The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)