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.

5

He didn't fight.

 

He hadn't fought at all.

 

He hung a grunting weight,

 

battered and venerable

 

and homely. Here and there

10

his brown skin hung in strips

 

like ancient wallpaper,

 

and its pattern of darker brown

 

was like wallpaper:

 

shapes like full-blown roses

15

stained and lost through age.

 

He was speckled with barnacles,

 

fine rosettes of lime,

 

and infested

 

with tiny white sea-lice,

20

and underneath two or three

 

rags of green weed hung down.

 

While his gills were breathing in

 

the terrible oxygen

 

--the frightening gills,

25

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,

30

the dramatic reds and blacks

 

of his shiny entrails,

 

and the pink swim-bladder

 

like a big peony.

 

I looked into his eyes

35

which were far larger than mine

 

but shallower, and yellowed,

 

the irises backed and packed

 

with tarnished tinfoil

 

seen through the lenses

40

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.

45

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

50

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

55

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

60

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.

65

I stared and stared

 

and victory filled up

 

the little rented boat,

 

from the pool of bilge

 

where oil had spread a rainbow

70

around the rusted engine

 

to the bailer rusted orange,

 

the sun-cracked thwarts,

 

the oarlocks on their strings,

 

the gunnels--until everything

75

was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

 

And I let the fish go.