Fish Music

For Pascale Petit

He struggles into his borrowed human skin,
the one he wears for special occasions
with the sewn-in dinner jacket and polished patent feet.
He brushes off earth and other traces of night,
Smells the remnant darkness on his sleeve,
Bends back the fingers that constitute his living,
And picks up the instrument. His mother is listening
In the next room, holding her breath for him,
The breath she has been saving all her adult years.

After the skin, the fish scales. One must glitter.
One must swim through the day. He flicks his tail
This way and that. He makes the first sounds
Those scraped sighs that are the sign of his well-being.
‘I’m ready,’ he says, his eyes glassy and round.
‘I’ve got my gills on. The whole amphibian kit.’

The music begins. The sea waits by the door.
Both skin and scale are glowing. The neck he wears
Is just a little loose, he must tighten it.
The chin has worn away on his left side.
The music slops about inside his belly a while
Then creeps upward blowing through his ears
Into the room and hard against the walls.
Now he is swimming. He sees the music
Floating in the tank of the room. He must practice harder.
It is his food after all. He can feel its strands
Slip between his fingers, now silk, now knife.
It smells wholesome, of water, night and skin.

‘How does it sound?’ he asks her. ‘Like salt,’ she says,
‘Like salt and damascene.’ Her fancy talk, he thinks.

It’s not his skin, he knows that. The dinner jacket
Is of another era. Too many buttons on the waistcoat
Of the flesh. Too much blood in the fibre, none of it his.
But music too is skin. He wraps it about him.
He’s hardly there: half-fish-half-man is elsewhere,
In the bone beneath a skin that’s not his own.
Each living thing has its own element, he thinks,
And even this old skin belongs to someone.

George Szirtes