A Display of Mackerel

by Mark Doty

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Mark Doty's poem "A Display of Mackerel" describes in detail and with reverential tones the beauty of the eponymous fish laid out in rows:

they’re all exact expressions
of the one soul.
In this first quotation, the speaker implies that the beauty of the mackerel is in part attributable to the striking similarities between each individual fish. Each fish glimmers and shines, and each fish seems not to be an individual but rather to be a part of a greater whole. Indeed, the speaker implies that each fish is but an expression of "the one soul," and part of the fish's beauty derives from their stunning, unceasing reflection of this one soul.
How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.
This idea, which is in the poem's final stanza, compounds the sentiments that are articulated throughout the poem: the speaker says that the beauty of the fish, here synonymous with "gleaming," is inextricably linked to "selfless[ness]." Beauty that is as perfect and as iridescent as that which the speaker describes in this poem cannot exist independent of selflessness—owing to the simple fact that this beauty is inherent to the multitudinous nature of the fish. The speaker here implies that the "price" that fish pay for their radiance is that they sacrifice their individuality to be part of a glittering whole.
Think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor.
These lines of the poem are used by the speaker in order to evoke familiar images to craft the visualization of the fish's iridescence. Though the fish are described as "rainbowed," these rainbows are explicitly evocative of the refraction of light that occurs on soap bubbles and slicks of gasoline. Furthermore, the image of the "soapbubble sphere," a light and airy object, also connotes that there is a gentle delicacy to the beauty of the mackerel. In repeating the word "splendor," the speaker also reinforces how impressive the majestic beauty of the fish is—leaving him in awe of its magnificence.
Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer.
This quotation marks the point in the poem when the speaker broadens his focus to consider how the beauty of the mackerel is relevant to human affairs. He begins to think about whether humans would ever give up their individual selves to be part of a greater collective identity, as the mackerel have done. Thus, the reverential tone with which he treats the glittering rows of mackerel and the link he establishes between their beauty and their collective identity implies that the speaker does not believe that individuality is more beautiful than this shining collective.

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