Elizabeth Bishop's childhood was marked by dislocation and loneliness. Her father died when she was an infant and her mother was committed to mental institutions when she was four years old. Bishop was sent first to a relative of her father, then later to an aunt. Themes of dislocation and loneliness are often found in Bishop's poetry.
In "The Fish," Bishop describes with painstaking detail a fish that is dislocated and lonely. As the poem begins, the narrator tells us that she held the fish "beside the boat / half out of water." This is an extreme state of dislocation, neither in the water nor on land. The fish struggles to breathe "the terrible oxygen," but--of course--his gills are useless out of water.
The fish's loneliness is expressed by the poet's description of its eyes, which do not "return my stare."
The poet admires this lonely creature. On its skin are "shapes like full-blown roses"; its barnacles are like "fine rosettes of lime"; its "pink swim-bladder [is] / like a big peony.'
The narrator's admiration for the fish is increased when she realizes that this fish has survived many battles: there are "five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth."
Perhaps Bishop sees in the fish a reflection of herself: someone who has experienced hardship, dislocation and loneliness and survived. This is indicated by the end of the poem, in which "victory" fills up "the little rented boat."