August in Juneau, various elements in the landscape signal the coming change of seasons: the fireweed begins to wilt, wetlands grasses start to brown and Fred Meyer breaks out the back-to-school displays.
Granted, I haven’t been a student since 2005 — and even then, we’re talking grad school, which I actually looked forward to because it saved me from having to get a real job — nor do I plan on being a student again, aside from guitar lessons or maybe a bartending course (strange as this may sound, a master of fine arts in creative writing proves not to be an especially marketable degree).
The fact is, no matter how old I get, the very phrase “back-to-school” still conjures that same sense of impending doom, a dread so profound only a brand-new Trapper-Keeper can relieve it.
And yet, this year, I find myself not minding quite so much. In the past, back-to-school meant an end to my freedom — and where I grew up, class didn’t start until September, which meant two more grueling weeks of prelude. But for the first time in my life, back-to-school spells the exact opposite. The in-laws are gone, the kids are squared-away: I’m free!
Although, not exactly. Sure, I spent a few hours after drop-off on the first day catching up on “Game of Thrones,” as I probably will the whole first week. Okay, second week, too. Ultimately, though, my job as head counselor at daddy day camp is over; now it’s time to untie all the loose ends I let get tangled up during summer break.
My first task: scrubbing the jogging stroller I took on a family outing to Boy Scout Beach right before school started, which, until I hit with both Simple Green and a pressure washer still won’t smell quite right.
That’s the other way you know summer’s almost over in Juneau: dead salmon. The place is rotten with it. Some of the carcasses we came across still had their innards, covered with a wriggling carpet of maggots. Naturally, the kids loved it and the grandparents complained.
Thus, I found myself actually defending the honor of dead salmon to my father-in-law, putrefying entrails and all, after he took issue with my photographing one and texting it to my wife with the caption “Look what I caught for dinner.”
“Disgusting, yes,” I told him, myself squelching a heave at the sight of a raven feasting on another dead salmon’s eyes. “But hilarious.”
But by hilarious, I guess I also meant beautiful. Because once I took that one 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 I pried dried fish slime from the stroller’s tire treads this morning, I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to check and see if I won the 49 Writers “Ode to a Dead Salmon” poetry contest. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. In fact, turns out I didn’t even enter it—all the submissions are posted at http://odetoadeadsalmon.blogspot.com/ and mine’s not there.
So I don’t feel like I totally wasted a whole night desecrating a masterpiece of American arts and letters, here’s the poem I wrote and never sent in, I guess. I hope you find it disgusting and beautiful, too.
“O Salmon! My Salmon!*”
By Geoff Kirsch
* With apologies to Walt Whitman and inspired by this past summer’s release of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a real dead fish if ever there was one
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.
• “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff’s work at www.geoffkirsch.com.