Meet the archerfish. This wonderful creature watches the world above the surface and shoots down insects with jets of water spit from its remarkable mouth. The archerfish (genus Toxotes) is a physics and ballistics expert, able to hit an overhead target up to six feet away.
I happen to be an archery expert myself. At the age of 33, I won a crossbow-shooting contest in the Swiss Alps while under the influence of a large amount of slivovitz. I’m not kidding you. I have some kind of animal-horn blower thing to prove it. It’s true the competition consisted of a bunch of American journalists on a European press tour, but still. I was three sheets to the wind and a dead-eye shot.
I met the archerfish because I had to write a poem about one. The famous weekly Poetry Bus, invented by an Irish poet who calls himself the Totalfeckineejit, which he isn’t, is busy touring the animal kingdom this week.
This animal thing is the brainchild of Titus the Dog, a fine poet out of Scotland who is not a dog but a human named JoAnne McKay. She’s making a poetry booklet about animals to raise funds for humans who have arthritis. My dearly beloved beagle Riley has been crippled by arthritis. Someday maybe we’ll do a poetry booklet about humans to raise funds for animals who have arthritis.
So. On to the archerfish. This fish has very sharp eyes very close together by its snout, which allows the fish to hang about right at the surface of the water and look upward, without creating any telltale disturbance of the water’s surface. There, it slyly watches the overhead vegetation for the movement of insects.
It has a tongue-and-groove kind of mouth that can form a narrow tube and spit a forceful jet of water, but first, the fish somehow calculates complex physics problems that I know nothing about, regarding the refraction of light through water and the curvature of the jet of water as it is pulled down by gravity. Then the archerfish changes its firing angle to compensate, and whammo! The insect, struck by the water jet, is knocked into the pond, where it disappears into the fish’s mouth.
How am I to tell you all this bizarre engineering stuff in a poem? I decided I wouldn’t. So I turned the fish into the daughter of one of history’s greatest archers. You’ll find the rest of the animals roaming at Titus’s place.
The Archerfish Tale
I saw your daughter today, Artemis,
hunting with your bow and arrow
in a mangrove swamp. You would be proud
of Toxotes, if you had seen her stalk
her prey with your own cunning,
disturbing not even a ripple of air
as she moved. Your daughter is fierce
and graceful as you once were,
Artemis, when you served this earth ~
Goddess of the hunt, of wild creatures
and forest lands, She Who Brings Light
to the night, Slayer of men, Avenger
of maidens. Your daughter Toxotes
is the huntress now, the Bringer of Death,
She Whose Aim Is True. She honors you,
daughter of Zeus, daughter of Titans,
Mistress of the Moon. Take pleasure,
Artemis, in your child, the Archer
unsurpassed in all the kingdom. Tell
your friend Orion, your brother Apollo,
that the skill of Toxotes is supreme.
Her arrows of water, shot from the strange
bow of her muscular mouth, unerringly
find their mark. I watched her, Goddess,
as she bent laws of physics and gravity
to her will, as she conquered light itself
bending at the boundary of water and air.
She has your shrewd eyes.
Smile, Artemis, in your retreat
on the moon’s dark side.
In your daughter, you live on.