I first discovered the Bycatch project (I think that’s the right word) when I stumbled across two poems, “Pacific Seahorse” and “Shovelnose Guitarfish” in Terrain magazine where they were published. Eric Magrane and Maria Johnson are part of the 6&6 project which aims to bring scientists and artists together to portray and understand the Sonoran Desert (this is my favorite type of collaboration). Interestingly, it seems both Magrane and Johnson have science and art experience – Magrane is a geography PhD candidate and writer, Johnson is a marine conservationist and illustrator.
Magrane and Johnson traveled on a shrimp trawling boat as part of their collaboration, gathering bycatch data (all caught species that are not the target species). Several poems and illustrations came out of the collaboration, including “Shame-faced crab” (published in Zocalo Magazine and easiest to find in a blog post on the 6 and 6 website), the two published in Terrain, and “Sonora Scorpionfish” published in Coordinates Society.
These poems are addressed to the bycatch and are accompanied with detailed illustrations that use dots to imply shading and patterns. I feel as though Johnson deliberately chose this style though I am not familiar with her body of work. The beauty of the whole being made up of the sum of these tiny individual pinpricks (rather than flamboyant colors, fancy materials, or computer generated additions) seems to speak to the necessity of each individual species, each fish, of bycatch to the beauty of the oceans, but I could be reaching. These species are often of special concern, lending the poems the narrative tone of a conservationist from the get-go of the title, and the voice of the poem takes that voice quite seriously.
Each poem gives special attention to the species it dotes on and seems to address a specific fish found on the trawling boat: how it got on the trawling ship, and a little bit of scientific information about it carefully hidden (in the description of its habit or habitat). Each poem also seems to philosophize about the species, utilizing its relationship with humanity (going so far as to anthropomorphize certain species) to make a point about it’s existence as a part of the bycatch. Each poem, by highlighting this ‘unwanted’ or ‘forgettable’ part of the day’s catch on the boat, draws attention to the uniqueness of the species. Magrane makes us feel for the loss of life of each fish through beautiful, short stanzas punctuated by an abundance of white space that creates a sense of breathlessness, a feeling perhaps like a fish out of water.
By far my favorite poem is “Sonora Scorpionfish”, which contains the following lines:
“what are the chances/ from thousands of eggs
one will grow to display/ your red pectoral fin
what are the chances/ a human will be drawn
to your sharp appearance/ pick you up
by instinct or chance/ and the next day
their arm will go numb/ all numb,
is that slight/ consolation?”
I recommend you check those lines out in the original (link provided again here) because Magrane’s use of white space and stanza breaks heightens the suspense and, again, makes you feel breathless and light-heated as you grieve for the loss of the fish, which is really amazing (and sad, all at once). This poem really inspires me – without drowning its reader in guilt or even anger, Magrane manages to draw out intense feelings of compassion for marine life. Magrane may have the poem directly converse with the
fish, but really he is opening the door for a philosophical conversation with his readers about the state of our marine life and the extreme loss of life in the environment that is the ‘bycatch’ of our industrial goals. Do we care? Is a numb arm consolation for the loss of the beautiful world we inhabit?
I would recommend these poems and illustrations to anyone who loves marine life or wants to experience the ongoing sad, deep, and beautiful conversation poets are having about conservation. I hope to see more of Magrane and Johnson’s collaboration in other journals soon.