Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gold & Other Fish, A Review

Gold & Other Fish. Hilary Sideris.
Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, Nov. 2011. 22 pages, ISBN: 1-59924-896-4 / ISBN 978-1-59924-896-7

(click the image to be taken to Finishing Line Press's website where you can order the book)

Gold & Other Fish is Hilary Sideris’s third poetry collection and her second collection with Finishing Line Press. The 20 poems in it are all named for fish and though each poem distills the essence of these fish with a beautifully compressed lyricism, they are not mere portraits. It is not just a collection of nature poems. Humans enter the picture from the beginning and return throughout as hunter, cook, eater and this leads us beyond mere observation into deeper questions.

The opening poem, Fluke, concludes, “To reel her in,/I’ll need a hunk of killifish/wriggling on my hook.” The third poem, Bass, closes by saying of the fish,

he blackens in my cast-

iron pan, lobster eater on
the rocky bottom, my large
mouth’s deep dish.

There is a pull in these poems between the marine world and the human. Our relationship to predation is put under a clarifying aquatic lens. We don’t like to think of how life feeds on life, and we shield ourselves from it by myths and platitudes that soften it for us. But this also means we project onto the natural world an inappropriate moral judgment. The poems in Gold & Other Fish question both of these points. Perhaps there is a beauty or even divinity to the way fish survive, a divinity in feeding on flesh. I might even say it documents a kind of communion. In Monk, Sideris asks,

can we know the grace

it takes to cradle prey
between clenched jaws
until it stops jerking,

who seek the denser
texture of a scavenger
whose spine ends in a lure?

Our moral judgments and our secret desires mix to blind us to the simple grace of what it means to be a predator, to the actual beauty of it. Our moral high ground is here inverted and we are the dupes of our own needs, lured to feed on a scavenging fish.

Within these poems that marine grace is not merely an argument but an aesthetic. Sideris has a beautiful ear. The sound textures of these poems are brilliant, delving into subtle phonetic expressions beyond just internal rhymes, assonance and consonance. Consider what happens in

with hide & seek, a brackish
world not hard to fathom
dark devoid of history

Here it is not simply the assonance of “hard” and “dark.” There is a phonetic connection running from “hide” through “history,” a beautiful transformation that arcs and joins it all together from “seek” and “brackish,” through “world” and “hard” to reach finally through “dark” and “devoid.” This kind of brilliant phrasing runs through the whole collection, mirroring the flash of a fish leaping from the water for a moment to plunge back into the depths.

The final poem, Tuna, leaves us with the real focus: what we, at a distance admire for its beauty, is at its core an act of survival.

. . . Not for pleasure
but to shake off parasites,

he arcs into our air,
admired from afar
if not for long.

It is sometimes difficult for scientists to determine the specific function of beauty, but whatever it might be, they know that beauty serves a purpose: it helps a species in some way to survive. Gold & Other Fish shows us that even our connection to predation is in some way connected to beauty and grace.

Most collections have some small flaw, some small deviation from the goal, but not this one. It’s the kind of collection that is a pleasure from first to last, delivering aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment. What Sideris says of the Sturgeon, these poems do, they forage “at the interface” and bring brilliant gems to the surface.

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