We say of a particularly wonderful person, He is a beautiful soul. Who is the
person we say this of? Someone who is loving, generous, magnanimous, humble,
and lives an examined life, perhaps?
Is every soul beautiful? There is an implied comparison in
the statement She is a beautiful soul,
and the conclusion could be that no, every soul is not beautiful. People whose
actions consistently demonstrate anger, vengeance, hatred, greed, cruelty—can
these be traits of a beautiful soul?
But I believe that every soul of every individual who has
ever lived is beautiful. Each is unique, and each is beautiful beyond
Like ships from the Black Sea that carried barnacle zebra
mussels through the St. Lawrence seaway into our Michigan waters, damaging ecosystems and water treatment
plants, people in their individual circumstances and journeys pick up bad habits that suck onto them for their life. And then the
bad habits colonize, even into generational and cultural psyches.
I think of that ugly old fish in the poem by Elizabeth
Bishop—battered, his skin hanging in strips, yellowed eyes, his lip pierced by
five hooks, still fringed with fishing line—a “beard of wisdom.” What did she
see, through staring, staring, staring at that fish? How do we recognize, in
the end, that she saw something so powerfully beautiful she could only respond in release?
We recognize it because we know that something beneath the skin and suffering and dim eyes is beautiful.
With compassion could I even see that a person clothed in ugly
hatred and vengeance is suffering, like this battered fish, who was once young and flipped so high in the air above the sparkling water?
by Elizabeth Bishop
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.