Salmon Art

Salmon Boy

That boy was hungry. His mother gave him Dog Salmon,
Only the head. It was enough,
And he carried it hungry to the river’s mouth
And fell down hungry. Saltwater came from his eyes,
And he turned over and over. He turned into it.

And that boy was swimming under the water
With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
He was breathing the river through his mouth.
The river’s mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.

He saw the Salmon People waiting. The said, “This water
Is our wind. We are tired of swimming against the wind.
Come to the deep, calm valley of the sea.
We are hungry too. We must find the Herring People.”
And they turned their green tails. Salmon Boy followed.

He saw Shell-Walking-Backward, Woman-Who-Is-Half-Stone.
He heard the long, high howling of Wolf Whale,
Seal Woman’s laughter, the whistling of Sea Snake,
Saw Loon Mother flying through branches of seaweed,
Felt Changer turn over far down in his sleep.

He followed to the edge of the sky where it opens
And closes, where Moon opens and closes forever,
And the Herring People brought feasts of eggs,
As many as stars, and Salmon Boy ate the stars
As if he flew among them, saying Hungry, Hungry.

But the Post of Heaven shook, and the rain fell
Like pieces of Moon, and the Salmon People swam,
Tasting sweet, saltless wind under the water,
Opening their mouths again to the river’s mouth,
And Salmon Boy followed, full-bellied, not afraid.

He swam fastest of all. He leaped into the air
And smacked his blue-green silvery side, crying, Eyo!
I jump! again and again. Oh, he was Salmon Boy!
He could breathe everything! He could see everything!
He could eat everything! And then his father speared him.

He lay on the riverbank with his eyes open,
Saying nothing while his father emptied his belly.
He said nothing when his mother opened him wide
To dry in the sun. He was full of sun.
All day he dried on sticks, staring upriver.

–David Wagoner

It is a rainy day and a Sunday, which seems like a very suitable juncture for spending some time with a poem I have held in awe for many years. Whenever my friend Kathryn and I get to talking about the experiences in our lives that have “gutted” us out, this is the poem we are referencing in our heads.

Salmon Boy is my personal paragon for a very particular kind of energy. I’ve never found another poem that does what this one does. Everything in its musical structure, choice of language and idea flow is incantatory. And each time I get to the end—a process I have gone through countless times— I feel the peculiar sensation of having witnessed (and at times, even participated in) a mystical rite. Oh that all the guttings that life brings could be experienced in a container as crystalline and exquisite as this.