Elizabeth Bishop
The Fish (1946)


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.