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American Life in Poetry: ‘Aquarium’

I’ve had a couple of aquariums (or is the plural aquaria?), but I didn’t take very good care of either one. The glass clouded over with algae, and the fish had to live on whatever they could scrounge because I’d forget to feed them. Some liked eating each other. But here’s a poem (a sonnet!) about an aquarium you can actually see into. The poet, Kim Addonizio, lives in California, and her most recent book is “Mortal Trash” (W. W. Norton, 2016).


The fish are drifting calmly in their tank

between the green reeds, lit by a white glow

that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank

glass that holds them in displays their slow

progress from end to end, familiar rocks

set into the gravel, murmuring rows

of filters, a universe the flying fox

and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose

pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet

the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping

occasionally, as if they can’t quite let

alone a possibility – of wings,

maybe, once they reach the air? They die

on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.

Poem copyright 1994 by Kim Addonizio, “Aquarium,” from “The Philosopher’s Club,” (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1994). Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.