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.