On David Borrott’s ‘Aquarium with Toddler’

Aquarium with Toddler

Lit-up rectangles filled with the weird:
a baggy-headed octopus with a salad of legs;
lobsters, big-clawed, like futuristic war machines;
pinstripe and leopard print shoals.

In the giant tank the flat-bellied sharks
fly over us, swallowing the bloodless water.
Glum piranhas congregate by the bubble filter.
A ray hangs like a shirt on the line.

What happened to the infinite expanse?
Where is the push of the tide? Jellyfish
bulge and flutter like see-through hearts,
crabs fold up against the perspex.

Safe in his pushchair, Thomas sees the blue TVs,
hears the bathroom sounds, a mish-mash
wattage of fish floating past him, dancing
for his fingers, shrunk by his tapping.

 David Borrott

If I were to think of a poem featuring an aquarium, it would be Robert Lowell’s seminal ‘For the Union Dead’, which uses the faded grandeur of the South Boston Aquarium as one of several metaphors for the decline of the values for which the Union stood in the American Civil War:

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile.

But until I read David Borrott’s 2015 pamphlet Porthole, published by Smith Doorstop, I can’t remember having encountered a poem which had its primary concern the sad reality of a public aquarium. As you can see, though, Borrott’s poem ‘Aquarium with Toddler’ addresses that reality head-on and then some.

Because I took my children around a good few aquaria over the years, including the depressingly awful one in County Hall in London, I was instantly grabbed by the poem’s title. Happily, the content more than lived up to the title’s promise. For me, it’s a poem which is consistently excellent from start to finish.

The opening places the reader right into the aquarium, where the brightness of the illuminated “rectangles”, echoed later in the poem by their description as “blue TVs”, stands out against the implicit claustrophobic darkness; and where “the weird” is the stock-in-trade of the aquarium as the way to entice the punters. The darkly comical evocation of an octopus as “baggy-headed” and “with a salad of legs” somehow manages to be both precise and vague – we sort of know what Borrott means and we can’t help but admire the superb and, to start with, very funny observation of “a salad of legs”. The simile of the lobsters as “futuristic war machines” is perhaps less convincing, but nevertheless this is confident, adventurous writing. The fourth line accurately and economically portrays the patterns of the fish.

In the second stanza, the desultory existence of the creatures is laid bare, in a fashion reminiscent of Lowell’s ground-breaking poems in Life Studies. Borrott doesn’t tell us that the “giant tanks” are featureless and devoid of stimulus for the sharks and piranhas, and that no predation is permissible, but we know they are; his straightforward yet subtle descriptions do as much work through what they tell us indirectly as they do explicitly. As the cliché goes, sometimes less is more. The anthropomorphic use of “glum” works well, not just on its own terms but as a mirror image of the visitors, because the reader intuits that their reaction to what visitors see at the aquarium quickly passes from an initial wow factor of seeing mythically dangerous creatures up close and personal to one of pity and sadness at seeing them boxed up lifelessly for humans’ benefit rather than theirs. The depiction of the ray is particularly acute and fine, and again calls Lowell to mind, specifically the ending of his great poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ where the incarcerated and lobotomised gangster Czar Lepke, on Death Row, was “hanging like an oasis/ in his air of lost connections . . .” One gets the sense from Borrott that there is more life emanating from “the bubble filter” than from the sharks and fish.

The third stanza makes the point of the poem crystal clear, but in a manner which doesn’t feel like hectoring. Its questions hang for the readers to supply the obvious and more wide-reaching answers. The poet–persona’s discomfiture at being complicit in this imprisonment of our fellow inhabitants of Earth is a feeling that all of us who have ever visited an aquarium, zoo or wildlife park must have experienced. We ask ourselves whether the preservation of animals in captivity is a necessary evil in the fight against habitat loss and extinction, but we find no easy answer. The second of the questions implies that a visit to the seaside to see crabs and jellyfish in their natural surroundings would, after all more worthwhile than this unnatural attraction – but there we wouldn’t see the more exotic, non-European star species of the aquarium’s collection.

That dilemma is naturally linked to education: the more that respect for wild creatures is instilled in youngsters from an early age, the more one would hope that they will grow up to act responsibly towards them. But the last stanza of the poem seems to suggest that the aquarium provides little more than sensory overload for the toddler. Here, Borrott’s descriptive powers are, again, tremendous, with the words sounding beautifully on the ear as well as the page. The perception of the “bathroom sounds” – presumably the artificial gurgling soundtrack which aquaria often see fit to provide in order to enhance the visitor experience – is very well made; and the next clause, “a mish-mash/ wattage of fish floating past him”, is gorgeously onomatopoeic and leads, inexorably, to the child’s-eye view, of the fish being beyond the toddler’s grasp and understanding. The final image of the child doing what the unmentioned warning signs forbid encapsulates all that has gone before it: the fish are “shrunk” by Thomas’s tapping, but of course he’s not old enough to know better. The secondary, implicit meaning is that Humankind in general is demeaned by how it knowingly and immorally treats other creatures. What is surely also implicit is the (presumed) father–son relationship: that the father hopes his child will grow up to become a caring citizen. Borrott tells us that Thomas is “Safe” in the pushchair, but safe from what? Maybe it’s from the awareness that whilst the creatures on display are beautiful, seeing them reduced by their unnatural surroundings instinctively feels morally wrong.

It’s much to Borrott’s credit that he doesn’t preach, and chooses instead to show how things are, leaving us to address and pass judgement on the uncomfortable truth he exposes. His control of his material is perfect, with no wasted words and in a form whose formality suits the importance of the content. It’s a classic, which deserves to be widely anthologised and known.

Porthole, in general, is a delight, with a rich variety of subject-matter, themes and forms. I very much hope that a full collection by David Borrott will be published soon.
David Borrott, Porthole, Smith Doorstop, 2015, ISBN 978-1-910367-43-8, £7.50.
(‘Aquarium with Toddler’ quoted with kind permission of David Borrott.)

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