Prose by Roberta Burnett
An excerpt from Salme, The Leaping Fish: Memories of a Fisherman’s Wife, an unpublished memoir about Alaska salmon fishing in the early 1970s.
Cook Inlet in Alaska was not our friend, and, what the land-bound don’t expect, a fish net is mostly made of holes. Efficient holes, sure, but water is what’s out there and that’s mostly what goes through anyone’s nets. Commercial fishing for wild fish has its craft, its artfulness, its sporting attitude and rules. It takes all the finesse and traits of character that a fly fisherman requires to bag his catch (not a simple guileless matter), but it takes the skills of a man’s man too––aggression, persistence, fisherman’s independence, a strategizing intelligence, and intense will to win and to dominate.
Large waters do not give human beings the chance for vacillations or a wide margin of error. The waters carry in them always the knowledge that something is at stake once a man has committed himself to the business of a whalepath day. The Inlet is a field for intense observation and analysis, supposition, inference, decision-making, and gutsy and gut-wrenching action. For captain or crew, it’s no place for weaklings. I became strong there.
I had gone to Kenai with my new husband for the first of six summers as his city-girl, landlubber boatpuller, the second of a two-man crew, to set out on a body of water 100 miles long and 40 wide. I would learn what a teacup a 40-foot drift boat could be.
. . . .
Picking Fish: Stamina, Soul, New Knowledge
Your mind doesn’t take more than a day of this pounding, I thought, my prickly gloved hands working hard. Picking fish out of this net took everything I had in me to stick with it till deadline when we had to pull nets in, filled or not. I’ve never been one much for routine.
With three thousand fish in your net, if you’re me, you find yourself angry that this fish (then that one, and that) had died. You’re angry that he was such a fighter, that he had crocheted himself a tight little coffin of net, and that now you’re having to break it open. It seems a worse process than if his bundle were made of solid wood. Then you are angry that you are out there at all, surrounded by lapping, snapping seas, by the threat of those deep waves of unforeseen bad weather, or, its own kind agony, all day sun. Even your supports run you aground: your heavy, yellow oil-slicks feel like an oven if there’s any sun at all, and your hands start to kill you, while strong wind pushes you and the boat and the horizon into imbalances that just won’t stop.
Food has to be heated quickly. Instant coffee and soup, canned chili––never, never on our boat canned beef stew––but boats didn’t have microwaves then, so I’d go into the cabin to light the “scary-only-to-me” oil stove and heat it up, take a cup to Bert who downed it in two seconds and went straight back to work, without looking up. I couldn’t feel neglected. You can’t scratch your nose out there for fear of getting fish poisoning or gurry up a nostril.
What else you find is your sympathy for the fish weakens. My fish sympathy lasted about the first two weeks of the first fishing season, and we weren’t even into big fish then. I couldn’t keep up the stream of “I’m sorry” that I began saying that first year, looking down at all the croaking souls. Acknowledging suffering, even sympathizing, getting close to really feeling it, is a good thing. Finally it’s that the insistent physical facts of it get you to dismiss suffering.
Done once, you’re caught in the act of dismissing part of your own humanity, but after a couple of days of picking, the single fish blends into the company of fish, and the masses look endlessly the same as year builds upon year. After days like these, the only thing you care about is getting back to the mouth of the river, getting a long, warm shower, a hot, well-seasoned pizza or steak at some restaurant, if you could wait that painfully long to eat, and then the dream of a clean, dry, and stable bed. You also care about getting “some sense,” something which, at the height of tiredness, you intuitively know no fisherman on the hunt cannot afford not to be blessed with. But you don’t necessarily know you have.
Looking back at those years, if we’d never had our two magnificent hauls, I’d never have known what it was to forge forward and to stop at nothing even though a task seemed insurmountable. I’d never have learned to live with a real threat. Dealing with the trauma of these great catches were pieces of life that carried me into and through much later the high wire act of eighteen years of owning my own business, an advertising and public relations agency, and all the while I was officially a single mother to our son, from the time he was three through high school. I’d learned to do the impossible in the Inlet, so I carried it with me into the unpredictable next adventures.
When I came to fishing that first season, I’d thought of the fish as living beings, as precious in their lives as I was in my own. It was an easy enough fantasy to sustain for batches of weeks when the catches were small––50, 100, even 300. But this day, the heavy weight of death came, in over 3000 six-to-10-pound capsules.
This day hit me with something closer to shame than I’d ever felt and changed me with realism: if you went fishing, you would likely catch fish. Catching fish meant dealing with dead and dying bodies. You don’t grow up knowing that Death is in the natural arc, but sometime you would be doing the killing. Salmon by thousands are caught in a dynamic and cyclic sweep, and we are their nemeses. Sometimes we’ll tower over suffering just like a tired, strong woman looms over a fish hold. Others, we’ll flounder: they’ll have spotted us, escaped our nylon metaphor for their own mouths, our ugly lethal nets with their crafty, active, passive resistance, so they’ll be swimming up streams to their normal Doomsdays.
As a child I was imprinted with the Golden Rule, which I easily and intuitively accepted as right and good: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. My understanding of other people’s suffering was borne of this lesson. But did it extend to fish? Here I was, one of two giants who controlled the fates of all these small agents of the grand vitality. I had stepped into and interrupted a life cycle, and logically I should believe, alongside the Buddhists and the Golden Rule, that I must rightly live with the karma of my killing so many thousands. If by accident of fate I’d been born a fish, I wouldn’t like what I’d done unto me. We and the fish were part of an eternal vitality, part of who we are and were and will be, now and long after. Yet in killing them, my husband and I were a functioning part of the food chain, feeding thousands of unknown mouths and providing a college education for our yet unborn son, giving us all a life that we could not have had without those salmon. They were sacrificial souls, infinitesimal as individuals, but enormous in their cumulative impact, alive and then dead, on our family, on others’ families, and on a world of future sons and daughters’ education and life.
That day, once our catch was completely on board, once we had met the fish and game deadline, we would be legal. This bright summer night, muscle bruised and weary, we won our endurance race. Salmon lay bulbous in mounds of net on deck, or stretched collectively and pressed into the net under the tension of the reel; they were hoarded in the hold. Many we even dragged behind the boat the net holding them despite the speed, for we were “in deep” at the water line and our harbor was a mere three or four hours away with no storm in sight.
Well past midnight we delivered some of the dead to the big fish-tenders who camped out in the Inlet waiting for the fleet to come in. Later yet, when we got back to the mouth of the river, Bert pitched some up to the cannery boat and after that to a freezer plant, and the next day at Columbia Wards’ docks, we went on picking fish all day, finally to deliver the last of the catch. Through the rest of that season’s fishing days, I felt the kind of satisfaction that comes after good sex: anything else was cream, and if the rest of the season we didn’t catch anything but water in our nets, it was simply no matter.
Roberta Burnett's poems and translations have appeared in quaartsulini (with a reading on-line), Pirene’s Fountain, Soylesi Poetry Quarterly (tr. into Turkish by Nesrin Eruysal), and Naugatuck River Review (later serving as a guest associate-editor) and in Lucid Rhythms. Turtle Island Quarterly is the first to publish her creative non-fiction. Her first book of poems is Trying Not to Look (Flarestack, UK). She’s had a doggedly persistent, multi-careering life in undergrad college English, public relations and advertising, freelance journalism and reviewing for “almost all” the arts, and, for six summers on deck, commercial salmon fishing in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. While she wanted, childishly, to be a star, she’s happily settled for a third-phase moon with a few clouds nearby. A native of Los Angeles, she’s lived in Arizona for over 40 years.
Poem by Laura Melling
Tell it to me sweetly
Tell me soft and low
An earthen house
The sound of a creek bringing water
Wash it away
The machine that reaches through
And exits out the other side
Tell it to me sweetly
Tell me soft and low
Bird's breath over my arms in a coma of cold
It might be only a lion can save me
And it might be dead
Burn it away
The machine that reaches in
And pulls the cord from the belly
Tell it to me sweetly
Tell me soft and low
The wildlife refuge for women will open tomorrow
The curtains will trail from the windows long over the hills
And flutter towards the moon
Laura Melling has a Masters degree in Anthropology from New York University, a Bachelors in Cultural Psychology from Rutgers University, is an affiliate teacher and former company dancer of the Isadora Duncan International Institute, a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, and the director of Myth and Movement Arts, a nature & arts education organization based in Boulder, Colorado. Originally from New Jersey, Laura has spent significant time traveling and living abroad, and now resides in Colorado. Her poetry has been heard on stages, in cafes and at arts festivals in locations around the US and Europe.
Poem by Jared Smith
In the Farthest Sky
How sun triggers the green fuse
one fiber at a time back away from its roots
into ethereal fire that dries to ash
home to home across light years,
where light years have depth beyond time.
How sun triggers the entire chain of space
back upon itself, a star from within stars
fervent with alien life across time. How
many life forms rise up into that fire.
Each one, and how many stars fire the fuse
across whatever lies between them that
their dust the dust of nova nights blows
to green filaments across chance. How
many chances cross these infinite miles.
Perhaps we are one species, green fern
and the fox that lies down upon its fronds
the corona of its eyes lighting time
where we come upon it in the morning
then looking deeply into each other’s eyes
stones scattered almost silent beneath our feet.
How sun carries this deepest of gazes beyond
enveloping our DNA, our souls, our fear
and our love in energy packets traveling dark
beyond beyond until they reflect in some
something, perhaps a microfilament lying idle
in the ash of what once was and what will be.
Jared Smith is the author of ten published volumes of poetry, including his Collected Poems: 1971-2011; two multimedia stage adaptations of his work, presented in New York and Chicago; and two CDs. His poems, essays, and literary commentary have appeared in hundreds of journals in this country and abroad, and he has appeared on both NPR and Pacifica networks. He has served on the Editorial Staff of several of the country's leading literary publications, including Screening Committee Member and then Board Member of The New York Quarterly, Contributing Columnist for Home Planet News, and three time Guest Poetry Editor for The Pedestal, as well as serving as the past Poetry Editor for the Colorado Mountain Club's Trail & Timberline Magazine. He as well remains a member of The Advisory Board of The New York Quarterly. He also served as host of several poetry venues in New York's Greenwich Village, President of the non-profit Poets & Patrons in Chicago, and is active in a number of local and regional literary and arts organizations. He is currently a contributing editor for Turtle Island Quarterly.
Poem by R.L. Sassoon
A WALK IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD CEMETERY
Silent instant sounds of distant dogs barking
turns around to seeing…
nearby one single crow walking slowly…
moving and stopping black shape summons to eyes vast greens of grasses…
complex grey-brown tree-bark patterns point sight slowly upward…the local now
expanding lacery of leaves and branches traced in delicately clouded
sunset sky…suddenly all becomes
bright flash of light on marble slab…
body moving spontaneously one step forward
shades the stone to show engravings marking death…
Viola Belle Yockey 1902-1915…
about the same age likely
of a slim pretty girl long-yellow-haired
briskly walking her eager leash-straining fluffy white dog
down the dirt path toward me...
our eyes meeting briefly we share a smile…
R.L. Sasson hse been a teacher, painter, playwright and director and has published many essays and stories as well as poems. Writing of his has appeared in various literary magazines, including Chicago Review, Northwest Review, Pilgrimage and others.
Poem by Geroge Drew
THE MIDNIGHT RIDE
She was dead and it was twenty miles
to the hospice. For the first five we
hadn’t spoken, hadn’t anything to say.
If you hadn’t I probably would have
turned my face flush to the window
away from you, even if I was driving.
I could see your face reflected,
the tear tracks down your cheeks
a paltry mimicry of scars.
When I slipped my hand into yours
you flinched, your palm as cold
as I imagined her body to be.
I’d never held your hand before,
which if I had you would have said
was like low comedy—unseemly.
Something drove me to it,
some hubris of the moment,
and we rode the rest of the way
to St. Agatha’s like that, never once
breaking the thick moist wafer
of our silence, never asking the Lord
to hurl us back into the ocean
we had inhabited separately since
I was six, a quarter century ago.
We chose the whale’s ungodly gut,
but together. Holding hands. I suppose
it was just forbearance on your part
that you didn’t pull your hand away,
you the father doing your fatherly duty,
and I the child doing my duty, too,
my fingers stuck to yours the way
my baby’s lips had to her breast,
her arms around me and her voice
the lull of water’s suck and churn
over and around moss-covered rocks
in some spring sacred to the Lord.
Or maybe it was just another way
for you to not pop your knuckles
or bite your nails from nervousness.
But it was also what I didn’t do—
break your fingers one by one,
each finger equal to five years.
Five times five stubby fingers:
twenty-five years. As I pulled up
to the hospice, you freed your hand.
And when you were in the cubicle
with her body for your five minutes
alone, the curtain closing you off
to me, I heard your knuckles popping.
George Drew is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The View from Jackass Hill, the 2010 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. His sixth collection, Fancy’s Orphan, will be published in 2015 by Tiger Bark Press. His reviews and essays have appeared in Louisiana Literature, FutureCycle, Off the Coast, BigCityLit, The Texas Review, and Literary Matters (ALSCW). Recently several of his poems appeared in Birchsong: Poetry Centered in Vermont, and he has poems currently in or upcoming in I-70 Review, Louisiana Literature, Naugatuck River Review, The Nassau Review, Atticus Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Solstice, Main Street Rag and Valley Voices.
Poem by Robert King
An open winding of darkness
in the almost iced-over Platte
reminds me how I have watched rivers
shut, rivers open, their waters
a series of temporary doors.
Once I stood beside a Dakota
winter stream in a white sadness—
a woman was involved—and thought
how hard it had become, packed shut,
and how my little life was stuck.
It felt good to feel so bad.
Now the woman involved is alive
and happy a thousand miles away
and I am alive, happy the Platte
carries no concern for me,
disappearing into the house
of winter, appearing again,
opening and shutting all day.
Robert King’s first book, Old Man Laughing (Ghost Road Press), was a finalist for the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry and his second, Some of These Days, appeared in 2013 from Conundrum Press. He recently won the Grayson Books Chapbook Competition with Rodin & Co. He lives in Greeley, Colorado, where he directs the website www.ColoradoPoetsCenter.org.
Turtle Island Quarterly
Roberta Burnett, Laura Melling, Jared Smith,
R. L. Sassoon, George Drew, Robert King