Caught by the River

The European Eel

22nd October 2021

Published by Longbarrow Press, Steve Ely’s ‘The European Eel’ is a long poem that imagines the life cycle, ecological contexts and enigma of the charismatic and critically endangered fish of the poem’s title. Fellow eel-enthusiast Luke Thompson reviews.

The eel flashes under the feral white water
and slides into the flat-bottomed, deep-cut race
that glints through the lattice of slashed-back quick
a fathom below the lane.

Eels are hot right now. I don’t mean smoked. Do I mean sexy? Hot, at least. In the past few years we’ve seen Alex Toms’ Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Carol Watts’ A Time of Eels, the Guillemot Press anthology The Creel, and Ben Ray’s The Kindness of the Eel, as well as non-fiction titles like Patrick Svensson’s The Gospel of Eels and Tom Fort’s The Book of Eels. Steve Ely’s long poem The European Eel, published by Longbarrow, is the latest to join the swarm and its blend of research, admiration, sympathy and ecopoetic intention certainly does the theme justice.

So what is the attraction of the European eel? You’d have to say it’s a pretty uncharismatic species. Slimy, slithery, voracious eels are not particularly cuddly, dramatic or endearing in appearance. But they are fascinating. 

The life of the European eel begins in the Sargasso Sea, where they hatch, then bounce along the currents some 3,000 miles to the European coast, by which time those that have survived become glass eels – tiny translucent shards of fish – and are on the verge of an existential crisis. At this point the eel becomes a freshwater species that bundles together with its myriad elver peers and funnels up any waterway it can, thwarted by elver fisherfolk, smugglers, dams and sluice gates. It’s a dramatic story. 

The eels wait – years, maybe decades – in rivers and lakes and any body of water they can find, and they eat. They’ll eat anything. Carrion, bugs, snails, other fish, one another – anything. There is even a (somewhat dubious) report of a bunch of Swedish eels creeping out of Lake Hedunlunda onto dry land and eating peapods off the vines.

As mature eels – silver eels – they have another crisis, a complete reversal of their youthful instincts, a call of the wild. 

The eels rest up in rat-holes, hunt fry
in the willows’ cool shade: until something
in the water, or in the coding of their genes,
sends them questing against the current.

They travel downstream with some urgency, running the gauntlet once more, becoming a saltwater species again, and they swim and they swim, not even stopping to eat properly but consuming their own bodies, back to the Saragasso Sea to mate and die. 

This is the stuff of epic poetry, and that’s effectively what Steve Ely has created in The European Eel. Ely doesn’t scrimp on the details either. Towards the beginning of the poem

In the eighteen-degree water, hatching,
it is hypothesised, takes place after two days
of embryonic growth, after which emerges
the pinhead imago – veined, elongate,
a leaf of transparent white willow –
leptocephalus, the larval form of Anguilla,
absorbing its yolk-sac for ten or twelve days,
lengthening daily by micrometres,
gaining weight daily by microgrammes,
until a fortnight after hatching, 
the size of a sand-grain or emphatic full stop,
it unhinges its tiny, gaping jaws,
fangs half as long as its head, and hunts
in the eutrophic blizzard, seizing diatoms,
dinoflagellates, polyethylene microbeads

A being so tiny that it has to be measured in microgrammes is given terrific space and emphasis here, reflecting the significance and complexity of the entity in an indulgent and pleasing way. Occasionally this level of detail leads us towards something more prosaic and essayish, like the phrase ‘it is hypothesised’ in the above passage, which may be honest and true but it pushes the reader away unnecessarily. It seems especially unnecessary when there is such a lengthy notes section at the end of the book. 

The most powerful writing is in the description – or enactment – of human threats to the eel. In the following passage a river has been dredged:

The silts are dumped to dry out in the sun,
with their writhing collateral of suffocating eels.
In the filth and smashed flag, under squalls
of gulls and chancing crows, the survivors persist
in their straggling ascent, labouring the shallows
between moated Tilts and the ruin of Bentley Colliery,
its unpumped workings black with coal
and seams of dungeoned eels. 

By the middle of the poem, as the eel responds to that call back out to sea, we have a prose interruption, a personal story in which the eel is caught in a bucket, named and kept a while – ‘Just for the summer … Just for the poem’ – until she stops eating and has to be set free again, and she can continue on her poetic journey. Prose is the human form, poetry belongs to the eel. 

The subsequent eel sex scene is not the most attractive – ‘Milt pumps down the tube of his urethra / and backs up at the sphincter of the vent’ and ‘once more he’s frotting the flange / of her vent’ – but it is probably reasonable that fish sex shouldn’t be especially attractive to a human reader. 

Whether eel coitus is your bag or otherwise this is an attractive production. It has been illustrated by P.R. Ruby who has collaged predators, maps, found text and a range of cut out figures to great effect in her grayscale collages. The images are fascinating and the production as luxurious as you might expect from a Longbarrow edition. And if you don’t know Longbarrow, they make stunning hardback editions of short sequences and aren’t afraid of giving poems the space they deserve or the material framework to make each edition feel momentous. The European Eel is no exception. It’s a gorgeous little book. 


‘The European Eel’ is out now and available here (£12.99).

Luke Thompson is a writer and publisher from Cornwall whose previous work includes the collaborative ‘A Suitcase Full of Eels’ with artist John Kilburn. His latest book is the poetry collection ‘Singing About Melon’ (Shearsman). Visit his website here.