Sunday, April 13, 2008


People usually think our fine barn cat, Bishop, is a HE. That's a natural assumption.

But she is a SHE, named for poet Elizabeth Bishop. (Bishop and her brother Blake were the second pets I'd ever named, since I didn't have pets growing up -- 'Blake' for William Blake, of course. We had to give Blake away to a friend. The first pet I named was our Beagle 'Madeline.' I remembered naming her after Jane Seymour's character in 'The Winds of War' TV mini-series because of her big brown eyes. But I just looked up that show on, and it aired in 1983, well after we got Madeline in 1978, and Jane Seymour wasn't even in it. I think I'm losing my mind.)

Elizabeth Bishop

I fell in love with Elizabeth Bishop's poem 'The Fish' in a poetry class with my mentor, Diane Wakoski back in 1993. This poem swept me up into the possibilities of what poetry can do, how in just a few lines, the reader is transformed along with the poet.

(After planning this post, Don told me April is National Poetry month. That's nice.)

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.

Elizabeth Bishop


Sandy said...

What a beautiful poem, I'm glad to have read this. Love the name of the cat...


Ruth said...

I'm so glad you read it, Sandy. I find it powerful every time I read it, again and again.

Gwen Buchanan said...

This is a beautiful poem Ruth,
very deep and hard to describe how it makes me feel... I am not one that can express myself in words very well.. I always wish my thoughts could come through my hands so you could see how it makes me feel..

Ruth said...

Gwen, I'm very glad you like this poem. For me, your wish is answered. I may not know your thoughts, but a lot is communicated through your amazing art and other creative expressions.

laura said...

Lucky, handsome (which applies tho she's a girl) Bishop. One of my cats is named Carlos, for William Carlos Williams; I had a Yeats once too.
Elizabeth Bishop perfectly, beautifully captures this confrontation, which I've experienced many times myself. It's lovely how she increases and deepens the meaning of life and living things through her attention and contemplation.

Ruth said...

So do you live near the water, Laura? Oh dear, I have only fished once or twice in my life, and with paupish results. Bishop makes this experience so vivid and rich, I wish I had fished more. Yes, her attention to minute details, with the revelation so magnificent, just transforms me every time I read it.

I just LOVE your cats' names too. WCW, aahhh, the red wheelbarrow.