The Fish

Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fishand held him beside the boathalf out of water, with my hookfast in a corner of his mouth.He didn't fight.He hadn't fought at all.He hung a grunting weight,battered and venerableand homely. Here and therehis brown skin hung in stripslike ancient wallpaper,and its pattern of darker brownwas like wallpaper:shapes like full-blown rosesstained and lost through age.He was speckled with barnacles,fine rosettes of lime,and infestedwith tiny white sea-lice,and underneath two or threerags of green weed hung down.While his gills were breathing inthe terrible oxygen—the frightening gills,fresh and crisp with blood,that can cut so badly—I thought of the coarse white fleshpacked in like feathers,the big bones and the little bones,the dramatic reds and blacksof his shiny entrails,and the pink swim-bladderlike a big peony.I looked into his eyeswhich were far larger than minebut shallower, and yellowed,the irises backed and packedwith tarnished tinfoilseen through the lensesof old scratched isinglass.They shifted a little, but notto return my stare.—It was more like the tippingof an object toward the light.I admired his sullen face,the mechanism of his jaw,and then I sawthat 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 leaderwith the swivel still attached,with all their five big hooksgrown firmly in his mouth.A green line, frayed at the endwhere he broke it, two heavier lines,and a fine black threadstill crimped from the strain and snapwhen it broke and he got away.Like medals with their ribbonsfrayed and wavering,a five-haired beard of wisdomtrailing from his aching jaw.I stared and staredand victory filled upthe little rented boat,from the pool of bilgewhere oil had spread a rainbowaround the rusted engineto the bailer rusted orange,the sun-cracked thwarts,the oarlocks on their strings,the gunnels—until everythingwas rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!And I let the fish go.

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Color photo of Elizabeth Bishop
Photo:
Alice Helen Methfessel

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her collection Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring, the National Book Award for The Complete Poems (1969), the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1976, and many other distinctions and accolades for her work. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. She traveled widely as an adult, living for years in France and then Brazil, before returning to the United States.

“Bishop was not just a good poet but a great one. Bishop accomplished a magical illumination of the ordinary, forcing us to examine our surroundings with the freshness of a friendly alien.”
—David Lehman, Newsweek

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