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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

McKendrick’s Fisheye

Posted by Adam Roberts on 10/04/08 at 05:10 AM

Here is a poem I currently have a crush on, from Jamie McKendrick’s Ink Stone.  McKendrick is a poet I’ve only recently encountered (this collection came out five years ago: he’s published a newer collection since).  He was born in Liverpool in 1955, says Faber’s cover-blurb; and he has published various things, and he has won the Forward Prize for poetry.  Good.  But ... he has no Wikipedia entry which means that, in a very real sense, he doesn’t exist.  The poem is called ‘Fish Eye’:

Hours of nothing biting on the lugworm bait
the twins had shown me how to catch—then suddenly
this spiny monster gurnard face appeared
banging about on the floor of the rowboat
like a fist or a heart.  Way too scared
of its hackled gills and crest of spikes
to unthread the hook and heave it back
we froze, and watched its will to live abate
while a fog like a tide of opal stole
over the oily surface of the eye
extinguishing an eerie Borealis.
Were the cells desiccating in the iris?
Or divulging the inky depths to this new hemisphere
of air too thin, too dry and bright to bear?

It’s the four lines 8-11 (from ‘we froze...’ to ‘...borealis’) that make the poem, I’d say: exquisite nape-hair-stirring poetry.  Of course the slightly rocoso flourish of their effectiveness depends upon the way they are framed in a series of deliberately downtoned, plainer lines (plainer, although not without their own punchily vivid imagery: ‘banging about on the floor of the rowboat/like a fist or a heart’).  What I mean is that the poem starts by positioning itself as a mundane piece of storytelling (’I went fishing with my grandchildren one day, and we caught a fish...’), human experience articulated in ordinary vocabulary weighted towards monosyllables (line 5, say), but then it orchestrates a shift in register ‘up’ (as it were) to capture the awe--if that’s not too pretentious a way of putting it--entailed in being a witness at a dying.  In other words, the extravagently polysyllabic line 11 works in part because its situated amongst a clutch of deliberately less extravagent lines.

I’m a little in love with the whole collection, actually: there’s a carefully worked and very resonant pattern of recurring theme-work throughout, about eyes, and about ink (two necessary premises of the poet, we might think; and two things imagistically strangely close).  This poem is about seeing, and the passing of sight, and about recording the sight in an inky medium (the inky depths).  It is about the uncanny, and it achieves a neatly uncanny effect.  Dying is a freaky business.  I consider the eerie Borealis of my own consciousness.  It won’t last forever, I suppose.


I have such a love for bad-but-interesting books that I’m always surprised to find myself moved and awed by this kind of poem. But McKendrick had me at “banging about...like a fist or a heart.” And there’s something really nice about the fish’s *will* to live being the thing that abates, especially as it gets enfolded into the conceit about seeing that you flagged: the *choice* of death seems like the awesome thing, the question the poem can’t bring itself to answer.

By on 10/04/08 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for sharing this poem.  Surely you’re right to say that lines eight through eleven form something like the center; but there’s also an awful lot going on in the last three lines, not all of which I can really figure out.  I agree with Aaron that the attraction of death is at least part of what’s being divulged.  “Divulging,” anyway, is an odd and unexpected move, partly since the moment described is of course a moment of covering up (and it’s striking, the way this moment is captured in a mixed-up metaphor that doesn’t feel at all wrong: a fog? like a tide? of opal?).  “Divulging the inky depths” also suggests some sort of play on “Iris” as a messenger.  Again, though, the content of the message is elusive.

By O. D. on 10/04/08 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes: and ‘iris’ is the rainbow, which half-chimes with the sky-set colours of ‘borealis’; the upward glance with which it ends.  The trajectory of the poem is from down below to up above, to mirror (I suppose) the journey of the fish.  Or to make the same point a different way, it’s a movement from startling ugliness at the beginning (the monstrous intrusion of ‘this spiny monster gurnard face ... its hackled gills and crest of spikes’), to the rather ethereal beauty at the end.  Face is intriguing, too:  I mean the way the fish is initially a face, or perhaps a face.  What I mean, without wanting to sound too oblique, is that there seems to me a weird, ethical quality in the poem.  It’s a sonnet, a form associated with declarations of love; it flirts with rhyme (or half-rhyme: abcacdeafghhii ... not all the lines rhyme, but enough of them do to register an effect); it articulates a strange connection with this fish.

I’m very struck by the idea of the poem unable to bring itself to answer the question it raises.  It does seem to end a little ... abruptly?  I know what you mean, Aaron, about not quite understanding the last three lines.  They’re intriguing.

By Adam Roberts on 10/04/08 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"divulge” here, I think, for the archaic/root sense of “to publish”: the ink and writing metaphor again...for a moment, the notion of death itself becoming legible appears--but how could such a question be answered in the affirmative?  the poet would have to have the answer!  more generally, with regard to this type of lyric, I I think of Frost, who would modulate back down towards something folksy, sardonic, skeptical; an affirmation that doesn’t entirely affirm--"for once, then, something...”

By on 10/05/08 at 02:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A strange and strong poem, yes.  My reading list grows with each post from Adam. I too like the sneaky plain start and the semi-trick sentence starting “Way too scared” which I thought at first might apply to the fish. The gorgeous “fog like a tide of opal stole” is among other things a good description of what happens to a fish’s eye in our “hemisphere of air” (though it’s true it doesn’t happen so quickly).  It must matter somehow that “fisheye” is a type of lens which gives a broad and distorted––one might say, watery-hemispherical?-- perspective.

You got to love “bait” and “abate,” though I’d be shocked if some Elizabethan angler/rake hadn’t been there first. 

I can’t pin the ending down either, and don’t necessarily want to, but I took “Were the cells desiccating in the iris?” to belong to the tradition of poets asking themselves some form of: is this spectacular sight I have just witnessed merely nature going about its cold meaningless business, or does it have some coded message for me? 

In its familiarity the line, for me, threatened a disappointment. The last two lines saved it, though, because they were so lovely, and because by the end I couldn’t tell whose vision was at stake here, the poet’s or the fish’s.  That may be touch on the “ethical quality” Adam mentions.

Finally. Long shot here, but will someone with a full bookshelf (I’m in the woods right now) mind taking a look at that OTHER great fish-caught-and-studied-in-a-rowboat poem, by Elizabeth Bishop, The Fish? It is of course precisely descriptive and ethical, too, and I kept hearing its echoes in Fisheye.  I remember Bishop, too, looks into her fish’s eyes, compares them to her own, and considers the irises “backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil behind the lenses of scratched isinglass” (or something like that, with line breaks).

Who knows but there might be some clues.


By on 10/07/08 at 06:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That was my reading of the third-to-last line as well, Tom, and the question is indeed familiar.  But somehow the line is saved for me, it has its own loveliness, and, honestly, if I had to isolate one favorite line from the poem it might be that one.  Partly, I suppose, because it isolates itself (as the only line that is also a full sentence).  Partly because of the refreshing (so to speak) use of “desiccate” as an intransitive verb.  And partly because of the not-quite-complete rhyme with the preceding line, and the additional thematic rhyme between the hinted-at names of two Greek deities:

extinguishing an eerie Borealis.
Were the cells desiccating in the iris?

Iris and Boreas lurk in that couplet and give it an eerie glow of its own.  And it’s really a pleasure to read aloud.  So, to my mind, although there surely ought to be an implicit “merely” in there somewhere, the line doesn’t have that actual effect.  Cells desiccating in the iris!  Amazing!

As for the Bishop poem, very well remembered.  I don’t exactly have a full bookshelf on hand, but I found this nice page, with the poem and some careful notes.

By O. D. on 10/07/08 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for the link. My dial-up connection isn’t too happy browsing. Looks like The Fish doesn’t tell us much except that McKendrick reads Bishop. (Say, I bet he reads Seamus Heaney, too!)

I wondered about “desiccating.” A poem this strong deserves to have its way with us, but I must say I stopped on that word even within the line. Its the only word of its kind in the poem, and made my tongue stick after so much fluidity. Then I realized that “drying” would have chimed too crudely with “iris,” and also shortened the line so much as to serve us the final couplet with an excessively theatrical flourish. And of course McKendrick wanted the science-tone. I remember the word as fairly common in cell biology, though probably never used in quite this way.

By on 10/08/08 at 05:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We might do well not to take our eye off the title of this poem, Fish Eye. What does the fish eye see? It sees that it is being murdered (and murdering):

Or divulging the inky depths to this new hemisphere
of air too thin, too dry and bright to bear?

More expansively put, the “fish eye” sees murder and this it does or can or will do nothing about. Unblinking. Which is not to say unflinching, nor brave.

Apart from myself, I think the speaker of the poem sees that too. It seems the speaker is casting a very cold eye upon his own cold eye upon the fish eye, most all the way through the poem. Cold of course as in killing/dying. It’s a chilling poem. Worthy art (as well as flawed, in my view) but chilling.

By Tony Christini on 10/10/08 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s an important point to remember, I think, especially given one of the most obvious differences between McKendrick’s poem and Bishop’s.  The result of the ethical charge in “The Fish” is, of course, that the speaker decides to let the creature go.  The final line reveals that the entire poem has been building up to that decision.  In “Fish Eye,” the movement is reversed: there’s a disturbing sense in which the “strange [ethical] connection” that Adam points out depends precisely on the speaker’s being already frozen, with no hope for the fish.  The moment of freezing is what allows the poetic act to take place, or is itself that act.

I am a little unnerved, actually, by the ease with which, while reading this poem, I separated the part of me that has been a vegetarian for several years from the part of me that approaches literature.

By O. D. on 10/13/08 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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