Ahh, November. The stick month. The reality-check season where the land is exposed and we’re left with the shells of life that look deceptively empty. Today’s poem is a scene I witnessed last November and that I’ve had a year to think about.
Death of A Goddess
The osprey descended
through bare branches.
Its alula, those winglet
thumbs at the tips
of wings, stretched
open to guide it
through the tangle
of trees. Each wing,
almost as tall as a man,
loomed out at an angle
creating a magnificent V.
I nearly missed its body,
hanging like a sand bag.
I nearly missed its talons,
black grapnel, piercing
a giant fish, snagged
from the river still singing
despite late November.
And the fish, I nearly
missed the fish.
I could have called this poem, “The Fish,” but with both Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop having poems with that title, why would I do that? (You can read those poems below by clicking on the links for them). Besides, in calling this poem “The Fish,” I would have a missed an opportunity to add an important dimension to the poem.
I often have difficulty with titles and yet they are so critical to a poem. They are, of course, the first thing read in a poem and should influence the reading of it. The title should guide the reader into the poem and be an integral part of the fabric of it. If the title is doing its job especially well, it will also be the last thing that is read in the poem. Sometimes, when I finish an especially perplexing poem, I’ll skim upwards from the end of the text and settle on the title once again. If the title’s a good one, all becomes clear. Sometimes the clarity is even accompanied by a barely-audible, “Oh!” Sometimes, the clarity comes an hour or a day or a week later, and those are especially rewarding moments.
If a poem is a journey that the poet takes, beginning in delight, as Frost said, and ending in wisdom, then shouldn’t the title be the last thing that the poet decides upon? How can a title be chosen before the poet knows what is to be at the end of the journey? I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem when I’ve thought of the title first. When that occurs, it’s as though the poem is finished before it’s even begun.
Sometimes the title makes the journey a bit more difficult. Today’s title, “Death of a Goddess,” is the symbolic representation of the fish. What is the significance of the death of the fish? Sure, it gives nourishment to the osprey; its death is part of the circle of life, but what else could it mean? When you research the symbolism of fish what appears first in the literature is that its the symbol of Jesus Christ. But why is it? Well, there are the parables of Jesus feeding the crowds with multitudes of fish and then many of his disciples were fishermen and Jesus made them “fishermen of men.” If you go to the Catholic encyclopedia, it mentions that the fish was used in “pagan art as a purely decorative sign.” Really? Pshaw I say! I don’t buy it a second that one day it means nothing and the next day it means something very important.
The fish symbol we see everywhere these days, especially on bumper stickers, is called the Ichthys and consists of two arcs that meet at one end and that intersect and continue at the other end. But guess what? In pre-Christian times, that fish outline was the symbolism for many goddesses, including Aphrodite and Isis. You actually see the “ichthys” over and over again in pre-Christian art, but it isn’t a fish. It’s a vulva. Or perhaps the outline of a woman as in the photo of the carving below. If the death of the fish in the poem is the “Death of a Goddess,” what, pray tell, is the osprey?
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Fish poems – I did not intend it, but they all happen to be by women. Interesting.
The Fish, Marianne Moore
The Fish, Elizabeth Bishop (one of my all time favorite poems)
A Wreath to a Fish, Nancy Willard
In the Glass-Bottomed Boat, Erica Jong
Further Reading: Working Titles, an essay found in the journal, Magma Poetry, published in London, by contributor Kathryn Simmonds
Lepenski Vir– Archeological site dating from as far back as 7,000 BCE found on the banks of the Danube River in Serbia. See below for an example of a carving found there.