to eat them later.

I don’t recall exactly when or at what stage my attitude to fishing changed.  I have never objected to fish being caught for  food.  Indeed, nothing  tastes sweeter to the palate than eating a trout smothered in good Irish dairy butter and cooked in a hot pan over a hot stove and garnished with a leaf or two of crispy lettuce.  And we all know the parable of the loaves and fishes which illustrates perfectly the difference between a feast and a famine.  I also think that if tomorrow I were presented with the necessity of needing to catch  a fish for the purposes of food I have no doubt the lessons once learned would again rise again to the surface.  So why then should I mourn for the loss of a single fish?

Recently I read the writer Sean O’Faolain’s Introduction to his book on the Irish short story.  In it O’Faolain recalled those who participated in the Civil War in Ireland. ‘It’s a terrible and lovely thing to look at the face of Death when you are young, but it unfits a man for the long humiliations of life.’  Immediately I realised the reason that lay behind my sudden change of heart on the subject of fishing – it wasn’t the fish I mourned for so much as the loss of life.  To see any creature alive is far more inspiring than to look at it dead.  Once you have looked into the jaws of death you never again want to see anything die.  Indeed, there is something altogether distasteful in the killing of any creature, whatever the species, and yet mankind seems to be able to kill with very little thought given over to what the act of killing actually means.

Of course we know that life is hard and that we must harden ourselves in order to survive – too much sentiment and we leave ourselves open to the accusation of not facing up to the realities of life – too little, and we are in danger of regressing to acts of barbarism.  It is a fine line of course and one always has to ask oneself where one draws the line.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate the feeling I am trying to come to terms with is to return once again to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem which is what led me to begin this fishy tale in the first place!

Thursday, 16th September 2010.

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About hecubapublishing

Actor/Writer/Director B.A. English Studies, Trinity College, Dublin. M.Phil in Creative Writing, Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College. Trained Actor with the N.A.T.A & and R.I.A.M Dublin, 'Women Playwrights at The Abbey 1904-2004' Hecuba 2009. Short-listed for a Hennessy Award Member of Irish Actor's Equity Member Publishing Ireland
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