Taffy Martin: On "The Fish"
In "The Fish," for instance, Moore employs a typically intricate stanzaic pattern along with evocative, sensual language to create a scene as unfathomable as it initially seems specific. The first three sentences are clear enough. The fish "wade through [the] black jade" of a sea where "submerged shafts of the // sun ... move themselves with spotlight swiftness." Nevertheless, even within those sentences, Moore has hinted at the broken vision to follow. She describes the movement of one of the "crow-blue mussel-shells" with curious indirection. The movement of the sand helps a viewer to infer rather than to observe directly the broken movement of the shells. We know only that "one keeps / adjusting the ash heaps, / opening and shutting itself like // an / injured fan." The rest of the poem develops this hint of submerged movement and emphasizes its potential for violence: "The water drives a wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff" and the cliff itself shows "external / marks of abuse," both natural and deliberately inflicted. Having developed the apparent specificity of the poem to this point, Moore dissolves the scene in a flood of ambiguity. One side of the cliff provides a sheltered pool for sea life. In describing it, Moore begins a new stanza with a new sentence, a technique which, in her poems, often foretells dissolution.
marks of abuse are present on this
all the physical features of
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm side is
evidence has proved that it can live
on what it can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.
Contradiction dominates these images. "Lack of cornice," if it means a natural curve to the edge of the cliff, is certainly a physical feature of accident; but "dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes" are just as surely not accidental. They are human interventions that "stand out" on the cliff. Thus, it should not be surprising that "the chasm side is dead." That announcement, however, makes the next two sentences entirely incomprehensible. If the chasm side is dead, ravaged as it clearly has been by the force of the water it contains, how does it live on the barnacles that adhere to its surface, on the shifting mussel shells that may or may not contain live mussels, and on the rest of the sliding mass of sea life that it shelters? Finally, why does the sea, clearly the most active and powerful force in this scene, grow old within this teeming shelter? Moore not only does not answer these questions, she does not even admit that she has asked them. The poem pretends that it works visually, whereas it should warn readers that images in poems are not always what they seem to be.
From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by University of Texas Press.