A Display of Mackerel

by Mark Doty

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

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

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."

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