Puffer Fish, Paul Nelson

Michael Diehl, Rialto 2




bug eyed, bloated on the beach,
where some guy left this untouchable,
a length of mono dangling from the circle hook
jammed in its tiny beak, it is full of air,
some water souring but there, on the sand,
tanning, a wine bag with bouquet to keep, 
second most toxic vertebrate
that took its time dying in another world.

It takes a nervous sushi chef a careful while
to deflate one live, clean it to the meat, blade
skirting, excising lethal spines and organs
with razor care.

A thousand times more fatal than cyanide,
it paralyzes. You’d think
it could afford to be silent, but,
tougher than a soccer ball, it speaks:

“Don’t tread on me. I am dead and sacred
to the sea, and to air that eats me inside
that kept me safe from sharks and seals
300 million years of nibbling algae, crushing
clams, crabs, mussels …so leave my rot to flies, 
picky-toe crabs in moonlight.”

Is it still breathing? Does it inhale our breaths,
my gas, as we lean down? As a last thing?
Keep some oxygen from seawater?                                                                                             
Can it sniff our wisps of soul? To swell so?

The vertebrae, picked clean, bleached by sun,
look like childrens’ ivory jacks, fiercely sharp,
shining in a blue bowl.

Paul Nelson


Review by Steve Hatfield

Each of Paul Nelson’s poems in this issue reminds me of a different poem by Howard Nemerov, which by itself is enough to predispose me in their favor.  The first  reminds me (as does Nemerov’s “The Lobster”) of the bigger, deeper and darker energies underlying creation. Here the “big gull” shows us how it’s done, not so the “lesser brand” can practice and become big gulls themselves, but just to make it clear to them how things are.  “Big fish eat the little fish and the little fish have to be fast and numerous,” as it goes, and this poem seems to me to depict exactly that sort of thing.  I very much like the images of the dead thing being folded “like a wallet” and the “operatic yawn” that precedes the big swallow.

The circumstance at the center of “Puffer Fish” recalls a similar situation in Nemerov’s “The Goose Fish”—that is, an expired sea creature on the shore serving as the launch pad in its own expired sea-creature way for big questions about life, death, and the mysteries in between.  I especially like how the poem builds toward that—“Does it inhale our breaths, / my gas […] Can it sniff our wisps of soul?  To swell so?”  In life, this fish was “more fatal than cyanide” and now what’s left is perhaps what we all would like to leave behind—bones resembling “childrens’ ivory jacks, fiercely sharp, / shining in a blue bowl.”  I admit the intrusion of a soccer ball into the poem knocks me a step or two off-stride, as does the warning “Don’t tread on me” with its Revolutionary War echoes, but not so far off-stride that I lose the “sacred poison” of existence toward which this poem reawakens me. 


Review by Dan Liberthson

Perceptually adept, attuned to the wonder of the potent creature it celebrates, mourns, and respects, this poem is marvelous on many levels. There is sound magic, starting with the alliteration in the first line—not frivolous but reinforcing the desperate situation of the fish. I’ve eaten fugu, my lips numbed by the power of its flesh even remote from the extracted poison sac—and Nelson skillfully captures that powerful lethality. Further on, “picky-toe crabs in moonlight”—a delicious sounding phrase—exquisitely renders the nighttime scavenger dance. On a macro level, the narrator compellingly imagines the voiced defiance of the dead fish, “tougher than a soccer ball … Don’t tread on me. I am dead and sacred … so leave my rot to the flies …”

There is a metaphysical plane too, in which the narrator speculates the carcass may retain a vestige of life (“Does it inhale our breaths … As a last thing?”) and can even commune spiritually: “Can it sniff our wisps of soul? To swell so?” (such lovely internal rhyme and alliteration!). The brilliant conclusion, comparing the puffer’s bare vertebrae to “childrens’ ivory jacks, fiercely sharp, / shining in a blue bowl” ties the fish’s plight to the transience of all life (elephants and kids as exemplars)—beautiful, trenchant, doomed. It’s possible the narrator, rather than merely imagining this ending scenario, actually finished the crabs’ work, denuded the carcass and installed the vertebrae in a blue bowl, thus creating an artwork—like a poem, a way of hurdling the barrier of mortality.

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