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Last Updated on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

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.

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

“A Display of Mackerel” is an excellent example of poetry’s ability to link complex realizations about self and existence to that which is generally considered mundane and even unpleasant. In Doty’s hands, a display of dead fish becomes a window into the nature of the soul and a measure of human anxiety about death. In the course of the poem he asks and alludes to several important questions: What are the boundaries of life and death? Is death final and annihilating? Or may death be eclipsed by something else? By applying imagination to the observed world, Doty harmonizes levels of expression and orders of existence. The “price of gleaming” indicated in the poem’s final line is a happiness, a selflessness, and a togetherness that confounds even death. Persisting beyond the boundaries of individual existence and physiological function, this greater form of existence, predicated on total investment in the gleaming accident of the spirit, is a refuge for the poet and an antidote to the tragedy of death. It is not a solution to death per se but rather an awareness of beauty’s relentlessness that is at least partially realized by the poem itself.

Yet in these meditations on life and death, the reader can sense a tragedy behind the poem. The collection to which this poem belongs is dedicated to Wally Roberts, Doty’s lover who died a year before the publication of Atlantis of complications due to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In the light of this death—which is chronicled in Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast (1996)—one may read this poem and a large part of Doty’s work as engaged in a dialogue with loss and the redemption of love in spite of death. By considering how love and death influence the meaning of “A Display of Mackerel,” one may read Doty’s poetry as an important late twentieth century expression of themes that run throughout the history of Western literature (the elegy, Romanticism, modernism). The intimation that in the end life triumphs over death—that there is a possible antidote to the losses of death—is crucial to reading this poem as an antielegy, a celebration of the beauty of the spirit in spite of death.

Finally, “A Display of Mackerel” is firmly grounded in an impressive poetic tradition. Echoing the spiritual luminosity of Wordsworth, the poem also invites comparisons with the transcendental poetry of Emily Dickinson and the meditations of Wallace Stevens. “A Display of Mackerel” is an excellent example of the vitality of the poetic imagination in American literature. It is a meditation on the power poetry holds to strip reality of its familiarity and to address the complexities of the soul.

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