It’s hard to describe the tone of this poem. I suppose you could call it menacing. When I read it, I imagine it coming from the voice of a child in a horror film. And that certainly isn’t the feeling I typically get when reading a poem. So, to say this poem from Eleanor Hooker is original is quite an understatement.
The imagery here is otherworldly. We get a three-eyed fish with urns in its belly, within which very odd ash trees grow. Mercury-filled cataracts aren’t exactly a poet’s stock-in-trade either. All of this follows a simple, unassuming title, “Fishing”. Also simple is the refrain between each verse. This simple-complicated dynamic creates a certain tension in the fabric of the poem itself and reminds me of the approach taken in the Bob Dylan song “I Want You”.
The biggest question a reader is left with here is: what exactly is the poem about? Certainly, it seems allegorical, and those last two lines appear to suggest that emotions were to the fore in the writer’s mind. Which is kind of ironic, considering fish are said not to feel pain. Learning to breathe beneath the water could refer to anything (I’m sure different readers will have wildly varying interpretations when they read below). Maybe it refers to suppressing emotions – at least that’s the only half-convincing interpretation I could give. And what a richer experience reading the poem is by having those emotions suppressed, rather than a bland, more straightforward approach. Of course, I could be way off the mark. But does it really matter?
One, Two, Three four five,
Once I caught a fish alive.
It had three urns in its belly,
inside of each an ash tree grew,
one had Granddad's face on its trunk,
another had Old Grandpa's hands in its branches,
the third had Old Granny's smile in its roots.
Six, seven, eight nine ten,
I had to let it go again.
It had three eyes, unusual for any fish,
one eye saw the world beneath the water,
the second looked, but never saw,
the third had a mercury-filled cataract
that told the future in filigree pictures.
Why did you let it go?
I let it go because it was a Pike.
I know that now, and know too
how Pike will find their own way home.
And look, it bit my finger so.
Which finger did it bite?
The little finger on the right.
It choked, this will stop you telling, then it smiled.
But I’ve always known my way,
and have learned to breathe beneath the water.
My husband Peter and I went to the UK to work, ‘for one year’ and arrived home in 2002, fourteen years later, with our two sons and a cat.
I’m from south Tipperary originally, and now live in Dromineer, north Tipp.
My debut collection of poems, The Shadow Owner’s Companion (Dedalus Press) was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine award for best first collection from 2012. My second collection A Tuf of Blue is being published by the Dedalus Press in October 2016.
Earlier this year my flash fiction The Lesson was awarded First Prize by Richard Skinner in the Bare Fiction, Flash Fiction competition in the UK.
My poetry has been published in a variety of magazines, anthologies and literary journals including: Poetry, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Agenda, The Stinging Fly, The SHOp, The Moth, The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, and POEM: International English Language Quarterly and online at Southword, And Other Poems, Poethead, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Ofi Press, and broadcast on RTÉ Radio One.
I’m a founding member and Programme Curator for the Dromineer Literary Festival. I’m a helm and Press Officer for the Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat.
I hold an MPhil in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA (Hons) in Cultural History from the University of Northumbria, and a BA (Hons 1st) from the O.U. I began my career as a nurse and midwife. http://eleanorhooker.com/
Your first collection, The Shadow Owner’s Companion, has poems which seem to draw inspiration from set forms such as villanelles, incantations and, as with this poem, nursery rhymes, with a hint of the magical/mythical. In what way do you go about drawing inspiration from such forms?
There are occasions when my poems need, well… not exactly a straight jacket, but the regulatory discipline of form, so whilst meanings range free, my tendency towards wordiness is contained.
Nursery rhymes and incantations suggest the magical and the mythical, certainly, but their strangeness also suggests the uncanny. Many of the nursery rhymes we chanted as children have disturbing subtexts; jaunty ditties that bely their sinister undercurrent. I like that, the skittering, the disorientation this device brings to poems.
My favourite lullaby of all time is the one in Pan’s Labyrinth, no words, just that elegiac humming. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19bBGxf5k6k
Fish are mysterious, maybe even monstrous, creatures in your poems, it seems to me, and they come to the surface quite often in your collection. How do you see the symbolism of fish working in your poetry?
Interesting that you say they “come to the surface”. In many of my poems, all sorts of menace are represented by Pike, poor Pike, and yet it represents the perfect predator. Here’s what Ted Hughes had to say of them in his poem “Pike”
Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
In the poem “Fishing”, fish symbolise an emotional current and the speaker’s willingness to react and interact within that environment.
Linked with such symbolism is the sheer intensity that comes through in your work. This seems very much connected with the water, as well as fish. Do you take a certain approach in order to convey such intensity in your poems?
Thanks, Trevor. Poetry functions differently for each of us, I need my poetry to be as truthful as it is possible for it to be, even if I’m describing a lie. Exercises in word choreography for the sake of the dance is meaningless for me, those poems are a form of lonely miming, silent gorgeousness.
I need the music too. Each word I use in a poem is considered, some fortuitous accidents do occur, but if the effect on you, reading my poems, is of their intensity, then the words I’ve chosen have done their job, and those poems have provided me with another dance partner.
Many of your poems are quite surreal. Are there particular surrealist poets you look to for inspiration?
I read everyone and everything, we have poetry books all over the house, in case of an emergency. Lists are dangerous things, but here are just some of the poets I admire greatly for the strange and surreal elements of their poetry: George Szirtes, Pascale Petit, Helen Ivory, Traci Brimhall, Charles Simic, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Aleksandar Ristović, Vasko Popa, and Tomas Tranströmer, Robin Robertson, Geoffrey Hill, Emily Berry, Kim Moore, Yves Bonnefoy, Catherine Ann Cullen and Kristin Dimitrova.
Why do you write?
I just need to. When I don’t get to write, I’m like a hoor on a Honda 50 screeching uphill in fifth gear with the brakes on and diesel in the petrol tank. Not pretty.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Love like your heart has a million chambers, and don’t lose faith when the muse fancies herself a mechanic and is off for days attempting to fix the Honda 50.