“Gone Fishing” by Shelby Stephenson

I think I cleaned fish before I could walk.
I always knew how, seeing my father
go empty the guano sack full of bream
and bass and eel and pumpkinseed, catfish
(the channel and bullhead too) and so on:
the whistle dick, horse fish, carp, minnow, gar,
you name it, fish from our world, Middle Creek.
And we ate them, the littler, the better:
we fished to eat and ate to fish our catch.
I’d scale the little ones; then going up
with the knife at the tooter-hole, I’d pull
the entrails down through and into the gills,
saving every single bite not attached.
And little or big, I would always gap
the fish’s hole with my sharp pocket knife
to reveal how I feel about bowels,
still wondering about the earth’s rare place,
the seam and stream of eyes, of things global,
my mind losing presences in the found
comfort of measures sitting on burlap
on the bank of the creek, my lead line taut
for a bottom-feeder, my red bobber
a round and slight little boat in water,
my legs a dangle over the greenish
water where my string of growing fins fan
the fabric the water cleanses with ease
of slender waste and flourish of greater
practice without any new-healed passage
where the swell of fox or wolf I hear in
the distance, my walk out of the growth of
gravity and gravy, my mother at
our home sweeping the yard with her broom made
of dogwood (I must remember to cut
down a new one, as I hate to do, on
my way home) – a home in the face and hair
of wishing the fish would bite, for my walk
out to be more than a fisherman’s luck,
a wet tail and a hungry gut, angel
over my shoulder not so ill as to tell
me I shall go home with a few boney
fish I shall see and smell in the popping
oil and pan, my mother frying the catch
for what it’s worth without malice of age
or worry to follow through on matters
of fishing and not get caught up in it
to lose even a dram of scruple fish
always lugged sacredly as toes Jesus
keeps loafing as fish’s great majesty,
plus the charm of hoping the world might bathe
downstream below the Rock Hole where Thread Tom
almost drowned me when I was a little
boy too young to fight the bad bullying
the bigger boys brag about, the fishes
themselves not hurting after the fishhook’s
removed and they flitter their lives along
on a string and loiter while the water
snakes nibble to nudge into lethargy
free of hunger that the wild contention
a horse fish’s head, lips, might really look
like Silver of Lone Ranger fame in a
stratagem to bow down now to say grace

Shelby Stephenson was poet laureate of North Carolina from 2015-2018.  For 32 years he was editor of the international literary journal Pembroke Magazine. His recent book is Shelby’s Lady: The Hog Poems.