Last week I heard I heard Krista Tippett interview the oceanographer  Sylvia Earle. Earle was given the nickname Her Deepness because she was the first person to walk solo on the bottom of the sea.

Her Deepness talked about revelation: the wonder of the phosphorescent world beneath the sea. And she talked about conservation: the need to preserve the diversity of the ocean.

One morsel that stayed with me was her comment that every fish looks different. I take it for granted that every human, cat or dog looks unique. It is surprising and wonderful that this is true for fish as well. She recommended meeting fish in places other than your dinner plate.

Here are some fish by Bilibin:

The Underwater Kingdom

A snipefish from Leonard Baskin:

From Saito Shoshu:

from Matthaus Merian:
Deborah Mersky drew this with gall ink that she made from an oak tree:
Deborah Mersky
and here is a Merskmaid from many years ago.
Deborah Mersky Mermaid
 I’ve been thinking about creatures of the sea all week. How do these undersea thoughts relate to creating children’s books? Maybe in some way, maybe not at all: I don’t know yet.

Here is a poem by Stephen Spender.

The Word

The word bites like a fish.

Shall I throw it back free

arrowing to the sea

where thoughts lash tail and fin?

Or shall I pull it in

to rhyme upon a dish?

14 responses to “Undersea

  1. So many great tidbits in this post! I love the nickname “Her Deepness.” And how neat that Deborah Mersky made her own ink from an oak tree; maybe we should call her fish the “acorn fish”? A fat-lipped, fan-finned fish was one of the first things that I felt confident drawing–I think drawing fish is a good art exercise for kids.

  2. Beautiful post, Julie.

    This poem by Elizabeth Bishop could have been written for you.

    The Fish

    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 and barnacles,
    fine rosettes of lime,
    and infested
    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.

  3. Julie Paschkis

    This poem is new to me. I love the mixture of beauty and ugliness in the language and imagery. Thanks for posting it.

  4. What a great hit of glory for a Friday morning.

  5. What a great hit of glory for a Friday morning.

  6. Julie, what wonderful images! And I love your wondering at the end whether something you hear and think about for awhile will make an appearance in your writing at a certain point. We never know, do we? That’s why curiosity about the world is so important – so we can store what we see and learn until it’s ready!

    I have a favorite fish poem which goes the other direction about individuality – In “A Display of Mackerels,” Mark Doty wonders the “mulitudinous” nature of that particular fish:

    Suppose we could iridesce,
    like these, and lose ourselves
    entirely in the universe
    of shimmer–would you want

    to be yourself only….?

    Doty talks about this poem in his essay “Souls on Ice” – here’s a link (the poem is there, too) in case anyone wants to read it:

    Thanks for another beautiful post.

    Julie L.

  7. So much good stuff here.

    Have you seen Claire A. Nivola’s recent picture book biography of Earle?

  8. I love this post, Julie. I shared it on FB, noting that it connects to some thinking we’ve been doing in my class recently. Two oceanographer parents gave a talk on their work a few weeks ago and yesterday a parent led a phytoplankton art project. Revelation indeed. I love your painting!

  9. lana sundberg


  10. Julie Paschkis

    My friend Yori sent this fish poem to add to the stream…

    Moving Forward

    The deep parts of my life pour onward,
    as if the river shores were opening out.
    It seems that things are more like me now,
    That I can see farther into paintings.
    I feel closer to what language can’t reach.
    With my senses, as with birds, I climb
    into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
    in the ponds broken off from the sky
    my falling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

    rainier marie rilke

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