Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell

Fish Stories. Mary Cresswell (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2015). ISBN 9781927145661. RRP $25. 131pp.

Reviewed by Maia Armistead


Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell is an intricately structured collection of poems, and a thorough meditation on the ghazal form, which originates in Arabic poetry. There are many threads running through Cresswell’s book — the threat of natural disaster looms large, niche allusions to literature and poetry tie the sweeping landscape back to the familiar, and a myriad of voices make themselves heard as Cresswell travels back through time and history. Above all this is an overarching theme of memory, and the cosmic question: ‘Can I laugh again, remembering where I’ve been?’ (“Blowing in the Wind”).

Cresswell experiments with rhyme and repetition in Fish Stories, but despite the technicality of her poems, her writing remain accessible and almost universal in their messages. Among Cresswell’s engaging use of rhythm and rhyme, there are moments of extreme clarity where the wild, panoramic gaze of her poetry hones in on the intimate and the human. In “The Length of Long Days”, Cresswell writes

I see in my blind spot
Just for a moment, the huge and lethal
Bearing down upon me, silent as always.

While Fish Stories is, on a basic level, a study of one poetic form — when you press your face to the glass, it is a study of these universal feelings, and the intolerable weight of ‘the huge and lethal’ always bearing down on us.

The burden of memory is a recurring idea in Fish Stories, and Cresswell’s poems analyse both its permanence and its mutability. Cresswell writes:

I want
To meet my past, but not
Accuse it of ever
Looking familiar.
(“Lost in Space”)

Many of the poems are told through the lens of memory, with the poetry focusing less on narrative and more on introspection and reflecting on the past. Reading Fish Stories feels like glimpse at snapshots of a life; a fishing trip, a playground at night, a circus, all softened by nostalgia. Cresswell tells us these stories in an intimate way, made even more personal by niche allusions to a wide range of literature and poetry, ranging from Dostoevsky to Shakespeare.

I highly recommend Fish Stories by Mary Cresswell. It’s accessible and not too abstract, meaning that it can be understood by those new to poetry. Cresswell’s experiments with form and language also make it a genuinely enjoyable read. All the aforementioned details turn Fish Stories into a tightly woven tapestry, with something new and exciting to be discovered in each and every line.

Maia Armistead is a year 13 student from Hamilton. She loves music and books, and can probably be found listening to Joni Mitchell or obsessively reading in order to fulfil her 2020 challenge to finish 50 books.

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