blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Caught: The Fish in Bishop, Dubie, and Larry Levis
Presented at VCU’s 2019 Levis Reading Prize Event

Certain subjects may call forth from a writer the need to depart utterly from familiar approaches and to create something rather eccentric and unique in the body of work produced in a writing career. At the same time, perhaps riding on the flip side of that same coin, there are always going to be images and ideas and even techniques that make their appearance again and again in every writer’s work, very likely rooted in closely held beliefs and worries, and residing even more deeply in their lived experiences, whether remembered consciously or not.

As I was re-reading a very early poem by Larry Levis recently, one titled “Fish,” a poem I’ve always liked, perhaps primarily because I so strongly identify with the experience it recounts, I realized that there were other poems with virtually the same title that I also have always liked and written by other poets I’ve deeply admired: Elizabeth Bishop and Norman Dubie both have poems titled “The Fish.” What’s interesting to me about these poems is that although they really don’t resemble each other in any obvious way at all—no question of literary influence here—each of these poems exhibit techniques and images and ideas that are noticeably characteristic in the lifelong work of their authors.

Elizabeth Bishop was living in Key West when she wrote many of the poems collected in her first book, North & South, which includes “The Fish,” a poem assumed by most commentators to reflect an actual experience she had there. It begins “I caught a tremendous fish” and states with some surprise that “He didn’t fight,” emphasizing that “He hadn’t fought at all.” What follows is a brilliantly creative and precise description of the fish, not only his “brown skin” that “hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper” with “shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age” but also “his eyes / which were far larger than mine” with “irises backed and packed / with tarnished tinfoil / seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass.” What’s most notable about her “venerable” fish is the “five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached,” which she depicts as “a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw.” Clearly this fish is not only a powerful and extremely rare survivor, but something more—a superior being, an incarnation of some sort of nature god, a divinity, and like the ancient bear with the trap-ruined foot, Old Ben, in William Faulkner’s often anthologized fiction “The Bear,” this fish is deserving of reverence and awe. In the poem’s ending, as she stares at the rainbow created by the boat’s motor oil spreading over the water, Bishop has an ecstatic moment of vision, “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” and she “let the fish go.” It’s no accident that Bishop employs there the symbol of the rainbow, familiar from the biblical story of Noah and his ark, where the rainbow is hung in the sky as a sign of the “covenant” established after the flood between the deity “and all flesh that is on the earth.” While Bishop’s poem may seem to enact a moment of realization with more of a pagan or “nature religion” flavor rather than Christian, the use of that sacred symbol imparts a solemn responsibility of awareness and care, a sense of sacral obligation that recurs in many of Bishop’s later poems, such as “The Armadillo,” which protests against the foolish destructiveness of mankind’s whims, or the unforgettable encounter with another “grand, otherworldly” being in her poem “The Moose” from her final poetry collection, where the big animal standing in the roadway is able to bring a bus to a halt and leaves all the staring passengers in a state of wonderment as they witness her strength and power arrayed against our pathetic addiction to engines and gasoline.

Norman Dubie’s poem “The Fish” reveals a different sort of visionary moment, with a distinctly different and less affirmative outcome, although it, too, embodies an aspect of protest. Characteristic of his many poems which enter the past and imaginatively inhabit the lives of others, whether in a persona poem, where he might speak in first person through the “mask” of, for example, Queen Elizabeth as she responds to the execution, which she ordered, of her beloved yet traitorous courtier, the Earl of Essex, or in works delivered in an intimate form of third person narration—as in “The Fish.” Dubie’s poem begins, as his highly efficient works so often do, in medias res: “A pale woman is cradling a large red fish / That she’s stolen from the hospital kitchen.” The woman has walked out into “the bright garden” where she is drawn to a small pond: “Black waterlilies / Are gently wrestling her to the gravel’s edge.” Dubie enjoys employing unusual and highly active verbs in that manner, by which he suggests that the woman is in a severely distracted state, and as she moves closer to the waterlilies, “she kisses them / On their mouths.” The plants seem to scold her, calling out her name, and she responds by taking the red fish and knocking “them / Unconscious with it.” We discover that “Her boss, Mr. Calvin, has had surgery” and is “dying now / In the freshly plastered solarium.” She will “be out of work by morning,” and may lose her house. The time frame of the poem is not entirely made clear, but given its details, it seems likely that it’s set in a past era when jobs for women were difficult to come by, and when a surgery like Mr. Calvin’s (“they drilled / Holes in his skull”) may have been more common and not very effective. Alice prays for a miracle, but seems hopeless and in the ending of the poem she collapses, allowing the fish to fall into the pond, where it “shivers, breaks / To the left, leaps into the air and, then, / Without a thought for Alice, / Swims toward the bottom to sleep in the mud.” We are left to wonder if the fish was actually alive all along, or if this is some sort of delusion Alice suffers, but either way it seems a clear suggestion that, like the fish, Mr. Calvin has now gone and died “without a thought for Alice.” The poem calls for our sympathy for a person we encounter only briefly, but we cannot witness her desperation and fear without giving “a thought for Alice” ourselves and feeling that the poem enacts a kind of protest against her unfair situation, which seems cruel and undeserved.

Often, Larry Levis’s poems may also enact moments of intense, nearly visionary awakening, yet when they narrate such an experience, they are most often delivered in an intimately personal voice that’s rooted in, although not completely dependent upon, the autobiographical; a voice that brings with it an awareness fully prepared for self-critique and self-doubt even as it offers an unmistakably valuable and valued realization for both the poem’s speaker and the reader. (I might add that it’s likely I’ve also just described the approach taken in many of the poems in Jenny Xie’s book Eye Level as well.)

In an interview published in The Antioch Review in the summer of 1990, five years after the 1985 publication of Levis’s well-known fourth poetry collection, Winter Stars, the interviewer wishes to examine the increasing reliance on narrative in Levis’s poetry, and he asks Levis to trace how the narrative element has developed in his previous books, starting with the first book, Wrecking Crew, published in 1972, to which Levis answers:

“You can discern the elements of it all the way to Wrecking Crew in a poem like ‘Fish.’ There actually is a story, or half of a story, in that poem about an arrest.” Following that comment, Levis discusses how the narrative mode drops in and out of his poetry, where it comes back only in a muted way in a single long poem, “Linnets,” in his second book, The Afterlife, yet comes back “far more strongly in The Dollmaker’s Ghost”—perhaps too strongly, Levis suggests—and then in Winter Stars the narrative element is handled “implicitly” in poems that are often interrelated elegies. Levis explains that because the poems in Winter Stars are linked by allusions and motifs that refer to each other, that allows the narrative elements to subtly move into a particular image or line without being quite so overt. Then in what may be a prophetic look forward into his future as a poet, Levis describes a somewhat unusual poem among the others collected in Winter Stars:

“My Story in a Late Style of Fire” was written quickly in Iowa City, and I thought, at the time of writing it, I would never show it to anybody. Because at the time it had to do with a love affair. But my marriage ended and the love affair ended, too. So then it seemed all right for the poem to be published. But I was uneasy with the style, because the lines were so long. The sentences were long and it seemed to move passionately toward the state of a kind of prose, almost a prose poem. So at the end of the poem I defended it by saying this “late, florid style,” or something. A style that I could see myself having at some point in the future but did not feel, at that point, altogether comfortable with.

Of course, Levis did become quite comfortable with that style, and it came to characterize much of his most striking poetry in his later books. Although he says in that 1990 interview that “The trouble with narrative is that sometimes when a poet writes for narrative, the narrative overwhelms every other consideration,” Levis ultimately did find a number of ways to balance the clarities of narrative with the inventive intensities achieved in his deployment of surprising metaphors, remarkably memorable phrasing, and careful attention to rhythm and sound that could retain the virtues of poetry and overcome any simplistic resemblance to prose.

But let’s look back to that poem “Fish” from his first book, which I’ve suggested, just as Levis himself has done, is an early work that contains elements that would return and would even become more or less constant throughout his writing. The poem begins disturbingly with a scenario that was entirely too familiar to a lot of us who were “long hairs” back in the culture wars of the late sixties and early seventies, the Vietnam era:

The cop holds me up like a fish; 
he feels the huge bones 
surrounding my eyes, 
and he runs a thumb under them, 

lifting my eyelids 
as if they were 
envelopes filled with the night.

With that opening, we are thrust into an arena occupied by both personal and political concerns. The poem’s title initially may have suggested to us that we were going to encounter a nature poem, but it shifts its meaning quickly and sarcastically, revealing that the “fish” caught here is a human being, our narrator, who is being handled as if he is both inhuman and suspicious, since his eyes are likely to be filled with darkness, with a message from “the night.” The cop continues to manhandle the narrator, as if he were some sort of inanimate object like a toy or, as the poem metaphorically indicates, like “a tiny, plastic / skull left on the // dashboard of a junked car.” In short, like trash.

The policeman grows more and more comfortable; he begins chewing gum and drops his flashlight while the narrator has kept himself “tame and still,” strongly indicating, if not directly stating, his fear. In a return to the poem’s central metaphor, Levis writes that it’s as if the cop “could be cleaning a trout,” and then he uses that mention as a transition to move outside of the shabby urban environment in which the poem is set—a place “rippling with neons” and “the torn mouths on posters”—and he moves out into the setting where cleaning a fish ought to be taking place, where “pines rise into the darkness” and “trout / are freezing into bits of stars // under the ice,” a place where the narrator may very much wish he could be at this moment, despite the cold. In these lines in this quite early poem, we can already see the emergence of three of the most characteristic elements that will be sustained lifelong in the poetry of Levis. As Kathleen Graber has pointed out in her review of Levis’s most recent, posthumous, and likely final book, The Darkening Trapeze, those elements are among “the system of images he spent his creative life exploring: fire, snow, trees, wind, darkness, stars.” In particular, Levis turned to the stars throughout his life as an emblem not only of the vast, unfathomable nature of our human existence and insignificance, but also as a sign that in some crucial aspects, such as the amount of good fortune we might enjoy, or the span of time we will be allotted, and despite our ability and often our need to ignore those realities, our lives are indeterminate and in some sense fated, as our many proverbial sayings about the stars affirm—whether we worry about being “star-crossed,” or that something we desire is just “not in the stars.” If we take Levis at his word in the interview and this “story, or half of a story” in the poem is actually about an arrest he experienced, we can see that when the cop lets him go, he feels “like / a fish burned by his touch” and he slips away into the cold like a fish into freezing water. He tells us that “Once, I thought even through this / I could go quietly as a star / turning over and over.” But the legacy of this moment will not let him go, and he is doomed to “go on repeating the last, filthy / words on the lips / of this shrunken head” and that head seems to be the man in the moon, “shining out of its death,” a terror that keeps echoing “until trout surface / with their petrified, round eyes,” taking us back to the opening scene of the poem where the cop peels back his eyelids, a terror that repeats until “the stars begin moving” once again, an immense motion at a vast distance from this ugly scene.  

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