Dag Straumsvåg is criminally under appreciated. You can’t blame Poetry International for that, however. We ran three of his poems in the Translation section of Poetry International #11. Furthermore, we reviewed A Bumpy Ride to the Slaughterhouse (Red Dragonfly Press), the lovely volume those poems were taken from, in Poetry International #12. Now we’re reprinting “The Codfish” along with a commentary from Renee Lorion.
Despite what marine biologists say, the codfish is not all that ravenous or tough. It doesn’t devour everything that comes in its way, and it doesn’t like desolate waters any more than the next fish. For thousands of years, it’s patrolled the seams between cold and warm ocean currents and, rather recently, showed the Europeans the way to America. The trouble is the codfish can’t remember a thing. It might swim to Labrador or Lofoton for twenty straight years, and not recognize any of it. On good days, its memory lasts maybe three seconds. Say, is that a herring or a lure? When mistaken, it won’t put up a fight; it won’t even try to slip off the hook. It’s had enough and will throw in the towel. Life’s just not fair. Or is it? The codfish really can’t remember.
Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin and Dag T. Straumsvag.
The Codfish, like many of Straumsvåg’s poems in A Bumpy Ride to the Slaughterhouse, is a kind of sideways trip through nature. Animals are anthropomorphized, given voices and feelings, while humans act on animal instincts. This interchange is weird and hilarious, oddly accurate
“Despite what marine biologists say, the codfish is not all that ravenous or tough.”
We enter with a reminder that nature is beyond our understanding, mystical. It behaves in ways we want to compartmentalize and study, but ultimately our viewpoints are limited, colored by our human experience. The codfish is tied to our collective history, “showed the Europeans the way to America,” and then we learn the trouble: the codfish doesn’t know how far it’s traveled, doesn’t remember the trip. It moves by internal memory, by instinct. It follows food and transitional waters, a set of minute-by-minute decisions. Swallowing the lure, it gives up. What’s the point in fighting? It can’t remember what came before the sudden pain in its mouth, it doesn’t need to learn from its experiences. The codfish really lives for the moment. One minute it’s breathing and the next it’s not.
“Life’s just not fair.” Justice here is a human idea. The codfish isn’t one to judge.
Humans can be ravenous and tough, can devour everything that comes in their path, but most of the time we aren’t, we don’t. It would be nice, sometimes, to only remember the last three seconds: Who are these people? Why am I in a bad mood? What smells so good? But we evolved with a much longer memory; we are fixated on the past, and either daydream about or dread the uncertain future. Life has demonstrated to us that it is mostly not fair. But maybe that’s the reason we do try to slip the hooks we swallow. These poems tend to bring civilization around into a confrontation with nature, with barbarism, with instinct. The result is humor, truth, and searing bursts of poetic energy on the page.