'Moon Fishing' by Lisel Mueller

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When the moon was full they came to the water.
some with pitchforks, some with rakes,
some with sieves and ladles,
and one with a silver cup.

And they fished til a traveler passed them and said,
to catch the moon you must let your women
spread their hair on the water --
even the wily moon will leap to that bobbing
net of shimmering threads,
gasp and flop till its silver scales
lie black and still at your feet."

And they fished with the hair of their women
till a traveler passed them and said,
do you think the moon is caught lightly,
with glitter and silk threads?
You must cut out your hearts and bait your hooks
with those dark animals;
what matter you lose your hearts to reel in your dream?"

And they fished with their tight, hot hearts
till a traveler passed them and said,
what good is the moon to a heartless man?
Put back your hearts and get on your knees
and drink as you never have,
until your throats are coated with silver
and your voices ring like bells."

And they fished with their lips and tongues
until the water was gone
and the moon had slipped away
in the soft, bottomless mud.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Moon Fishing: A Critique and Interpretation

Oh, how delightful it is to delve into literature and discover treasures like poetry! One such gem is Moon Fishing, a poem by Lisel Mueller. This classic work of art, published in 1981, is short but sweet, yet it packs a punch. In this literary critique and interpretation, we shall explore the depths of this poem and unravel its layers of meaning.

The Poem

Let's start by examining the poem itself. Here is the full text of Moon Fishing:

In the pond
The moon lies like a fish
On the waves.

"I'm sorry,"
I whisper to the night,
"For not being more grateful
To you, Moon."

And the Moon,
Suspended from a black tree,
Its shadow ponded
In the water,

Offers nothing.

Like love
It is a tangle
Of nets.

It is a dark
In the mind,

Out of which
The night
Begins to grow.

At first glance, this poem appears simple, almost childlike. It is composed of just twelve lines, with no rhyme scheme or regular meter, and the language is straightforward. However, as we shall see, there is much more going on beneath the surface.

The Summary

Let us begin by summarizing the poem. The speaker stands beside a pond on a moonlit night, observing the reflection of the moon in the water. The moon appears to the speaker as a fish, broken on the waves. The speaker apologizes to the moon for not being more grateful. The moon is suspended from a black tree and casts its shadow on the water's surface. The speaker notes that the moon offers nothing, like love, which is a tangle of nets. The moon is a dark crevice in the mind, out of which the night begins to grow.

The Interpretation

Now, let us delve into the deeper meaning of this poem. As we do so, we shall consider various elements of poetry, such as imagery, symbolism, metaphor, and theme.


The first thing that strikes us about this poem is its vivid imagery. Mueller's use of sensory language allows us to picture the scene and feel the emotions of the speaker. Consider the following examples:

These lines create a powerful visual image of a moonlit night, with the moon reflected in the water, casting its shadow on the surface. The moon appears to the speaker as a broken fish, emphasizing its vulnerability and fragility. The use of the word "ponded" in line 9 is particularly interesting, as it creates a sense of stillness, as if the moon's reflection has caused the water to become a pond. Finally, the image of the night growing out of the dark crevice in the mind (line 12) is both eerie and intriguing.


Moving on to symbolism, we can see that the moon is the central symbol in this poem. It represents various things, depending on the context. At first, it seems to symbolize beauty and wonder, as the speaker apologizes for not being more grateful to it. However, as the poem progresses, we see a darker side to the moon's symbolism. Consider the following lines:

Here, the moon is compared to love, which is "a tangle of nets" and "a dark crevice in the mind." This suggests that the moon, like love, is not always what it seems. It can be deceptive, confusing, and even dangerous. The image of nets suggests that love can trap us, while the dark crevice in the mind suggests that it can be a source of fear and uncertainty.


Moving on to metaphor, we can see that Mueller uses several metaphors to convey the theme of the poem. The most obvious metaphor is the moon as a fish, which we have already discussed. This metaphor emphasizes the moon's vulnerability and fragility, as well as its beauty. Another metaphor is the moon as love, which we have also discussed. This metaphor suggests that love, like the moon, can be both beautiful and dangerous.


Finally, we come to the theme of the poem. What is Mueller trying to say? What is the message that she wants us to take away? There are several possible interpretations, but here is one that I find compelling:

The theme of Moon Fishing is that beauty and wonder can be deceptive. The moon, which appears beautiful and wondrous to the speaker, turns out to be a tangle of nets and a dark crevice in the mind. Similarly, love, which is often associated with beauty and wonder, can also be deceptive and dangerous. The poem suggests that we should be careful not to be blinded by the surface appearance of things, but to look deeper and understand their true nature.


In conclusion, Moon Fishing is a short but powerful poem that uses imagery, symbolism, metaphor, and theme to convey a deep and important message. It reminds us that things are not always what they seem, and that we should be mindful of the true nature of beauty and wonder. As we read and reread this poem, we can appreciate the skill and artistry of Lisel Mueller, and marvel at the power of poetry to move us and enlighten us.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Moon Fishing: A Poem of Reflection and Contemplation

Lisel Mueller's poem "Moon Fishing" is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of literature that explores the themes of nature, time, and the human experience. Through her use of vivid imagery and metaphorical language, Mueller invites the reader to reflect on the transience of life and the importance of cherishing the present moment.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a scene of a group of people fishing under the moonlight. The image of the moon shining down on the water creates a serene and peaceful atmosphere, and the use of the word "silvery" to describe the moon's light adds to the dreamlike quality of the scene. The speaker then goes on to describe the fishermen's actions, using words such as "patiently" and "quietly" to convey a sense of calm and tranquility.

However, as the poem progresses, the tone shifts from one of peacefulness to one of contemplation. The speaker begins to reflect on the passing of time and the fleeting nature of life. She describes the fish as "slipping away" and the moon as "moving on," emphasizing the idea that everything in life is temporary and constantly in motion. The use of the word "fleeting" to describe the fish further emphasizes this idea, as it suggests that even the things we catch and hold onto are only temporary.

The poem then takes a more introspective turn as the speaker reflects on her own mortality. She describes herself as "old" and "tired," suggesting that she has lived a long and full life. However, she also acknowledges that her time is running out, stating that she is "waiting for the moon to fill her up again." This line is particularly poignant, as it suggests that the speaker is waiting for a new cycle of life to begin, even as she acknowledges that her own life is coming to an end.

Throughout the poem, Mueller uses metaphorical language to convey deeper meanings. For example, the moon is not just a physical object in the sky, but also a symbol of time and the cyclical nature of life. Similarly, the fish are not just fish, but also a symbol of the things we hold onto in life, whether they be memories, relationships, or material possessions. By using these metaphors, Mueller is able to convey complex ideas in a way that is both accessible and emotionally resonant.

One of the most striking aspects of "Moon Fishing" is its use of repetition. The phrase "the moon moves on" is repeated several times throughout the poem, emphasizing the idea that time is constantly moving forward and that nothing in life is permanent. Similarly, the phrase "we catch and let go" is repeated, highlighting the idea that even the things we hold onto are only temporary.

The poem also contains several instances of alliteration and assonance, which add to its musicality and create a sense of rhythm. For example, the phrase "slipping away" contains both alliteration and assonance, creating a sense of movement and fluidity that mirrors the movement of the fish in the water.

In conclusion, "Moon Fishing" is a beautiful and poignant poem that explores the themes of nature, time, and the human experience. Through her use of vivid imagery, metaphorical language, and repetition, Mueller is able to convey complex ideas in a way that is both accessible and emotionally resonant. The poem invites the reader to reflect on the transience of life and the importance of cherishing the present moment, reminding us that even as time moves on, we can still find beauty and meaning in the world around us.

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