Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Cracking diamonds


Last night I went to see an event called Corresponding Poets: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. As the event started, I settled into my seat and looked at the 6 people on stage, wondering what it would be like. Over the course of the evening, some of the people read poems by Bishop and Lowell, some discussed the poets' lives, with the focus of the event on the copious letters the two wrote to each other over the duration of their lives.

As I listened I remembered many things I hadn't thought about in years, since I was an undergraduate in the US. Listening to Bishop's poetry, even the poems I know off by heart, the rhythms and images in her words brought me back near the beginning of my journey as a poet. It was her poetry that led me to experiment with writing, her poems I was set as models in my early writing classes. And it is often her poetry I return to now when I want a really fantastic poem to read. The evening inspired me to go home and write (the best I can ever really hope for!) but it also inspired me to go home and read, again, what I hadn't read in years, and to explore other poems by the pair that are still new to me. I want to share the opening poem of the evening, an Elizabeth Bishop poem I had nearly forgotten about:

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 and 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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