Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener, and despite the late spring, the ice will be out on most of our state’s 10,000 lakes. Today’s piece, “Anglers” is appropriate for that.
I wrote the words for “Anglers” combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred in my head.
The biographic? My grandfather died when my father was a young man, shortly after I was born. My father had four brothers and a sister, and the youngest of his brothers was only a few years older than I was. My grandfather never lived long enough to teach him much, and so my father helped teach his youngest brother some things their father did not live long enough to do. One of those things was sport fishing. As my young uncle grew up, he and my dad became fishermen of the most avid kind.
Over the next fifty years, the two men fished many places in Minnesota, but most memorably for me, in Canada. Not just on the border lakes like Lake of the Woods, but halfway up Ontario to lakes above the little town of Redditt. Their base there was a rustic fishing lodge: log cabins, outhouses, small aluminum rental rowboats to which they’d attach a c. 1930 Johnson Sea Horse outboard their father had long ago bought to their flat stern. Their routine, out with the dawn, fish until noon, pull in some inlet, fry up some fish for shore lunch, then fish again until late solstice dark. The poem I wrote doesn’t mention it but I was with them as a child on some of these trips, though fishing was not something I kept up with as I grew up and went East. The two brothers though continued their angling until my father finally became to frail and sickened with dementia to continue.
That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my minds ear. Sometimes it’s entire first drafts of shorter poems that are composed there, other times it’s only beginnings or endings, or even phrases that somehow seem to mean to be in a poem. I’ve told myself an advantage of writing this way is that poetry often works best if it’s memorable speech, so composing this way pre-tests things by holding them in memory and seeing if they adhere.
As I get older it’s harder for me to memorize works in process, and this piece had only phrases and parts of the beginning and end stanzas in my head before I started my first paper draft. One of the phrases was the idea of the sport fisherman, the angler, being at right angles to the surface of a lake. Another was the phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but also seemed like unto the vertical angle from the surface of the anglers in their boat.
It was that angle word-play that brought in the literary. The anglers point up and down in their angle from a surface. What do they point to? And lattices, obviously there’s another level under the water surface plane.
The literary? Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, wrote a poem I much admired about a story from the old medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. who observed both an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.
In combining the two, I created the cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like unto angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across the airy plane. And that echoed the idea I had developed in my head from the anglers pointing up 90 degrees from the surface of the lake in their boat. They are pointing to the heavens, a place we can no better understand than the fish can know about the world of our air-breathing.
And there you are, that’s the entire poem’s metaphoric magic trick revealed. Yet that isn’t the poem, much less this audio piece that presents it. I still had to work on the language through several drafts, and I may work on it yet even after this presentation—but the poem and the audio piece is more than its images or its ideas, because a poem and a musical composition are both machines that think with sound.