The Milkfish Gatherers

James Fenton

To G.L.

The sea sounds insincere
Giving and taking with one hand.
It stopped a river here last month
Filling its mouth with sand.

They drag the shallows for the milkfish fry –
Two eyes on a glass noodle, nothing more.
Roused by his vigilant young wife
The drowsy stevedore

Comes running barefoot past the swamp
To meet a load of wood.
The yellow peaked cap, the patched pink shorts
Seem to be all his worldly goods.

The nipa booths along the coast
Protect the milkfish gatherers’ rights.
Nothing goes unobserved. My good custodian
Sprawls in the deckchair through the night.

Take care, he says, take care.
Not everybody is a friend.
And so he makes my life more private still –
A privacy on which he will attend.

But the dogs are sly with the garbage
And the cats ruthless, even with sliced bread,
As the terns are ruthless among the shoals.
Men watch the terns, then give the boat its head

Dragging a wide arc through the blue,
Trailing their lines,
Cutting the engine out
At the first sign.

A hundred feet away
Something of value struggles not to die.
It will sell for a dollar a kilo.
It weighs two kilos on the line – a prize.

And the hulls fill with a fortune
And the improbable colours of the sea
But the spine lives when the brain dies
In a convulsive misery.

Rummagers of inlets, scourers of the deep,
Dynamite men, their bottles crammed with wicks,
They named the sea’s inhabitants with style –
The Slapped Vagina Fish, the Horse’s Dick.

Polillo ‘melts’ means it is far away –
The smoking island plumed with slash and burn.
And from its shore, busy with hermit crabs,
Look to Luzon. Infanta melts in turn.

The setting sun behind the Sierra Madre
Projects a sharp blue line across the sky
And in the eastern glow beyond Polillo
It looks as if another sun might rise –

As if there were no night,
Only a brother evening and a dawn.
No night! No death! How would these people live?
How would the pressure-lanterns lure the prawns?

Nothing of value has arrived all day –
No timber, no rattan. Now, after dark,
The news comes from the sea. They crowd the beach
And prime a lantern, waiting for the shark.

The young receive the gills, which they will cook.
The massive liver wallows on the shore,
And a shark’s teeth look like a row of sharks
Advancing along a jaw.

Alone again by spirit light
I notice something happening on a post.
Something has burst its skin and now it hangs,
Hangs for dear life onto its fine brown ghost.

Clinging exhausted to its former self,
Its head flung back as if to watch the moon,
The blue-green veins pulsing along its wing,
The thing unwraps itself, but falls too soon.

The ants are tiny and their work is swift –
The insect-shark is washed up on their land –
While the sea sounds insincere,
Giving and taking with one hand.

At dawn along the seashore come
The milkfish gatherers, human fry.
A white polythene bowl
Is what you need to sort the milkfish by.

For a hatched fish is a pair of eyes –
There is nothing more to see.
But the spine lives when the brain dies
In a convulsive misery.