Analysis of "A Display of Mackerel" by Mark Doty

Updated on January 12, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Mark Doty
Mark Doty | Source

Mark Doty and A Display of Mackerel

A Display Of Mackerel is a poem inspired by a visit to a fresh fish counter when Mark Doty was out shopping. It focuses on that thin line between the importance of the collective and the beauty of the individual.

The poem starts off with a simple, descriptive account of how the fish are laid out, ready for sale, but, with typical Doty insight, becomes much more than a mere surface observation.

As one critic says, "Mark Doty holds a magnifying glass to his subjects. He uses language as a way to highlight a moment, elevate it, and unearth hidden depth and meaning."

The reader is taken along with the speaker as the descriptives end and the real business of the poem begins, eliciting questions such as: what does it mean to be an individual living (and dying) amongst others, in a community of like souls?

The poem's syntax and lineation (line length) ensure that this short metaphorical journey is slow and thought-provoking, bringing contrast and beauty to the surface, underneath which lie profound issues.

It was first published in Doty's 1995 book, Atlantis, and has been a popular anthology poem since that time.


1. Individuality

2. Role in Community

3. Finding The Self

4. The Collective Good

5. A Sense of Beauty?

A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other
—nothing about them
of individuality. Instead

they’re all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfilment

of heaven’s template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving

at this enameling, the jeweler’s
made uncountable examples,
each as intricate

in its oily fabulation
as the one before.
Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost? They’d prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

forward, heedless of stasis.
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

A Display of Mackerel is a 17 stanza poem, 51 lines in total, with no set rhyme scheme and no regular sustained meter (metre in British English).

On the page, it is a long, slender column with plenty of white space between stanzas, which tends to cause pauses for the reader and slow things down. The individual stanzas reflect each single fish, and the total of 17 represents the display, the group, and the shoal.

Stanza 1

An introductory description of the fish, in pairs, instills an image in the reader's mind—a simple picture made special by the fact that the fish are long and they give off light.

Stanza 2

The fish being mackerel, they have this pattern of black bands down their sides, which strengthens the contrast. Dark versus light comes into play, how both are mutually dependent on each other.

Stanza 3

Note the opening simile which likens the dark bands with lead, used to keep the glass in situ in stained glass production, a shining example being a Tiffany window. Lead is a heavy metal but is necessary for the glass which the light shines through. Again, one cannot exist without the other.

The fish are full of color that changes when seen from different angles.

Stanza 4

There's a liquid feel to this spectrum which is similar to the mother-of-pearl insides of the abalone, a shellfish—note the double line describing this effect.

Stanza 5

And so impressive is this iridescence that the speaker adds another analogy, this time more common and everyday: sun on gasoline, which we can see at the fuel pump or on the tarmac. To the speaker this coloration is splendid, fish after fish is splendid, each and every one.

Stanza 6

The emphasis is on the sameness of the fish, there is nothing to tell them apart. They are a collective. This is the part of the poem where the speaker's close study begins to pay dividends. There is a gradual realization that these mackerel are identical individuals. Beautiful but all the same.

Stanza 7

And this idea is taken further as the speaker relates the fish to an archetypal soul, mackerel soul, a spiritual soul (beyond evolution?) from which each one is perfection on display.

Stanza 8

Note the reference to heaven, implying what? Something spiritual, no doubt—an essence of mackerel from the metaphysical realm. And the speaker tries to qualify this thought by introducing another life—a lifetime—is it of the fish or something or someone else?

Stanza 9

This someone or something has spent their whole life creating 'enameling' (a craft where finely powdered glass is heated until it becomes a shiny coating) - and this someone is a jeweller, the creator of all these patterned fish, and many others.

Stanza 10

All of these fish are fabulous, each one equal in the mind of the jeweller. And note how in this tenth stanza the speaker now turns the subject on its head. How about the human being able to 'iridesce?'

Stanza 11

Now the speaker is suggesting that we humans could become like the mackerel on display, lost to the collective, lost in their shimmer (which is to shine so that light appears to shake). How would humans react to such an idea? The reader is being challenged on a theoretical level, questioned about one's place as an individual in the universe.

Stanza 12

Or would humans prefer to be uniquely themselves, not a copy, but still becoming lost? Perhaps this is being lost in the sense of not having the group identity?

Stanza 13

The mackerel though are naturally at home in a multitude. They can be at their flashing best as members of the soul of the shoal. And the speaker is returning to the actual display, noting how the fish, despite being on ice on a counter, appear active.

Stanza 14

It's as if they've been captured afresh, frozen in the act of moving forward through the sea (stasis is stability or equilibrium). Death means nothing to them, the cold hardly affects them.

Stanza 15

And because they have no qualms about death, ipso facto they had no qualms about life? They were part of the great shoal, being in it meant everything, there was no individuality as a human might know it.

Stanza 16

The mackerel learnt togetherness in their vast shoals, their collective spectrum, as natural as a rainbow. Their language lives in the plural, in the many, and yet...

Stanza 17

A shoal is still made up of individual fish. For all this, the mackerel on display seem to have happily given themselves up for the sake of their own species, as if they were a team sacrificed for the way they give expression to the shining light.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey


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