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The Fish / Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore is one of the greats of American modernism. Friend of TS Eliot and one of the most distinctive voices of the age. And this poem is one of my favourites. There is a very precise syllabic structure (1,3,9,6,8 syllables in the stanza lines) and a neat AABBC rhyme scheme but that precision seems to play with the surface. For example, the enjambments constantly displace the meaning as you read ( e.g. "the/ turquoise sea" seems like the thing that is illuminated by the sun but it is in fact "the turquoise sea/ of bodies"). Also, the patterning and the pile-up of beautiful imagery distract from the realisation that this is not a poem about the fish (which just happen to be the first words) but about a bashed-up, environmentally scarred chasm edge. Perhaps the decimated ruins of a reef? Plus, of course, one of the best last lines ever...



through black jade.

Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps

adjusting the ash-heaps;

opening and shutting itself like


injured fan.

The barnacles which encrust the side

of the wave, cannot hide

there for the submerged shafts of the


split like spun

glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness

into the crevices -

in and out, illuminating


turquoise sea

of bodies. The water drives a wedge

of iron through the iron edge

of the cliff; whereupon the stars,


rice-grains, ink-

bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green

lilies, and submarine

toadstools, slide each on the other.



marks of abuse are present on this

defiant edifice -

all the physical features of


cident - lack

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 can not revive

its youth. The sea grows old in it.

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