When I lived in LA, I had a Betta fish that could predict earthquakes. No kidding. Right before the Earth shook, he’d start banging his head against the glass so hard it would wake me up. I don’t know if it was a warning or just his own reaction; he was always a rather strange fish. When I went to the pet store to pick out a Betta, I chose him because he looked like he needed some help. His fins were straggly, and he just didn’t seem happy. I brought him home and named him Rothko, because he looked like Mark Rothko’s painting, “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue),” 1968.
Rothko often tilted in his bowl, which is never a good sign for a fish. I bought him medicine; I gave him special food. Finally, I thought that he might need some privacy, so I bought him a castle. Unfortunately, the little fella got stuck in one of the tunnels, and I came home to a most unpleasant situation. (On a side note, I’m not sure I should have fish. After Rothko’s tragic, and possibly self-inflicted, demise, my brother gave me his red-striped goldfish, Killer, because it kept eating his other fish. Well, I happily gave Killer his own bowl. He was a feisty fish, which I appreciated, but he did not understand his own bodily limitations. One Sunday, I came back from a weekend away, and Killer had cleared the bowl! He had launched himself with such a stunning will to achieve that it took me a while to find his body.)
“To An Ailment” is a two-stanza poem that begins with a harshly worded explanation about why Betta fish need their own bowls. Even their reflection in the glass can ignite rage, if they think they are encountering another fish: “When Betta fish see themselves, / they get so pissed off / that they beat their brains out.”
The second stanza serves as a philosophy on anger that incorporates the image of the fish: “Glass bowls are slick and / cold like fish, but are not / fish. Anger is an emery board, / two-sided and portable.” What only seems a threat—the reflection of the other fish—is enough to cause Bettas to destroy themselves. Contrasting this drastic example of the way that anger can destroy, the image of the emery board depicts anger’s subtle influence. Anger has no smooth side, just as the emery board is rough on one side and rougher on the other. Although the fish is trapped in the bowl, attacking its own image, the emery board is “portable,” and the reader is left to imagine the destruction that subtle anger can cause, when it’s small enough to fit in your pocket.
This week’s poem is short and sweet, like the life of the prophetic, if not unstable, Rothko the fish!
To read “To An Ailment,” click here.
For the audio version, click here or below.
Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue)” 1968