Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Display of Mackerel” is an excellent example of poetry’s ability to link complex realizations about self and existence to that which is generally considered mundane and even unpleasant. In Doty’s hands, a display of dead fish becomes a window into the nature of the soul and a measure of human anxiety about death. In the course of the poem he asks and alludes to several important questions: What are the boundaries of life and death? Is death final and annihilating? Or may death be eclipsed by something else? By applying imagination to the observed world, Doty harmonizes levels of expression and orders of existence. The “price of gleaming” indicated in the poem’s final line is a happiness, a selflessness, and a togetherness that confounds even death. Persisting beyond the boundaries of individual existence and physiological function, this greater form of existence, predicated on total investment in the gleaming accident of the spirit, is a refuge for the poet and an antidote to the tragedy of death. It is not a solution to death per se but rather an awareness of beauty’s relentlessness that is at least partially realized by the poem itself.

Yet in these meditations on life and death, the reader can sense a tragedy behind the poem. The collection to which this poem belongs is dedicated to Wally Roberts, Doty’s lover who died a year before the publication of Atlantis of complications due to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome...

(The entire section is 452 words.)