A Display of Mackerel

by Mark Doty

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Speaker

Central to this poem is the character of the speaker, or narrator, of the text. The speaker spends a great deal of time considering the dead mackerel that are laid out in rows before him, and he pauses for a long time to consider the physical beauty as well as philosophical implications of the fish in their unceasing uniformity.

He describes the fish visually by establishing their luminosity and rainbow radiance and also evokes several metaphors —comparing the fish to stained glass windows, soap bubbles, sunshine on gasoline, and enameled jewelry—in order to firmly establish the beauty of the mackerel's iridescence. These efforts that take pains to articulate the noteworthiness of the fish are a testament to the fact that the subject he is treating is not generally considered beautiful or thought provoking.

The speaker also makes mention of a "divine template" having produced the uniform brilliance of the rows of fish, referencing a plane of existence outside the realm of worldly matters. Furthermore, the speaker deals explicitly with the nature of the "soul" and how it can be defined by an individual or by a multitude. Both of these indicate that the speaker is, to some degree, a spiritual person.

The Fish

The fish can be considered as a single unit rather than a collection: a "one" in their multiplicity. Thus, the fish of the poem become "a character"—a shining multitude that the speaker considers. The fish are an eternal replication of one form that proves that there is beauty in something that is completely ordinary and seemingly unremarkable. The speaker even affords them agency by declaring that they have "chosen" their collective existence and made a "sacrifice" of their individuality.

The Reader

In some ways, the reader can be considered a central character in this poem, as the speaker directly addresses his audience in order to voice his thoughts on the nature of individuality. The reader is prompted to question whether or not the mortal nature of the individual is a preferable situation to the immortal repeatability of the fish. We are provoked into reexamining our inherent values—how uniqueness is prized over sameness—by being confronted with the speaker's unconventional understanding of individuality.

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