May 2023: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” & Swingin’ Utters’ “Brand New Lungs”

This month I’m discussing “The Fish,” a poem from Elizabeth Bishop’s first book of poems called North & South (1946). Bishop is a poet I was first introduced to in grad school. There are a handful of poems of hers that I distinctly remember reading in poetry writing workshops: “12 O’Clock News,” “Sestina,” “One Art,” and “The Moose.” I bought The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (1983) and that was where I encountered “The Fish” for the first time. I thought it was a brilliant poem; it feels very much like a deep-image poem. I also purchased Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), which is a book I’d recommend for anyone who is interested in knowing more about the friendship between the two poets. I have to admit that I’d forgotten about “The Fish.” I lost The Complete Poems in a flood during Harvey in 2017 and have not been able to replace it yet. But when I decided that I wanted to write about a Bishop poem and started looking around, “The Fish” came back to me. I have always wanted to study Bishop a little more intently and still have plans to do that. She wrote in a different style than other poets at the time who received more mainstream attention than she did. Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton were writing in a confessional style, which placed them at the centerstage of the poetry world in the sixties (and this continues to be true, at least for Plath and Sexton). Bishop, who traveled extensively, and mostly stayed away from the literary world, wrote poems that were more lyrical, more image-based. Widespread success came later in life for her, and she has become much more well-known after her death.

I’ll be completely honest; although I’m not against confessional poetry (I believe any poet should be able to write from any perspective that feels natural for them), it’s never been my favorite style of writing. I’ve read Plath and Sexton; I’ve read Lowell and Berryman—those poets have a lot of technical skill and talent, but they’re not for me. I find Bishop’s poems to be much more interesting and impactful. I’m a fan of the deep-image poetry that was being written by Robert Bly and James Wright in the sixties rather than the confessional style. I’m also a fan of Adrienne Rich, who was writing poetry at the same time as the confessional poets, but who later identified as feminist and lesbian and was able to fuse the confessional style and image-based work into her poetry. I think of Elizabeth Bishop as being more aligned with Adrienne Rich’s work precisely because she kept to herself and wrote a style that was independent of what was happening in contemporary poetry in mid-century America. Her poetic voice is very distinct and female and truly stands on its own without any poetic schools to help prop it up (not that I’m against poetic schools, but sometimes they can do more harm than good for poets).

I also want to make a bit of a controversial claim: “The Fish” is a feminist poem. I don’t think Bishop would have seen it that way, and I don’t think it would necessarily be seen that way by those who read her work, but I picked up on some feminist elements when I was reading it again after not reading it for quite some time. It goes without saying that the primary poetic element of the poem is the image and description of the fish that the speaker catches, but the speaker, who I take to be female, refers to the fish as a male. It can be argued that the speaker doesn’t necessarily have to be female, but I read it that way, and it takes the poem to a whole different place in really satisfying ways. Because it’s a long poem, I won’t be able to discuss the whole thing, so instead, I will pull out sections that feel particularly resonant and discuss them. The first section I’m going to discuss comes early on in the poem, about seven lines in:

He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.

The speaker spends most of the poem describing the fish, and this is the beginning of that description. One of the reasons why I feel like the speaker is female is exactly because of this description—she compares his skin to wallpaper. And not just any wallpaper, old wallpaper with roses on it that can just barely be made out because the wallpaper is so old. Given that Bishop published this poem in her first book in 1946, it’s safe to say that the image of the wallpaper feels a bit Victorian. I could be wrong, but the speaker seems to be using a domestic, interior space to describe a creature in nature and that’s utterly fascinating to me. A female speaker would do that, given the historical context. Here is another description:

While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

Again, this description feels incredibly feminine. Phrases like “frightening gills” and “dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails” create a sense of fear and surprise that reads to me as a woman who is not used to nature in its most brutal form, but figures out a way to be as exact as possible in her description. The phrases “coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers” and “the pink swim-bladder / like a big peony” are romantic images, but when seen through the female eyes of a speaker, become more heightened, especially as they’re intertwined with the “frightening gills,” and “dramatic reds and blacks.” Here is another longer chunk of description:

I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and unwavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

This is what I would classify as the main focus of the poem, because the fish is personified as a battle-hardened masculine creature. This is where readers feel not just sympathy, but admiration for the fish, and that’s because the speaker feels that way about the fish. This is where the fish truly becomes humanized. He’s been caught more than once and escaped. The hooks and broken lines are “medals with their ribbons / frayed and unwavering.” The fish is a war veteran. And given the time that this poem was published, WWII had just come to an end, so the description of the fish feels especially apt. And, if we continue to view the speaker as female, her perspective is very attuned to the masculine even after she describes the fish in very feminine and romantic ways. Here, the fish is masculinized in a very detailed way, by a mid-century American female speaker. Here is the conclusion of the poem:

I stared and stared
and 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.

A common way of reading this poem includes suspense and anticipation. It is not clear what the speaker is going to do with the fish; she is merely describing it, but as her description intensifies, and the fish becomes more humanlike, feelings begin to build up. After we get the romantic and lyrical repetition of “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” we find out exactly what she does with the fish. Of course, she releases it. She has to. I feel confident in saying that the line “And I let the fish go” is one of the strongest climaxes in the history of poetry. The speaker and the reader are relieved. However, what gets missed, especially in this section of the poetry, is the boat terminology. The boat is rented, and yet the speaker knows boats very well. And this becomes even more compelling if readers view the speaker as female. Fishing has always been seen as a masculine occupation and pastime. Men do it to earn a living, but men also do it to escape the stresses of their professional careers. Here, this female speaker is on a rented boat, she’s fishing, and she catches a fish so spectacular she has to describe every aspect of it in a romanticized and humanized way, and then lets the fish go. At the risk of stereotyping, this is one of the aspects of the poem that lets me know this is a female speaker. Would a male speaker have let the fish go? Given the fact that the fish has identified itself as being uncatchable, it would seem that that would be the reason to keep it—it would be an ego boost for the fisherman: I caught an uncatchable fish. At the same time, if we view the speaker as female, she caught an uncatchable fish, a fish that other men have tried and failed to catch in the past. Where other men failed, she succeeded. I realize how much I’m speculating here, but this is where the true beauty of “The Fish” becomes apparent. It brings up these kinds of thoughts. It’s more than just a straight description of a fish that becomes humanized and therefore must be released. It has deeper implications that have to do with gender. A female speaker feels the need to do the right thing and let the fish go. She is not concerned with pride or ego. She wants the fish to live because he has earned the right to live.

This why I like Elizabeth Bishop. Her poems are complex in this way. The images lead to deeper thinking. And I feel like this was not necessarily understood about her poetry during a time when poets were pulling from their personal lives to evoke desire and drama for their readers. Bishop was also stimulating passion and suspense—through image. In this case, through the description of a fish. This was an incredibly brilliant poem for a female poet to write, especially during the forties. In the light research I have done, I know that Bishop wanted to keep herself excluded from all-women anthologies and didn’t want to be seen as a “woman poet.” There is a specific reason for this: a good portion of the female poets writing at that time were not writing from a place of feminine independence. They were writing from a place of oppression. Bishop wanted her work to be judged without having to rely on the label of “woman poet” because she was living and writing on her own, outside of the gender oppression that was happening in the forties and fifties and sixties. She wasn’t part of that group. And yet, this is exactly what makes her feminist to me, her desire to be seen as a legitimate poet without having to rely on the standard conceptions of femininity at the time for her poetic success. The female speaker in this poem describes the fish from that perspective, but she also knows boats, and makes an executive decision about the fish, which is to let it go. That, to me, feels very feminist.

The song I’m discussing this month is “Brand New Lungs” by the Swingin’ Utters. They are a punk band, but not a very well-known punk band. But, they are an incredibly brilliant and talented punk band. To give a bit of history, they’ve been around since the late eighties; in the late nineties and early 2000s, they released three killer albums: Five Lessons Learned (1998), Swingin’ Utters (2000), and Dead Flowers, Bottles, Bluegrass, and Bones (2003). The first Swingin’ Utters album I bought was their self-titled album; I was a teenager and I listened to it quite a bit. In terms of where they exist on the punk rock scale, they are in the same group as bands like Bad Religion, NOFX, and Rancid. What I also want to point out is that they released that trio of albums during a time when pop punk was incredibly popular, and even though the Swingin’ Utters do have some pop elements to their music, they’re more street, more folksy. In that sense, they weren’t as commercially viable as other punk bands at that time. After 2003, they went on a seven-year hiatus, which, as a fan, was incredibly devastating. They seemed to be on a roll musically, and then they took a break. I can speak from personal experience when I say that their absence was felt. In 2011, they came out with their seventh album called Here, Under Protest, and “Brand New Lungs” is the first song on the album. I remember hearing it for the first time and being blown away and it is still one of my favorite songs by the band.

The song is written by lead guitarist Darius Koski who also sings his fair share of songs alongside the principal vocalist Johnny Bonnel—they are the two main members and songwriters of the band. Another element that sets Swingin’ Utters apart from other punk bands who were popular during the pop punk explosion are the vocals. Bonnel is punk, folksy, and hardcore. He is not a pretty-sounding vocalist. His singing has a ruggedness and quickness about it that makes the band great to listen to alongside metal bands that have a hardcore edge to them. His vocals, along with Koski’s sharp and intense guitar playing make them feel like a heavier punk band, and this song is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. It has three verses, a bridge, and a shifting chorus, all sung by Bonnel. The song begins with a recording of a masculine voice that says “Here, under protest, is beef burgers,” followed by the song’s primary riff, which is very fast and simple, and then the rest of the band comes in and Bonnel sings the first verse and first chorus:

I’m gonna find myself some brand new lungs
Because these ones are black and tired
I’ll use them well and mind my health
Think nothing but good and pure thoughts

I’ve been bad, I know, and I’m sorry
You can smell the smoke reek in my skin
Well, I’ve had my way with the amenities
The depraved and loose guns are my kin

What I like about this song is that it’s written to a beloved, but from a very candid perspective. Technically, this could be classified as a love song disguised as a punk song. The style of music is fast and melodic and aggressive, but the lyrics are deeply affectionate, even as the singer admits to his more criminal nature: “The depraved and loose guns are my kin.” Here is the second verse and second chorus:

You always said I’d have something to come back to
That I will always have a home
Well, you’ll always be mine, that’s who you belong to
You will never be alone

The boundaries of the poison sound
The bitterness is so profound
It’s amazing how down and dirty others go
It’s amazing how much you care at all

I think context is really important for this song in particular, because it was released after a long hiatus. Aside from the powerful music and strong vocals, the return of the band is what gives this song its main punch. It feels like the singer is addressing the beloved after a long absence; he’s been away and he hasn’t been living the most “clean” life, and yet love feelings have caused him to return and be emotionally open. The feelings that build from these verses and choruses are heightened by a drumroll followed by the bittersweet musical shift of the bridge:

Forgive me, isn’t this only a dream?
This ain’t really me talking
You can’t help but feel down when you’re floating around
On old borrowed wings that touch the ground

The first two lines and a half lines are sung in a more melodic way by Bonnel who gradually shifts back into his normal singing style, which also helps change the energy of the song, making it feel more vulnerable. Here, the singer questions himself, probably because he’s not used to opening up this way, especially to his beloved. The last two lines are the poetic center of the song: “You can’t help but feel down when you’re floating around / On old borrowed wings that touch the ground.” This feels like an admission of how the singer feels, but also how he sees the beloved. They are both downtrodden, but don’t necessarily feel comfortable admitting it. The song shifts back into its main riff followed by the third verse and third chorus:

Sometimes I feel unfit to stay
Wanna take myself out and call it a day
But once I get some brand new lungs
I’ll be fit to go and spend them again

And the drunks all cheat and lie
As the sober ones all cry
They feel obliged to apologize
Beg for forgiveness to make them feel alright

This final verse and chorus signal a major lyrical shift because it’s less about romantic confession and more about trust. A big distinction is made in these verses: the singer is more aligned with the criminal element rather than the addictive element of underground society. He’s not an alcoholic and he’s not an ex-alcoholic. And he’s not necessarily seeking to be reformed, either. He just needs to be rejuvenated. And it could be that venting to his beloved is how he becomes refreshed, because she understands. I want to point out again that there is a folksy element to the Swingin’ Utters and it’s Irish in nature. In the folksy songs, there is a lot of lyrical confession about the personal and the political from a masculine perspective. There is both a toughness and vulnerability in this song that are generated musically and lyrically and fuse together so well that it can be hard to detect. On the surface, it could just be taken as a comeback song, but if listeners go deeper and are familiar with the band’s musical history, they will see it as a massive punch of love and desire in the face of hardship. The Swingin’ Utters have never made enough money to support themselves solely as musicians. They have never toured extensively. As a fan since the early 2000s, I’ve only seen them live one time and it was in 2013 at a small club in Houston. As talented as the band is, there is this underlying frustration that is both relatable and endearing: they are a badass punk band that does what they can to make ends meet. They make it work. And the song is about that, too.

“Brand New Lungs” includes no solos; the main focus is Bonnel’s vocals and the adrenaline-inducing energy that the song generates from the lyrical content. It’s been rough, but we’re back, is what the song seems to be communicating under the main narrative, which features a male singer of the criminal persuasion opening up to his beloved as a way to revive himself. On a personal level, I didn’t want the Swingin’ Utters to stop making music for seven years. But when I heard “Brand New Lungs,” I felt like I understood the band better. When I was younger, I wanted them to be bigger than they wanted to be. However, what makes Swingin’ Utters so special is that they are what I would classify as an under-the-radar band or a band with an intensely small cult following. That’s what makes them who they are. And I didn’t figure that out until I listened to Here, Under Protest. After Dead Flowers, Bottles, Bluegrass, and Bones, they had the ability to take things to the next level, but instead, they chose to bow out for a while—and I’m glad they did for the sole reason that they knew better. They could’ve become a mainstream pop punk success—for a few years. But rather than do that, they chose to step back and remain on the fringes, and I think that was a smart move. “Brand New Lungs” ends on a nice pop punk guitar hook and that’s no accident. In fact, it feels incredibly purposeful. As a punk band that really came into their own in the late nineties, they are one of the few today who still have credibility as a legit punk band. “Brand New Lungs” is sort of an anthem for that sentiment—what it means to choose hardship over a false sense of success that comes from chasing a trend. That it’s more honest to be a criminal because at least it’s sincere. And that’s who the Swingin’ Utters are to me: sincere.

What Elizabeth Bishop and Swingin’ Utters share is admiration. Those who are readers of Bishop’s poetry and those who are fans of the Swingin’ Utters music both have an undying admiration and loyalty to the poet and the punk band. Rather than call it a cult following, it’s more of a devoted following. It’s difficult to be a casual fan of Bishop or Swingin’ Utters. If you love them, you love them. Another thing the poet and the punk band share is their staunch independence. They both chose to remain on the fringes of their respective mediums. Bishop chose to be a world-traveler and wrote from a more expanded perspective, choosing to highlight image and lyricism over confessionalism. Swingin’ Utters chose to remain an underground punk band with folk and street elements rather than toss their hat into the mainstream pop punk ring. I also think that what the poet and the band share are layers of meaning. This isn’t necessarily a rare quality, but it feels more important here. In “The Fish” there’s the poem about the fish being described, humanized, and let go; and then there’s the poem about the woman describing a male fish and making the conscious choice to let him go. In “Brand New Lungs” there’s the song about the male criminal opening up to his beloved in order to get a new lease on life; and then there’s the song about a punk rock band coming out of a self-imposed hiatus to make a strong and poignant political and aesthetic statement about punk music. Those who are looking to operate from an independent position (which is always difficult to do no matter what the time and place) would gain a lot from reading Bishop and listening to the Swingin’ Utters. Both the poet and the punk band provide excellent blueprints for embarking on a life that embraces the fringes and avoids the center.

May 1, 2023