Sunday, 4 August 2013

Gone fishin'

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of the 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 vulnerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper :
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 admitted 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 weapon-like,
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 oar-locks on their strings,
the gunnels––until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow !
And I let the fish go.

Elizabeth Bishop
from North and South (1946)


  1. I didn't know that. It reminds me of my (almost) irrational fear of encountering pike when out in my invisible boat.

  2. hi Dominic, yes it's a powerful one isn't it. Fear of pike doesn't sound irrational to me though, particularly if the boat is invisible ..... !