blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Tapping the Glass: On Poems, Aquariums, and Form
One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion
—Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”

The volunteer at the Georgia Aquarium recites his catechism in a tinny, miked voice: Who can tell me what makes a mammal a mammal? I train my eyes upon the tank—nearly two stories high and just about as wide, a massive field of blue. Dull white, textured with moony gray pockmarks, beluga whales float in the color, reflecting it without absorbing it. It’s a religious blue, a Virgin Mary blue. I see the characteristic smiles of the whales, unwavering benevolences that counteract the aesthetic chilliness of all the blue and white. Giant klieg lights set above the tank pour celestial shafts into the water, creating a grove of illumined columns the whales swim in and out of, as if they were choosing from a series of available annunciations. The children directly in front of the tank are kneeling.


From childhood, I’ve been transfixed by poems and aquariums alike—I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t gazing deeply into one or the other. Aquariums’ darkened galleries, voyeuristic tunnels, and slowly drifting fish bodies make for intimate, cerebral spaces. We move through mysterious galleries and have our wayward thoughts thrown back to us in flashes of silver, again and again. Poetry’s use of lineation and juxtaposition similarly steers the mind deeper into interior, unconscious territories. The forms of prose are designed to recede entirely into the background so that their narratives may remain in the foreground. By contrast, the forms of poetry are meant to charm, tease, and occasionally confound their readers. In poetry, “form” implies containment. It encompasses the battle between white space and type, patterns and arbitrariness, rigidity and spontaneity. It’s the ego negotiating between the superego of craft and the id of improvisation. And form is at its best when it is revelatory, when it illuminates its interplay with poetic content. It’s not unlike the small tank where what you thought was a piece of a coral fan turns out to be a mantis shrimp. A rock you initially overlooked is a snoozing eel.


British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse was the first person to codify and promote the term “aquarium” to describe the confinement of aquatic animal and plant life to glass tanks for observation, specifically through his best-selling 1854 book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea (Brunner 2011, 39). But consider this: in the years before the publication of The Aquarium, Gosse became deeply involved with a Christian sect, the Plymouth Brethren, which forbade “reading novels or poems as well as going to the theater or singing temporal songs” (41). Is it any wonder, then, that Gosse would develop an obsessive relationship with the ornamentations and dramas of the creatures of the coastal ocean, and turn this into an evangelical mission to popularize the home aquarium? His son describes the routine of Gosse’s early study of British marine life, a constant genuflection to the sea:

He was accustomed every day at low tide . . . to go down to the shore, and for several hours before and after the lowest moment to examine the weedy rocks, the loose flat stones under which molluscs and crustaceans lurked, the shallow tidal pools, and the dripping walls of the small fissures and caverns. . . . After some hours of severe labour, he would tramp home with his treasures, arrange them in dishes and vases with fresh sea-water, and then proceed to a scientific examination of what was unique or novel. (E. Gosse 1890, 241)

Imagine you were forbidden War and Peace, Beloved, “Wild nights—Wild nights!,” “Those Winter Sundays,” Hamlet, and Prince. Wouldn’t you, too, turn to the movement of the lionfish, whose florid contours and supple spines seem a riot of creative spontaneity? Could you channel your excitement for the revelation of an acrostic or Golden Shovel into the sight of a flatfish almost perfectly blended in with the ocean floor? Could looking into those artfully lit tanks, their carefully curated kelp and worms, replace the anticipatory hush of the curtain’s rise? Could stroking the sticky, clasping tentacles of an anemone in a touch pool stand in for the erotic first stroke of a newly opened title page? Could the form of the aquarium, in its galleries and grottos, stand in for the arts’ implicit promise: we are here to thrill you?


We go to poetry for how it dislodges us from our complacency with language, just as we go to aquariums to be dislodged from the predictability of our terrestrial element. Amy Lowell’s “An Aquarium” exemplifies the sensual, strategic Imagist aesthetics for which she is best known. It is the fifth and final section of the sequence “Towns in Colour,” the last poem of her 1916 book Men, Women and Ghosts. The sections of “Towns in Colour” take as their subjects different sites of commonplace yet arresting public urban display, such as the sight of “the row of white, sparkling shop fronts . . . gashed and bleeding, it bleeds red slippers,” or the “big room [that] is coloured like the petals / Of a great magnolia, / And has a patina / Of flower bloom / Which makes it shine dimly / Under the electric lamps.”

The majority of “An Aquarium” unspools down the page in a single, narrow-columned stanza, and is rendered in the kind of vivid strokes one might associate with the interiors of Matisse. The denizens of the tank, or tanks, are “Silver shiftings,” “Grey-green opaqueness sliding down,” and “Sunshine playing between red and black flowers / On a blue and gold lawn.” There is little narrative drama to distract us beyond “a sudden swift straightening / And darting below” midpoem; the image-heavy phrases and the short lines keep the reader’s attention narrowed and focused, like the contraction of a keyhole. The real surprise of Lowell’s use of form, though, comes in the short coda that concludes the poem, the sequence, and the book. After the previous stanza in which the reader is completely immersed in the movements and interplay of fish, light, and shadow, the poem’s gaze abruptly breaks and shifts:

A willow-tree flickers
With little white jerks,
And long blue waves
Rise steadily beyond the outer islands.

The description may seem understated, particularly in comparison with the showiness of the fish we’ve been observing, but the shift in perception is vast. Suddenly, we are looking beyond the tank, beyond the window, and even beyond the city, across the vastness the sea—and this move is contained in the poem’s smallest stanza-tank. The poem has taken us through a kind of odd, refractive journey in which we have stared deeply into the urban aquarium’s captured wildness, perhaps as a means of escaping the city, only to have our point of view vaulted, as if by catapult, beyond the city, beyond dry land, out into the unexplored regions of the ocean. We moved from city street to aquarium building to aquarium room to aquarium tank, as if purely for the sake of this brief, transcendent journey back into unexplored, unconquered space. Thus we see one of the great ironies of the aquarium’s form: we often use it to imprison the nonhuman with the hopes of escaping the confinements of our own human context. Even more, the aquarium takes the massive, the alien, and shrinks it down to a manageable, human-sized scale. And what better way to describe the function of poetry?


Compared with the sprawling audacities of its coastal American counterparts in places like Boston, Baltimore, and Monterey, the aquarium in San Sebastián, Spain, founded in 1928, is modest. Aesthetically, it’s of a piece with the tasteful elegance of this Old World seaside resort city—the stately boardwalk of the La Concha promenade, the scrupulously maintained gardens of its plazas, the grandly ornamented María Cristina Bridge spanning the Urumea River.

In a subterranean, sparsely attended exhibit, I sit on carpeted risers in front of the wide glass. Moray eels cut slow, grim paths through the frivolous carnival crowds of the other fishes like doomsday priests. Through the low-ceilinged corridors, the racket of the school groups is approaching. It’s a sound that’s likely the same in all languages—the high-pitched, exuberant traffic of young voices, punctuated with the alternately cajoling and sharp reprimands of the teachers and chaperones shepherding them. Then the sound changes. Not abruptly or uniformly—a slight shift in a current. One of the children has started singing. Another child picks up the song, and another and another, until dozens of voices are carrying it. The tune is unfamiliar. The language could be Spanish, Basque, French, or something else entirely. No words or meaning, only the music itself. Sometimes it has a folk song quality, sometimes it’s like a hymn. It sweetly drifts, keeping time with the blue, unhurried cadence of the fish.

The indecipherable, affecting song of the children makes me think of how the sonics of a poem can work on us in such subtle but profound ways. Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel” lavishes its visual attention upon the repetitive, coruscating shapes of the fish laid out on the supermarket’s ice, stilled in death, yet still lively to the eye. Yet the poem’s sonic life makes us see the fish with our ears, so to speak—the vowels and consonants of successive words throughout flash and reflect one another, as in “Iridescent, watery / prismatics,” “oily fabulation,” “unduplicatable, doomed,” and, most literally, “all, all for all.” In the last stanza, by the time we reach the poem’s final word, “gleaming” (a visual signifier), its vowel sound has already been forecast by “seem,” “even,” and “be.” That “gleaming” becomes both echo and inevitability. Our experience of the fish, as Doty has orchestrated it, is as much musical as it is visual. Though I went to the aquarium in San Sebastián to abandon myself to the act of seeing, to become, as Ralph Waldo Emerson calls it, the “transparent eyeball,” my visual memory of the place is heightened and transformed by how it is overlaid by the children’s wayward, spontaneous song.


The painter Helen Frankenthaler says, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. . . . though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and your heart . . . and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.” In a really good poem, we are not seeing the “over-labored efforts” that made the work possible; when we read “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, we’re not conscious of the sixteen drafts which preceded its completion, nor are we conscious of the twenty-odd years which lay between the beginning of the composition of “The Moose” and its end. The glass disappears—we see only the sleek, scaled shape swimming past.

Technological improvement accounted for the late twentieth century’s rise of aquariums, providing “the ability to maintain crystal-clear water and the ability to display huge aquatic vistas without obstructions” (Kisling 2000, 41). And what is artistic craft but the technology of invisibility? Poetic form, too, relies on invisibility. As much as we are conscious of the chimes and repetition of the villanelle, when it is truly successful, we are forgetting its form as well. One can spot a sonnet simply by how it lies on the page, and yet the great ones momentarily make the essence of their form disappear, render their rhymes and meter invisible. The constriction of its form is a hypnosis, lulling the reader into an unconscious state that allows the beauty and truth of the poem to penetrate more fully. Such is the paradox of poetic form: at its best, it manifests to fuel its own vanishing.


Like Lowell’s “An Aquarium,” Pimone Triplett’s “Narcissus and the Aquarium Guide” also makes use of the long, short-lined single stanza. Here, we are in the realm of the contemporary public aquarium; where the human presence is implicit in Lowell’s poem, it is speaker and subject here, and almost naggingly present in the lines “crowds / And hours, children screeching, / More time at the touch pool.” And something in the shortest lines suggests a kind of nipped-in quality, like a woman in a too-tightly-laced corset. They make one subconsciously gasp for air. Even the first sentence of the poem squeezes its reader with disordered, near-Shakepearean syntax:

Truth to tell, he was for floods
Of love long due, since lapped
At him always the model lake’s
Waves in verge, arriving
Whipstitched, bent
With hunger. . . .

The reader flails a bit in the language before catching hold of the grammar; if reading the poem out loud, you might be initially unsure of where to space the breaths to negotiate that sentence. And here, in a poem spoken by an aquarium guide whose day is defined by the audible gasps of the guests—adults and children alike—and the ceaseless, visual gasps of the fish swim-pacing their tanks, we enter its space by gasping as well. The next sentence reveals that the speaker, too, is gasping: “I saw him first / At noon.” You can’t help but grin at the wit of that jealous enjambment: I saw him first! And the short, simply constructed sentence sets up the real terms of poem: love (or lust) at first sight.

The poem proceeds with the guide describing his1 desire for the Narcissus figure, intensifying with his returning visits to gaze into the tank—until the time comes when the man does not return, and the speaker is bereft. The poem concludes at “day’s end” at that cacophonous touch pool:

I tried to teach how it takes
One anemone, splitting,
Asexual, some real work,
To get up, walk away from itself.

It is in these last lines that the pathos of Triplett’s form truly makes itself known. The poem has come to us in a single stanza—unsplit, so to speak, enacting the tragedy of the speaker’s situation. He could not “split” himself from his vision of this man who, unlike Narcissus, succeeds in tearing himself away from the vision in the aquarium that so enchanted him. The guide is left with surfaces that no longer reflect the face of his beloved—only his own. One could argue that the mythic Narcissus with which we are familiar makes the safer choice: to fall in love with one’s own reflection means one can never be abandoned.

1 The gender of the speaker remains unspecified in the poem. However, I believe the narrative is more resonant if the speaker is male: as Narcissus fell in love with his own male reflection, the speaker, too, “mirrors” Narcissus’s actions by falling in love with another man.


Before I even join the line at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium, I’m hustled in front of a green screen, where I’ll be photoshopped against undersea backgrounds and given the option of purchasing the photos at the end of my visit. Other screens apprise me of the day’s feeding times, as well as my opportunities for photo ops with grinning, fish-tailed nubiles called the “Mystic Mermaids.” After purchasing my ticket, I take the escalator to the exhibits through a giant, open shark’s mouth. I’m ferried up through a tunnel-like structure arched with metal bands meant to suggest the animal’s ribs—which sharks do not, in fact, have—that are ornamented with lights. At the top, presumably, I am shark-shat out.

I try to be good-humored about the aggressive commercialism of the Downtown Aquarium. The signage is garish, and burbling sound effects and music are pumped in everywhere—even the restrooms. The nadir of the aesthetic is the animatronic orangutan in its “Rainforests of the World” exhibit. But it’s the small giant Pacific octopus—one of the most animated specimens I’ve ever seen—that wins me over. I watch her push herself against the walls of her tank and shoot herself across its length like a fleshy parachute. She flings her arms around a clump of kelp with romantic abandon. Her caregiver tells me her name is Jackie, and that she’s been with them six months. He’s plainly fond of her energy, too, and can’t keep the admiration out of his voice when he tells me, “She’ll siphon the heck out of you—she’ll get you from a few feet away!”

I’m reminded of another octopus who “got me,” and changed the course of my poetry. I’d gone to the Tennessee Aquarium in 2005 with my family, excited to see the new exhibit of sea horses and weedy sea dragons. Yet as I turned the corner, I caught sight of an octopus with its entire underside sprawled against the glass in an audacious and showy display. I stood before the tank in a kind of reverie, all thoughts of sea horses abandoned. The memory of the episode nagged at me for a couple of years. Eventually, from this single encounter grew one poem, and then another, and another, eventually becoming my second book, The Octopus Game. And this, really, is the macrocosmic version of how poetry works for me: something in the world suddenly shocks me out of my assumptions and carefully constructed plans, and the encounter pesters me until I write about it. The poem, in other words, becomes a place to re-immerse in the original moment of disruption. But in a larger sense, doesn’t the drafting process reflect our desire to reconnect with the moment when we first “woke up” to poetry? I think of Philip Henry Gosse tirelessly picking his way through the low tide of the British seacoast, seeking out those specimens that would doubtlessly unconsciously transport him to his original moment of falling in love with the sea. And in his intense study of these specimens in his tanks at home, he summons something new out of the old urge that drew him to the water. And so we have poetry in a nutshell (clamshell?): the compulsion to reconnect with the primal poetic moment, which leads to an obsessive immersion in language, which in turn engenders something utterly new.


The aquarium in Nick Flynn’s “Aquarium” seems more like a subject of conceptual video art—we are asked to imagine that we are “unable to see this aquarium [tank] directly,” and that we are watching it elsewhere on a remote screen via two cameras set up to film the single fish in it. It is as though the fish has been divided into the “real” fish and the “filmed” fish, and the filmed fish is further subdivided by the two cameras. The language of the poem, too, seems to split and echo over the first eleven lines: “Is it a clown fish? / A clown fish? Sure, a clown fish”; “it is in / another room & you don’t know where that room / is. You are in your own room . . .”; “a box within a box, a glass / within a glass.” The poem then leaps backward into a memory of youth, the speaker reminiscing about how “we” would fool around in parked cars with girls named “Mary & Mary.”

Interestingly enough, the form of Flynn’s poem seems to work against these echoes and mirrors. The poem is rendered in medium-length lines, but shorter, truncated lines are scattered throughout the poem—eight in total. The first four are right justified, the last are left justified. It is as though these fragments are reaching across physical and conceptual space to one another, longing to be complete, always failing. The isolation of these truncated lines seems to countermand the sense of familiarity one might derive from a reflection or an echo; they are consigned to remain unmet and unanswered.

The speaker directs us out of the memory of youth and back to the filmed fish in its tank by instructing us to “remember that / aquarium”; the imagined aquarium has now become memory, too. In the last eleven lines of the poem, we experience a blurring between our imagined voyeurism, the memory of the Marys, and our consciousness of selfhood:

One fish swims

inside its tiny ocean—Mary smiles at Mary, not
at me. We think this world must be broken into

fragments, we think memories are dispersed
throughout the brain & that the brain itself is


We think we began from a bang, but the bang never
stopped. Mary watches

Mary, waiting to see what will happen—the night
has to end somewhere. Communion. Communion

is the word.

With the twice-invoked “Communion,” Flynn leaves us with a final echo. Here, communion is not something which has happened, but something we wait for. Our fragmented selves and memories long to be drawn together in it. Even in this “Catholic town” with its double Marys in parked cars, the communion longed for is less religious and more existential—a longing for a feeling of wholeness that never, in this poem, quite arrives, but is anticipated, hoped for. The poem ends on its final fragment of a line, the word “word” reaching out into the expanse of the blank page, the infinite, empty tank.


In an interview about his collaborative aquarium photography project with his wife, Diane Cook, the landscape photographer Len Jenshel observes that while we tend to identify with and project ourselves upon the animals in zoos, “in an aquarium . . . you don’t identify with fish or even jellyfish as other individuals, as other subjects or other selves like oneself. Rather, the way you identify with them is almost as thoughts.” And later, he describes the dark, collective experience of the aquarium as a kind of “public dream” (104, 106). At the Georgia Aquarium, I learned that those holy belugas—all belugas, really, as well as other whales and dolphin species—engage in “unihemispheric sleeping.” Because they are conscious breathers, meaning that they do not breathe automatically as other mammals do, they cannot be fully immersed into an unconscious state when they sleep. When their equivalent of sleep happens, they drift in the water with only half of their brain shut off; the other half is “awake,” maintaining respiration and staying alert to potential threats. It’s something like a trance state. I like to think this is the state by which we encounter poems and aquariums alike, half of our rational selves attuned to what’s in front of us, the other half drifting, suggestively unconscious, open to wide, dimly lit dreams into which anything might swim.  


Brunner, Bernd. The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Translated by
Ashley Marc Slapp. London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2011.

Cook, Diane, and Len Jenshel. Aquarium. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2003.

Doty, Mark. Atlantis. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

Flynn, Nick. My Feelings. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015.

Gosse, Edmund. The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, by his son, Edmund Gosse. London: K. Paul,
Trench, Trübner & co., ltd., 1890.

Gosse, Philip Henry. The aquarium : an unveiling of the wonders of the deep Sea. London: J.
Van Voorst, 1856. 2d ed., rev. and enl.

Kisling, Vernon N. Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological
Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2000.

Lowell, Amy. Men, Women and Ghosts. New York: MacMillan, 1916.

Triplett, Pimone. The Price of Light. New York: Four Way Books, 2005.

return to top