Becky Cherriman on the writing of 'The Flayed Fish'
Becky Cherriman writes:
As is often the way there were a few strands of thought that led to the writing of The Flayed Fish.
Way back in the days of the British Empire, an ancestor of mine set up a tannery in Leeds and the spoils from that gave him enough money to buy a big country house. Nearby, in what is now a Leeds public park, I discovered a pond which shares my grandmother’s maiden name. It turned out it belonged to the ‘family home’. A distant relative still has a taxidermised trout that was caught in it. This provoked the question in me – when it comes to taxidermy what is it we are preserving? It’s not the animality of the fish because that is gone. The profits from the tannery were spent by previous generations and the family home was handed over to the council after the war. As I was writing, I realised that the fish also spoke to the brutality of the British empire and its decay, how the way we have framed our history can no longer (given everything we know about the consequences of colonialism) remain intact.
Image by David Clay
On a more mundane note, when I wrote the first draft of the poem, I was recovering from surgery, which was probably why I had death and aging on my mind.
Formal poetry stopped being the predominant form in the early 20th Century and since then free verse has become the norm. We’ve seen a lot of big world changes recently and I think we need to be inventive with form to reflect the complexity of those changes. There seems to be a thirst for that. I’ve always written fiction as well as poetry so the hybridity of prose poetry appeals to me, although I’m fairly new to the form. When I sent The Flayed Fish to a friend for feedback, he suggested I put the poem into prose form. I looked back at my notebook and realised it had started out as prose before I crammed it into a free verse form. Since then I’ve tried the same thing with other poems, asking could this be a prose poem? In most cases it doesn’t work – the poem cries out for white space – but when you look at a successful prose poem on the page, it makes perfect sense.
Image by David Clay
The Flayed Fish (featured in The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry)
On a glass-fronted bookshelf in my great uncle’s porch there lived a 35lb carp in a frame. I say lived but of course it was dead, angled from a lake and silenced like someone whose heart is in trouble and is put in a coma to give them a chance.
Because the glass was mildewed and opaque, the fish looked to be encased in ice. It had been caught in a body of water belonging to The Family Home. My uncle was always carping on about The Family Home, which is now an ailing leisure club. The lake served as a fridge in the days before fridges and the children would skate on it in the winter.
The first time he told me the tale, I saw that underwater world of the past through his clear lens, its iridescent shock plucked out, still twitching in an attempt to escape its skin. Each time he told it, something deteriorated, imperceptible at first – its fins split and tinged in sepia as though air was getting in and colour seeping out and every time he lost the thread or I couldn’t quite catch it, he’d say, Not much point carping on.
I can’t recall the details now – the cast of the weather or what his father said but I still know where it came from and at night feel its cold still weight in my chest.