Friday, July 31, 2009

Peter Munro on "Bleeding Cod"

I love working with fishermen. I’m part of a research team that charters their vessels and expertise. Together, we conduct surveys and experiments in the North Pacific and Bering Sea to estimate population parameters. Occasionally, we accompany a boat as it fishes commercially. This was the case last fall when the owners, officers, and crew of the F/V Alaska Mist welcomed me on a longline trip for cod in the Bering Sea.

When I board a boat, I look for ways to join the crew in their work. But the tasks of fishing can be dangerous for idiots, especially Government scientifical types. Most boats severely limit how I’m allowed to “help out.” A good job for me leaves the skipper unworried, even better if it’s work the crew hates. On the Alaska Mist, the bleeding trough looked like a grind. The bleeders happily let me take a few turns.

It changed me.

I felt myself growing callous toward dying cod. Disdainful.

Killing marks the darker side of stewardship. I’ve killed my share of fish for data. I’ve always had peace about that part of the job. Cod bleeding was different. Not parameter estimation anymore. Hydraulics and knifework eroded my sense of worship, like ritual repeated until meaningless. For my heart’s sake I had to stop cutting cod, or open myself to their deaths: my hands, my blade, their salt. Gunked in cod feces and several colors of red, I became still, looking more closely at dying than I ever had.

Gradually, I grasped that no two cod died quite alike, the uniqueness of each death being masked by the monotony of industrial fishing. They fought wildly against mortality, yet cod after cod perished easily in my hands, big, tough animals revealed as fragile. I think I’d been growing to hate them for mirroring my own powerlessness and fragility even as, god-like, I loosed them from their lives. Hypnotized by blood, I thought I could feel something in my body, as if I released my own self a little bit into death each time I knifed through gills. Peaceful. Sobering.

I sensed I was in a poem. I suppose we all are, all the time, but stress and fatigue had cracked me enough to notice. I could feel the beauty of the poem, despite its wreckages of flesh. I wrote some of it down.

Strict pattern usually marks my initial composition process. However, “Bleeding Cod” lived in free verse from the beginning, by far the hardest form and always scary. Actually, I didn’t even recognize the early drafts as drafts. Lacking the comfort of rhyme scheme or syllable count, I simply jotted details. While waiting to start, I tightened phrases, tended to nitty gritty word choice, fiddled with order. Finally, it dawned on me that this was composition. Cod bleeding demanded a verse form set in release, I guess, not sounded in harness. I opened myself to it and the poem spilled across the page, perhaps lumped with little clots of rhyme.


  1. I hate to begin a comment with the banal "I really like this poem," but I really do. What strikes me is the deft combination of technical fishing terminology and metaphor ("swaddles the bleeder") -- such that one realizes that perhaps (and perhaps ironically) the most technical language is the most metaphorical.

    I like the "After sixteen hours" last stanza -- the combination of timelessness and episodic from stanza to stanza.


  2. Can I ask a question? Are cod particularly bloody fish?

  3. Having worked in the Bering Sea for 14 years, I can personally attest that they are particularily bloody, and I come from midwest farm country. It can look like a war zone at the end of the day.

  4. Hi Hollis,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I wonder, which came first, technical terms or metaphors, chickens or eggs? In the bleeder poem, the most obvious term that fits your observation of technical and metaphorical would probably be "crucifier". The first time I saw one in action I was stunned by the appropriateness of the name. When a fish hits the crucifier it is an intense instant, the focal point of the whole capture process. The cod crucifixion is not literally crosswise, but it is a violent execution and the word is literally valid, not just metaphorically potent. I suspect it’s a term for which usage grew gradually, as sailors became more familiar with the device in the early days of hydraulic retrieval and assembly line fishing.

    I think there is an inherent beauty in earned usage of technical language. Cormac McCarthy makes extensive use of technical language, as did Melville. I love that sort of empowered writing, grounded story telling, even when I don’t know the actual jargon. By “earned” I mean literarily earned, not that the speaker of the poem has to be an actual practitioner of the technical craft giving us the particular terms. More that the maker of the piece has to have respect for the technical terminology and the legacies and histories represented in the words. Also that the maker must earn the trust of the listener that the terms are in proper usage, not just term-dropping to show off or because somebody has ordained that poems need to be full of specifics.


    Cod seem like pretty bloody fish to me. This is the Pacific cod, Gadus macrocephalus, an entirely separate species from the Atlantic cod. It’s one of the bloodier species that we work with, high latitude bottom fish, white fleshed. But salmon seem more bloody, pelagic animals that they are, constantly swimming, muscles constantly metabolizing. And I suspect that warm water pelagics, such as tunas and bill fish, are much bloodier, with their big masses of muscle in constant action, needing constant service.

    Cod blood seems to have its own color. Maybe it’s just there is more of it. That’s an observation made by a colleague of mine who has seen much more cod fishing than I have. I was careful to run this poem past her and some others where I work to make sure it was accurate.

    Thanks again for your words, Hollis.


  5. Peter -- I like the idea of "literarily earned" and in your blog post as well as your response above, you have shown yourself to be utterly comfortable as a prose practitioner of the technical craft as well. Your phrase above, "the whole capture process," is delightfully bureaucratic, as is "population parameters," the second word of which of course evokes the idea of abnormal meters, or perhaps free verse.

    In reading the poem again and your elaboration of the crucifier, I recalled the Pinners' Play in the York cycle, where the carpenter soldiers comment on their workmanship during the crucifixion:

    2 SOLDIER:
    Well, I believe I've got this hand;
    Right to the hole I have it brought
    Obediently, without a band.
    1 SOLDIER:
    Then strike on, hard, by him thee bought!
    2 SOLDIER:
    This nail, I think, will stoutly stand;
    Through bone and flesh it shall be caught.
    My work is good, you understand.
    1 SOLDIER:
    Sir, what is your report?
    The sun has nearly sunk.
    3 SOLDIER:
    His arm's a foot too short;
    The sinews must have shrunk.
    4 SOLDIER:
    Perhaps the holes were bored too wide.

    Teaching this play years ago I thought about how infrequently literature captures the particulars of labor and craft. Moby Dick of course gets it right and I think Bleeding Cod does as well.

  6. Hi Peter,

    Images from this poem have stayed with me in the many months since I first read it, and reading your blog today, what you wrote about it being a repetitious ritual, each cod's death presenting something monotonous as well as distinctly individual, really struck me, as it was something I could inately sense from just the structure and diction of the poem. In particular, the first stanza has this terrific sense of echo and mirror in its build, as the lines and beats widen out in the middle and are bookeneded by shorter lines. Also, the way certain words and phrases from the opening return by the end of the stanza: "kiss the crucifier" and "crucify/ by kiss," and even the repetition of "circle-hook" and "flesh" toward the end. Later in the poem, the phrase "sometimes blood" echoes as well. And yet, through all this repetition, the diction is so precise, it gives that flare of individuality to each cod as well.

    Reading about your discovery that this would be a free-verse poem was really interesting to me. My question I suppose would be how do you find these repetitions within that sphere? Was it something you originally sought out or was it more that the phrases kept returning to you and found a place later in the poem's metamorphosis?

    Thank you for the great poems in this issue (and in past issues as well).


  7. Jacques,

    Your kind words about the poem do my heart good. Thank you.

    You asked about repetition. Frankly, I was unconscious of it until you pointed it out. Well, that’s not entirely true, the crucifier repetition was deliberate. But the others not so much so. Kind of an “uff da” moment once you noted it.

    I know I tend toward repetition. I like to think my strategy is to write for somebody hearing the poem, who can’t look back to an earlier point in the text. Probably, however, it is just that I find it comforting in my own experience. I try to keep on the look out for it as I revise. This poem, however, had a very short revision stage compared to my normal writing process. Normally I don’t send a poem out to editors until it’s at least a couple of years old, usually older. It seems to take me that long to see past my usual bad habits and knee-jerk patterning. Even more importantly, it takes a long time for me to settle into a secure relationship with whatever it is that lives at the heart of a poem and give it its beauty.

    The cod poem came fast. I’m not used to that. The relationship between me and the heart of the poem was vibrant for me right away and I could tell some of the beauty I’d been living was actually in the poem. Before I was even half way through the cruise I thought the poem was done. ( The guys on the boat all loved it.) I sent if off to Beloit within two or three weeks of getting back to the beach. But there had been a tickle in my head that something wasn’t quite right. The day after it went in the mail I began a major revision. I should have known better to zip it off to BPJ.

    I wasn’t worried. Sharkey and Rosenwald don’t fall for such mistakes. I was confident they’d send it back with words to the effect of “nice try” or “almost a good poem”. I went ahead and revised. The poem got about fifteen lines longer and the language more florid. The narrative line changed significantly, much more consistent with the actual flow of cod from the roller into the factory. To my mind it was quite different. I was in a quandry when they accepted the first version. But they were gracious enough to look past my inadvertant bait and switch tactics and remained open to the revision. They pointed out several glitch-points that I’d run over roughshod in the revision.

    All of this is a very long way of saying, the poem mostly just happened to me. The repetitions are something I notice after the fact. So much after the fact that you had to point them out to me before I fully comprehended their presence. (By the way, Jacques, I am so glad you posed your question as multiple choice. I choose “b”, thank you. If you hadn’t done that I’d still be scratching my head and mumbling to myself, “Where DID those repetitions come from?”) The repetitions in the poem are consonant with the repetitive nature of a good fishing operation but I never consciously set out to mimic in the poem the on-going grind of fishing.

    Thanks again for your words.


  8. Hollis,

    Thanks for your follow-up comment. I’m glad to see the section you quoted from the play. I’m actually fairly devout in that specific spiritual path, so to see the Crucifixion from the suitably distanced perspective of working guys was significant to me. I’m going to have to go dig into that work now.

    I think that maybe taking the stance of a craftsperson dealing with a problem of making does provide a useful distance, writing off-center as Richard Hugo called it. And the technical language aids in that, allowing a strong relationship with the subject but not so close as to be unmanageable.

    There are poets who deal with particulars of labor and craft. Michael Chitwood is the only one who comes easily to mind for me at the moment, but somehow I think Bruce Weigl or Robert Wrigley might mine the beauty of skilled labor and craft for good poems. Maybe Levine? Bishop seems strong here also, though I can’t cobble up an example off the top of my head. Wait a minute, now I think on it, I’ll see your quote and raise you one. Here’s a section from a Robert Wrigley poem called “About Language”:

    . . .

    And because this is western Oregon, and the rain
    blows endlessly in from the sea, we let her out to play
    in the garage, where I peer balefully
    into the aged Volvo’s gaping maw
    and try to force a frozen bolt, that breaks,
    my knuckles mashed into the alternator’s fins
    bejeweling themselves with blood and grease.

    And what stops my rail against the Swedes,
    my invective against car salesmen, my string
    of obscenities concerning the obscenity of money,
    is less her softly singing presence there
    than my head slamming into the tired, sagging hood.
    I’m checking for blood when I feel her touch my leg.

    What tool is this, Daddy? she’s asking,
    holding a pliers by the business end. Then
    what tool is this? Channel locks. And this?
    Standard screwdriver, sparkplug socket,
    diagonals, crimper, clamp, ratchet, torque wrench,
    deep throw 12-millimeter socket, crescent,
    point gauge, black tape, rasp—

    . . .

    This poem starts out with swearing and ends up with the same “cussing” spoken as an invocation of real, heart-breaking beauty. The long list of mechanical troubles and tools is like a decoy setting the listener up for the real move to the heart. I can’t read this poem without crying.

    Thanks again, Hollis.


  9. Peter,

    I don't have a particular comment about the poem, except to say that I loved it and really enjoyed reading your blog post about how it came to be. I wanted only to say that in the year or so since I've decided to tackle this contemporary poetry thing (I never really get poetry, I ignored it for all other types of writing in hs and college, and pulled it out of thin air that I would read it at all) that your poetry has really stood out from the pack for me. I enjoy it. I like reading it and re-reading it. I wish I could read more -- I wish I you had a website and/or blog or a book with more offerings. I haven't been able to find anything so far, but I do keep an eye out for new work.

    That's all. Thank you for offering us your poems.

    Anna in D.C.

  10. "Bleeding Cod" knocked me out. I've learned a lot from the exchange here, too (and the part about waiting over a year before submitting is particularly humbling and instructive).

    Behind the more recent influences you cite I can't help hearing Hopkins, who also loved "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim." This has Hopkins' sacramental power, too, and I'm not surprised to read that you share his strong religious sensibility.

  11. Anna,

    Thank you for saying such nice things! What a delight.

    Congratulations for taking on Contemporary Poetry. It’s a little daunting, isn’t it? Your story sounds a bit like mine. I was in my late twenties before I began to pay attention to poetry, or literature, for that matter. Prior to that, my few encounters with contemporary poems left me untouched or even feeling shut out. I had concluded that I did not like poetry. Then I began occasionally hearing poets saying their own poems on National Public Radio, back in the early 80s maybe. Hearing poems, rather than reading them, made all the difference for me.

    I think the internet is already beginning to provide a great gift of easy access to poems out loud, rather than poems taken in by decoding ink stains on pieces of paper or pixels on a screen. People like me, who need to take in words through the ears, can more easily find satisfying experiences of spoken poems just by clicking on hyperlinks.

    Even so, I do not seem to be taking advantage of the new medium. I haven’t yet found the time to record my own poems or serve them up to the Web, even with all the current digital ease. Perhaps I’ll assign my11-year-old and my 12-year-old to make me a web site where I can do that.

    Thanks again for those lovely compliments, Anna. Good luck connecting with poems that touch you. Persevere, there are some really beautiful pieces being made these days.


  12. Thank you, Michael. I’m really pleased you connected with the piece.

    Regarding driving while under the influence of Hopkins: guilty as charged, though I think I might be guiltier with respect to Theodore Roethke and Dylan Thomas (who themselves bear the strong stamp of Hopkins). David Lee. Cormac McCarthy.

    I should have waited a year with the cod poem too. The draft I originally sent to BPJ had an energy and snap to it that now feels dissipated in the long lists in the version published. Fresh off the Alaska Mist, the poem seemed to launch itself hard, directly toward its finish right from its first syllable. The effect was like being a cod and getting snatched and slashed by the bleeder: sudden release.

    The version published by BPJ is definitely better than the draft I first sent, for several reasons. However, I want to get the poem back to its original energy, probably through shortening. At the moment, I have no idea how to do that. Now would be the time to live with the poem for a few months or a year and let it come to me what it needs. Even though I’m delighted and honored that BPJ took the piece, I do regret a little bit how suddenly I sent it out. As I indicated earlier, it is very unusual for poems to happen to me quickly; this one did, and I got too excited. It’s a good poem as it stands, I don’t’ mean to denigrate it. However, if I ever have a book and this one is in it, I suspect the piece will change somewhat.

    Thanks again for your comments, Michael.