Poetry Classroom: The Goldfish Pond

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels and Simple Weight. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Tania and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

The Goldfish Pond

I like the dead one best,
my daughter says,

and follows a corpse
the length of her smallest finger
around the edge of the pond.

Among the water lilies
a dozen fish flicker and spark.
Look how pretty, I say.

But she is lost now,
bending so low
her nose almost touches
the scales.

He keeps looking at me.
I love him.

And she reaches into her face.

Photo by Editor B, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels


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  1. says

    This is just classic Runyan. (Is there such a thing yet? I think there might be :) )

    A simple event, simply told, carrying profound insight into our humanity.

    I especially like how your daughter’s words convey an innocence about death, which belie an innocence about her own future. Of course, she seems to understand what death is, on some level, but the dissonance between you the narrator and she the character here is palpable. Even though you the narrator never insert yourself as a narrator or interpreter. Classic Runyan, like I said :)

  2. says

    Ah. . .I’m now old enough to be the author of classic poems! 😉 This is one of my favorite poems because I believe I was able to capture the essence of my daughter in this one moment.

  3. says

    The first two lines reminded me of when my son said he reads novels, he always likes to take the side of the bad guys. Surprising, but then again, not so surprising. And then the third stanza reminds me of myself, how I try to turn his attention and affections to the good guys in the stories…

  4. thomas purnell says

    There is an intimacy between you and your daughter in this moment that is quite beautiful. Those quiet, reflective, relational moments are such a gift. Thank you for sharing your heart Tania.

  5. says

    I love how you frame this quality of childhood. The charachteristic of children of being free of filters and free of certain sensibilities that we as adults build and form and take on. Freeing loving the “dead” one. The outcast, the bully, the broken, the busted. Free to see the need to love the unloveable. This has layers and levels of unbridled love. The child would turn, for example, to the beggar on the street and loudly ask why the mother isn’t stopping to help or give. Or ask why the lady is crying in public, when an adult would quietly pass by.

    Children have a beautiful way of empathy.

    And I love the way you, in the end, the mother, the narrator, the outside are drawn to love the “dead fish” too.

    His looking at you speaks to the fact that the broken one now has your love and attention because of the “work” of the child’s heart in your life.

    So moving. So lovely. Thank you.

  6. says

    Thank you for these comments! My daughter has a special connection with who or whatever is different. And thank you for reminding me of the value of my child’s heart. As a poet, I often work hard to capture a moment then move on with life and its common ingratitudes. Sometimes I need to stand back and look at what I myself have written. And believe it.

  7. says

    And after reading and re-reading it I believe that now I see the last lines are your daughter’s. “He sees me” “I love him”. Of course she does. And of course that fish eye stare looks to her as if he is gazing directly at her. And she would love him, this child, this precious innocent one. She would love him dead, floating, alive, swimming…unconditionally.

    Sorry I first mistook those words for the writer’s. :( :)

  8. says

    This is one of my favorites, Tania.

    I love that it begins in medias res, as so many good stories do. The first line, italics, dialogue: “I like the dead one best.”

    We are immediately in the middle of things, alarmed. Who/what is dead? What happened? If this is “one”…what are the others?

    And then the second, brief line: “my daughter says.” There is both relief and concern. Here’s a child, the mother is there, it can’t be too bad, there is a safety net–we are introduced to innocence here, and yet, still…something is dead!

    And then the stanza break. A little time to pause, to process, to consider…the corpse? and the little finger? It is surreal. Haunting? So curious!

    Two very brief lines, and then the stanza break. It’s marvelous story telling. It’s restraint. It’s almost deceptive in its art–that something small and simple does so much WORK in opening the poem.

  9. says

    I would compare this to the final, closing line–note! a single line! The surreal quality of the child reaching into her own face. It resonates the history of literature–Narcissus to Narnia–as well as providing resonance of the mother/daughter, adult/child, present/future dynamics.

    A single line. Carrying so much of the work of the poem. Deceptively “simple.”

    The poem is Herculean in its simplicity. Truly!

  10. says

    He keeps looking at me.
    I love him.

    These are great lines. And terrible: I for one, at least, have too often fallen for the dead fish just because it was looking at me. On second reading, the mother’s “Look how pretty” is all the more poignant.

  11. says

    I love, Richard, that in reading this poem I feel myself both the child–finger swirling in the pond!–and the adult–with impulse to distract, protect.

    There’s real loveliness in being able to navigate both worlds through this poem, and to know, through the poem, that I am connected to something that must be universal.

    There is such great comfort in connecting, through poetry. Why I endlessly marvel in and am grateful for the healing powers of poetry.

  12. says

    Paula and Richard, so wonderful to see your comments here. You are helping me to think hard about my own work! Such a treat from two accomplished poets like yourselves.

  13. says

    And yes, Paula, we get both innocence and experience – and, as L.L. Barkat noted, the dissonance of containing both. Funny how something like dissonance can, in a poem, be so tranquil. Perhaps connection with the universal, as you say – like the poem itself and the pond it depicts – is essentially tranquil.

  14. says


    And, Richard, your earlier sentence, “I for one…have too often fallen for the dead fish just because it was looking at me,” is a beauty unto itself.

    And thanks for comments, Tania. Lovely treat to converse with all the voices here as well. :)

  15. says

    “He keeps looking at me.
    I love him.”

    We tend to love those who see us, don’t we? To love because we feel noticed, appraised, held in the gaze, loved as we are? The girl in this poem says that.

    But it’s the mother in this poem, not the fish, who is doing the seeing.

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