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“An Analysis of Mike Doughty’s Poem ‘Other Fish,’ Slanky, p. 9″

Soul Coughing, the occult 1990s band of poet Mike Doughty (who is also since 1998 a solo musician), has always been an overwhelming entity, to me. I fell in love with the white-boy rap, immediately of 1996’s Irresistible Bliss (the exact year Slanky is copyrighted to) and opening track “Super Bon Bon.” Then, when it came to “Lazybones,” a song my sister would make fun of when recommending the band to me, albeit in a pretty playful way, a song which also would open up the band’s encore of their ’96 Houston show available on Youtube, I was agog, in another dimension altogether. Like classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, it was a song about being entirely and consummately world-sick, about wanting to just stay in your own place or get away from “phoniness,” either physically or mentally, and it ached and swelled with this rhapsodic grandiosity, a muffled, distorted wail dinning in after the second chorus, an unforgettable two-note piano riff hauntingly stretching the whole thing like a heartbeat.
Now, one option when picking up Mike Doughty’s sole poetry collection Slanky would be to imbibe these individual pieces in their respective relations to, or musical parallels within, his music, but they also stand up fine on their own, as verse. I would describe them as a cross between classical, in that they effectively utilize metaphor, and realist, in that the resounding effect is the painting of a specific urban scene (Doughty apparently resides in Brooklyn for these escapades) which the reader may assume actually exists, or happened. This realist vibe certainly makes “Other Fish,” a graphic account of an unwitting girl getting hit and killed by a van, all the more haunting and traumatizing [1]. The first imagery it transcribes is “A girl with a backpack on a cellular phone sighs”, on line one, emanating with a real familiarity, being something we’ve all seen before. The account of the heinous event of her death is delayed, slightly, as in line two we get “between the exhale and the first consonant”. This line then is to draw us in further to her world, to make us more intimate with her.
The mention of the girl’s “cellular phone,” for its regard, actually kindles in us a slight dislike, with this object generally held, or typically considered in the reader’s mind, as an unneeded appendage to feed the ego. Ironically, then, when she dies (“a van barrels through her”), the flames of the emotional effect in the reader are only fanned, as he or she feels a certain shame for the dislike harbored prior. The episode of the van hitting her becomes for the viewer of this poem a defining realization, a lesson in humanity, the self, and the world at large, all at once. The literary effect of the poem is unilaterally realist, as metaphor though employed lightly is not a significant utility within “Other Fish” the way it is elsewhere on “I’ll Be Your Babydoll, I’ll Be Your Seven-Day Fool”: “Tonight the train is a curveball”. The primary objective in “Other Fish,” the only one it really needs, is the portrayal of the lethal, unflinching danger of the city itself, without acknowledgement of any of its beauty or irony. The importance of all humanity’s traits, in other words, is obscured in order to emphasize the lethal attributes of the city in which it resides. Like Big Apple band Helmet which once penned the line “(To) Die young is much too boring these days”, Mike Doughty realizes the necessity, within cinematic American culture as it currently stands, to desensitize oneself to death, or at least able oneself to readily employ an apparent desensitization thereto.
One poetic precursor to “Other Fish” is William Carlos Williams’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which describes the mythical figure’s fatal descent in to the ocean in juxtaposition with “a farmer (who) was plowing / his field” [2], an event which in turn is presented as in equal significance with the later depicted “drowning” [2] of the famous mythical figure. What is similar to “Other Fish” here is the bare, unflinching and objective depiction of death. Where “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” serves to demystify, however, and show the humor possible in death, the figure who perishes in “Other Fish” is notably and comparatively common and everyday, hence confronting the reader with the troubling fact that what happened to her could really happen to anyone. Doughty’s poem proceeds, after the centerpiece incident, with something similar to what Williams accomplishes in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the duty of making death seem humorous, with a comment that the guy she’d been phoning will “be drunk, / his slurred thoughts slobbering over motives, / why she decided suddenly to leave him / and hung up mid-word”.
The primary difference, then, between the Williams and the Doughty, one might say is landscape, as well as the overall functionality of the given landscape in which the characters act. In the oceanic farmlands, that is to say, it took an especial action of greed and stupidity, Icarus’s mythical flight into the sun with waxen wings, whereas in the Doughty, the girl who falls is depicted as especially miscellaneous, given a faceless backpack” and a machinated, dehumanized “cellular phone.”
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[1] Interestingly, Soul Coughing has a 1994 song called “City of Motors,” a sort of big cross-section of auto-related devastations across what I guess is New York.
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[2] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/landscape-fall-icarus.

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