In some ways, this poem resists interpretation. It seems to want to remain on the surface, on the level of description only. As with much minimalist fiction, however, there is a hint of another world beneath the poem’s prosaic language. Perhaps in the same way that the sturgeon is brought up out of the depths and hung up to dry, this memory that Carver is dragging out of the subconscious is on display for all to see.
What makes this story/poem interesting is the narrator’s inability to piece together the story entirely. Yes, he remembers chapter and verse descriptions of the huge fish, but he admits to only partial knowledge of the significance of the memory: “I don’t remember much else—maybe it got away/ even then.” The memories surface “now and then,” and he cannot capture the past in its entirety; it is this honesty that is so winning in the poem. The reader believes a poet who admits fallibility. Also, the poem accrues some tension by this paralleling of encyclopedic fact and incomplete memories, if in fact anything happened—anything “significant”—when he actually stood with his father “staring up at that great dead fish.”
Although the poem rejects the traditional devices of poetry—metrics, metaphors, images, or lush sounds—in some ways the poem can be seen as an old-fashioned allegory. The poet is similar to the team of horses in his father’s story that is trying to drag the fish—or in the poet’s case the memory—up to the surface, but the poet is not even sure who wins in this battle.
The poem does manage to capture a glimpse of a father-son relationship, one that Carver wrote about often in his essays and poems. The relationship is not a warm one or one in which great truths are passed from father to son; there exists one story about horses versus a fish that flashes in the poet’s mind, but beyond that the reader is given a picture only of two males staring at a dead fish. The reader is left to decide whether the fish is emblematic of memory or the father in some way or whether the depths at which the fish lives are symbolic of the quiet, almost chilling depth of feeling—the unexpressed feeling—that exists between Carver and his father. It is not a poem that expresses itself; it is as reticent as some men are, as muted and oblique as some relationships between father and son.
Perhaps in Carver’s inability to bring the memory of the fish into sharper focus for the reader, he is allowing a glimpse into the world of a man who, like the fish, “lives alone.” The accumulation of factual information about the fish is one way to form a bridge of communication, but essentially the poem suggests that there is a central loneliness even in the most intimate relationships. The “marvelous story” of the father that surfaces in Carver’s memory “now and then” is a gift that the poet cherishes, but the relationship itself seems as mysterious and strange as the sturgeon, “something left over from another world,” now that the poet’s father is dead. The poem does not wear its heart on its sleeve, but there is silent mourning in the recollection of what has been lost and perhaps of what was never quite there.