Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"Bull-Headed" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Lowell Jaeger

Jerk ’em, Dad said, when a bullhead
tugged a bobber under and swam
for deeper bottoms farther from shore.
"Bullhead" Ink & Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Look at ’em fight, Dad said,
as we heaved from muddy depths
a slick black fish thrashing thin air.

Had to admire the frenzy: fish
flip-flopping in the grass, Dad’s
hopping hot-foot pursuit, till
he’d boot-stomped the fish stupid
long enough to rip the barb from its jaw.
Or the hook snapped like a brittle stick
in the fish’s clamped steely smirk.

Don’t touch the bastard, Dad said.
My brothers and I stood close, wincing when the bullhead’s
quick spines cut Dad’sthumb to bleed.
Had to admire the monster’s huff, gills gasping 
in the catch-bucket, beady eyes glazed
light-blinded and still staring back.

Admired him even worse, when Dad
nailed him to a chunk of two-by-six
 ‒ a twelve-penny spike through his brain ‒
and still he twitched and refused
to quit.  Dad slit him, grabbed the hide
with pliers and stripped it. Axed

the bull’s head clean from the rest 
of its connections. And still the gills
opened a little and closed.  Opened 
and closed.  In a heap of entrails, 
a heart the size of a wart, determined
it would not stop beating.

Poet's Notes:  Montana poet Richard Hugo wrote with reverence about alders and catfish (see Editor's Note).  Literary scholars and critics contend that, for Hugo, alders and catfish are symbols of stubborn persistence and resilience in face of adversity. That could be true and probably is . . . but I know as a poet I’m not consciously in the business of loading my poems with figurative devices. 

We do a disservice to students and other readers in perpetuating the notion that writers hide meaning inside complex tropes and that scholarly analysis is the only way to appreciate and understand a poem.  Billy Collin’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” (see Editor's Note) humorously complains that too often we want to tie a poem to the chair and beat the meaning out of it with a rubber hose. That poem, too, is loaded with symbols, pretty strong ones, but first and foremost Billy Collins just wants us to laugh.

I’ll venture a guess that Hugo wrote about alders and catfish because they fascinated him, caught his imagination. He recognized their marvelousness, their unrecognized magnificence, and he wanted us to do the same.  

A critic could make lots of deep psychological propositions about my poem “Bull-Headed.”  Is it a poem about the father’s power and the son’s awe of his father? Or does the poem abstractly want the reader to philosophize upon the hidden inner workings of the wild? Or is it a poem simply and directly about a fish and a boy’s fascination to look upon a heap of guts and see a real heart still throbbing?  It’s a praise poem, I think.  

Editor's Note:  Those interested in learning more about Richard Hugo may look here

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins may be read here

"Bull-Headed" was first published in The Alembic, How Quickly What's Passing Goes Pastand Verse Wisconsin.

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