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
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
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
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.