For Green Mountains Review’s 25th Anniversary Poetry Retrospective, published last spring, contributors were asked to submit short “Talk Back” essays reflecting on the poem’s genesis, influence, enduring relevance, and any number of strange transformations a poem can take on over time. Below, in a web-exclusive “Talk Back” essay, Lance Larson talks a little about one of our very favorite poems in the anniversary issue, “A Bright Darkness Sometimes Mistaken for Fishing,” also printed below. –The Editors
A Bright Darkness Sometimes Mistaken for Fishing
He flipped the trout, as if re-positioning a book
in his hands, then sliced from anus to sunset,
sunset to quivering chin, clean like the line
where water licked shore. We were trapped
in dusk, the two of us, my father thigh deep
in river, me in wet tennis shoes. He plunged
thumb and finger into the fish and pulled
till the insides peeled free. He held that slither
of organs at arm’s length, as if hanging wind
chimes, then side armed them into the willows.
Was it then or later we traded bodies?
Whatever we had come for–the taut line,
the underwater blood pull, the blue vacancy
in the sky one can hook but never reel in–
beyond us now. He creeled that trout, then rinsed
his hands. Or tried to. But still it clung–
a fish-slippery something that glazed the car door,
printed the Coke bottle we shared, coated
the radio dial that searched the chaos for a voice
to warble us home. We drove east, the river
held west, and I had all evening to swap places
with darkness. Catch eleven fish, you fail.
Catch none, you also fail. When he tousled
my hair I leaned in to feel the failure up close.
I was a swirl of buggy water, my father the night,
the sky dreamed in scales, my happiness closed
and opened like gills, the ones we’re born with
and spend our best breath forgetting how to use.
The images that triggered “A Bright Darkness Sometimes Mistaken for Fishing” I’ve long since deleted. There’s nothing here about the reservoir upriver holding back metric tons of water. Nothing about the country cheese shop where old timers craving cheddar asked for “some of that nasty stuff that tastes like old dirty socks.” Nothing about Swinging Bridge, that rickety affair made of rope and planks and drownings—including my own, if I wasn’t careful. Though these images powerfully evoke a certain stretch of the Snake River up in Idaho, long before it flows into the Columbia, on the page they remained static—already lived, so to speak—so I had to chop them. What remained was a subterranean thread I could follow only when I allowed for more play of language, more uncertainty. While writing this piece, I did not think of it as an elegy to my father, gone six years in August, though I suppose it is. An elegy to a taciturn fisherman who tied his own flies and never boasted about how many fish he caught. Fishing with him was a little like fishing with Nick Adams—not so much sport or celebration as it was ritual, a chance for us to taste the river and the river us. I love those serendipitous moments in life and in poetry when the sluice gates lift for a moment and mystery sloshes in.