Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ms. I and The Fish

I was a complete tool in high school. I focused most of my studies in how to be an complete and utter ass.

Very few teachers were willing to put up with my malarkey, let alone have an appreciation for it.

Ms. I was one of the few who did though. She was my English teacher for two years. The great thing about Ms. I was that she was a bit of a maverick too. The way she carried herself told you this stuffy, devout, Catholic school was not going to hold back the way she swung her hips or got excited about Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet.

I had always been a reader, but it took on new meaning when she introduced pieces of literature to us. Her enthusiasm and love for what she shared, brought it to life in a way I had never experienced before.

Like a hungry mob on Free Wing Wednesday at KFC, [Don't go crazy - I don't think that really exists.] we would all sit in class and take Shakespeare line by line and pick it clean of all it's literary meat - I mean beauty.

Vocabulary lists of words like galvanize, titular, onomatopoeia, and faux pas became these fabulous new ways to talk about things, as she encouraged us to use them in fun sentences.

For over 18 years now a snippet of a poem about a fish that she introduced us to still lingers with me. In her usual way, she took us through the poem line by line and I still remember the reference to the scales of the fish being like "ancient wallpaper". I loved that description. Just couldn't get enough of it. Ancient wallpaper.

From time to time I would word search those keywords online, but I couldn't ever locate the poem. This morning I tried again, and there it was!

As I read it again after all these years, I felt like I was back in that wooden crap desk my freshman year. I could hear Ms. I at the front of the room reading aloud to us, pausing in all the right places to emphasize parts that if we missed, life just wouldn't be the same [Or maybe the planet would shift of it's axis. I can't remember which one it was now.] If I looked up, there she would be with chalk dust smudged along the leg of her pants, her expression filled with excitement for each piece of symbolism.

I loved her for all of that -- and for putting up with me.

In the spirit of Ms. I and her fabulousness.....I give you...

The Fish

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 and 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.

Elizabeth Bishop

This little fishy swims in my room


Anonymous said...

I quite like that poem. Now you need to google Ms. I and find out what happened to her.

Daniella said...

A few years back I did hear from a former classmate who told me Ms. I was still spreading the Lit Love -- just at a different school now. Neat.

Relyn said...

Oh, D. I am so glad that you pointed me to this post. First, I have to tell you that Jeffrey was tickled that you knew "his" poem. That's his absolute favorite and nobody has ever heard of it. So, he already thinks you're wonderful. He's at work now (English teacher and librarian), but I want to read this post to him. He'll love the poem and the words. We all need teachers like this, don't we? I wonder why they so often turn out to be English teachers. I tell you one thing, Jeffrey's like Ms. I. Just like that.

Daniella said...

Relyn, I don't know - there just seems to me something about English teachers - there's a lot of magic in many of them.

I hope Jeffrey enjoys this poem as much as I do!