The Poetry of Fishing: James A. Emanuel

Photo (partial) from DayLife.com

Fishing and writing are typically solitary crafts that offer fishermen and poets sweet opportunities for introspection.

The list is prodigious as an Alaskan salmon run: Izaak Walton, James Fenimore Cooper, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Norman MacLean, Thomas McGuane, Nick Lyons, and John McPhee. They’re just a few of the many writers, classic and contemporary, whose prose routinely tangles with the sport of fishing. However, prose writers like these are not alone: for centuries, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, and James A. Emanuel have mused over the fisherman’s art.

Why do so many writers, particularly poets, embrace the sport of fishing? For starters, fishing and writing are typically solitary crafts that offer fishermen and poets sweet opportunities for introspection. Sure, you can fish with friends, just as you can participate in writers’ workshops and revel in the camaraderie each experience provides, but fishing and poetry dangle seductive invitations for the loner hungry to tackle his or her ideas. Unlike more collaborative art forms, such as theater, music, or filmmaking, fishing and poetry cultivate individual responsibility like few other crafts: whether you write a good poem or catch many fish, the poet’s and fisherman’s products are always a reflection of his abilities alone. A romanticism and celebration of the self resonates throughout that individualism.

Fishing and storytelling are inseparable, since a fishing trip is never complete until it has been narrated to an expectant audience. We not only allow fishermen to exaggerate, but we celebrate their hyperbole, allowing them to expand truth in ways only writers and their readers, or storytellers and their audience, can appreciate. Nobody blends reality and fiction better than writers or fishermen. The blank page is no different than the open river. The writer sitting alone at a desk has a mood shared with the angler pondering invisible ghosts in deep pools. The adventure of traveling across a wild landscape in search of fish is the angler’s equivalent of a poet’s journey into the heart of language’s soul, if you will. But that journey is never complete until it has been retold and its setting, characters, dialogue, and climax have been refined for the eager listener’s ear. I often wonder myself … do I fish to tell stories, or do I tell stories to fish?

Also, similar to all great art, especially literature, fishing provides hope, inspiration, and respect for natural forces beyond our understanding and control. That hope and inspiration, like a good poem, bring people together to revel in their humanity, shared objectives, and fellowship with the natural world long after the rods, reels, and anthologies have been stored away. The overwhelming feelings we experience after reading a beautiful poem are not that different than the emotional highs we experience after catching a large, beautiful fish. In both instances, we’ve landed something profound.

For the avid angler, fish are the writer’s words; for the avid writer, words are the fisherman’s fish. Anglers cast into the mysterious lake of possibility seeking perfectly scaled gems, just as writers cast into the sea of language seeking the perfect word or phrase. Those quests are sometimes frustrating and often challenging, but regardless of results, they are always rewarding: having examined our deepest worries and wonders while writing or fishing, poets and anglers alike often produce memorable tales. Combine those characteristics with the escapism and adventure fishing offers and the contact it fosters with Chance’s mystical realms, and it should be no surprise that some of the world’s greatest writers and poets were also fervent anglers.

And just as sensory explosions, unique rhythms, and symmetrical balances propel poetry, fishing too is electrified by our senses and the natural order. Hearing a reel’s drag slice through morning silence as a large fish runs, or watching an eagle clasp a fish on the surface with the sun rising behind, or smelling summer rain as a largemouth ambushes a plug…each provides the stuff of legend.

The best fishermen know that order, balance, precision, and symmetry, as best understood in our most respected “ologies” – climatology, marine biology, ichthyology, or entomology, to name just a few – cannot be ignored. Knowing sciences such as geometry and how the natural world is arranged is the fisherman’s greatest resource, just as studying traditions and conventions of poetic forms offers the poet knowledge too tempting to pass.

Few poems capture these ideas better than James A. Emanuel’s “Poet as Fisherman”. Born in 1921, Emanuel, a Nebraska native, is best known for his contributions in establishing African American literature as an academic discipline and creating the literary genre of the “jazz-and-blues-haiku”. As one of the world’s leading Langston Hughes scholars, he has held professorships at the City College of New York (CUNY) and in France and Poland and currently resides in Paris. By many people’s estimations, he is one of America’s most important “neglected” poets.

Poet As Fisherman

I fish for words

to say what I fish for,

half-catch sometimes.

I have caught little pan fish flashing sunlight

(yellow perch, crappies, blue-gills),

lighthearted reeled them in,

filed them on stringers on the shore.

A nice mess, we called them,

and ate with our fingers, laughing.

Once, dreaming of fish in far-off waters,

I hooked a two-foot carp in Michigan,

on nylon line so fine

a fellow-fisher shook his head:

"He'll break it, sure; he'll roll on it and get away."

A quarter-hour it took to bring him in;

back-and-forth toward my net,

syllable by syllable I let him have his way

till he lay flopping on the grass—

beside no other, himself enough in size:

he fed the three of us (each differently)

new strategies of hook, leader, line, and rod.

Working well, I am a deep-water man,

a "Daredevil" silver wobbler

my lure for lake trout in midsummer.

Oh, I have tried the moon, thermometers—

the bait and time and place all by the rule—

fishing for the masterpiece,

the imperial muskellunge in Minnesota,

the peerless pike in Canada.

I have propped a well-thumbed book

against the butt of my favorite rod

and fished from my heart.

Yet, for my labors,

all I have to show

are tactics, lore—

so little I know

of that pea-sized brain I am casting for,

to think it could swim

with the phantom-words

that lure me to this shore.

-- James A. Emanuel

The beauty of Emanuel’s poem resides in its first and last stanzas, where he weaves the arts of fishing and writing unlike any other artist. In the first stanza, he writes, “I fish for words to say what I fish for, half-catch sometimes,” which raises this important question: Why do we fish? To catch fish or to catch words and stories? Emanuel reminds us that fishing and writing are bookends on the same odyssey, a search for personal, communal, societal, and universal meaning that helps define our existence. Many fishermen find fish and words synonymous; our sentences are each a fishing trip themselves marked by endless variations and surprising syntactical combinations that compel us toward the shore of meaning, gazing into the horizon, seeking more.

The “half-catch sometimes” that he alludes to recalls the imperfections inherent in fishing. Like writing, fishing is a celebration of missed opportunities, uncertainty, and failure. Casting a fly to an exact location is an exercise in imperfection, just as trying to describe a mental image or emotion with words can be. Every word a writer chooses, just as every cast a fisherman boasts, is simultaneously a reaching for something perfect while tacitly acknowledging it cannot exactly hit its target. We catch something when angling, but the experience is never certain, never complete, until our words become stories and our stories find conclusions.

James A. Emanuel - 1999, photo by Godelieve Simons

Emanuel’s poem concludes with this stanza: “Yet, for my labors, all I have to show are tactics, lore so little I know of that pea-sized brain I am casting for, to think it could swim with the phantom-words that lure me to this shore.” Emanuel acknowledges there’s something foolish about fishing: Why do we waste time with this silly sport, chasing these tiny creatures? Why do we work so hard for something so insignificant? We concoct elaborate tactics and purchase expensive equipment for small fish with “pea-sized brain(s)” that we often don’t even keep or eat.

Why? Part of Emanuel’s point articulates the magic all anglers experience: fishing is a profoundly humbling experience that often leaves egos in shreds. To remind ourselves frequently that a creature as relatively small and “pea-brained” as a sunfish, flounder, or trout can remain so elusive and difficult to catch is a humbling, almost religious, experience. We are reduced to something fundamental when fishing, and that process is precious.

And “the phantom-words that lure (him) to this shore” are no different than the phantom-fish that lure him: both are hauntingly elusive and beautiful, simultaneously embodying the possible and impossible in one silver flash. For Emanuel, words and compositions are phantoms: they don’t exist until we find them and bring them to page; fish are no different: they don’t exist until we find them and bring them to shore. Out of nothingness, through the poet’s and fisherman’s tools, come glorious fish and poetry.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chatted with people along a shoreline and pointed out fish to them. They were amazed that, first, I could even see those phantoms; second, that I could accurately identify them; and third, that such life could exist before their eyes without noticing it.

Call me naïve, but I’ll call that magic, and no two activities recreate that magic better than poetry and fishing.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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