Friday, January 6, 2012

Fishes ain't shit

I didn't even know D.H. Lawrence wrote poetry until a couple of years ago when John recited the following poem to me, though his version was a bit different (he ended it with an exclamation point, a definite improvement):


The tiny little fish enjoy themselves
in the sea.
Quick little splinters of life,
their little lives are fun to them
in the sea.

I was searching around online for that yesterday, and found the below, which may be the funniest poem I've ever read. It's kind of magical in that it keeps getting more and more ridiculous, in ways you couldn't possibly anticipate. As such, it beats most poetry at its own game. According to @excitedstoat, D.H. Lawrence and I are "kinda-kindred spirits," though thankfully I have a "more favorable savant-to-idiot" ratio. What can I say? I'm flattergasted.

Witness "Fish":


Fish, oh Fish,
So little matters!

Whether the waters rise and cover the earth
Or whether the waters wilt in the hollow places,
All one to you.

Aqueous, subaqueous,
And wave-thrilled.

As the waters roll
Roll you.
The waters wash,
You wash in oneness
And never emerge.

Never know,
Never grasp.

Your life a sluice of sensation along your sides,
A flush at the flails of your fins, down the whorl of your tail.
And water wetly on fire in the grates of your gills;
Fixed water-eyes.

Even snakes lie together.

But oh, fish, that rock in water.
You lie only with the waters;
One touch.

No fingers, no hands and feet, no lips;
No tender muzzles,
No wistful bellies,
No loins of desire,

You and the naked element.
Curvetting bits of tin in the evening light.

Who is it ejects his sperm to the naked flood?
In the wave-mother?
Who swims enwombed?
Who lies with the waters of his silent passion, womb-element?
—Fish in the waters under the earth.

What price his bread upon the waters?

Himself all silvery himself
In the element
No more.

Nothing more.

And the element.
Food, of course!
Water-eager eyes,
Mouth-gate open
And strong spine urging, driving;
And desirous belly gulping.

Fear also! He knows fear!
Water-eyes craning,
A rush that almost screams,
Almost fish-voice
As the pike comes…
Then gay fear, that turns the tail sprightly, from a shadow.

Food, and fear, and joie de vivre.
Without love.

The other way about:
Joie de vivre, and fear, and food,
All without love.

Quelle joie de vivre
Dans I’eau!
Slowly to gape through the waters,
Alone with the element;
To sink, and rise, and go to sleep with the waters;
To speak endless inaudible wavelets into the wave;
To breathe from the flood at the gills,
Fish-blood slowly running next to the flood, extracting fish- fire;
To have the element under one, like a lover;
And to spring away with a curvetting click in the air,
Dropping back with a slap on the face of the flood.
And merging oneself!

To be a fish !

So utterly without misgiving
To be a fish
In the waters.

Loveless, and so lively!
Born before God was love,
Or life knew loving.
Beautifully beforehand with it all.

Admitted, they swarm in companies,
They drive in shoals.
But soundless, and out of contact.
They exchange no word, no spasm, not even anger.
Not one touch.
Many suspended together, forever apart.
Each one alone with the waters, upon one wave with the rest.

A magnetism in the water between them only.

I saw a water-serpent swim across the Anapo,
And I said to my heart, look, look at him!
With his head up, steering like a bird!
He’s a rare one, but he belongs…

But sitting in a boat on the Zeller lake
And watching the fishes in the breathing waters
Lift and swim and go their way—
I said to my heart, who are these?
And my heart couldn’t own them…
A slim young pike, with smart fins
And grey-striped suit, a young cub of a pike
Slouching along away below, half out of sight,
Like a lout on an obscure pavement…

Aha, there’s somebody in the know!

But watching closer
That motionless deadly motion,
That unnatural barrel body, that long ghoul nose,…
I left off hailing him.

I had made a mistake, I didn’t know him,
This grey, monotonous soul in the water,
This intense individual in shadow,

I didn’t know his God,
I didn’t know his God.

Which is perhaps the last admission that life has to wring out of us.

I saw, dimly,
Once a big pike rush.
And small fish fly like splinters.
And I said to my heart, there are limits
To you, my heart;
And to the one God.
Fish are beyond me.

Other Gods
Beyond my range… gods beyond my God.
They are beyond me, are fishes.
I stand at the pale of my being
And look beyond, and see
Fish, in the outerwards,
As one stands on a bank and looks in.
I have waited with a long rod
And suddenly pulled a gold-and-greenish, lucent fish from below,
And had him fly like a halo round my head,
Lunging in the air on the line.

Unhooked his gorping, water-horny mouth.
And seen his horror-tilted eye,
His red-gold, water-precious, mirror-flat bright eye;
And felt him beat in my hand, with his mucous, leaping life-throb.

And my heart accused itself
Thinking: I am not the measure of creation.
This is beyond me, this fish.
His God stands outside my God.

And the gold-and-green pure lacquer-mucus comes off in my hand.
And the red-gold mirror-eye stares and dies,
And the water-suave contour dims.

But not before I have had to know
He was born in front of my sunrise.
Before my day.

He outstarts me.
And I, a many-fingered horror of daylight to him,
Have made him die.

With their gold, red eyes, and green-pure gleam, and under-gold.
And their pre-world loneliness,
And more-than-lovelessness.
And white meat;
They move in other circles.

Things of one element.
Each by itself.

Cats, and the Neapolitans,
Sulphur sun-beasts.
Thirst for fish as for more-than-water;
To quench their over-sulphureous lusts.

But I, I only wonder
And don’t know.
I don’t know fishes.

In the beginning
Jesus was called The Fish.
And in the end.

I mean, wow, right? I think my favorite line is "I don't know fishes," but there's so much gold (and red-gold, and under-gold) in here, from "Who is it ejects his sperm to the naked flood? / In the wave-mother?" to "Food, and fear, and joie de vivre" to "Quelle joie de vivre / Dans l’eau!" to "pre-world loneliness / And more-than-lovelessness, / And white meat." He truly is an idiot savant. I'm not kidding when I say I learned a lot from this poem (about poems, not fishes). Also, there should be a perfume called Joie de Vivre dans L'eau.

Anyone here a fan of his novels? I think I tried to read Lady Chatterly's Lover when I was like 10, but stopped when it had less sex than I had imagined.

A few other things I have liked recently:
  • The first two episodes of Downton Abbey (yep, hopping on that train)
  • This dialogue of a bad date by Chris O. Cook, possibly my favorite blogger of the year ("Date: Then why do you know what ruching means? Me: Well, I’m an English teacher, so I guess I know what it means because it’s a word.")
  • Liz Hildreth's resolutions ("Sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up and I can’t go back to sleep and my head is racing with revelations about all the ways in which I’ve neglected the people I love, and all these ideas for changes I could make to be a better person, and I want to start writing letters to people and apologizing and telling them my great plans for redemption, but when I finally fall back to sleep, and I get up in the morning, I can’t call up the same intensity of feeling. I just feel like, 'Whatever, they probably deserved it.' Or 'Who am I, some spiritual leader? I don’t have the energy to change, I just want to write a poem.'")
  • Joan Chandler in Rope, who nails her first scene despite having to deliver the sexist line "I never know when I'm being funny" 
  • Oh! And the scene in Carnal Knowledge where the camera stays square on Candice Bergen laughing her face off for like five minutes. I wish I could find it on YouTube.


  1. I started to read Sons and Lovers for a class once. I dropped the class and the book along with it. Then I tried Women in Love on my own, which I also dropped. Both really boring.

    Check out Kenneth Koch's Lawrence parody "I Like Rats":

    I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey last night. (I saw it on TV, but didn't get to see the whole thing, so I started over.) I also just started reading Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford, so I think I'm going to make 2012 the year I avoid contemporary America by focusing on the past. And British stuff. I feel like it's a good year for it.

  2. please tweet and/or blog about downton so roxane and i can respond. she finally watched it after much needling from me and loves it. JUST WAIT UNTIL EPISODE THREEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. I think we will be watching more DA tonight/this weekend. I will keep you updated!!

  4. I read Lady C. and Rainbow as an adolescent, Plumed Serpent a few years ago. I remember there being good bits in all of them but on the whole Lawrence-the-novelist is tedious. I once read a really good short story of his set in a mining town. His criticism (Studies in Classic Am. Lit., and a book about Thomas Hardy) is excellent and bears a pretty strong resemblance to his poems.

    I think Lawrence's essay on Whitman is kind of wonderful:

  5. This is what his criticism looks like? Oh wow, oh wow.

  6. It's always seemed to me that Lawrence's poetry comes about as close as possible to flat prose as poetry can get without losing its shape. But never quite loses it.

    In the poem you've given here (and others of his I've read), there are places that make me think immediately of (for instance) Gerard Manley Hopkins. "And the gold-and-green pure lacquer-mucus comes off in my hand./ And the red-gold mirror=eye stares and dies..." And "With their gold, red eyes, and green-pure gleam, and under-gold." The tone and mood are more twentieth-century than Hopkins, but I still hear a similarity.

    I've never had a strong liking for Lawrence's poems, though I've never disliked them. For many many years I've had a Selected Poems of his, published sometime during the 1960's or early 1970's, that has an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth. Not a thick book, but a decent-size sampling, enough to last me. (A poet friend of many years told me once, long ago, that she once made her way through the whole of his Collected Poems -- a thick Penguin Books edition, as I recall from the time -- over a three-week period when she was lying in bed with mononucleosis.)

    It's struck me periodically that although most writers who stay at it will tend to work mostly in one primary mode (poetry, or short stories, or novels, or plays, or essays, etc.), they also will work in other secondary areas at least a little from time to time.

    Whitman, for instance, who wrote ample prose as well as poetry. Or Shakespeare, who wrote the sonnets and other poems in addition to the plays. Hemingway wrote poems now and then. Bertolt Brecht wrote a large amount of poetry, though his plays (it's always seemed to me) are the heart of his work. There are many other examples.

    Now and then a writer makes major work in more than one mode. A couple of examples offhand are Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy, both of whom have written (I think) really good poetry and really good novels.

  7. Lyle, John (my husbandoid) and I talk a lot about genre-hopping. He very much admires writers like Anthony Burgess who worked in all genres. And as of this month, I'm trying to write a novel myself. Since I write prose all day it's really not too much of a stretch.