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Among dead Kasilof salmon, Alaska setnetters pause to read poems

Rick Sinnott

Ah, the sounds of fish camp. Waves slapping the shore. Deb’s 4:30 a.m. wakeup holler, “Let’s go fishin’!” The sputter of an outboard motor. The rattle and thump of gillnet floats going over the bow. The rhythm and rhymes of a good poem.

The Kasilof River personal-use setnet fishery will never be the same.

The folks I fish with are typical Alaskans. Four couples joined forces at the mouth of the Kasilof River this year. All of us are readers, although I suspect I’m the only one who reads poetry as a matter of course. I’m a writer. It’s an occupational hazard.

Deb, the early riser, is the most fanatical fisher. Our other Debbie might have been a free spirit in her younger days, judging from old photos. She still subscribes to Mother Jones magazine. Her husband owns and operates the rubber raft, thus earning his nickname, Captain Steve.

None of us are sophisticates. At our post-fishing celebration, Buff made mint juleps by pulverizing the mixture in a blender instead of using the more traditional method of steeping or muddling the mint leaves in the bourbon or syrup. Most of us agreed that the resulting cocktail – which bore a strong resemblance to dishwater, down to the soapy-looking froth – was remarkably tasty.

This year’s camp might have unfolded much like previous years', except for the high-school textbooks we found scattered around the fire ring. The books had been lined up front to back and shot three times with a large-caliber firearm. Rain had dampened pages. One of the books was the New Oxford Book of American Verse. The bullets had punched a few words out of most of the poems.

No Ralph Waldo Emerson

After we set up tents and started cooking dinner, I tossed a textbook on the campfire and leafed through the poetry anthology. I recognized some of my favorites from other collections, which gave rise to an idea. Perhaps one could select enough compelling poems to entice a bunch of hard-bitten setnetters to read them aloud. I started tearing out any poem that might achieve that mark.

Appropriately, the 19th-century poets that I thought would be least appealing were also the soggiest. I’ve never been a fan of the flowery verse of John Greenleaf Whittier or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some of the best poetry is created from expressing everyday events in a familiar cadence.

To make it more entertaining, I tried to pick poems unfamiliar to most. No old standards like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I scribbled missing words in the margins to avoid awkward pauses during the readings.

At bedtime I carried the sheaf of torn pages to the tent and tried to match poems with people. My wife, a former teacher and librarian, expressed reservations. Memories of poetry readings by reluctant secondary-school students are seared into her psyche. I resolved to press on, but her doubts raised the bar.

The next day, an evening with no nets to pick, offered a perfect opportunity for an impromptu recital. After everyone had relaxed a bit in camp, I passed out the poems and allowed 10 minutes for everyone to look them over.

Bullet-riddled page

My wife kicked off the event by reciting a Robert Frost poem she memorized many years ago, “One Step Backward Taken.” Frost uses a flash flood to illustrate the wisdom of stepping back to avoid a seemingly inevitable personal crisis. The audience’s foot-stomping approval of her tour de force was reassuring.

Captain Steve has slain thousands of fish, and he hunts moose with a bow. So I assigned him a poem by James Dickey, also a bowhunter. “The Heaven of Animals” is about reincarnation. Its images of predators – whose “descent upon the bright backs of their prey may take years in a sovereign floating of joy” – and prey – who feel no fear or pain as “they walk under the tree, they fall, they are torn, they rise, they walk again” – are such to stir the blood of any mortal. Steve didn’t want to give up the bullet-riddled page when he finished. We think he hid it in his pickup.

Cheryl has the aptitude and sensibility of an artist, so I asked her to read “Why I Am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara. The poem pokes fun at the purpose and practice of art. The take-home message is stop thinking about it, just do it.

I tossed another textbook on the fire. Time for some laughs. Buff, one of the most self-possessed or self-absorbed people I know, read William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” a poem about absentmindedly, or perhaps deliberately, eating the last of the plums in the icebox. So short and sweet -- we begged him to read it again. His wife punctuated each line with a discerning nod.

In perhaps the most inspired match of the evening, Deb read “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. That morning a hefty sockeye salmon, snagged in the monofilament mesh by a tooth, had fallen out of the net into the water, where it hesitated, one tail flip from freedom. Deb pounced on it. She will never be a catch-and-release angler. Which made her reading all the more ironic because the poem’s narrator had also caught “a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat.” However, after admiring its beauty and survival instinct, she had let it go.

Beheading and begutting

Next was Debbie, from a family with 10 children, reading “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, a poem about unconditional love with a bittersweet ending.

Cheryl and her man Steve, the one without a boat, aren’t afraid to demonstrate their mutual affection, so I handed him “may i feel said he” by e.e. cummings. A call-and-response poem consisting of flirtatious wheedling and sexual innuendo, it may have been the most difficult to perform in a circle of Alaskans whose fingernails were encrusted with fish blood. To everyone’s delight, including his own, Steve nailed it.

Wanting to end the event with a bang, I read “I Know a Man” by Robert Creeley. Tough talking, its emphatic punch line – “look out where yr going” – bookended the sunny outcome of the opening Frost poem, but it ended a little too abruptly. An encore was needed. So I added e. e. cummings’ “nobody loses all the time,” a poem that demonstrates how everybody can succeed at something.

The next morning, sitting on a hot, sunbathed beach waiting for the nets to fill, our captain remarked on the “rubber-pungent smell” of his waders. Later, preparing to process our catch on the slime line, Cheryl volunteered to help with the “beheading and begutting.”

Did they always talk that way, or was poetry reverberating in our everyday conversations?

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com