“The Eel,” The New Yorker September 15, 2008
The eel is known as one slippery fish; Clifton’s poem is very eely for this reason. It’s a weird, elusive piece that, just as I think I’ve gripped it, wriggles free via a couple of early twists.
The title, “The Eel,” would seem to indicate the poem’s subject as so often a simple noun title does. And, the first couplet falls right in line: “In the crowded yard, in the oily blue smoke / Of an eel supper, the eel looks on.” We’re at a barbeque, perhaps, enjoying (what I understand is) a delicacy. Strangely, “the eel looks on,” as though looking past this little backyard dilemma. I imagine its empty eye staring up at the mad human about to ingest it. I imagine it staring into space from its metaphysical, after-death limbo, completely removed from the macabre scene. On first glance, the couplet fits the title well: we’re talking about an eel dinner here. On a closer look, we can see this ain’t no ordinary eel.
In case the initial oddness goes unnoticed, the second couplet makes a quick turn to catch our attention. Grammatically, the subject is the eel thus far, so the He in “He is home for summer” grammatically refers back to it—the eel is the antecedent. But it’s strange to suggest the eel has been gone and returns now for a summer respite, the summer break between college semesters or something. American and European eels do migrate, but from what I can tell the summer months are not particularly marked months in their cycles. They spawn in the fall, leaving freshwater for the marine waters of the Sargasso Sea. According to Wikipedia, the American eel may leave rivers and streams as early as July, but in Clifton’s poem, it seems they are returning to the world of freshwater, not leaving it. What’s more, the rest of the poem really has less to do with the eel as a species than it does with it as an arbitrary symbol. Replace the word with another animal, and likely little in the way of references to eel biology will be lost. So, though grammatically the “He” is the eel, thematically the word just doesn’t work that way. “He” is not the eel. And the poem’s more interesting for it.
After we learn He is home for summer, we learn She is, too, and now the narrative in Clifton’s tight, little lyric really opens up: “Metamorhphosising . . . Androgynous . . . slipping in and out / Of the local, the universal . . . the lifelong shedding of skins.” Clearly, this poem has become about sex, both its beauty and its indifference, even—if you don’t like eels—its grossness. The words are well-lubed innuendos for the common ground under all living creatures. And, in it’s this idea of reproduction that the poem turns full circle. In the opening couplet, we witness the final moments of the eel; it’s already dead, about to be devoured. In the last, we witness “the lifelong shedding of skins”; we wonder of the infinite progression of life, not just eel life or human life, but life force. Continual rejuvenation.
So, the poem’s central tension seems to be the conflict between life and death. This isn’t a matter of good and evil, mind you, and Clifton doesn’t seem to pass judgment. Simply the poem says, on the one hand . . . . but on the other . . . . Even the Bible, that quintessential life-saving and life-taking device—is invoked as the “Book of the Eel.” I wonder, if we read it and promote it, how many lives will be lost in our pursuit of its—and our—eternal longevity. Perhaps there is something, after all, to be learned from the non-existent desires and existential battles of the eel.