By Mary Wehner
Few months can compete with the month of June. It has an exhilaration of spirit like no other month of the year. The temperature is generally even, trees are at their blossoming best and anyone who loves the out-of-doors is filled with renewed energy. Watch the fishermen at the gas station grin while paying for their bait. The boats lined up at the pump are clean and shiny, the gas tanks are full and the anticipation for a day on the fish-filled waters is palpable. June is the month we all dream about in February.
And small and large cities and towns are gearing up for their special summer festivals: Walleye Weekend in Fond du Lac, the bicycle race “Race the Lake” circling Lake Winnebago in August, and various musical events floating through the warm summer air from across the lake in Oshkosh to the plaza at Thelma Center for the Arts, to Buttermilk Creek Park, and Division Street’s Trinity Restaurant. The patio umbrellas are poised and waiting. Look up and you will see an eagle carrying a flopping fish on the Winnebago shoreline, or a brightly painted bicycle on a pole over Fond du Lac’s Main Street; look down and you’ll see tiny blossoms in the cracks in the sidewalk or a school of fish swimming under the pier. Everywhere something is about to happen.
Lake Winnebago is a recurring theme in my writing. I caught a glimpse of the eagle I just mentioned on two separate occasions last week, both times flying by with a struggling fish.
Every spring I impatiently wait for the carp to spawn with their noisy splashing antics just off the rocks in front of my house. I have begun to follow the fishermen in their boats, with my binoculars, dragging their lines for walleye and bobbing in the waves alongside the gulls and white pelicans. Fish and fowl are what our ancestors found most important all year long. June must have been a favorite month.
All fish, in deep water or shallow, are mysterious—at least for me. The fascination for the strange, watery environment holds my interest as it does for many writers and artists. We all have our fish stories to tell. From Moby Dick to Jaws, readers have been frightened and fascinated by these ancient creatures. There are many good poems about fish. One of the most loved and anthologized poems: “The Fish” was written by Elisabeth Bishop. Bishop took a long time to complete the poem and revised it many times as was her famous habit. Seldom did she feel completely satisfied. She was a perfectionist and detail was her strong suit with careful attention to the line and rhythm. She always brings an emotional depth to her subject.
Elizabeth Bishop, 1911 – 1979
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
A wonderful Wisconsin poet and naturalist friend, Steve Tomasko grew up on Lake Winnebago and this poem has the underlying emotion lake people can identify with. I’m happy to share Steve’s talented way of presenting the picture of a boyhood memory.
Upon Reading Thoreau’s Description of a Pickerel as Animalized Water
I remember the dock warped, weathered, worn smooth from years of sun and water. Plunked face down I peer between the gray slats
watch the perch slide by, ignoring my baited hook. My young eyes fix on a shard of sunlight and color
that gradually resolves into a 2-foot pike. Floating in place, its body ripples front to back, front to back looking ready to lunge
for the perch. But with a quick muscular flick it disappears, leaving eddies of whirling sand. I shiver.
I read of a father who recently found his son in their cabin boathouse surrounded by rods, reels, fishing tackle—playing an electronic fishing game.
By this time each year, the birds are back with a colorful flourish–hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches, orioles. Many poets know that it is difficult to write poetry about natural things without risking sentimentality. But here are a few examples of walking the line between sentiment and sentimentality worthy of note. Jules Renard (1864-1910) was a French novelist, playwright, and diarist with a bent toward noting things with a fresh perspective. I stumbled on his writings years ago and go back to them often for inspiration. Here are two short “notes” from “Nature Stories” translated by Douglas Parmee with illustrations by the famous artist Pierre Bonnard.
IN THE SHADE OF A WILLOW, he’s not moving; he’s the hidden dagger of some old bandit.
I didn’t get a bite this evening but I’m coming home with a strange sensation.
As I was holding my fishing rod up, a kingfisher came and perched on it.
We haven’t got a more striking bird.
It looked like a big blue flower on the end of a long twig. The rod was bending under his weight.
I was swelling with pride at having been taken for a tree by a kingfisher.
And I can swear that he didn’t fly off because he was afraid; it was merely because he thought he was moving from one branch to another.
Below is a poem of mine selected for inclusion in the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf Up to the Cottage project where poems are place in cottages around the various rental properties in Wisconsin and Vermont. This poem comes from a creative remembrance of the small, North woods cottage my husband and I stayed in last year in early June.
Every morning out of reach
something flutters in the eaves:
bird or squirrel. I rise to the ping
in the bathroom’s rusty pipes.
And in the front room there is
a swarm of ash-covered bees
blown out of the flue into the yellow
light. Gray mold furs the rafters.
I’m not a city dweller, I thrive
in this uneven swell of cedar dust
and insects, I admire the morning
crow’s certain uncertainty.
My ease hangs in the pitch pine,
ripples through its needles; it travels
the root-heaved cedars down
the grassless hill to the cold lake.
It is where I settle all my arguments,
the easy way a felled birch
gives in to summer’s dampness.
Why don’t you take “note” of your summer experiences–in nature and otherwise. I’d recommend it as a good distraction from lake flies and mosquitoes.
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a poem about fathers. Mother’s Day gets more attention than Father’s Day but many times our fathers display their love in subtle ways we don’t always recognize. Here is another poem much loved by the world. It isn’t seasonal, but says what many of us feel about our fathers—all they did for us without thanks, and many times without appreciation until long after they are gone.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers in that house.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?