Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

In "A Display of Mackerel," Doty assumes as his subject something that is not generally considered to be of poetic importance. In order to draw attention to these images that are usually overlooked, Doty uses a number of arresting and uncommon comparisons to illustrate the image of the rows of mackerel. First, he describes the fish as a

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foot of luminosity
barred with black bands
which divide the scales'
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.

The language here clearly evokes an image of scales, but words "luminosity" and "radiant" afford this contemplation an air of reverence that is not usually paid to fish. Furthermore, the speaker compares the scales to a "Tiffany window," a reference to Tiffany Studios, which produces beautiful stained glass pieces. Not only is this metaphor unusual in the comparison between a famous art studio and fish scales, but it also draws attention to the multicolored nature of scales and their iridescence that is punctuated with black lines. This contemplation then leads the speaker to conclude that, rather than being forgettable, the physical nature of fish affords them an unusual beauty.

From this contemplation of beauty, the speaker then considers the perfect sameness of the fish and how this, in a way, affords the longevity of their beauty in a way that the beauty of the individual lacks. Once an individual is gone, their beauty cannot be reproduced; alternatively, the unyielding sameness of the fish thus ensures that this beauty perseveres. The speaker then queries the reader: which is preferable, sustaining individuality or attaining this longevity through collectivity? In a way, the speaker intimates that perhaps people disregard the death of a fish because they are all similar: one fish is exactly like another, and the death of one fish that is indistinguishable from any other fish is therefore meaningless. The speaker even suggests that the fish themselves cannot distinguish between being dead or alive:

They don't care they're dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn't care that they were living.
Thus, the poem centralizes a subject that is generally considered to be un-noteworthy and proves that these fish—which are indistinguishable—are remarkable precisely for their indistinguishability. The nature of their absolute sameness, which flies in the face of the virtue of individuality, consequently prompts readers to consider the merits of the individual as well as the merits of sacrificing individuality. The poem can be understood to suggest that individuality is the progenitor of loss: if something can be reproduced, it is never truly gone. If something is truly unique, however, once it is gone it is lost forever: the individual is ultimately "doomed."

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel” is a meditation on beauty and on beauty’s ability to triumph over death. This free-verse poem comprises seventeen three-line stanzas and describes the poet’s encounter with a display of fish. Doty skillfully explores the rich implications of this encounter. As the living poet admires the dead fish, the human soul encounters the extraordinary beauty of the display and finds within this beauty a possible antidote for the fear of death. With gradually expanding complexity, Doty infuses this encounter with associations and intimations that transcend the mere fact of mackerel on ice. Through a systematic appraisal of paradoxes, the poet leads his reader along the pathways of the poetic imagination, dismantling humanity’s anxieties about life, death, and the eternity of the soul.

“A Display of Mackerel” opens with a straightforward description of the fish lying on ice in rows. Having established a foundation of mundane description, Doty quickly departs from factuality and starts to explore the associations the mackerel inspire in him. Shortly after the first stanza, the first images of the extraordinary, the beautiful, and the precious begin to intrude upon the everyday: Not only are the fish dark and cold, but also “each [is] a foot of luminosity.” By the third stanza, the fish have become a lens through which Doty will consider important issues of existence: “radiant sections/ like seams of lead/ in a Tiffany window.” Despite the fact that they are dead, cold, and nonhuman, the mackerel represent a precious, shimmering realm of existence far removed from unpleasant and unsettling conceptions of death.

In the next few stanzas, Doty extends his meditations on life and death and draws the reader into this process by way of direct address. The poet instructs the readers to expand their consideration of the fish: “think abalone” and “think sun on gasoline.” In the tradition of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth—who viewed nature as a primary source of the highest poetic and spiritual revelation—Doty perceives divine significance in the universe of beauty and selflessness the mackerel inhabit: “Splendor, and splendor,/ and not a one in any way/ distinguished from the other.”

Midway through the poem, the poetic transformation of the mackerel into exemplars of life, death, and the unity of existence is complete. As the momentum of poetic imagery and paradox increases, “A Display of Mackerel” accumulates terms and phrases that suggest spiritual and existential complexity: “they’re all exact expressions/ of the one soul,/ each a perfect fulfillment/ of heaven’s template.” Once the connection between the mackerel and spirituality has been consummated, Doty consolidates the poem’s personification of and identification with the fish by considering an existential trade. Would humanity exchange its troubled, individualistic ideas of life for the serenity and beauty of a mackerel’s existence?

Suppose we could iridesce,like these, and lose ourselvesentirely in the universeof shimmer—would you wantto be yourself only,unduplicatable, doomedto be lost?

Having extracted beauty and this question from his encounter with the display of mackerel, Doty completes the arc of the poem by returning to the fish. While they were an objective “they” in the poem’s opening description, the fish are personified by Doty at the end of the poem; they are no longer alien but intimate. He knows that they prefer to be as they are, “flashing” and “multitudinous.” He knows that they do not care that they are dead. He can imagine their happiness “even on ice, to be together, selfless,/ which is the price of gleaming.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

“A Display of Mackerel” and the collection to which it belongs, Atlantis, mark an important transition in Doty’s work. While My Alexandria (1993) is praised for its explorations of the theme of loss, the poems in that collection articulate a conflicted and skeptical attitude about poetry’s transcendent powers. In contrast, “A Display of Mackerel” insists upon hope in the face of loss and revels in the ability of poetry to redeem and transform reality. In this poem and throughout Atlantis, Doty constructs numerous paradoxical linkages between the natural and the human-made (“sun on gasoline”), between the dead and the living (“bolting forward, heedless of stasis”), and between individuality and collectivity (“the rainbowed school// in which no verb is singular,/ or every one is”). These paradoxical juxtapositions produce an atmosphere in which impossibilities become possible, connections between disparate elements flourish, and the poetic imagination transforms everyday reality.

The poem mixes several levels of poetic language to create this magical, transformative effect. The language of precise description (“parallel rows”) combines with spiritual terms (“each a perfect fulfillment/ of heaven’s template”), blends with language relating to natural beauty (“luminosity,” “radiant,” “shimmer,” “gleaming”), and mixes with worldly value (“Tiffany window,” and “this enameling the jeweler’s/ made”). This combination of linguistic levels produces a fluid, multiple context in which Doty reveals his meditations on life and death. When taken as a whole, this mixture of levels of beauty and value suggests one of the important meanings of the poem: There is spiritual awakening in the most ordinary moments, and there is significance in the most accidental encounters. By combining this multiplicity of types of language into one poem, Doty replicates the spiritual oneness the poem proposes.

The juxtaposition of paradoxical ideas and this mixture of levels of language support a third poetic technique contributing to the poem’s meditative atmosphere: Imagery, that very basic element of poetic expression, is amplified in “A Display of Mackerel.” Doty’s quickly shifting use of poetic imagery feeds the paradoxical and combinative logic of the poem. In the course of the poem, the fish are related to images of light, windows, rainbows, soapbubbles, jewelry, and a classroom. The speed at which Doty introduces and then alters these images contributes to the wonder and magic that lies behind the poem’s expression. In general, Doty’s imagery falls into two categories that, taken together, point to the two realms of existence the poem’s meditations are bridging. On one hand, the poem is filled with images of external beauty; on the other hand, there are many images of internal spirituality and intellect. Together, the two categories form an equation between beauty and spirit that Doty extends to all of creation. Living or dead, fish or human, individual or collective, life is beautiful; the end of life need not be tragic.

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