Within ‘Aquarium 1’ Lochhead delves into themes of life, perception, and change. Her tone is at times lighthearted and playful but at others darker and more penetrating.
The poem takes the reader through a series of metaphors that compare the fish to a variety of different images. The speaker spends the text trying to make sense of the space she’s in, as well as the spaces the fish exist in. The mood is often contemplative and dark. It alludes to a collapse in the future and the futility of writing on a “wall of water”.
‘Aquarium 1’ by Liz Lochhead is a four stanza poem that’s separated into uneven stanzas of lines. They range in length from four lines up to twenty-two. The lines are varied in length, some containing only two words, others stretching up to seven. Lochhead does not make use of a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm, nor does she utilize traditional capitalization.
Despite the lack of structured rhyme, there are instances of examples of half-rhyme in the text. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “end” and “fronds” in lines four and five. Another example can be seen in long “o” in “home” and “close” in lines three and four of the third stanza.
There are also a few examples of full, or perfect rhyme within the text. These are examples, whether inside the lines or at the end, that rhyme completely alone expects within traditional poetry. For instance, “ponds” and “fronds” lines two and five of the second stanza. Or, “on”and “gone” in lines nine and ten of that same stanza.
Lochhead makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Aquarium 1’ these include alliteration, repetition, and enjambment. Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. Lochhead often repeats words and phrases in this particular poem, for instance, in the third line “what little what thick”. The repetition of the word “what” in this line helps increase the rhythm of the text, as well as the musicality. Another example is her desire to link words with em-dashes, such as “slip-of-a-thing,” “ just-too-regular-/to-not-be-phoney,” and “hard-to-look-at”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “metallics, micas” in line six of the second stanza and “wall of water” in the final line of ‘Aquarium 1”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a number of examples within this work, due to her strategic placement of line breaks as well as the sparing use of punctuation. A few examples include the transition between lines one, two, and three of the third stanza.
in the fin
In the first stanza of ‘Aquarium 1,’ the speaker begins by describing the “gloom / of the berlin aquarium” as “fin / de-siecle”. This is a French phrase that means “end of the century”. It is also connected to the English saying, “turn of the century”. It speaks to the beginning of one period and the end of another.
She goes on, using the third person plural pronoun “we” in order to speak about the way that she and an undefined companion/s move through the “underwater green” of an aquarium. These lines are short and choppy, but in contrast, the poet added in the phrase “(so slowly)” in parenthesis. It feels slow and the water feels thick but at the same time “little”. They are confined to a small space and the light that filters through the water is the bare minimum.
lugubrious big fishes
in cross sections of small ponds
louvred shoals flicker open shut off on
In the next lines of ‘Aquarium 1′, she depicts “lugubrious” or sad-looking big fish. The speaker notes how all the fish, whether they are “razorbills, swords, pig snouts, fronds,” or others, move through their individual spaces. They bump into their “world’s end” with their “blunt noses”. The mood is solemn in the lines. There is nothing magical about this aquarium. The fish are confused by their surroundings and continue to bump into the edges of their tanks—the edge of their worlds.
From where the speaker is, she finds it difficult to gain any sort of insight into the lives of these creatures. At the same time, she is depicting her own experience. As she looks around her she notes how it’s “impossible in this changed air to say” what is “vegetable, or mineral”. In these lines, as in many others, she makes use of repetition. This is in order to emphasize certain words but also to relay the strange and otherworldly nature of the space. In the last lines of this stanza, she notes the way the fish’s mouths open and closes like shutters.
tilted tin box
open mouthed suprise.
Continuing on, she speaks on the movements of the fish and uses metaphors to compare one to a “tilted tin box”. Another is said to be “sinuous” and thin. The reuse of the “s” consonant in lines fourteen and fifteen emphasizes the way the fish move through their environments. One, in particular, is described, as if human, moving through “tattered cage curtains” of seaweed. It has a very human “pout” on its face and swims close to the “bugeyed audience” of smaller fish.
The personification continues as she describes the way the fish move their mouths in what appears to be a fake surprise. It is “just-too-regular” to be real. This is likely meant to harken back to the aquarium visitors who make similar facial expressions.
like heart and lungs
and in it
one obscene frill ripples.
The third stanza of ‘Aquarium 1’ is fifteen lines long and becomes even more abstract as the poet introduces surprising and sometimes humorous connections. The aquarium seems to her to “pulse” as a human body does. It resembles the “hard-to-look-at medical programmes” that one would find on the television. Rather than use the word television though she calls the TV a “home aquarium”. This is a moment of surprise for the reader who was likely expecting something different. But, the two are, in the way of shape and purpose, similar.
The next lines bring in a series of other unusual references in addition to speaking on the endless progression from day to night. This all plays out every day in the aquarium in these contained ecosystems. The fish are subject to the whims of those who control their worlds.
In the last lines of this section, she speaks on “Woolworth’s swimming caps” that come to mind when she sees the colourful shapes of the fish. Some of the images in this section of the poem are very much up for interpretation and will strike each reader in a different way.
and this, this
is neon graffiti
writing itself, wiping itself
on a wall of water
In the last lines of ‘Aquarium 1’ conclude the poem with more repetition and a self-critical depiction of writing. She speaks of “this, this,” meaning the poem, as “neon graffiti.” It is meant to call attention to itself, it is far from permanent, and is “writing itself, wiping itself / on a wall of water”. This speaks to its impermanence and at the same time the impermanence of the poet’s opinions, human judgements and the entire nature of the ecosystems they exist in.
The aquarium is recreating itself, with day and night passing suddenly, and plants blooming where they shouldn’t. The “wall of water” is without question going to collapse. This alludes to the futile nature of the poem itself.