"Always Upstream or Downstream"

by Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin, a native of Savannah, Tennessee, lives in Columbia and is a professor of English at Columbia State Community College. A graduate of Austin Peay State University and the University of Alabama, where he received an MFA degree in creative writing, Hardin is the author of two chapbooks, Deep in the Shallows (GreenTower Press) and The Slow Hill Out (Pudding House), as well as one book-length collection, Fall Sanctuary, recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Prize. His poems have appeared in many journals, including The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, Poetry Northwest, Poet Lore, Meridian, Southern Poetry Review, and Zone 3. "Always Upstream or Downstream" first appeared in The Florida Review.

Always Upstream or Downstream

We'd push out in an old canoe to float Horse creek,
fishing poles in hand, a Maxwell House can of red worms
dug up from a place we kept a secret past the barn.
Maybe we had all day—who knows—and maybe a day
meant nothing to us, for all of eternity belonged
to the wind on our faces and the slip-slap sound
of the paddle seeking cool and dark-green, still pools
thick with bream and bass and slick-bellied catfish.
Someone had told us catfish were mythic creatures
that could rise up to walk on water and up the slick banks
to perch themselves in cottonwoods; and maybe they could,
but we never saw them, always upstream or downstream
and never quite lonely enough in our hearts. Albert,
who was not my brother by blood but whose memory
on earth I'll fight you for, would take his rod and reel,
bait the hook with such a gentleness, a patience—
he made a music of it, a visionary music
in praise of fish hid out beneath decaying logs
or sunning themselves in shallows. Such iridescence,
olive and yellow—such craft of dorsal fin and gills.
And the two of us stalled in the middle of nowhere,
the only two people in the history of the world
who would ever see these fish! His cast was flawless,
smooth, almost silent, a balletic motion despite the limbs
we had to navigate. The world believed its wars
and greed, believed its clocks and fame and arguments
of history, while silence seemed to push at us
from every side, until the boat bumped the creek bed.
Even now the bliss of that surprise, the memory of it,
the climbing out to drag and tug, to hear the grit
of an existence that sometimes must be hauled
from one dry place to deeper water. Men grow old
to learn a young boy's trust of everything that is;
but Albert won’t grow old, just young and younger,
forever tying flies, biting off the excess string,
trailing his hand in the coolest water of earth;
and I’ll grow old and older, the wide world filling up
with loss of all we ever saw and marveled at
there on that creek from which long summers go on drinking.

Published Friday, 2 July 2010