Every September, various elements in the Southeast Alaska landscape signal the coming change of seasons: the fireweed wilts, wetlands grasses brown and Fred Meyer breaks out the Halloween displays — better grab your giant glow-in-the-dark spider skeleton lawn ornament now (even though spiders are blatantly arthropods and in their 300 million-year-old existence haven’t had a single bone).
And then, of course, there’s back-to-school. Granted, I, myself, completed my formal education back in 2005 — and even then, we’re talking about a graduate creative writing program, which was more like a two-year wine-and-cheese. Still, no matter my age, the very phrase “back-to-school” conjures that same sense of impending doom, a dread so profound only a brand-new Trapper-Keeper can relieve it.
Clearly, this year rates as a serious outlier, as we continue to deal with perhaps the most disruptive global event since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Thank you very much, “everybody’s favorite president!” — see, the media gives him plenty of credit. Point is, this back-to-school season, our kids haven’t really gone back anywhere. They’re still here 24 hours a day, demanding love and cereal. My makeshift job as head counselor at daddy day camp may have ended, but now I’m head master at daddy day school.
This week’s lesson: scrubbing the bicycle tires we took on a “field trip” to Boy Scout Beach on Labor Day.
That’s the other way you know summer’s almost over in Juneau, even a COVID-19 summer: dead salmon. The place is rotten with it. Some carcasses we encountered still possessed their innards, covered with a wriggling carpet of maggots. Others lay lifeless as ravens feasted on their eyes.
Thus, I found myself photographing one particularly disgusting fish husk and texting it to my wife with the caption “Look what we caught for dinner.”
But what I initially found hilarious, I soon began to appreciate as beautiful. Once I took the first picture — and fought back initial gag reflexes — I couldn’t stop shooting. Seriously, when I view that section of my camera roll as a slideshow, it looks like a Nine Inch Nails video.
Anyway, there’s a point to all this, more than just that back-to-school and dead salmon happen at the same time and they’re both disgusting and beautiful, even though they are.
The point is this: as my “students” and I pried dried slime from our tire treads this morning, I found myself thankful for constancy. As a wise man once said, “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” And that man’s name is Sting. So yes, the novel corona virus continues to play havoc with 2020. But the salmon continue to migrate, spawn, die and putrefy, just as they have for eons. No 14-day quarantine for them.
So moved, I spent a whole night writing a poem in honor of these deceased anadromous creatures, desecrating a masterpiece of American arts and letters in the process. I hope you find it disgusting and beautiful, too.
“O Salmon! My Salmon!*”
By Geoff Kirsch
* With apologies to Walt Whitman
O Salmon! My Salmon! Your fateful trip is done;
Spent all your milt on every egg along your salmon run;
The end is near, your stench is clear, some would say revolting
With hollow eyes and languid tail, mottled scales a-molting:
But O fin! fin! fin!
O king, silver, chum, pink, red,
There on the banks my Salmon lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Salmon! dead Salmon! Rise up and take my bait;
Rise up—for you the table’s set—and I must put something on the plate;
For you briquettes and marinades—for you some cedar planking;
For you they call, my dinner guests, their hunger piqued from drinking;
Here Salmon! dear Salmon!
Take this hook inside your head;
I’ll pass it off that at my hand
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Salmon does not answer, his hump is pale and still;
My Salmon does not feel my snag, he has no pulse nor will.
Manhood anchored safe and sound, the voyage closed and done;
From angling trip, I still return a victorious fisherman;
Relax, O fish snobs! It’s not to eat; I’ll just bring back the head,
For in the cooler store-bought decoy Salmon lies,
Filleted and cold and dead.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears twice monthly in Neighbors.