Songs of Eretz Poetry Review is pleased to present “Bluefish” by John C. Mannone, Poet of the Week. One of Mr. Mannone’s poems will be featured every weekday during the week of January 18, 2015. Mr. Mannone’s biography may be found here: http://eretzsongs.blogspot.com/2015/01/poet-of-week-john-c-mannone.html.
My three children—ten, eight and six
counting down their ages—would explore
the Miocene cliffs in Southern Maryland.
We’d hunt for twenty-five million-year old
shark teeth along with ancient shells and bits
of bone in sand and clay and in the water’s ebb.
All timeless as memories. The Chesapeake Bay
hinted its salt in the air; didn’t sting like brine
from tears of failed marriages. My children—
the only thing precious from that.
They were always hungry for food
So I would cook up adventures
in a cliff top cottage with a screened-in porch.
I remember their wide-eyed faces
staring at the fish I bought from a man
on the dock—fresh bluefish still
flopping its broad, forked tail in the bucket,
the sharp edge of its dorsal fin swung
out of its groove as if a switchblade.
The bluish green under the fin, fading.
It quivered in my hands as I pressed
its belly. Carefully wrapped it in newspaper.
We climbed up the 100-foot high cliff
on the same crooked wooden steps we angled down
an hour before. When we got back to the cottage
they’d insist on watching me clean
the fish for supper. I said to them
always respect the life of another,
even the fish you have to kill to eat.
I didn’t pray much at the time,
but there was a moment of silence; the fish
on the cutting board, knife in my hand.
And the stainless steel sink prepared as an altar.
I had the kids turn their heads for a moment
while I quickly severed the head of that bluefish.
My youngest asked me if it went to heaven.
I said I didn’t know, that it wasn’t a pet.
Its eyes stared back: wet, black, glassy.
They fixed their eyes on the blood
washing past the single row of sharp teeth in its jaws,
and down the sink drain.
Their bites sharp as razors.
They can be pretty mean, I said, and
greedy, too, especially when frenzied.
After scaled and eviscerated, I sliced
the dark gray-blue flesh into steaks;
they shimmered under kitchen light.
I layered them in the bottom of the blue
porcelain pot with bay leaves and peppercorns,
parsley and a little dill; quartered onions,
green pepper eighths; a bottle of Beck’s beer
with foam, a splash of vinegar to seal the pores,
The pot clacked on the stove as the liquid
simmered. We spoke of joy, of sharing
even in that cottage, on those cliffs
with all their buried secrets. We had unearthed
some of them that day, not hidden as deep
as I thought.
I ladled the broth mixture over rice, and the fish.
All its blue gone, changed to soft gray.
Poet’s Notes: As I mention in a recent spotlight for this poem at Split Rick Review http://www.splitrockreview.org/news/2015/1/4/contributor-spotlight-john-c-mannone, “Bluefish” emerged from several influences. I talk about some of them there (the abiding image Cathy Smith Bowers talks about, Ellen Bass’ poem “What Did I Love” about killing chickens, and my recollections of bluefish). So I’ll briefly mention one other here: family and food poetry.
Bluefish is a remarkable species and delectable as far as I’m concerned. I created the original recipe with mackerel caught off the Florida Keys when I was first learning to scuba dive in the early 70s. The fishermen on the dock were kind enough to give me several mackerel for me and my family and friends joining me on a December vacation (but I had to clean them). I’ve since then used salmon and rockfish (ubiquitous in MD where I grew up). So, I can attest to the recipe suggested in the poem.
But of course, the poem is much more about relationships than about food. Food does bring families together and can often provide a metaphor for that. Most of the things mentioned in “Bluefish” are true, but may have been collaged from several trips. Interestingly enough, I invented what my youngest son had asked (if the fish had gone to heaven).
I had been working on a collection of poems in which food has a prominent presence, but it’s not a bunch of recipes in verse. I think I will pepper the poetry collection with anecdotes about the food, and of course, about my family, too. “Bluefish” will be numbered among them.
Editor’s Note: I like the mood that the poet creates here, the gentle narrative style, and the preserved magic of that special day. There is also something to be said for the fish stew recipe! “Bluefish” was previously published in Split Rock Review, summer 2014.