Yesterday, I was cleaning out my house in Coventry, and I found an 8.5 by 11 sheet of printer paper, folded into four squares, with the phrase,
“Fish fish fish fish fish.”
written in cursive at the top of the sheet, looking at it length-wise, crossing the fold between two quadrants on the middle fish. It was written at a slight angle, and followed by the abbreviated form of my signature.
I was reminded first, of another sheet of paper, a receipt, from the bookstore where I went last year to buy Christmas presents, on the back of which I had written, in pencil, in the same slanted cursive,
“I think feminism has failed.”
The fishes were written in pen. I tucked the receipt into a book of ecocriticism, of which I had only managed to read the introduction, and which I later brought to New York, and offered to Chad when he asked if I knew any good books on the subject. I do not. Chad flipped through the book and pulled out the receipt, gingerly and delicately, an archivist of the everyday. “What a strange artifact!” said with deliberate glee, “’I think feminism has failed’ written on the back of a Book Culture receipt!” I replied with chagrin. “I think I was stoned when I wrote it.” It was one of those astounding revelations that come to you with marijuana, only reveal themselves later in sobriety as incredibly ordinary and blatantly obvious.
Back to the fishes.
They reminded me second of “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo Buffalo”
and third of Penelope’s presentation on fish sex.
(Also of Peter Fish, the partner of a woman my boyfriend’s father was having a sad and torrid affair with. At the Christmas party that year they all sat in a row on the same couch the whole time in the room with the booze, quiet in the tragedy of middle age, abject and quiet, the dad, the lover, and Peter Fish.)
In December of 2015 (the same season as the receipt but not the same as the Peter Fish affair) Penelope presented the gathered cohort with an image of a man and a fish in reverse missionary position in a grassy swampland, alongside an Early Modern print of a nun, offering a fish to a cat who has stolen a penis, with balls attached. A jester looks on through the window holding a strangely shaped sagging object, a cloth? a piece of skin? Is it his penis that the cat has stolen? The nun looks unhappy. Penelope pointed out that her rear foot is slipping out of her slipper, an Early Modern euphemism for sex. The foot in the slipper. Eoghan pointed out that the cross on her rosary beads also looks like a cock. Under the cat it says
“1555. flaisch macht flaisch.”
Which, according to Reddit “meat equals meat,” though I would translate it, with my rather lacking knowledge of German, as “flesh makes for flesh.” (the verb ‘macht’ shows up in Freud’s case study of Little Hans, who calls his penis his Wiwimacher; it also makes an appearance in the wrought iron gates of concentration camps, “Arbeit macht frei.”) The man fish embrace and the thieving cat appear under Penelope’s title, “’For the Love of Fish’: Fish Fetish– (Fish/Sex)– in Early Modern England.”
After the pictures, we spent the rest of our time talking about an Early Modern play, by Beaumont and Fletcher, called The Woman Hater, in which a funny fat man named Lazarillo spends the entire play searching for a fish head. He describes the fish head in rapturous tones whose sexual impetus rivals that of John Donne’s plea for God to fuck him in the ass, in “Holy Sonnet XIV.” Lazarillo’s search is described in language that is replete puns and innuendo, all converging on the sexual triumph of finally eating the fish head in a whorehouse. According to Penelope, fish was a slang term for whores in the Early Modern era. And for vaginas. It still is. Hamlet, when he calls Polonious a fishmonger, is calling him pimp. When Faulkner writes “My mother is a fish.” in 1930, Vardman is calling his mother a whore. So great is Lazarillo’s longing for this fish head, that he agrees to marry the whore/fish in order to eat it.
The search for the fish head brings together a lovely hot mess of eating and fucking and desire and smell and absurdity and marriage. It is the comic subplot in a play that is, as the title suggests, primarily about misogyny. Would it be a feminist reversal to switch the dominance of the plots, to read the subplot as primary? To re-read a play about misogyny as a play about sexy fish, as we did? Placing the misogynist beneath the fish, smothering him with a fishy vagina, making him eat it. But perhaps the subplot is already fishy with misogyny, in its portrait of marriage as a structure of entrapment, where a man’s sexual/gastronomic desires are leveraged against him by a woman/fish for a security that is also her own entrapment. Her devouring of/being devoured by the man in question. “There’s only one reason a woman get knocked up” four or five years ago, a half drunk grad student, wooly eyed, male, disaffected, told me, “to trap a man.” This seems to me both true and completely fucked up and backwards.
Three out of ten students in our cohort are married. Penelope is one of them. Gina is another. Penelope uses a married name, which is her former name, first and last, with her husband’s last name appended. Penelope’s husband is an academic, and the tying of their names legally in hers marks something specific in an academic discourse. It makes visible their union, in print, on syllabi, at department cocktail parties, in faculty lists on university websites. It also marks a space of anxiety in the academic discourse of feminism, about the boundary between the public and the private, about sexuality in the classroom and the place of women in the academy. Do women ipso facto bring the private and the sexual into the public space of the university when they enter it, as students and professors? The university administrators who oversaw the large scale transition to co-education in the 20th century, who built women’s dorms with curfews and dorm mothers and called female students “co-eds” certainly thought so. So did the courageous scholars who founded departments of women’s studies, gender and sexuality studies, and queer theory, though with a rather different basic set of assumptions and qualitative judgments.
To take a man’s name without loosing your own. This is the puzzle of heterosexuality, whether you take the name or not. And where did your name come from in the first place? Another man. Would it be worth it to me simply to give my children the last name I now bear, my maiden name, my father’s name? Would that break the cycle? Would it be more radical simply not to have children? Not to dedicate oneself to the care of another, with my luck, a male child, another man. I once thought it would be a good idea to name a child “Ocean Adams.” I still kind of do.
What does it mean that strong young women in 2016 are still taking their husband’s names? I think it means that feminism has failed. Or that the claims of feminism have been articulated in a way that is somehow insufficient to the problem.
Back to the fishes.
If fishes are vaginas and Lazarillo is all about eating the fish, the fish’s head in particular, then what about giving head? I think that metaphor actually comes from the head of the penis, transferred across gender, and eating out would be better here. Or eating pussy (there’s that cat again), or licking the fish? Or just cunnilingus. The act of oral devotion to another’s genitals. A woman’s genitals. As Eileen Myles puts it, in Chelsea Girls, “Here it comes, the salty hairy organ, the slippery wet thing with a hard pearly center, jammed in my face. I started licking and sucking like crazy. I am wild for the sensation of having my face covered and dominated, almost smothered by a cunt.” Yes, this has something to do with marriage and the patriarchy. With the textual signifiers of a woman’s identity, with desire and choice. With who’s licking what and where and why. Sexual empowerment is what feminism ends up offering those co-eds, sexual empowerment reified by, rearticulated through, eaten up by the consumer demands of late 20th century America. As Gina put it to me:
“Oral comes standard, or you don’t buy the car.”
 Myles, Eileen. “Robin.” Chelsea Girls. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. p. 69.