Poem of the Day: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”

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.


This poem began as an anomaly to me. While the initial focus on the physical fish drew me in, it was the play on emotions between the speaker and the fish that had me reading over and over again. The admiration of nature’s form and the acknowledgement of the thrill that comes with catching the fish was what struck me most.  I was intrigued by Elizabeth Bishop’s way of reconciling conflicting emotions that come with digging of the hooks and the victory of the catch. Her ability to go into such detail with simple metaphors like ‘ancient wallpaper’ and “tarnished tinfoil” are admirable in their simple grace.

While the whole poem, essentially describes a fish, it speaks to more than the gills or eyes. By starting the reader off with the understanding that this tremendous fish was an easy catch seems to diffuse the whole piece. However, for Bishop, this was a launching board, the fish isn’t some overarching theme but rather one of those intimate observations. These moments of detail, as well as others, are what make great poetry for me and, I imagine, for Bishop in this poem.

                                                                                           — Brendan Kiviat 

Brendan is a sophomore public policy major and DC native with plans to someday escape the beltway.

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