The Fish

Elizabeh Bishop

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.