“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
― Mary Oliver
― Mary Oliver
Because my granddaughter was born
I bought a Geiger counter.
I ordered it the week she came home
from the hospital.
I take it outdoors when it rains
and listen to it chirp
like a hungry, newborn bird.
I bring it back inside and lay it down,
hoping it will sleep through the night.
Hoping baby Ella will be safe here,
with a roof and walls around her,
cradled in my arms.
- Cirque Literary Journal, 2011
We were alone on the boat -
a green deckhand and a middle-aged Norwegian
riding emerald rollers sprinkled with drops of gold
in the late afternoon sun.
And though you were teaching me
how to get a salmon out of the bag
without popping the mesh,
I was somewhere else:
off the stern I saw myself
neck deep in Indiana, floundering in all those years
of not knowing who I was. or how to escape
who I had become; drowning in aching nights
spent hoping for the moment I might know
a way to set my feet upon a path of my own.
While I was picking fish with you,
stunned at the sight of the sea so near
and the mountains filling the western sky,
I thought of dry Midwestern cornfields,
and of lost, empty days filled with a wish to leave
but nowhere to go.
You bent over a red to show me how to use a fish pick,
never realizing what was happening to me,
how you were stripping away the web of my past life,
pulling me through to solid ground.
- Oberon Poetry magazine, 2011
"It was a cannery truck, after all," we said afterward.
"Unreliable. It stalled when he would bring it to a complete stop.
He probably coasted through the stop sign."
"Bone cancer doesn't relent," the doctors told her.
"Go. Live. Enjoy the time you have left."
For five years she did exactly that: dove the Great Barrier Reef.
Went to China. Fished the lake near her house with her niece.
When she was done, she slipped away overnight.
It doesn't take much -
a gentle roll of the boat as the wake passes underneath;
the brush of an elbow,
and the power-drill, set too close to the edge,
tips and tumbles overboard.
You see it roll: watch without moving, frozen
like a dream has materialized before you.
It doesn't even complete a full circle
before it hits the water - that flashlight -
or 10-inch crescent wrench, or your cell phone
slipping out of your pocket as you bend down -
in the air before you know it.
It lands on the water's surface
like you land on the bed after a long day,
blankets fluffing, rising as they are displaced,
absorbing the impact and falling back again;
only the water receives and moves aside, and you see your knife,
the one you spent all those seasons sharpening,
the one you got in France years ago, on vacation - a gift
from the vendor who loved that you were a fisherman
and insisted you take it –
suddenly out-of-reach, beneath the surface,
fading, getting smaller and dimmer as it recedes from you
and all your memories of it,
out of your grasp forever in an instant,
like your friend who tipped over the edge after the long struggle
to hang on to the rail while the disease rolled under her...
or the buddy who was brushed away in the morning light
when a car crested the hill and elbowed him into the air
before he knew it - a short fall into deep water.
-Cirque Journal, Winter Solstice, 2011
Fisher Poets’ Gathering, Astoria
I slide into this crowded bar
like I’d ease a boat into a slip:
the river is crowded tonight.
ride these aisles like currents.
Tying up to booths
or dropping anchors on barstools,
they open journals like hatch covers:
unsure of how the catch
How many brailers does the rest of the fleet
How many pounds?
(Shit. Maybe I’ll wait to deliver until morning,
when no one else is watching.)
But morning comes and no one cares.
We drink beer, watch the show,
And damn, the stories fill the air like jumpers;
words weave to catch them like nets hung deep,
ears cock for the sound of a splash
eyes narrow, looking for hits.
Then here comes the next set, and a poet picks up the microphone ---
like static over the radio, the bar chatter fades,
and in slow-motion the words lift us, riding on the back of a swell:
“The VHF just said a boat went down with all hands.”
“The sunrise lit the mountaintops the color of salmon.”
“…that halibut hook sunk deep into the side of his hand.”
“The lights of the fleet looked as if the very stars had fallen to the ocean surface.”
“She went over when we weren’t lookin’…”
A slip of a boot on a wet deck
becomes a slip of the tongue,
and this place fills with salt water.
The speaker pauses,
turns off the key and walks away without a look.
In a moment all hell will break loose,
and we’ll relive it again in the telling,
but as the story lands on the dock
solid and hard,
we can sense the slightest change of the engine,
feel the gentlest breeze,
hear our own heart beat
in the distance,
in the waves.
- Pacific Fishing, March 2001
Middle Rip, Cook Inlet, 1989
It has been cloudy now
for a long, long while.
The sea is building.
The unexpected blow
always seems to come from the south,
and is always the worst.
From shore you can’t see
the middle rip;
can’t tell how bad it is:
waves crashing in all directions at once,
moving mountains of green and gray.
And even if you were there
fighting the wheel to keep her headed in the right direction,
riding them up and over, throttle up and back,
watching more of what's next than what's now,
you couldn't tell whether the changing tide
would make it lay down or stir it up more.
I've run away from the middle rip more than once:
Turned around, saying,
"This is unfishable!"
Gritted my teeth and hung on to the wheel
as the boat came around in the trough,
trying to time it so the smallest wave was the one that hit,
watching it come, out the side window,
wishing the boat would turn faster
knowing it wouldn't...
hung on hard as the boat slammed over,
and the forks, knives, toothpaste,
coffee pot, binoculars and magazines
slid to starboard, then
launched into the air and around the cabin.
I've even set my gear in the middle rip
when it was kicking up, saying,
"Ahh, it'll come down."
I've seen my deckhand hanging on, on the back deck,
as the boat heeled over at a 45-degree angle;
trying to let the net out
without a hangup or a backlash,
glancing over his shoulder at me with a look that asked
Are you insane?
And I have stared dumbly out the cabin door back at him,
at the towering waves mere feet behind him,
and wondered the same.
It's not so bad, fishing the middle rip,
but towing the gear in heavy weather depends upon your mettle
and your nerve;
and you know eventually you've got to pick up:
got to put on the oilskins and pull your hat on hard
so it doesn't blow off, and button the top button
no matter how tight,
and the cool press of the fabric
against your neck reminds you of how much you wish
you didn't have to go out there into the wind and the rollers
and make the boat go stern first into them.
Still, you open the door, and the wind tries to take your breath away,
but you don't let it, and you hold on to the lifeline and dance
to the back deck, timing it so the side you’re on
rolls upward as you move.
And you pull your gloves on as you eye the seas
from the stern of your boat
(your boat, your machine, full of its warmth and life and power,
yes, power to pull in all that net stretching into the gray unfriendly light
until you can't see it any longer), and your boat can get it all back, and more:
it can deliver you safely to home.
It's you and your boat against all this space, wind and water
and you come alive!
You slam your foot down on the treadle with vengeance and a
smile, and the air is cold, and the sea slaps the stern like
an insult, and drenches you in salt water, and you laugh and
you whoop and you yell the insult back at the sea!
When it blows,
standing upon the shore,
you can't see the middle rip;
you can't tell how bad it is.
- Like Fish in the Freezer, May 1999
Fat City in Four Directions
(for Jeannie Ouren)
We thought we’d all be highliners:
Each trip out we had visions of plugging the boat.
We would sink the gear,
and tie floats to the cork line so we could get net back on board
after it filled with sockeye.
We’d call a tender to off-load us while fresh flurries of hits
frothed the water’s surface.
We’d roundhaul the final set, deck loaded and the boat so low
we’d toss the last of the catch into the cabin
or put ‘em in net bags and drag ‘em to the bow to balance the load.
We’d fly a broom from the rigging as we came in the river.
We were on course to Fat City.
On the way, we bucked into a stiff wind and big tides.
We ran over each other’s gear in the glare of the sun on steel gray waves,
and ended up dead in the water with web in the wheel.
Engine alarms blared as we blew alternators and threw fan belts.
We spent frantic hours jerry-rigging spare parts so we could stay on the grounds.
We swore at our misfortune as reports of big catches and fresh hits
spat frustration out of tinny deck speakers;
and we finally turned off the radio before it described any more fish calls we couldn’t get to.
We stood adrift in the stern, watching
even as the best catches of the season moved into the river.
The rip sucked us into the sticks or the kelp,
and a faulty solenoid or water in the fuel had us catching a line
from the tender that would tow us home empty.
Some days we’d just flat-out not find ‘em:
move east when they showed on the west side
stop running a mile short of where they’d pop up,
or set a net length too far from the rip.
Worse yet, they wouldn’t be there at all:
we’d spend the day scratch fishing while radio fish would fill imaginary nets
and the hits weren’t the bunches we expected,
just singles, or only a surface show.
The talk would turn to escapement policies of Fish and Game
and how the biologists, politicians and guides were killing us.
The only fish on board were headed for the freezer at home.
some of us
still weather low prices and less fish:
in the cold morning dawn
silhouettes of boats still glide past closed canneries and derelict docks.
inside them, skippers still hold a coffee mug in one hand
and steer the boat down a darkened river with the other.
deckhands still coil lines in the stern and scan the sea for fish.
but some of us put the boat on barrels and sold the permit.
cleaned out our lockers, packed the trailers
and pulled away in a cloud of dust.
no more waves to lift us.
instead we steer through the changing currents
of foreign seas: oceans of commerce and business.
we ride the ebb and swell of the job market,
negotiating interviews like we used to quarter the boat through heavy weather.
we still run hard, looking for jumpers,
We still search for Fat City.
-Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, May 2005
I touched the past
even as it disappeared before me.
I placed my hands upon the backs of hours
loaded heavy with gear,
and pushed them down an elevated boardwalk
I mended holes in the days
with a needle and twine;
swatted mosquitoes like seconds
as the summers sped beneath me.
I painted coats of the present
upon the planks of history, then years later spent months of chainsaws cutting them into pieces
and bulldozing them onto the beach
where I lit the match that burned them to ashes.
I even hoisted a beer in their honor.
I’ve seen compasses lose direction,
and watched an entire fleet of seasons sink over the horizon;
seen sail give way to power,
wood give way to glass;
species disappear under thick coats of oil,
and lifestyles vanish beneath politicians’ dark coats.
I pulled decades of tradition onto shore,
put them on barrels
and walked away, leaving them to decay.
Winter storms weakened them.
The summer sun bleached them.
And I returned years later
to feel them crumble between my fingers.
What my eyes have forgotten
my hands remember:
cool, wet cotton gloves,
stiff, rough, manila line
and the cold chains of anchors covered in generations of mud.
* * *
I lean into the cool plastic of this buoy:
like seconds into hours
it gives before resisting,
and reminds me
that ebbing times,
with all the gear,
are like a boat on a set in a strong tide:
from on board all we see is the set;
but from anywhere else,
the boat and net grow smaller
as they drift
into the distance.
-Waterman’s Gazette, March 2001