A Display of Mackerel

by Mark Doty

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Beauty in the Mundane

The speaker of the poem finds great beauty in and contemplates deeply an unexpected subject: rows of dead fish. From this contemplation, the speaker takes particular note of the identical nature of the fish—how none possess a quality that could distinguish them from others. Instead of discovering mundanity in this endless sameness, the speaker instead discovers a note of perfection in this repetition. He contemplates how their absolute uniformity creates a splendor of iridescence that startles him into a philosophical reverie on the nature of individuality and collectivity. Thus, the speaker takes a commonplace image and imbues it with new meaning by situating it as a subject of beauty.

The Value of Collectivity

In considering the mackerel's sameness, the speaker considers that they could have been produced from "heaven's template"—that rather than each individual fish having a soul, the fish together are expressions of one divine soul. Thus, the speaker implies that there is something divine in the shimmering beauty of the identical fish. Ironically, it is the lack of individuality of the fish that make them unique to him. He draws a direct comparison between what is valued in the human soul—its individuality—and the alternative value of the collective, harmonious beauty of the fish. In doing so, the speaker questions the innate preferability of individuality over sameness and wonders whether the beauty of the identical collective can in some ways be preferable to the beauty of the individual.

The Immortality in Uniformity

The speaker states that in individuality, we are "unduplicatable" and therefore "doomed": when the unique individual dies, he dies forever because he cannot be replicated. While the beauty of the fish is, conversely, eternal, there is a certain sacrifice that must be made on the part of the individual to forego individuality and instead vanish into the wholeness of the indistinguishable mass. The fish, the speaker claims, have sacrificed being a "one" but have consequently gained what individuals lack: eternal existence, because even after the "individual" fish dies, the "multitude" of uniform beauty endures.

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