Netsuke [ fish ]

May 14, 2012

Only seagulls can inspect the bones.
The skeleton of a prehistoric fish,
perhaps a coelacanth, picked clean and left
to whisper its existence amid the world’s
abandoned sand, has washed ashore.
Yet the seagulls often mistake birth for death.
They should not have polished the bones
with skin; the paint they used should not have
been blood and saliva.
They should not have listened
to the ten thousand swallows that live
inside ten thousand of the earth’s hollow lips.
Every fish concentrates the sea, they cry.
To carve a breath, to breathe, to fly…

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11 Responses to “Netsuke [ fish ]”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, the comments are the best part of extrasimile.

  2. fivereflections Says:

    i was off a mile, at first i thought you were suggesting the ‘coelacanth’ evolved into the seagull 🙂

    love the comments too…

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, me too. Thank you, Anna. Thank you, John. And thank you Thomas. Thank you for listening.

  4. Thomas Davis Says:

    I had not thought of the voice speaking of things they could not speak of. I guess I just assumed that the poet is God who can see all and be all. I just love Anna Mark coming to this site and commenting too. It adds another layer of richness to the great feast of Jim and John.

  5. Anna Mark Says:

    Do the extinct and the dead whisper of their existence to the world and to the living? We must listen. We must keep listening.

    What a way to end that string of comments…I immediately extend the “extinct” and the “dead” to language, symbolism and our collective conscience, the power of myth. I think it was Jung who said that one man on an island would still be able to access “truth” as it is found in images and symbols and archetypes. Very enjoyable reading here!

  6. extrasimile Says:

    Thomas: While you’re quite right, it is a good interpretation to see the birds as evolutionary fellow travelers (as it were), it adds another layer of meaning—something I’m always glad to have happen—I was primarily concerned in the first sentence to establish a situation where there were no humans—just the birds and bones and, of course, the shaping consciousness behind the poem. I’d say the issue is who is speaking this poem? A human voice where there can be no human voice. A voice speaking, shall we say, sub specie aeternitatis—which is to say, not a human voice at all. The sentence that runs through lines 2 – 4 is (perhaps) the most interesting to me. All the important work of this sentence (well, perhaps not ‘all’) is done in that awkward clause. I like this sentence. Break it into two short declarative sentences and you get a different poem.
    Of course the claim that is made that the seagulls often mistake birth for death is important. How much easier that sentence would read if it said that they mistake death for birth. How much easier it would fit in our evolutionary perspective: death is in a way necessary for evolution to proceed. The coelacanth emerges from the sea, in a kind of birth, only to have the seagulls—scavenger birds—‘inspect’ it. Nature red in tooth and claw. There are two things to consider in this sentence: what actually happened, and the assessment (and implied description) made by the narrator. Perhaps the mistake is his.
    Do the extinct and the dead whisper of their existence to the world and to the living? We must listen. We must keep listening.

  7. Thomas Davis Says:

    I am glad to finally get a chance to comment on this Jim. I was too tired earlier. End of the academic year stuff and graduation stuff is getting too difficult as I keep getting older. I read this earlier, but am just getting to it now.
    The first two and a half lines are intriguing:
    Only seagulls can inspect the bones.
    The skeleton of a prehistoric fish,
    perhaps a coelacanth…
    But why can only seagulls inspect the bones? And why perhaps a coelacanth. As I read this the word can in the first line has significance. It can be read a couple of ways: 1) only the seagulls have the capability of inspecting the bones or 2) only the seagulls have the opportunity because of the isolation of the bones to inspect the bones. As in most poetry, the reader should assume that both meanings are part of what the poet is trying to accomplish. You seem to focus on the second meaning in your comment to Anna, Jim, but there is something to be said about the first meaning too. Perhaps only a seagull, part of nature, can truly inspect an evolutionary part of nature that has gone extinct. This interpretation gives the poem a duality from these lines onward.
    And why perhaps a coelacanth? The implication is pretty obvious. You are not writing about a coelacanth, but about any species of fish, or other animal, is extinct. That’s just the species that came to mind in the context of the poem.
    Then:
    …a coelacanth, picked clean and left
    to whisper its existence amid the world’s
    abandoned sand, has washed ashore.
    These lines echo back to the original lines in the poem, but the idea that bones washed ashore whisper of the existence of a fish now extinct is poetically wonderful. It’s true, isn’t it, that the remnants of extinct things whisper of their once-living existence, filling time and the world with absences that once were?
    Then the strangest line in the poem, and thus, probably, the key to the poem:
    Yet the seagulls often mistake birth for death.
    What? How do seagulls do that? They find these bones on this beach, and they are the only ones who truly can, or have the opportunity, to inspect the bones. What in the world is in the poet’s head here? How do your relate bones to birth? The relationship to death is obvious. I think.
    They should not have polished the bones
    with skin; the paint they used should not have
    been blood and saliva.
    They should not have listened
    to the ten thousand swallows that live
    inside ten thousand of the earth’s hollow lips.
    The they seems to refer to the seagulls, at least grammatically. The referant goes back to the last noun, but the poet has already warned us about the duality in the poem. Who is they? Is it some set of deities that polished with skin and painted with blood and saliva? Creators?
    I have decided that it is the seagulls who, at least to the poet’s eye, see the bones as possible food. That makes sense within the lines about the swallows who also have bones, but live (alive!) inside ten thousand of the earth’s hollow lips. But this is, in some senses, creator’s food, food that has fed and will feed and that could become extinct, or another species, entirely within the flow of time. The earth’s hollow lips is also wonderful description.
    Then the magnificent couplet:
    Every fish concentrates the sea, they cry.
    To carve a breath, to breathe, to fly…
    Every fish, those alive and extinct, concentrates the sea, makes the sea what it is, is part of the existence that only other living creatures, like seagulls, can verify within existence and thus can find. And so, within time, it goes, the neutske, the stone, carving breath as it exists in the sea, leading to the idea that breath leads to those that can breathe that leads to, eventually, those who were fish who can fly.
    The seagulls are those who can understand the coelacanth and its skin and blood because, back in time, their DNA rose from a succession of creatures now extinct, creatures that were once fish.
    O, what a wonderful stone of a poem!

  8. extrasimile Says:

    Actually I’ve been trying to get away from the ‘netsuke’ thing for several poems. Of course I don’t have to keep calling them netsuke, but somehow this evolving sonnet –like form keeps coming to the fore. (Would de-evolving be the term?) I had an interesting discussion in class the other day. How come Botero’s sculptures are always so ‘fat’? We did some psychological analysis—maybe as a child he was fat? We had a discussion about volume—okay, but aren’t all sculptures about volume? (Cheating here, all sculpture makes use of volume, but are they all ‘about’ it?) Contrast with Giacometti—isn’t this about volume too?
    But Giacometti is an interesting case. He worked for years taking sculpture apart, making it smaller and smaller, seemingly helpless to do anything different. So, perhaps the best answer to the question is that sometimes it just comes out that way, as a result of the process. And I want to say ‘thought process’ here.
    But I take your larger point to be—Jim, so obscure. Couldn’t you open up a little bit, make it a little less opaque? Nobody really wants to work so hard at this stuff. (Or: is the effort needed justified by the result achieved?)
    This is a fair point—even if you are enough of a diplomat not to put it so bluntly—but , but…
    Well, take this sentence: The skeleton of a prehistoric fish, perhaps a coelacanth, picked clean and left to whisper its existence amid the world’s abandoned sand, has washed ashore. I won’t say it’s the ugliest sentence ever written, but it takes awkwardness to certain heights. That clause, plunked down in the middle—left to whisper its existence amid the world’s abandoned sand—that has washed ashore? The content of this sentence is something like—some old fish bones have washed up on the beach—the rest of the sentence…it’s just floating in the surf, isn’t it?
    Now, either you get this or you don’t. I think in one of his comments about one of your poems, Tom D’Evelyn made the point that poetry should be as well written as prose. This is a good point to make, and I’m not going to deny it, but, well, ‘well-written’ is one of those words that is, shall we say, capable of different understandings.
    Anyway, my point here is that this kind of structured, short work does let me fool around with situations like the above. It seems worth doing.
    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.

    …or will it pardon Paul
    for being tall
    and Rudyard
    for being such a bore?

  9. John Stevens Says:

    I’ve been away and out of contact. Just catching up.
    Anna Mark helped me get started by drawing attention to the metamorphosis, and your response was a further help, elaborating on the possible theme of evolution. Once that had registered with me, the piece began to open up and I was very interested in that line “To carve a breath, to breathe, to fly…” with which you draw to a conclusion.
    The form interests me, Jim. It is a modified sonnet: fourteen lines, highly concentrated, with a turning point and a closing couplet. In one sense this is an admirable form for your purpose because you love to pack the ideas and images in really tightly, folded upon each other over and again and challenging the reader to untangle the items and identify them. But it’s quite some tangle in there and I was glad of help from Anna and you.
    There’s a big theme in this one, and I wonder whether you could be tempted to tackle it differently some time with a more expansive form?

  10. extrasimile Says:

    Anna: There’s something of a little joke at the heart of this poem. Fish bones, it seems, have washed ashore on an isolated beach that only seagulls visit. Okay, this must happen all the time. The birds pick the bones clean; it’s part of the natural cycle of life. But a coelacanth? Come on. Who made that assessment? It seems there is some other agent present here. Someone who can point out that seagulls can make mistakes, big ones, like mistaking birth for death. Now, there is some speculation that the coelacanth might be (or be a close relative of) the fish that first walked on land, first made a big transition. Up the fish comes, out on to an isolated beach, re-enacting an ancient evolutionary step, and wham, the seagulls swarm down on it and pick it to death.
    But the seagulls are doing more that simply scavenging for food. They’re polishing and painting. What? Are these birds under the illusion that they are creating something? The netsuke poems have been to some extent about art. Are these birds, in some sense, artists? The voice that is speaking here—not a seagull—doesn’t think so, but, then what does he know? The swallows seem to think it’s okay. And you know, from a certain perspective, one can trace evolution as moving from sea to land to sky—and if you do look at it from that perspective, why then judgments of the birds just might be superior—
    Every fish concentrates the sea, they cry.
    To carve a breath, to breathe, to fly…
    I will end with Lord Tennyson:
    Who trusted God was love indeed
    And love Creation’s final law
    Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

  11. Anna Mark Says:

    Hello Jim. Once again, my response to your poem cannot capture the meaning of the “whole” but only of parts, and even then, I only have a sense, or intuition, of meaning. I hope that is enough to offer here as one who is really enjoying your poems. “Only seagulls can inspect the bones…yet the seagulls often mistake birth for death…every fish concentrates the sea.” The sea becomes less dilute? Those lines stand out for me. There seems to be a metamorphosis in this poem, yes? The seagulls have heard the cries of these living creatures in the sea that perhaps long to breathe and fly, change form, evolve. Is it the seagulls who gave the fish their wings? But why should they not have listened? Well, I am in suspense and will wait to see what others smarter than I have to say ; )


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