by Michael Woods
This poem is taken from Heaney’s eleventh collection, Electric Light, which was published in 2001. Its subject is perch, the freshwater fish characterised by their stripy bodies and very sharp, spiny dorsal fins. The theme of the poem is the marvellous equipoise in nature that is paradoxically constant because of its constant change. There is also a clear sense of an appreciation of beauty in a particular place. Earth and water form the landscape chose details are quickly conveyed visually. Heaney uses the compound “alder-dapple” which both specifies the trees to be found on the bank of the River Bann (‘Bann’ is the Gaelic word for white) and their appearance as they sway or “waver”, a word which precisely captures the sense of flow that will develop later in the poem.
Not only is there a clear sense of a particular place established in the first couplet of this short ten line poem but also an insight into the shared language of the poet and those with him when he visited through the use of the word ‘grunts’ instead of perch. Apart from the sonic suggestion of the word, it is also one used by American soldiers to describe new recruits. Heaney’s description of the perch as “little flood-slubs, runty and ready” gives the impression of pugnacious little creatures ready to take on anything whatever its size. A slub is a slightly twisted roll of fibre, an image that gives a clear visual picture of the sinuous, flexing shape of the perch as viewed from above. The refracting quality of water in a river also has the effect making fish appear fatter and foreshortened.
Heaney is describing a return to the River Bann where he used to go fishing in his youth. “I saw and I see”, connects the past with the present with the suggestion that they are, in a sense, balanced. We might be reminded of “see-saw” by association. Also, the poem is written as a single sentence from start to finish so that there is a sense of the seamless connection between everything that is symbolised in the river’s movement, “In the everything flows and steady go of the world”. (line 10) There is an internal dynamic in everything, “flows” and “go” suggest movement and action while “steady” suggests constancy and stability. Here, Heaney deftly captures the idea that the only constant we can be sure of is change itself but may be reassured that this is all part of what is the imperative underpinning our world.
There is also a sense of the miraculous as Heaney describes remembering and seeing again, “the river’s glorified body / That is passable through. This centres on the idea that water is physical and weighty yet apparently without boundary, its anatomy invisible. The phrase “glorified body” is one traditionally associated with Christ after the resurrection and this only serves to reinforce the highly charged sense of the extraordinary that is perceived in what can easily be taken for granted. Water is synonymous with that which sustains life and, for the perch, this is obviously so. The revisiting of this river is also a renovating experience for the poet.
The title of the poem is ambiguous as it both names the fish that are ostensibly its subject but it is also a verb to denote a state of rest or poise. Normally associated with birds, these fish seem to be perched on the invisible as they achieve a stable position in the powerful flow of the river. The fish observed in their own element of water seem to be perched almost as birds might be in their own element of air:
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air
That is water..”
Here, Heaney employs the consonance of “finland” and “fenland” to signal that not only is a river the natural element for fish but it is like another country. It is no accident that he has chosen to call the river after a country, in doing this he also taps into the linguistic energy of Anglos-Saxon poetry, in which images known as kennings were employed. For example, the sea was known as the “whale road”. So, “finland” conveys both a sense of the otherness of the perch’s environment but also suggests a river densely populated with them..
We know, though, that there is a subtle complexity of processes in the fish that allow it remain steady:
“Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle and slur”
The half-rhyme in the poem helps to reinforce the idea of equipoise and this is something that is maintained throughout. The unstable demarcation between the ancient idea of the elements is taken further by Heaney when he writes of “air / That is water” (lines 8-9).
The concluding line is both celebratory of the kinetic aspect of nature and allusive. “All things flow” (Gk: hen panta rei) is the famous statement of the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus who maintained that everything is in a constant state of flux. He also famously said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Another of his surviving fragments says, “The death of air is the borth of water”. Heaney seems to have these ideas in mind as he revisits the Bann, the same river as he visited years before but the current of time has moved everything on, just as the water in a river is constantly flowing. The perch seem to be objects of admiration, as they appear to be able to master the current, achieve stasis in the face of flux.
Allusion – a reference to another writer or work made in a poem or other text. It is rather like a quotation but is subtler, being assimilated into the fabric of the poem, as the reference to Heraclitus is here.