Elizabeth Bishop. The Fish

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The Moose

From narrow provinces

of fish and bread and tea,

home of the long tides

where the bay leaves the sea

twice a day and takes

the herrings long rides,


where if the river

enters or retreats

in a wall of brown foam

depends on if it meets

the bay coming in,

the bay not at home;


where, silted red,

sometimes the sun sets

facing a red sea,

and others, veins the flats'

lavender, rich mud

in burning rivulets;


on red, gravelly roads,

down rows of sugar maples,

past clapboard farmhouses

and neat, clapboard churches,

bleached, ridged as clamshells,

past twin silver birches,


through late afternoon

a bus journeys west,

the windshield flashing pink,

pink glancing off of metal,

brushing the dented flank

of blue, beat-up enamel;


down hollows, up rises,

and waits, patient, while

a lone traveller gives

kisses and embraces

to seven relatives

and a collie supervises.


Goodbye to the elms,

to the farm, to the dog.

The bus starts. The light

grows richer; the fog,

shifting, salty, thin,

comes closing in.


Its cold, round crystals

form and slide and settle

in the white hens' feathers,

in gray glazed cabbages,

on the cabbage roses

and lupins like apostles;


the sweet peas cling

to their wet white string

on the whitewashed fences;

bumblebees creep

inside the foxgloves,

and evening commences.


One stop at Bass River.

Then the Economies

Lower, Middle, Upper;

Five Islands, Five Houses,

where a woman shakes a tablecloth

out after supper.


A pale flickering. Gone.

The Tantramar marshes

and the smell of salt hay.

An iron bridge trembles

and a loose plank rattles

but doesn't give way.


On the left, a red light

swims through the dark:

a ship's port lantern.

Two rubber boots show,

illuminated, solemn.

A dog gives one bark.


A woman climbs in

with two market bags,

brisk, freckled, elderly.

"A grand night. Yes, sir,

all the way to Boston."

She regards us amicably.


Moonlight as we enter

the New Brunswick woods,

hairy, scratchy, splintery;

moonlight and mist

caught in them like lamb's wool

on bushes in a pasture.


The passengers lie back.

Snores. Some long sighs.

A dreamy divagation

begins in the night,

a gentle, auditory,

slow hallucination. . . .


In the creakings and noises,

an old conversation

--not concerning us,

but recognizable, somewhere,

back in the bus:

Grandparents' voices



talking, in Eternity:

names being mentioned,

things cleared up finally;

what he said, what she said,

who got pensioned;


deaths, deaths and sicknesses;

the year he remarried;

the year (something) happened.

She died in childbirth.

That was the son lost

when the schooner foundered.


He took to drink. Yes.

She went to the bad.

When Amos began to pray

even in the store and

finally the family had

to put him away.


"Yes . . ." that peculiar

affirmative. "Yes . . ."

A sharp, indrawn breath,

half groan, half acceptance,

that means "Life's like that.

We know it (also death)."


Talking the way they talked

in the old featherbed,

peacefully, on and on,

dim lamplight in the hall,

down in the kitchen, the dog

tucked in her shawl.


Now, it's all right now

even to fall asleep

just as on all those nights.

--Suddenly the bus driver

stops with a jolt,

turns off his lights.


A moose has come out of

the impenetrable wood

and stands there, looms, rather,

in the middle of the road.

It approaches; it sniffs at

the bus's hot hood.


Towering, antlerless,

high as a church,

homely as a house

(or, safe as houses).

A man's voice assures us

"Perfectly harmless. . . ."


Some of the passengers

exclaim in whispers,

childishly, softly,

"Sure are big creatures."

"It's awful plain."

"Look! It's a she!"


Taking her time,

she looks the bus over,

grand, otherworldly.

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?


"Curious creatures,"

says our quiet driver,

rolling his r's.

"Look at that, would you."

Then he shifts gears.

For a moment longer,


by craning backward,

the moose can be seen

on the moonlit macadam;

then there's a dim

smell of moose, an acrid

smell of gasoline.


At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,

down by one of the fishhouses

an old man sits netting,

his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,

a dark purple-brown,

and his shuttle worn and polished.

The air smells so strong of codfish

it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water.

The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs

and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up

to storerooms in the gables

for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,

swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,

is opaque, but the silver of the benches,

the lobster pots, and masts, scatteredopake

among the wild jagged rocks,

is of an apparent translucence

like the small old buildings with an emerald moss

growing on their shoreward walls.

The big fish tubs are completely lined

with layers of beautiful herring scales

and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered

with creamy iridescent coats of mail,

with small iridescent flies crawling on them.

Up on the little slope behind the houses,

set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,

is an ancient wooden capstan

cracked, with two long bleached handles

and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,

where the ironwork has rusted.

The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.

He was a friend of my grandfather.

We talk of the decline in the population

and of codfish and herring

while he waits for a herring boat to come in.

There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.

He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,

from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,

the blade of which is almost worn away.


Down at the water's edge, at the place

where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp

descending into the water, thin silver

tree trunks are laid horizontally

across the gray stones, down and down

at intervals of four or five feet.


Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,

element bearable to no mortal,

to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly

I have seen here evening after evening.

He was curious about me. He was interested in music;

like me a believer in total immersion,

so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.

I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

He stood up in the water and regarded me

steadily, moving his head a little.

Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge

almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug

as if it were against his better judgment.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,

the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,

the dignified tall firs begin.

Bluish, associating with their shadows,

a million Christmas trees stand

waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended

above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,

slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,

icily free above the stones,

above the stones and then the world.

If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn

as if the water were a transmutation of fire

that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,

then briny, then surely burn your tongue.

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world, derived from the rocky breasts

forever, flowing and drawn, and since

our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.


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 its 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.

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