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Elizabeth Bishop

(8 February 1911 – 6 October 1979 / Worcester, Massachusetts)

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.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003
Edited: Friday, May 17, 2013

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Read poems about / on: rainbow, fish, pink, green, water, lost, sea, sun, light, fishing, swimming, rose

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  • Rookie David Macharia (11/26/2012 6:37:00 PM)

    This poem is so great that I can't put it into words. All l can say is that I'm glad that the fish was freed. (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Sean Liao (4/15/2010 12:07:00 AM)

    Elizabeth Bishop is renown to write poetry about the beauty of poetry. This poem is not an exception. The fisherman merely caught a fish, yet by his imagination and creativity(which is part of poetry) he was able to imagine the fish beyond what it was, not only talking about its skin but also about its innards and portraying it as a war veteran. In fact, the ending spoke of how the fisherman even began to see the colors of the rainbow. Sad to say, the poem focuses more on poetry itself; it is unlikely the poem is speaking of morality or life and death between the fisherman and the fish.
    Great poem! (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Serique Gil (7/5/2009 8:44:00 PM)

    Totally amazing. Beyond any fishing experience! ! !

    real poem!

    much more of what you see (Report) Reply

  • Rookie Lee Moore (1/28/2009 9:24:00 PM)

    I'm not an 'expert' when it comes to poetry but this one captures SO much! This is not about this 'poor ole fish'. This is about both of them and the struggle of life; hope,
    triumph, surrender and love. Exquisite! (Report) Reply

    Bronze Star - 5,992 Points Frank Avon (9/7/2014 1:08:00 AM)

    You may not be and expert, as they say, but you are a sensitive reader and, in this case, you recognized and exquisite poem. I agree with you 100%. I'm glad you reminded me to add this one to my list of favorite poems.

  • Rookie Aisling Fagan (9/27/2006 10:44:00 AM)

    I think this is a wonderful poem by Elizabeth Bishop. It shows some of her striking characteristics: her eye of detail. Its a very interesting poem. Her details of the fishs eye is of extraodinary detail. Each layer creates a vivid image in my head. (Report) Reply

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