by Christine Evans and chosen by Gillian Clarke
Cyclopterus Lumpus, the Lumpsucker:
‘the male renowned for his solicitude’
says the Observer’s Book of Sea Fishes
explaining how while the mother draws back
to deep water, the sea-hen minds the nest
in the frontier territory between tides.
Locking himself to the rock below low water
he sprays the eggs with bubbles
of sea frothy with air, week after week
as summer ripens. When the tide is out
he crouches in the shade and keeps them cool
spraying them with water stored within.
‘At this time they are most vulnerable
to birds, rats, and other predators.’
Picking up what pots he can, early on the tide,
the sea clear as a child’s eye
skirting Ogof Morlas and the kittiwake rock
the fisherman sees something unusual floating
lumpy black, a sack of something or a rubbish bag
floating on the ebb out from the island.
He throttles back and lets the water slow him.
The blotch resolves itself into a fish
dark, lead-blue black
drifting, head down, apparently dead.
It’s round as a plate, two handspans across.
He scoops it lightly aboard
and knows, at first touch
it is alive, but without panic or resistance;
just a quickening, an awareness
inside the spiky carapace, the old bag of its skin.
He sits it doll-like on the hauler box, upright
not flopping or floundering like any other fish
unperturbed, but adjusting
like an old man coming unstartled from a drowse
in his own house, or a thinker, absorbed,
leaving a library for full sun and bustle.
Despite the black leather with its seven rows
of studs, the candy-striped Mohican crest
of fin and tail, a seriousness
and on impulse, he bends his face
level to look closer
to identify, and sees the fish
swivel its eyes
to look straight back at him.
Not large like whiting or bass
staring as though they hardly believed in themselves
but serious, controlled, intelligent
returning his gaze as if it knows what it’s about
fitting the man into its pattern of sense.
Perhaps it is exhaustion, dying
that frees it from fear, (how light,
how scuffed and drained of shine its skin)
or the genes’ programming
to outface danger so that they survive.
Gently he lowers it to the water
and watches as slowly, purposefully
the lumpsucker sinks
deliberately down, into the dark.
The sounder here shows fifteen fathoms.
Published by Seren, 2003
(By kind permission of the author)