Vain to fish
with unbaited hook,
the proverb says. I fished that way,
at 9, after Sunday School at Trinity Presbyterian, as God said
(my schizophrenic, periodically
catatonic uncle and preacher said)
thou shalt not kill, so I would kill
neither lake bass nor earthworm, thought the Lord
was watching that rowboat and testing
me, like Job or Abraham, to see if I’d break
some covenant we’d made
I couldn’t remember making,
dreaded that like Joan of Arc I’d be summoned
someday in my backyard, under the pecan tree’s
velvet greenfuzzed litter, to leave
Alexander III 3rd grade to go
and raise an Army
to end the napalm flamethrow jungleburn
Walter Cronkite told me about
so for hours in the rowboat with my father
who’d left his own war without ever going to combat
to Travel Mental Troop to psychiatric
discharge after six months and told his family
he’d been the sole survivor
of a kamikaze-bombed carrier,
my unbaited hook would twitch along the lake bottom’s
algae slime, my earthworm snuck back into bucket-writhe.
He couldn’t know I was deceiving him for the Lord,
humiliated on my behalf
that hour after hour I got
not even a line-tug. It
humiliated me to disappoint that Pacific hero.
And this is how we did it, outings
of Father and Son; fishing
for each other, with unbaited hooks.
Copyright © 2019 by Bruce Beasley. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 3, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“As a child I remember being terrified by Bible stories and sermons about people who were visited by God, like Moses and Abraham and the apostles mending their nets. I worried it would happen to me and I was just a kid and so unready. Years after my father died, my brother obtained his Marine records and discovered he’d never been in combat, much less endured the battle trauma that had always been a foundational myth of his life for my whole family. At the end of his psychiatric records from 1943 is stamped the enigmatic phrase TRAVEL MENTAL TROOP. In this poem, I’m trying to get at the mutual vulnerabilities that create fissures between people who love each other but can’t find the way to bring their minds in conjunction enough to say to each other what is true.”
Bruce Beasley grew up in Macon, Georgia. He received a BA from Oberlin College, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD from the University of Virginia.
He is the author of several poetry collections, including All Soul Parts Returned (BOA Editions, 2017), Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012), The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2007), Summer Mystagogia (University of Colorado Press, 1996), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and The Creation (Ohio State University Press, 1994), winner of the Ohio State University Press/Journal Award.
David Young writes, “Beasley’s dark humor and his frankness are arresting. He twists the sacred and the profane together, insisting on their inseparability, and he does the same for the material and the immaterial, the physical and the spiritual.”
Beasley is the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, as well as fellowships from the Artist Trust of Washington and the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently teaches at Western Washington University and lives in Bellingham, Washington.
All Soul Parts Returned (BOA Editions, 2017)
Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012)
The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2007)
Lord Brain (University of Georgia Press, 2005)
Signs and Abominations (Wesleyan University Press, 2000)
Summer Mystagogia (University of Colorado Press, 1996)
The Creation (Ohio State University Press, 1994)
Spirituals (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
Date Published: 2019-10-03
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/fishers