“The Fish”

Elizabeth Bishop

Selected by Ian S. MacNiven

As a longtime reader of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, I was delighted to discover, in researching my biography of the poet and publisher James Laughlin, that he had first turned to her, in 1935, on the urging of Marianne Moore. Laughlin was hooked, and he tried to sign her up to publish five books with him. “I pushed too hard,” he admitted, and Bishop escaped. “The Fish” is her early evocation, in almost Faulknerian terms, of suffering, endurance, and undying heroism. Her closing “And I let the fish go”—echoes her own escape from convention, from worn verse traditions, and from James Laughlin.

—Ian S. MacNiven

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.



opens in a new windowPoems by Elizabeth Bishop



The modern American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) 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.

Ian S. MacNiven is the author of an award-winning biography of Lawrence Durrell, and most recently of “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions, which was a finalist for the Book Critics Circle Award in Biography for 2014. MacNiven is a cofounder of the International Lawrence Durrell Society and is a past president of the D. H. Lawrence Society of North America. He is currently writing a historical novel set in his native Suriname.

Read all of our Poetry Month coverage here