Marianne Moore’s The Fish

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Moore was very stoical and firm in life, but if she held out the joy she displays in poetry in some physical craft she would have made a marvelous and playful dancer.

The Fish

wade
through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
              in and out, illuminating

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

pink
rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
              toadstools, slide each on the other.

All
external
       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
              all the physical features of
              
ac-
cident—lack
       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
              out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what can not revive
              its youth. The sea grows old in it.
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Marianne Moore’s A Grave

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Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Grave,” is a virtuosic display of restless and discursive analysis, making the activity and soul of the sea a metaphor for death; so appropriate for her description of a vast, complex force consuming all things, itself a non-entity, taking all other things as naive objects themselves, never known, never remembered.

Yale professor Langdon Hammer mentions the opening of this poem as a possible reference to the Friedrich painting below, Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog.  He spoke of an incident in Moore’s life when her mother and she stood at the shore, and Marianne’s mother quelled the girl’s irritation by responding with a line Moore uses here, “it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.”  (Note: Hammer has a course on Modernist poetry that I enjoyed to no end and should not be missed.  You can see it free here.)

Friedrich Wanderer Sea

Hammer points out that A Graveyard is made up of two stanzas, with no line break, of 11 lines each.  Each of these two stanzas begin with a 7 syllable line.  Some may suggest that this is an anti-Christian poem, protesting against the dominance of Christian theology, and the person of Christ, as being at the center of the universe.  Is Christ lifted on the cross merely the habit of man to put himself at the center of all things, staring into the Sublime?  Perhaps that is an undercurrent of the poem.  Perhaps these stanzas employ Biblical numerology (11 disciples, 7 for the day of eternal life) to pose an emotional counter-argument suggesting that all are subsumed by a death which erases even their bones into a void.