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.
Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Bishop. Reprinted from Poems with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Poems by This Author

At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop
Although it is a cold evening,
Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop
Oh, but it is dirty!
In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
Little Exercise by Elizabeth Bishop
Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance by Elizabeth Bishop
Suicide of a Moderate Dictator by Elizabeth Bishop
This is a day when truths will out, perhaps
The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop
This is the time of year
The Moose by Elizabeth Bishop
From narrow provinces
Visits to St. Elizabeths by Elizabeth Bishop
This is the house of Bedlam.

Further Reading

Poems about Fish
by Marianne Moore
by Marsden Hartley
Flying Fish: An Ode [excerpt]
by Charles Wharton Stork
Goldfish Are Ordinary
by Stacie Cassarino
The Fish
by Marianne Moore
The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit
by Leigh Hunt
by William Corbett
Your Catfish Friend
by Richard Brautigan