Self-discovery, indeed self-invention, is an integral storyline of the Imagination in the United States. It’s deeply ingrained in our literary consciousness as a key feature of our shared cultural history. This is how we come to understand who we are and our place in life: by naming our path, creating it if necessary. Poet Larry Kearney’s Fish Gotta Swim is the tale of his own youthful awakening to quickly approaching, integral realizations concerning imagination and the world; a sounding of his place within and between two poles of reality. It is a story of the birth of a poet. But it is not the story of his life as a poet.
The book focuses upon the pre-middle years of adolescence, when Kearney’s roughly 10-12 years old. He’s just about to enter Middle School and the beginnings of his teenage years. Reoccurring emphasis throughout the book is placed upon the feeling of being at the cusp of becoming, caught up in a period of transition. Those in-between spaces when momentary rushes of insight often surprise for the first time. Having not yet quite explored the outside world beyond home and family life, everything is approached from inside out. Self-conscious to a fault, perhaps more so than most at that age, Kearney takes us on a deep dive into his continuously churning memories.
It’s Brooklyn in the early 1950s. Much of the action, in so far as there is any, occurs inside his family’s home. An apartment in a classic six floor apartment building named the Fleetwood which Kearney sums up as “massive” in size. He lives there as a single child with his mother and father. There are lingering references to a possible sibling, a sister, who may have died early on yet no details are ever made fully clear. Nobody’s willing to tell the young Kearney the full story. A looming yet never fully pronounced sense of tragedy hangs over the entire family. His parents are headed for separation, if not divorce. His mother often drinks and his father works hard, planning on a future for the family that is destined never to pan out. Kearney immerses us within his day-to-day ponderings. He shares his worry over disappointing his father and his close attachment, despite his simultaneous averse feelings, towards his mother.
There are also the other kids in the building. Rumors of the dysfunctional nature of their own families filter into the narrative. Kearney covers the diverse characteristics of his peers. He acknowledges the beginnings of his interest in the opposite sex, along with their interest in him, though sex along with the rest of adult stuff remains mysterious. In between his close observations of others and his self-scrutiny of his own thoughts and emotions, life in Brooklyn during the era comes to life. Kearney’s descriptions are ever adroit. We’re afloat in the daily haze of his precocious childhood as scenes come and go. The carefree sense of time abundantly granted to children at that age evocatively coats everything except when Kearney’s reflective asides insert themselves and we become aware once again that this is the story of a poet’s awakening to himself and his place in the world.
“There’s always the other, fugitive watcher. And he tells me things when I listen, which is not often, which is almost never. I can see the black light in the windows on the corner of 86th and Fourth, the dry cleaners, and I’m walking by with what, a bag of rolls from Rougen’s, and Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody is going around in my head and won’t leave me alone and there’s something, some voice, tells me to look carefully at the precise shine of the window, how it is, and the black inside with the blurred shapes and the cold surface of the glass like a flat eye with its bits of light and the whole of the night gathered smaller and smaller into in one square foot of dark and man-made shine, up close, and closed in an empty place, reflecting moon and streetlamp. “Away above the chimneytops,” I sing, and walking away I’m happy. For what?” (240)
That “For what?” is a key reoccurring question Kearney asks himself over and over again. What and why. The whither and thither of one’s doubt lurking behind all the events of life. A book of melancholy, sure, but one enquiringly filled with the purpose of wonder; which is of course without purpose. It’s just what you do when you’re made the way you are.
Kearney launches a voyage of self-introspection, interrogating his past. There are frequent near meta-textual asides which he places within brackets. Then there’s the abundant number of quotations scattered throughout. There are dozens upon dozens of these, unattributed with all sources noted with accompanying page number in back of the book. The quotations sometimes appear at the beginning of chapters as sort of epigraphs, but more frequently they operate as more of a pause within the narrative. To provide an interlude between thoughts and events occurring within the text, a moment for the space outside of the book’s world to intrude, similarly as one’s reading is a disruption or distraction from pressing affairs of the moment. The sources Kearney pulls the quotes from cover a lifetime’s experience of reading and listening, everything from traditional Irish songs to the Bible, classic literary authors alongside those more popular in nature, including film and radio, with but a scattering of contemporary poets, from Stevens to Creeley making a showing.
Kearney’s name as a poet is broadly recognized in the literary world, when it is recognized, from his time in San Francisco where he moved in 1964 and became involved in the circle of bar talk and poetry showdowns happening at the time around poet Jack Spicer. As Kearney remarks in his bio note: “Spicer’s insistence on being willing to, and capable of, saying what the poem wants to say when it wants to say it, endures for him as a working definition—poetry as the whole deal—the seen and unseen, heard and unheard—the voices of the haunted living and the unsuccessfully dead.” This memoir doesn’t cover his time of knowing Spicer, yet Kearney has peeled back a more vital layer revealing the story of his own emergence as a poet long before he had a glimmering of what the terms of that mantle entailed. This is “the whole deal” unremittingly flung forth. Kearney works over the details of his life chasing memory down to get beyond details of this and that event, to hold the miraculous ordinary unveiled.