Ian Bickford

Portraits of Fish


Because I’ve been indoors all morning,
the windows stone-white
with the mist from the bath
water; because

the first cycle is never enough
to dry the laundry;
because the teakettle whistling
has woken me from where I doze

on the sofa, I rake
my hair, button my shirt,
and sit at the table
with a red pen to make notes

in a notebook. But in the absence
of language, I draw the outlines
of fish instead, page after
page, snapper and mackerel. Fins,

wide eyes, bodies so long
they threaten the edges of the paper.
I draw no ocean around them.
The fish contain the ocean.


Daedalus had an apprentice, his nephew. One day,
walking on a stone shore in Crete, the boy
discovered the skeleton of a large fish
at the margin of the water. Picking it up,
he waved to his uncle: Look, uncle!
this way the bones become a good comb for hair!
He demonstrated, laughing. Daedalus
laughed, too, praising his apprentice.
But the truth—he was secretly angry,
envious of such simple ingenuity. Soon after,
he killed the boy and threw the body in the ocean.
And in the following centuries, myths
would grow around the sheer intricacy
of the inventions of Daedalus:
the first ship sail; the labyrinth at Cnossus;
wings made of wax to be worn by a man.


Ten years old on my father’s boat,
I hook a mackerel nearly as long
as myself—it being large

and I small. Hauled from the water,
it gapes and lunges at the end
of my line until my father spears it

through the left
eye. The silver body quivers,
left in wetness on the deck.

So much blood from behind the eye
socket, I think it must
contain an ocean of blood.


My father likes them grilled,
a whole snapper, head
and tail intact. Massaged
in garlic and lemon, the fish
is cooked quickly over a high
flame, so the skin

is crisp, delicate, and the meat
peels effortlessly from the bones.
He eats the whole
thing except the fins, the eyes,
and the skin around the mouth.


I will paint your outline
on my bed-sheets.

I’ll paint you white
on the white sheets.

I will lie beside you,
unable to sleep

or breathe in the sheets
and air. I will gape

and lunge, mouth wide,
eyes wide and red.

I swallow water
from a glass. I fasten

around the water.