U’v’tuvo mchadesh bchal yom tamid maaseh breishit: In your goodness, day after day you renew creation.
Even as an infrequent worshipper, I’ve said this prayer hundreds if not thousands of times since I began taking Judaism seriously more than thirty-five years ago.
I like the concept: creation is dependent on creator; the creator may choose, at any moment, to end creation—to revise, erase, delete, destroy it—or merely let it go to continue on its routine if not tired ways.
Each morning’s light illuminating, as if on the first day of creation, blue and brown, pumpkin and pink, fluid and solid, smooth and rough, turbulent and tranquil: the unambiguous sign of the creator’s goodness.
Welcoming creation renewed each morning, I should be grateful. I should give thanks. I should chant praise!
But as an often defeated sleep-wrestler, I rarely perceive, at 6:30 a.m., the wonder of creation renewed. Failing to notice the gift of shelter, let alone the wooded acre outside my bedroom window, I’m overcome, within five minutes of rising to the day, with a feeling of dread: how will I get through this day with its appointments stacked up, its class prep, its impossible list of things to do?
Later in the day, however, when I’ve created a promising exercise for class or scheduled a talk by a visiting scholar—when I have something to show for my efforts—look at what I’ve done! Isn’t it good?—then, maybe, I’ll feel for a moment the goodness of creation renewed.
Am I able to perceive goodness and renewal only after I accomplish something? Am I unable to open to such awareness in response to the accomplishments of others, not even of the Ultimate Other?
How about the accomplishments of say a fish, not just any old carp or bass but the fish, Elizabeth Bishop’s fish? Before she caught it, it had escaped capture five times—five hooks “grown...in its mouth” as proof.
Though I’ve read this poem maybe fifty times, I have never understood all the fuss about it. Sure, it exemplifies the use of vivid imagery—a good thing for beginning students of poetry to imitate in their own work, hence its inclusion in many how-to texts.
But to me, the lengthy description always seemed tedious, and that ending—when victory fills up the small boat? Overblown. Who cares about this old fish? Clean it, fry it, and let’s get on with it.
But then, while I was reading it the other day to prepare for my undergraduate poetry workshop, the poem surprised me. Not just about a feisty fish, this poem is a brilliant enactment of a mind engaged in contemplative practice.
For most of the poem, Bishop concentrates on the fish itself, looking steadily and carefully at it: its brown skin hanging in strips; its body “speckled with barnacles...and infested with tiny white sea-lice”; its gills “breathing in...oxygen”.
From what’s visible to the eye, Bishop turns her attention to what doesn’t meet the physical eye:
I thought of the coarse white flesh
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
What I haven’t shown you here are the similes that accompany most of the carefully drawn descriptions of the fish’s features: “his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper”; its “coarse white flesh” is “packed in like feathers”; “the pink swim-bladder” is “like a big peony.” It’s as if the mind can’t help but try to domesticate the fish, to humanize it (“his skin,” “his gills”).
Eventually, Bishop sees clearly her inclination to tame the fish:
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
But even after Bishop recognizes the impossibility of transforming the fish into one of her own kind, she tries to do so again, though this time with some awareness of the fiction she’s trying to create:
then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
Finally, she sees the “five big hooks / grown firmly in its mouth,” proof of its tenacity. Her response: “I stared and stared,” she says.
This staring, this sustained act of paying attention, enacted over the course of the poem, brings into sharp focus habits and skills of the human mind at work: the projection of one’s reality onto another; the instinctive act of comparing as a way of containing if not taming the unfamiliar, strange, or wild; the repeated act of bringing the attention back, from wherever it has wandered, to the object of concentration.
The payoff for sustained attention? Insight, delight, love. That’s what we sense as, in the poem’s final lines, Bishop widens just slightly her field of awareness:
...victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
How had I missed all this before?
Alas, I didn’t stop to mark the moment, to express quietly my gratitude to whomever or whatever for the gift of this poem, revealed at last.
While I haven’t yet learned to see the goodness of creation renewed on most weary mornings, I am reminded by my recent experience of reading Bishop’s “The Fish” that the wonder of creation—in nature, art, human relations, relations between humans and others—is always present.
All I have to do (as if it were that simple) is practice paying careful attention to what’s near at hand. Careful attention: letting whatever object I am beholding be itself, be exactly what it is. The result may be nothing less than love.