Figure of Speech
I met a jack pike
jack-knifing on the path.
Eye big as breakfast fish
eyes on Chinese trains, bloodless,
a serrated surface wound.
I knelt to hold it, tenderly
as a friend it held me
and we slipped through the post-dawn dull,
cloudwards, precise as infantry,
chanting – must we take our place?
Our gills flaring red fires.
The thing is, I really did come across a fish out of water. Walking the dog one morning, I stumbled across an adolescent pike on the pathway that runs the circumference of Lake 32. It looked so helpless in its soft gold-green scales, too far from the water to flip itself back in, its gills frantically rising and falling. I picked it up carefully in my hands and returned it to the lake, allowing it to slip away, watching the bars and spots of its markings fade into the deep, clear water.
When I asked around afterwards to understand why such a fish might have been found on the lakeside, many a theory was offered. Perhaps it had been chased by adult pike, renowned cannibals who regularly run terrified fish from the water. Could it have been an otter, abandoning its quarry as I disturbed it on my walk? Perhaps a heron dropped it from its beak as it flew overhead, or the juvenile pike had badly misjudged a jump above water in pursuit of smaller fry. The only fact here is we will never know.
In poetry and in life, the pike has long been feared as a tyrant of the waterways. Terrible tales are told to children of their bite. Even its name is inspired by weaponry. Ted Hughes famously wrote of the ‘killer from the egg, the malevolent aged grin … indeed they spare nobody … so immense and old’ (Pike, 1960).
Few (no?) poets have dared to write about the pike since (though note the amazing Amy Lowell preceded Hughes in 1914 with her own take on pike in ‘sun thickened water.’) But with the coming of spring this month and the awakenings signified by the aconites and cyclamen and early daffodils that are bursting - albeit too early from our rain-sodden land - I couldn’t help but wonder: what if we saw the pike differently? Spring, after all, is a time of transformation, renewal, hope.
Pike as kind.
Pike as dancer.
Pike as escapist.
Pike as female.
Pike as freedom fighter.
The fish on the path wasn’t the only surprise during my residency this month. I was delighted to connect with Joff Elphick, gardener, podcaster, editor, wildlife sound recorder, moth-er and a man who has been angling at the lake for so many years I think he may have even flogged bait to my brother from D&J Sports in Ciren as a Saturday boy back in the day. Joff and I have worked together this month on ‘Figure of Speech’ to produce an audiogram, a recording of my poem mixed with sounds from the lake: a coot, water running from the overflow / ditch at the Scout camp, the song of a robin near the archery targets. It has been a total pleasure.
We hope you enjoy our work.
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