Published on Academy of American Poets (

For Telly the Fish

Telly’s favorite artist was Alice Neel.
When he first came to my house,
I propped up her bright yellow shade with open
window & a vase of flowers (postcard size)
behind his first fish bowl. I thought
it might give him something
to look at, like the center
of a house you keep coming
back to, a hearth, a root
for your eye. It was a
wondering in me that came up with that
thought, a kind of empathy
across my air & through his
water, maybe the first
word I cast out between us
in case he could
hear. Telly would stare at that painting
for hours, hanging there with his glassy
eyes wide
open. At night he wanted the
bottom, as if it were a warm
bed, he’d lay there
sort of dreaming, his eyes
gray & dim &
thoughtless. For months he came back
to her, the way a critic or lover
can build a whole
life on the study of one
great work. I don’t know why
he stopped, maybe it was when
he first noticed
me, the face above my hand
feeding for, sometimes, when I’d set the food
on top, he’d still watch me, eye
to eye, as if saying, food
isn’t enough. Once, when I
bent, he jumped up out of the water & kissed
my lips. What is a fish’s kiss like?
You’d think it would be
cold, slimy, but it was
quick, nippy, hard. Maybe it was just
what I expected. For all
our fears of
touch, it takes so long
to learn how to take in.

When he stopped coming
to the top, I guess I did all the wrong
things—the fish medicine
that smelled, measured
carefully for his ounce of weight—
for his gills worked
so hard & he lay still,
tipped over slightly
like a dead boat.
How do you stop the hurt
of having to breathe?

After, I took him to the middle of the
yellow bridge right near the
Andy Warhol museum—
I had put a paper towel
in a painted egg & laid him in it—
&, at the top,
I opened the casket & emptied him out
into the water.


From The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) by Toi Derricotte. Copyright @2011 by Toi Derricotte. Used with permission of the author.


Toi Derricotte

The author of several books of poetry, Toi Derricotte is cofounder of Cave Canem, a national poetry organization committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017.

Date Published: 2011-10-24

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