Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Audio: Elizabeth Bishop reads “The Fish” (text included)

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) was an American poet and short-story writer who was born in Massachusetts, raised in Nova Scotia, and lived for many years in Brazil with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950, the Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in 1956, the National Book Award winner in 1970, and the recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. Although not as widely known as many of the male poets of her generation, such as Theodore Roethke and John Berryman, Bishop’s restrained style and impeccable craft have had a strong influence on many American poets, most notably Robert Lowell, Kathleen Spivack, Dana Gioia, and Louise Glück. Like many of Bishop’s poems, “The Fish” is widely admired for its precise detailed description that evokes a struggle to discover a sense of belonging in the world.

In terms of identity politics, Bishop did not see herself as a “lesbian poet” or as a “female poet”, refusing to have her work published in all-female poetry anthologies. Many feminist poets of her time believed that she was hostile to their cause, but in a 1978 interview with The Paris Review, she said that, despite her insistence on being excluded from single-gender poetry anthologies, she still considered herself to be “a strong feminist” but that she wanted to be judged based only on the quality of her writing and not on her gender or sexual orientation.

Email subscribers may listen to Elizabeth Bishop read her poem “The Fish” by clicking on the title of this post.

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.

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One comment on “Audio: Elizabeth Bishop reads “The Fish” (text included)

  1. anisioluiz2008
    July 30, 2017

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Liked by 1 person

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