2009 First Prize in Poetry

The Deerfield River Fish by Alex Nicoll

I felt a tug at the line and turned
to Robby and yelled at his prickly pear face:
“Oh damn, this is the one!” My voice smelled
like beer and a pack-a-day habit.
We had been floating on the water,
making nicotine clouds and casting,
but we were just catching little pumpkinseed
who wiggled with lips hooked to our string,
which we ripped off and threw
onto the water, making little circles
on the top and breaking the fishes’ spines.
Cursing ’cause we kept catching puny fish,
and wishing for more beers, we drifted over
to the factory. We kept fishing, hoping for a catch
bigger than our ring fingers.  We were thinking
about crackly fat gold fish or black-lined charcoal fish.

When I tried to pull one fish out
of the rotting riverside water,
the 6 o’clock summer sun in my eyes,
I fell in and felt his overripe dead flesh.
My whole spine went cold.
I found myself looking at what was a once a man
in the Deerfield River. He returned my stare
with empty milk eyes. I was screaming, shooting
air bubbles out of my mouth. The bubbles popped
like bombs all over his body, naked and falling deep.
He was bringing my fishing pole into the swamp
bottom of the river, little plants grasping
at his body, so bruised it was covered
in little pale red flesh-flowers. I swam up
to the boat and spat out the story and river water
and then I threw up beer and 99 cents
of burger and pickles and bun all over myself.

Sometimes I tell this at barbecues
when paper plates fall apart from too much sauce
and when whole backyards and pools
and towns smell of August sweat.
I don’t say that I haven’t fished since.

 

<Thornton Wilder Writing Competition