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On "The Fish"

Ronald E. McFarland

Readers of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" commonly pose objections which concern opposite ends of the critical spectrum. One objection is to the integrity of Bishop's fish: it does not seem realistic; it is too ugly; what kind of fish is it supposed to be anyway? Another objection is to the conceptual limitations of the poem: the imagery is admirable, but that is not enough (certainly not enough to be worth spending extensive time on); after close examination of ugly old fish, fisherman releases it - so what?

The first objection, which Richard Moore touches upon en passant in an essay published twenty-five years ago, is the easiest to deal with. Noticing the lack of fight in the huge fish, Moore flirts with the notion that must occur to many sophisticated readers of poetry upon encountering this poem: "perhaps the fish seems so realistic and factual because it is not a 'real' fish at all. Moore adds, parenthetically, that "indeed, the reader never learns what species of fish it is." Of course some will immediately argue that the species of fish, whether identifiable or not, is irrelevant to the meaning of the poem; but it seems to me that considering Elizabeth Bishop's close associations with the sea (she had moved to Key West in 1938 after a childhood spent in a fishing village in Nova Scotia and in Boston), the fish might be supposed to be representative of an actual species.

At any rate, as a quondam Florida fisherman I have always supposed that Bishop's fish emerged from the salt waters of actual experience (the poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1940, while she was living in Key West, and Bishop did enjoy fishing) and that it must be some sort of grouper. The Fisherman's Field Guide describes grouper as "broad-headed, thick-bodied, bottom- or reef-dwelling, predatory sea basses with very large mouths, protruding lower jaws, caniniform teeth, and scales that typically extend onto the bases of some or all fins." The fact that the grouper is a bottom feeder would likely account for the "rags of green weed" which cling to Bishop's fish (I. 21), and the hook-pierced "lower lip" (I. 48) is appropriately prominent. More specifically, the fish's coloration suggests that it is a large red grouper (Epinephelus morio), a type common to Florida and Caribbean waters. Weighing up to forty pounds, the red grouper is described as having a "squarish tail and a brownish-red or rusty head and body, darkly barred and marbled. Often, it has scattered white spots." Did Elizabeth Bishop mistake these spots for "tiny white sea-lice"(I. 19)? At that point, I think, the literal description of the fish interferes with the fish as the poet re-creates it. She wants the sea-lice in order to emphasize the ambiguous image created by the fish, which is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, a point to which we will return herafter.

Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes, an angler's guide, adds some information about the grouper which is pertinent to the fifth and sixth lines of the poem, about which most commentators have something to say (more, perhaps, than is necessary). "In the traditional battle between man and fish," Nancy L. McNally writes, "the old and decrepit fish ... has simply refused to participate." Moore insists that the lines reinforce the size of the fish "by explaining how so huge a thing could be caught" and that they also "make the fish more interesting and mysterious." In his anglers' dictionary Allyn observes of the red grouper that they offer little resistance when hooked and are not considered a 'gamey' fish." Of its big brother (the largest on record weighs 735 pounds), commonly called the "jewfish," a modification of "jaw" similar to that in "jew's-harp," Allyn writes, "They immediately sulk when hooked and use all their energy in pulling straight down."

One other observation about the grouper is worthy of note: "They have bladders that are adjusted to depths they inhabit and when hauled in these bladders often expand and burst." Did Bishop know of this when she drew attention to "the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony"(II. 32-33)? If so, those lines, and indeed the whole poem, acquire a special significance - the marriage of beauty and death. This, like the blending of the beautiful with the ugly, is implicit at various times in the poem. Death is at the edges of Bishop's poem if only because the speaker has the power of life and death over the fish. Her portrait of the entrails, after all, is probably based upon actual fish-cleaning experience. (I am assuming a female persona in the poem, though nothing in the poem demands it. As a rule I think the speaker's sex should be identified with that of the poet, unless there are grounds to think otherwise.) As Wallace Stevens wrote in a quite different context, "Death is the mother of beauty." I take it that Stevens's provocative phrase means that beauty is definable at least partly in terms of its evanescence. Such beauty as Bishop's fish possesses is certainly waning.

From "Some Observations on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’" Arizona Quarterly 38:4 (Winter 1982)

 David Kalstone (1989)

The poem is filled with the strain of seeing – not just the unrelenting pressure of making similes to "capture" the fish, but the fact that the similes themselves involve flawed instruments of vision, stained wallpaper, scratched isinglass, tarnished tinfoil. This is why, on some readings, the poem has the air of summoning up a creature from the speaker’s own inner depths – the surviving nonhuman resources of an earlier creation, glimpsed painfully through the depredations of time and the various frail instruments we devise, historically, to see them. The "victory" that fills up the little rented boat is one that more than grammatically belongs to both sides. Like "Roosters," though without its bitterness and fear, the poem taps and identifies nonhuman sources of human energies. What makes it different from [Marianne] Moore’s animal poems is its interst in the difficulties of locating and accepting such energies.

From David Kalstone, "Logarithms of Apology," Chapter 4 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), 87.

Jeredith Merrin

Throughout her work, she subverts the conventional Romantic trope of world-as-woman by insisting upon the indeterminate nature of nature--now female, now male, now ungendered other. And, as we might expect, Bishop is most subversive at her most Wordsworthian moments. In "The Fish," for example--strikingly Wordsworthian in its evocation of almost religious awe and joy in the presence of embodied nature--Bishop refigures the usual Romantic figure, making us see nature as a "He," a sort of finny five-star general:

[. . . .]

But even as she develops her own alternative figure, Bishop holds it up to question. She introduces this fiercely independent, masculine version of the fish with a contrasting version--domestic, and (as a result of the poet's sly adaptation of the timeworn girls-as-flowers trope) suggestive of the feminine:

[. . . .]

Determinedly "unpoetic" in her prosy rhythms, her patient agglomeration of seemingly random details and associations, Bishop here avoids poetic presumption, subjective sway. She acknowledges the tenuous relation of figurative language to reality with the tentativeness of simile ("Like medals"; "shapes like full-blown roses"; "like a big peony"). Humorously, she undercuts her own anthropomorphism ("--if you could call it a lip—"). And with a pile-up of arresting particulars, she tips the scale toward quizzical observation rather than controlling allegory.

Nevertheless, Bishop's frequently anthologized "The Fish" gradually accrues more allegorical point than most of her poems (one reason why it is a teachers' favorite). It slowly builds, as I have already suggested, toward a more Wordsworthian--more emotionally rounded, end-rhymed, and almost visionary--conclusion:

[. . . .]

Bishop avoids Wordsworth's egocentric, centripetal action by externalizing, focusing outward, as the title of her poem tells us, on "The Fish." Whereas Wordsworth internalizes and subsumes a naturalized human being (the almost moss-covered leech-gatherer), Bishop attends to a separate, natural creature: first by "catching" the fish both literally and figuratively (by hooking it and simultaneously "capturing" it with self-conscious anthropomorphic comparisons), and then by letting the fish--together with any suggestion of co-optive figuration--go. Her perceptions lead not merely to imaginative conquest or introspection, but to a sense of mutual "victory" and a specific action. She saves the creature's life. The undeniably serious conclusion with its Noah's Ark-like rainbow still has about it her very quiet, and very un-Wordsworthian, touch of humor (in what is, after all, a kind of elaborate "fish story").

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

Bonnie Costello (1991)

[By the midpoint of the poem] [t]he poet does not simply relinquish her desire for imaginative contact with the fish. But her attention shifts from spatial to historical imagining. History is no longer distant and figurative but "still attached" in the form of "five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / … with all five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth." Five wounds on a fish make him a Christ figure, but the epiphany he brings the poet has nothing otherwordly about it. The domestic images at the beginning of the poem, followed by the battered body of the fish, evoke the poet’s unconscious life, the uncanny return of the repressed which can "cut so badly." But Bishop can entertain such self-reflection now within the larger context of the life of nature and the beholder’s tentative grasp of it. She no longer has to define a discrete interior space through dream or symbolic abstraction in order to explore her subjectivity; she has brought the self out of nocturnal seclusion and explored its relation to everything under the sun.

There is also a pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality to the fish. An untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses. The fish, a he, hangs like a giant phallus, yet as the beholder imagines his interior, its "pink swim-bladder / like a big peony,? He takes on a female aspect. Indeed, the hooks in his mouth suggest that phallic aggression is the fisherman’s (woman this time) part. This hermaphroditic fish challenges the conventional hierarchical antithesis of female nature and male culture. Here there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive.

For Bishop, nature mastered as static knowledge is a fish out of water. Its beauty and venerability belong to time. Yet it can be entertained, with a certain humility and lightness (such as simile registers), for its figurative possibilities. The poet "stared and stared" even though the fish did not return her stare. Her imagination transforms a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow" into an ecstatic (and perhaps deliberately excessive) "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Such an epiphany, set as iut is in the highly ephemeral space of the rented boat with its rusted engine, must be of mortality. The grotesque is the style of mortality not because it makes us turn away in horror but because it challenges the rigid frames of thought and perception through which we attempt to master life. All the conceptual and emotional contradictions that emerge within the description of the fish point to the letting go.

from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 63-64.

Betsy Erkkila (1992)

[Erkkila is comparing Marianne Moore’s "The Fish" to Bishop’s poem.]

Whereas Moore’s "Fish" emphasizes the product and meaning of observation, Bishop’s "Fish" foregrounds the process of observation and the essential gap between subject, representation, and world. Moore appropriates the fish into an imaginative order that gives rise to ethical insight. Bishop begins with an act of appropriation – "I caught a tremendous fish" – but ends by returning the fish to the experiential flux from which the fish, ver "vision," and the poem arise. The ultimate focus of Moore’s poem is aesthetic and moral, revealing a natural providential order of permanence and value. The focus of Bishop’s poem is epistemological and visionary, suggesting temporality, transcience, and the subjectivity of value. If Moore’s poem is "about" the values of adaptability, endurance and natural heroism, Bishop’s poem is "about" the experience of living in an alien, mutable and ultimately mystifying world. Like her vision of Darwin – "his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown" [as quoted by Anne Stevenson] – Bishop’s Moore-like concentration on the object slips "giddily" off into the unknown, the strange, the surreal, unfixing traditional notions of a bounded self and world and collapsing the traditional distinction between conscious and unconscious, subject and object, self and world.

From Betsy Erkkila, "Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore,: Chapter 4 in The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 122-123.

Stephen Cushman (1993)

[T]he familiar poem "The Fish" can be reread profitably as a configuration of simple parallels and more complex subordinations, culminating in the paratactic connection reminiscent of biblical syntax: "And I let the fish go." The careful avoidance of subordination, as in "so I let the fish go," reveals the speaker’s reluctance, even refusal, to impose a more obvious moral closure on her narrative. Instead, Bishop reserves subordination for the shift from the speaker’s simple narration of her fish story to an imaginative identification with the fish she catches. Through the first 21 lines the only conjunction is ‘and" and several statements are linked without conjunctions at all. Then, as the first-person speaker shifts from "I caught" to "I thought," comes hypotaxis:

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.

In this poem, with its paratactic skeleton of "I caught," "I thought," "I looked," "I admired," "I stared and stared," "And I let the fish go," hypotaxis signals the journey to the interior, as the mere recounting of events yields to personal reflection on, and appreciation of, those events. As in "the Map," in which hypotaxis accompanies the printer’s excitement "as when emotion too far exceeds its cause," parataxis in "the Fish" governs emotion, whereas hypotaxis releases it, even in the vision of a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread rainbow."

From Stephen Cushman, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Winding Path," Chapter 5 in Fictions of Form in American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 131.

C. K. Doreski

"The Fish" [NS], Bishop's most frequently anthologized poem, relies upon a Wordsworthian spiritual exercise to justify a rowboat transformation from plunderer to benefactor. The collapse of distinctions between land and sea, the air and earth of the speaker, obscures the borders between life and art. Bishop perceives the fish in land-language of "feathers" and "peonies" and "tinfoil" and "isinglass." Even as she works those changes, however, the fish works reciprocal wonders of its own. Passive resistance deprives the fishing poet of her triumph: "He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all." She soon understands that her knowledge of the fish is inaccurate.

Evidence of past encounters—"two heavier lines, / and a fine black thread / still crimped from the strain and snap / when it broke and he got away"—tells of a different fish. Earlier seen as "battered and venerable / and homely" (the line-break softening the accuracy of description), the fish now assumes the mock-role of tribal elder and hero:

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

Deprived of the fight, the poet must contemplate her position as the harbinger of death. The "little rented boat" marks a closed world wherein the speaker represents the moral force of her species. Taken by the incongruity and insignificance of the colloquy, the reader is swept from the sensuous into the psychological, then moved beyond earthly particulars to a spiritual whole:

[lines 65-76]

As in the Christian parable, the oil upon the waters brings peace. It also engenders communication with the otherworldly. Through a rare Wordsworthian "spot of time," a genuine epiphany, the poet admits, somewhat reluctantly, a momentary conventional wisdom. This leap from perception to wisdom signals the arbitrariness so characteristic of the epiphany.

Though "The Fish" is certainly central to her canon, Bishop's boredom and dissatisfaction with the poem suggests a fear that the poem settles into sentiment instead of expanding into true wisdom.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright 1993 by Oxford UP

Susan McCabe (1994)

[McCabe quotes the lines that begin "I looked into his eyes" and end "old scratched isinglass."]

What she discovers is not identity but difference, the eyes impenetrable and layered – mediated and distanced by the speaker’s language. That she describes his yes as "seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass" implicates both her vision and that of the fish as blurred and imperfect. Isinglass, a transparent gelatin from the bladders of fish and used, ironically, as a clarifying agent, only diminishes and reduces her ability to see the fish …

[McCabe quotes the last twelve lines in "The Fish."]

Only after seeing the fish can she see "the little rented boat," which, like the fish, becomes dynamized, its deficiencies metamorphosing to matter for exultation. The fish is only ugly or grotesque to the untrained or unempathic eye. As the small space of the boat expands, her multiple prepositions override "thwarts" and tie "everything" into relationship. The poem takes us two ways: into recognizing difference and into apprehending unity, into perceiving connection and its frailty. But to comprehend, to totalize would be to underrate. We recall that this is a poem about a visionary moment: it can’t keep, but must be let go. This poem, looser than others in this volume and preferring internal rhymes until its final couplet, highlights how fragile and unpredictable are our joinings and communions. …

from Susan McCabe, "Artifices of Independence," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 95, 96.

Bonnie Costello (1995)

… "The Fish" invokes folk narrative, specifically the great American "fish tale" sublimely parodied in Moby-Dick. Bishop’s anecdote, like Melville’s tale, challenges the official narrative drawn from the Bible: that man will have dominion over the fish of the sea. Bishop catches an old, heroic-looking fish without a struggle, but lets it go. Bishop’s rainbow at the end of "The Fish" explicitly reminds us of the ancient rainbow that marked this covenant between God and Noah. Bishop’s ending refutes narrative’s inherent structure of mastery. Yet we still go back through the poem to interpret even this anti-epiphany in causal, narrative terms. Why did she let the fish go, we ask. To the extent that the elements of the poem serve to justify this final action, they serve plot. Yet as we pursue this seuqnetial logic, we founder on the "victory" that fills up the little rented boat. Whose victory? The fish’s? The poet’s? As we ask such questions the author’s impulse of secrecy rather than sequence becomes apparent. We can move farther back into the poem for answers to our questions, but the enigmas remain. Again, the words get in the way of the story’s clear and clean effect. Indeed, we find that the beginning of the poem is driven by description not altogether in the service of plot. Why is the fish’s skin like old wallpaper? How is this scene related to Bishop’s personal past? Even if we recognize what [Tzvetan] Todorov [in Genres in Discourse] calls an epistemological rather than a mythological plot, we cannot reduce the elements of the poem to simple linear logic.

In Bishop narrative is typically forestalled by description; this is part of what turns her stories into poems, what makes them more spatial than linear. But it is also true that each description carries within it the fragment of another story, so that diachronic sequence is converted into synchronic layerings of narrative. The description, in other words, introduces a number of free motifs that invite interpretive application to the primary, associated motifs, but that are not obviously connected. In a sense the bladder of the fish, "speckled with barnacles, / fine rosettes of lime, / and infested / with a tiny white sea-lice," is a figure for this suspension out of linear logic, as are the strips of ancient wallpaper that embody another unpursued narrative, one of the poet’s memory "stained and lost through age." Bishop’s descriptions are full of lost or erased narratives …

from Bonnie Costello, "Narrative Secrets, Lyric Openings: Stevens and Bishop," The Wallace Stevens Journal 19:2 (Fall 1995), 184-185.

Robert Dale Parker

Perhaps many readers would take "The Fish," one of Bishop's most admired poems, as her most conclusively confident poem. There she catches a "tremendous fish" and surveys it closely in one of the finest of those precise descriptions she is famous for. Then, she says, "I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat," "until," in the poem's final words, "everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go." Here suddenly she catches what she wished for, and so no longer needs to wish. To preserve the edge of wish, then, she must give up what she has, so she can have again more truly by not having. It recalls Faulkner's claim that Hemingway failed by sticking to what he already knew he could succeed at, instead of daring the failures that, by overreaching, make the truest success. On the other hand, Bishop does not sound convinced that she really gains that much by catching her fish. For her cheerily sentimental word "rainbow," with its repetition that, rather than giving emphasis, only enhances the sense that she feels the word's inadequacy, together with the sudden exclamation point and its redoubled effect of straining too hard at the end of what had remained an understated, calm poem, all seem to compensate for some fear of ordinariness in her understatement and quiet. Her letting the fish go, dramatized by putting it all in the final words, seems too willfully a striving for conclusive wisdom. She can throw the fish back, if she likes, but to gloat over throwing it back sounds too easily superior, since most of us, rather than throwing fish back, enjoy eating them now and then. Instead of ending with a wish for something to say, she seems not to know how to end, and so she goes, in effect, fishing for profundity, violating at the end the modesty and indirection that she was to win such admiration for.

From The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Copyright 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

James McCorkle

Perhaps nowhere else in Bishop's poetry is the eye's journey so celebrated as in her much anthologized poem "The Fish," The journey begins with the external, in the realm of the unseeing self, with the prosaic opening lines:

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.

The first word, "I," a pun on the self and the self that sees, preludes the opening--and flowering--of our eyes and our language. The direct and graphic description of a situation remains a moment when we look but are not yet actively and imaginatively engaged. We are external and separate since we have no connection with the other.

While Bishop examines the fish, she also begins to enter the body of figurative language:

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.

The simile creates depth: we enter the house of language, where things stand behind things and each is dependent on the others--for they are linked by the trope's marker "like." By repeating the wallpaper simile, the apparent domesticity of the narrator is revealed and there is a convergence of two distinctly different worlds. Implicit in this convergence is a revelation of decay and mutability through the lucidity of her observation of the fish's patterned and peeling skin.

After continuing the examination of the exterior of the fish with an increasing degree of metaphor and precision--barnacles are "fine rosettes of lime," the fish is clothed with "rags"--the poet is rhetorically self-defined and imaginatively penetrates the fish:

I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers, [. . .]
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

The power of observation and looking resides in and rises with the power of imagining. We move closer to the certainty we believe lies in the tactility of physical presence--be it fish or rhetoric. At each of these liminal moments transformation takes place, since we cross the abyss between the two halves of a metaphor or simile.

The movement into the fish also initiates self-interrogation. Through the use of self-reflexive tropes, the narrator crosses the threshold of exteriority--where objects remain either marginalized or idealized discretes--into a realm where objects are interrelated not only among themselves but with us. The narrator stares into the fish's eyes, only to have the fish "not / ... return my stare" and deny any anthropomorphic pathos and sympathy. Self-reflexivity at this moment becomes transparent: the narrator acknowledges her own regard, seeing herself in relation with the other as two beings, rather than a subject distanced from (and desiring appropriation of) an object. The aside that qualifies the event--"It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light"--qualifies the perception and makes presence more provisional. The fish mediates between the narrator and a language with which she can picture herself. The description of the wallpaper, the flower imagery, and the metaphors of ornament and clothing comprise a taxonomy that composes the speaker and creates the mystery of the speaker's presence. She is both present in these details and absent, in that the details are metaphors whose other term is left unstated. Figurative language becomes the common and defining ground that both the fish and the speaker, in their mutual mysteriousness, share.

The narrator implicitly acknowledges the limitations of language through the use of such asides as "if you could call it a lip." In using language, we impose it upon the world either to bring the world and ourselves into renewed relation or to subject the world to discipline, thus imprisoning the world and refiguring language as disciplinary. Yet figurative language also subverts the subjective and repressive qualities of language. To realize this double bind becomes a form of transcendence, though not the hierarchical transcendence of unicity. Transcendence here is the process of the dialectical movement of figurative language. The sharpening of observation, exemplified by the correction of "five old pieces of fish-line" to "or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached," reflects the process of reifying the self, the other, and language. Speculation is transformative and interminable, as exemplified when the fishing equipment becomes medals of valor "with their ribbons / frayed and wavering," before they are transformed again into "a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw." The fish can never be defined or gazed upon as a totality--any definition of any particular is exchanged for another. The generation of metaphors, one displacing another, grants language its continuation and life; thus, the narrator is caught in an interminable process of focusing her vision--but at some point the vision can no longer be sustained; instead it must be relinquished.

Bishop's imperative in "The Monument" ("Watch it closely") echoes "The Fish" ("I stared and stared") and describes this potentially interminable movement of perception, which is tantamount to the poem. During the process of increasing attentiveness, the speaker glimpses a provisional fullness:

I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
[. . . ] until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

The fish fills with language until it can hold no more. It is at this moment that the generation of language can go no farther. The fish must be discarded and replaced. The self has also reached its own limits of creation and definition. Artifice, if it is to remain coherent, finds itself limited. Still unanswered is whether nature is equally limited, or if it is that which remains limiting and unapprehendable. The rainbow of oil leaking onto the water's surface replaces the fish and allows discursive connections to continue. This dispensation, however, is ironic: it takes place in a grubby rented boat, where the language wears out, indicated by the repetition of "rusted" in two successive lines. The "victory" is the rainbow of a thin film of oil spreading across the bilge waters, overrunning the "pool of bilge," to spread over everything. Similarly, the rainbow draws together the multitude of colors found throughout the poem, which parallels a rainbow's concordance of the undistorted visible colors of the spectrum. The rainbow spreads over the boat and over language "until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Though it is tempting to read the final lines as an ecstatic moment that marks the narrator's full recognition of the fish and interconnectedness, such a reading remains naive, for the poem has come to describe the generative and metonymical functions of language. Jerome Mazzaro considers these final lines a parody of "God's restoration of dominion to Noah" in which Bishop's wry evolutionist stance suggests that humans' dominion is only by accident and technology. Although the rainbow reflects a new dispensation, it is one that inscribes, as Mazzaro argues, departure and uncertainty. The simple rhyme of "rainbow" and "go" underscores the provisionality of any interconnection, since it recalls the passage and loss of childhood. We must let go any notion of totality or synthesis, either rhetorical or existential. Instead, the materiality of language and time comes to be emphasized; the poem lets go of the symbolic, and reinvents the relational. The poem moves toward transcendent closure with "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," but opens up and initiates a new, though unfigured, process that subverts closure and death: "And I let the fish go."

From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Copyright 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

James Longenbach

In her famous poem "The Fish" [. . .] Bishop was able to demonstrate the value of openness and discovery within the poem's unfolding of its thematic content. She provides at the beginning of "The Fish" no sense of its conclusion; instead, the poem seems to discover its direction only as we read it, and (as in Bishop's parable) both the target and the hunter are in motion. The fish and the fisherman become apprehensible to us through the sequence of similes characterizing the fish. (Metaphors, suggesting firmer equivalencies, are avoided.)

                    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 though age.

This fish is not "imaginary" (Bishop emphasizes its brute otherness by dwelling on its sharp gills and sea-lice) but it is, unlike the iceberg, "imagined": that is, it makes sense—tentatively--only as values are attributed to it. By its very otherness the fish seems to teach the speaker how to imagine and therefore appreciate her world. The epiphany in the poem's final lines, when everything is "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," becomes possible when the speaker turns from the fish and sees a rainbow in the oil spread out in the ugly rented boat. Having begun by setting down the poem when still "incomplete" (to borrow the terms of her essays), Bishop ends by demonstrating "not a thought but a mind thinking."

From Modern Poetry after Modernism. Copyright 1997 by James Longenbach.

Thierry Ramais

In what might first look like a rather “romanticized”, almost naive description of a fisherwoman’s passion for her hobby (we probably all have read, indeed, at some point of our childhood, rose-colored tales of hunters/fishermen taking pity on their prey(s)), Elizabeth Bishops tells us in “The Fish”, I believe, a lot not only on man’s relation to nature, but also, in more general terms, on man’s relation to the “other”, the way in which, after vain attempts at objectifying this “other”, the “reality” of the latest, its “humanness”, always comes back in full swing, either to haunt or to charm us.

The poem starts with the epitome of fishing people and their love for tall-tales: “I caught a tremendous fish”. The tone of the I-narrator is that of a woman proud of her victory over nature, her domination over an animal which seems to have managed, so far, to elude all other fishermen. Surprisingly, however, even though the fish is “tremendous” and of “a grunting weight”, it is also said to have offered little resistance: “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all.” We do not know if the narrator is trying to convey to her listeners that, whatever the resistance was, it felt like a weak one to her (possibly increasing thereby her own merit as a skilled fisherwoman) or if the fish did indeed offer no resistance but, in all cases, this fish is different from the others (note how the fish is almost instantly referred to as “he” instead of “it”, a process of humanization and masculinization which I will come back to later) and the fisherwoman does express some early signs of admiration for it: it is “venerable and homely” and his picture is imbued with ancient-like respectability (his old age summons in the narrator, I believe, both admiration and fear for the passing of time), its skins hung “like ancient wallpaper” and offers “shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through roses”.

In these few first lines of the poem, a increasing shift in the narrator’s perspective and focus is noticeable. From the first rather cocky (but empty) comment on how big the fish supposedly is, we are indeed slowly moving into the narrator’s thoughts about the fish, its physical appearance, its shape, patterns and colors. From the narrator’s observations stem mixed feelings and the process that will eventually lead her, by the end of the poem, to admire the beauty of the animal is one interrupted by moments of doubt and even repulsion. There is a strong sense that, after the exultation of the catch, the fisherwoman is now looking at this fish closely for the first time and that her eyes, along with her train of thoughts, somehow get lost in the meanders of its animalistic beauty. Even what could be described as repulsive (its “tiny white sea-lice”, the “rags of green weed” hanging down) is somehow highly aestheticized. There is a strong sense that repulsion, combined with fear (see, for instance, his alluding to the “frightening gills” of the animal, the “dramatic reds and blacks” of its entrails) is a necessary step in the process of looking closely, of admitting the “reality” of the fish, of describing it objectively, demystifying its tall-tale attributes and of eventually admiring it. Repulsion is a very “humane” impulse of protection, but one which, in this poem, does not resist the test of the gaze. The fish indeed gradually becomes an object to be admired in a reverent, almost religious way, and becomes less and less one on which the feeling of “ownership” can hold its grasp. This dissociation between the fisherwoman and her catch, her “object” becomes apparent as she admits that the fish’s gills “can cut so badly”, echoing, I believe, her realization that this fish, despite the appearances, is not one used to give itself up easily.

The narrator’s imaginative description of the animal’s entrails is also, like the earlier description of its outward appearance, one imbued with aestheticism, the animal’s inside are colorful, its flesh is compared to “feathers”. After considering the inside and outside of the animal, the fisherwoman catches a glimpse of its eyes and, after recognizing that these eyes are “far larger than [his]”, shows signs of attempts at establishing some form of “connection” between herself and the animal. Little by little, the fish stops being this “other”, this object of pride that is was at the beginning of the poem, and gradually becomes imbued with human attributes as the description goes on. In the same way as one would try to catch the attention of a stranger in order to befriend him/her, the narrator is hoping to find some response to his stare in the fish’s eyes which “shifted a little, but not to return my stare”, echoing a first failed attempt at truly establishing a connection.

Fascinated by the physical strength of the fish (let us notice, for instance, the narrator’s pointing to the fish’s “lower lip – if you could call it a lip”, echoing again her tendency to humanize the animal), the fisherman becomes aware of the various “fights” it has endured. There is a strong sense of the focus of the poem (and of the narrator’s thoughts) shifting from pride to admiration; the fisherwoman might be good in what she does, but the fish itself has obviously been victor in many fights, too. By the end of the poem, the “victory fill[ing] up the little rented boat” stops being a simple matter of boasting about a good catch, it’s the victory of both the fisherwoman and the fish itself. The animal stops being a mere trophy, it is imbued with human qualities which the fisherwoman can identify with. As a result, the latest feels she cannot do anything but let it go. The poem obviously celebrates a moment in person’s life when his/her humanness goes as far as to recognize the humanity of nature itself, to consider nature not as “object” but as equally “subject”. From the triumph of the catch to close observation, repulsion and eventually admiration, the ending tone of the poem then becomes one of near-euphoria, as the narrator exclaims how, on the boat, “everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” The feeling of admiration of and reconciliation with nature has become so strong that everything around the narrator indeed becomes nature and that, after having recognized the humanness in nature, the fisherwoman know recognizes her belonging to nature inside her own humanness. In the same way as, as David Kalstone puts it, the narrator has “summon[ed] up” the animal from his “own inner depth”, she has also “summon[ed] up” those feelings of reconciliation from deep inside herself.

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais.



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