Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Fish


ENG 229 Intro to Poetry Writing. It's the early 1990s. Ruth is a non-traditional college student in her late thirties in a class with 20-year-olds who are educating her on current music before the professor arrives. 10,000 Maniacs and these new friends are helping her see that these are the days. On the first day of class they had filled out a survey about their personal mythologies, a term Prof. Wakoski took from Carl Jung and focused on in her poetry and teaching. Ruth revealed she was a Baptist preacher's kid wrestling with the hook, line and sinker of the faith of her parents. A few weeks into class, Prof. Wakoski reads The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop. Before this class Ruth has never heard or read much poetry outside of the cultural icons such as Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and Thomas' villanelle Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Immediately upon hearing The Fish, Ruth is hooked. Wakoski finishes the poem and asks:

Did Bishop intend her poem to be about Christ? In her bottomless, observant description, she gave us material to interpret it that way if we want -- the fish, a symbol of Christ, and the five wounds (Jesus' were two in his hands/wrists, two in the feet, and then the lance in his side). Maybe there's more. But it doesn't matter to me, because her language and imagery are so achingly beautiful (ugly fish, yet beautiful too), that the poem, just about a fish, is plenty. My favorite word in this poem: isinglass.

The Fish
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,
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.

I named our elegant barn cat Bishop after Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop the barn cat understands the silent graces, and teaches them to me. (But I think she would not have let the fish go. And that is another kind of grace.)


Julia said...

This poem will be rolling around in my head today and probably for days to come. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RUTH. And on your birthday, you give a gift of beautiful words.

Kamana said...

i love how you told this story. and excellent choice of name for the cat.

it's your birthday? happy happy returns!

Char said...

yay for your birthday!!!

i've never read this poem - thank you for bringing it to me. for a kitty to let a fish go would indeed be grace.

George said...

This is a moving post, Ruth. Thank you for allowing us to witness how great professors teach great poetry to hungry minds -- and what great poetry is found in Bishop's "The Fish." I love the way the poem builds and builds with each insight until the one who caught the fish understands, at least in my interpretation, that she and the fish are one.


deb said...

What to say.
You made me tremble today.

and is it your birthday?
Happy and then some . You give gifts on your day.... ? Why does this not surprise me.

Marcie said...

Happy birthday!! Love the poem...true grace!!!

Bonnie said...

This poem touches me deeply. It is a day of rainbows when we shift from seeing our wounds and the hooks that bind us to 'the old dispensation' as evidence of mistreatment, to viewing them instead as medals of honour and triumph.

Beautiful photograph to decorate your post, Ruth.

Kate said...

I've been staring at this comment box for minutes and can still think of nothing to say, really, except perhaps, Thanks.

*jean* said...

a wonderful peek into the woman that is ruth...thank you for sharing your story...happy birthday to you!

J.G. said...

Ah, a poem is a window into another world, where every word carries but transcends meaning. What a rich epiphany you had that day.

And my apologies to Bishop. How did I miss that it's Miss Bishop to me?

Kate said...

Hi Ruth, I have many, many poems that are "one of my favorites," but this is truly one of them: the images catch me quick whenever I read it. I had high school kids read it and tell me what they thought about it, many many times and I was never disappointed in their reactions. It's a splendid way to celebrate one's birthday. Happy, happy day to you!! KateM: visualstpaul blog (among others).

Ruth said...

Julia, thank you, my friend. I hope the richness of Bishop's words will be encounters with beauty and joy in the ordinary.

Ruth said...

Thank you very much, Kamana. Doesn't it seem sometimes, that the person you were decades before is someone else?

RoSe said...

Hello Ruth, I stumbled into your post today and was wonderfully blindsided by another amazing tapestry of words and imagery. Simply beautiful photograph as well... and the intro of you in school you began with was a mesmerizing vignette of dialogue that will linger with me for hours. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Yay, Char! It's a gift to introduce you to this poem! Yes, and I also think it's grace in the system for the cat to eat the fish. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, George, so much. It surprises me whenever I come back to The Fish, that it is much longer than I remember.

I like your interpretation very, very much. I-never-thought-of-it-like-that-but-I-knew-it-somewhere-deep-inside.

Ruth said...

Deb, your comments are always a gift. To think that you trembled from this, I attribute it E Bishop, and to the poetry that lives in you.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Marcie, I've had a wonderful birthday so far (I've been up a L - o - n - g time). You always bring beauty and grace with you wherever you go.

Ruth said...

Bonnie, I like how you took that hook and twisted it into your own proverb. A new way of seeing this, thank you.

Ruth said...

Kate, thanks is enough.


Ruth said...

Jean, thank you for your birthday visit and kindness.

Ruth said...

Dear J.G, if you interpreted Bishop as a tom cat, it is of no matter. She is a poem with many possibilities. And besides, she has been neutered, so it is all archetypal at this point. :)

Ruth said...

Dear Kate, so you and your students are a quick catch too, with this Fish. Bishop's powers of description are an education.

It's like old home week, seeing you again. Thank you so much for your kind birthday visit.

Ruth said...

RoSe, well I'm gratified this dialogue had that effect on you, thank you so much.

I am having a similar response to one of your favorite movies, seen today, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The visuals and writing there have touched me.

Thank you for your kind visit.

Mrs. SwedeHart said...

What a gift you are- happy birthday:D

C.M. Jackson said...

Happy Birthday Ruth! I love how you weave a story that teaches us and reaches into our hearts! Bishop is quite charming in her marlene dietrich way. Hope you had a wonderful day-c

Gwei Mui said...

Happy Birthday Ruth and what a gift you have given us on yourday. Great post

Lorenzo said...

As powerful and memorable as this poem is, the context you give for your enounter with Bishop and her lasting effect on you is just as stirring and makes it all the more gripping. In Spain, the tradition is for the person who celebrates their birthday to invite people to a sumptuous meal. You have done this in this post ... And thanks for 'isinglass' — I had to look it up and it adds furhter layers of meaning to this great "catch" of a poem.

Happy birthday, Ruth. I hope all those 'silent graces' are tingling strongly today ...

Ruth said...

Ah, Rachel, I have a big smile. Love you, Mrs. Swedehart.

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear C.M..

Yes, I am a sucker for the understated mystery of both Bishop and Marlene, their allure is quiet and irresistible.

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, thank you so much for your myday visit and greeting!

Ruth said...

Dear Lorenzo, it's so nice to see you back, and with such kind, observant and thoughtful things to say, as always. Your comment adds to the afterglow of this rich poem, and prolongs the enjoyment, and of my birthday too. Thank you. I hope you had a sumptuous holiday.

Ginnie said...

When I think of where you've come from since that first poetry class, Ruth, the corners of my mouth start playing kewpie with each other! :)

Loring Wirbel said...

I forgot you took Wakoski's course! I vaguely remember reading this poem in Al Drake's class. Wow, what nostalgia.

Fragrant Liar said...

Thanks for introducing me to Elizabeth Bishop. I love her now.

João said...

This post is silver and blue with a hint of red. It lasts too...

California Girl said...

Happy Birthday Ruth: Virgo is a wonderful sign.

With an acute attention to detail, Virgo is the sign in the Zodiac most dedicated to serving. Their deep sense of the humane leads them to caregiving like no other, and their methodical approach to life ensures that nothing is missed. The Virgo is often gentle and delicate, preferring to step back and analyze before moving ahead.

Friends and Family

A Virgo is a helpful friend to have indeed. They are excellent at giving advice, and they really know how to problem-solve. You'll find that a Virgo will remind you to take good care of yourself as health is a focal point for them. And when the meal is done, they'll be the first to jump up and start the dishes. Loving and dedicated to family, the Virgo is also first on the scene when care is needed. When someone reaches old age or is ill, the Virgo will be there doing all that is needed. The Virgo is not known for showing feelings. They would prefer to show through deed than by word.

I would have let the fish go too.

ds said...

Ohhh, I missed your birthday! I am so very sorry. :( Many happy, if belated, returns! :D

I am reminded of the proverb that says something on the order of: give a man a fish and he eats for one day; teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life...Thank you, Diane Wakowski--and Elizabeth Bishop!--for teaching Ruth to fish.

Thank you, Ruth, for "The Fish." It is beautiful. I shall dine happily from it for a very long time.

Terresa said...

Bishop is a favorite of mine. Along with her poem, One Art.

Ruth said...

Boots, that makes me wanna laugh! Hahaha. I don't really know what it means, but it makes me wanna laugh. Is that what your mouth is doing? Kewpie dolls are so kewt, how they smile.

Ruth said...

Loring, no. I didn't take Wakoski's class. I took five of Wakoski's classes. I think Al Drake was before my time. In fact, even after working 10 years in the department now, I don't think I have ever heard his name before.

Ruth said...

I'm thrilled to introduce you, Kim, knowing you fell in love too.

Ruth said...

Good observation, João, that red is hardly visible. Early morning is the best.

Ruth said...

California Girl, me too.

Someone else, at work, when they found out it was my birthday on the 22nd, thought I was a Virgo. While I am on the cusp, the 22nd is actually still a Leo. I guess some signs begin on the 22nd, right?

Let me just say, part of me would like to be more Virgo-ish than Leo-like, if that description is true of Virgos. More other-centered than self-centered. Oh wait, does being on the cusp mean I have the best of both signs?

Ruth said...

DS, my dear friend, another saying is, Better late than never. :)

I do love how you blessed this trope with that proverb, what a great connection. In fact, I think it exactly describes how Wakoski teaches, first giving a fish and demonstrating how delicious it can be, and then finding what works well in our own work to become fisherpeople. I think you'd love taking a class with her. She's retiring after this year.

Ruth said...

Terresa, once you've heard or read One Art, it's with you forever. It's one of the best examples of a villanelle around. In fact, I'm going to post it here:

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Susan said...

I'm afraid I would have been clueless to the professor's interpretation, and I'm still not sure I see it. I tend to take writings at their face value, not always seeking deeper meaning. I love the poem, though, and what I read into it. And I love your story, and that you gave us all a gift on your birthday. Thank you and happy birthday to my dear Ruthie.

Ruth said...

Susie, good, I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't get it. It's pretty subtle, I think. Very subtle actually. I wonder if anyone but Diane every saw it?

Thank you again for your dear birthday wishes, my sweet friend. xoxoxox

Babs said...

What a lovely poem. I suppose it could be seen as representing Jesus :)

I hope you have a very happy birthday!

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Babs, your birthday greeting extends my joy. My best to you and Mo.

I'm glad you liked the poem.

Antoine said...

I like your interpretation and your photo is very beautiful. Have a lovely day.

Ruth said...

Bonjour and bienvenue, Antoine, et merci beaucoup.

Oliag said...

Oh Happy Birthday Ruth! My week has been filled with wonderful birthdays...both my grandchildren celebrated theirs is a special birthday week:)

"The Fish" has been popping up here and there throughout my life. As a child, one of my favorite books was a children's anthology of poems and this poem...and its illustration... is the poem that impressed me the most. Later my college Intro to Poetry professor (and I don't even remember her name) used Miss Bishop's poems throughout our course. I still have my college book but that illustration is just a memory now.

Speaking of illustrations...your photo is spectacular!

Jeanie said...

Belated birthday wishes -- I'm catching up on blogs after being gone and feel sad to have missed it.

Another thoughtful post. I'm not familiar with this poem and am glad you posted it, along with your story. It really is beautiful. And the photo of Bishop is indeed beautiful. I love it when we name our cats after people.

ds said...

Oh gosh, I spelled Ms. Wakoski's name wrong--sheesh!How blessed you were to have so many classes with her! (Your offer is sweet: I would love a class like that, but I don't qualify--I'd make her grateful for retirement. And the commute is a tad long...) I am sad for you that you are losing her from the school, but hope she remains connected with your life.

my15minutes said...

Lovely poems, both of them (The Fish and One Art). Makes me want to go read more of Ms. Bishop! I enjoyed reading your story of insight, especially as I find myself now at 48 in grad school with 24 year olds. :-)