The Ugly

John Glenday

copyright ©John Glenday 2009

I love you as I love the Hatchetfish,
the Allmouth, the Angler,
the Sawbelly and Wolf-eel,
the Stoplight Loosejaw, the Fangtooth;

all our sweet bathypelagic ones,
and especially those too terrible or sly
even for Latin names; who staple
their menfolk to the vagina’s hide

like scorched purses, stiff with seed;
whom God built to trawl
endless cathedrals of darkness,
their bland eyes gaping like sores;

who would choke down hunger itself,
had it pith and gristle enough;
who carry on their foreheads
the trembling light of the world.

Notes on the Poem

Isn't it amazing what you can learn from a poem? John Glenday educates while he astonishes in his poem "The Ugly", from his 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Grain. You can't help but be drawn in right away by the opening line "I love you as I love ..." which seems a curious way to open a poem entitled "The Ugly", a title which rather sets different expectations than a tribute to any kind of love. Immediately, you are disabused of any doubts about the title. If it sparks your curiosity, you'll probably start googling (but you're advised not to, or not to click on these links if you're at all faint of heart) hatchetfish, allmouth, angler, sawbelly, wolf-eel, stoplight loosejaw and fangtooth. Oh yes, it would be fair to say this lot, if not ugly, are inarguably unforgettable once viewed. Yes indeed, we've learned a lot. What we've also learned, either by looking up and poring over the descriptions of all of these fish or by next turning to a dictionary to find a definition for "bathypelagic", is that the term describes fish and other organisms that inhabit the deep sea, where the environment is dark and cold, approximately 3,300–9,800 feet (1,000–3,000 m) below the surface. These creatures lurk in the murkiest regions, surviving and enduring and, amidst these lonely surroundings, finding like bathypelagic company. Did you notice that Glenday labels them "sweet" ...? In our reading, we've also learned that hatchetfishes "leap from the water and fly through the air, flapping their large pectoral fins, to catch flying insects". Well, wouldn't they have to travel from the deep, dark depths to the surface to do that? And what is the poem's closing lines telling us? "who carry on their foreheads the trembling light of the world." That these creatures can strive to seek and find light, to emerge from the darkness, must be Glenday's unusual but powerful depiction of the tenacity and ferocity of love. If there is any doubt that this is a love poem, listen here to Glenday's presentation of it from the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings. (We never stop learning from this poem, as Glenday reveals in his introduction that some pairs of bathypelagic fish are "attached for life.") What is the most intriguing, unlikely thing you've learned from a poem?

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