Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.


  1. Evolution

    By Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

    When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
    In the Paleozoic time,
    And side by side on the ebbing tide
    We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
    Or skittered with many a caudal flip
    Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
    My heart was rife with the joy of life,
    For I loved you even then.

    Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
    And mindless at last we died;
    And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
    We slumbered side by side.
    The world turned on in the lathe of time,
    The hot lands heaved amain,
    Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
    And crept into life again.

    We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
    And drab as a dead man’s hand;
    We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
    Or trailed through the mud and sand.
    Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
    Writing a language dumb,
    With never a spark in the empty dark
    To hint at a life to come.

    Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
    And happy we died once more;
    Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
    Of a Neocomian shore.
    The eons came and the eons fled
    And the sleep that wrapped us fast
    Was riven away in a newer day
    And the night of death was passed.

    Then light and swift through the jungle trees
    We swung in our airy flights,
    Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
    In the hush of the moonless nights;
    And oh! what beautiful years were there
    When our hearts clung each to each;
    When life was filled and our senses thrilled
    In the first faint dawn of speech.

    Thus life by life and love by love
    We passed through the cycles strange,
    And breath by breath and death by death
    We followed the chain of change.
    Till there came a time in the law of life
    When over the nursing sod
    The shadows broke and the soul awoke
    In a strange, dim dream of God.

    I was thewed like an Auroch bull
    And tusked like the great cave bear;
    And you, my sweet, from head to feet
    Were gowned in your glorious hair.
    Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
    When the night fell o’er the plain
    And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
    We mumbled the bones of the slain.

    I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
    And shaped it with brutish craft;
    I broke a shank from the woodland lank
    And fitted it, head and haft;
    Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
    Where the mammoth came to drink;
    Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
    And slew him upon the brink.

    Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
    Loud answered our kith and kin;
    From west to east to the crimson feast
    The clan came tramping in.
    O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof
    We fought and clawed and tore,
    And cheek by jowl with many a growl
    We talked the marvel o’er.

    I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
    With rude and hairy hand;
    I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
    That men might understand.
    For we lived by blood and the right of might
    Ere human laws were drawn,
    And the age of sin did not begin
    Til our brutal tusks were gone.

    And that was a million years ago
    In a time that no man knows;
    Yet here tonight in the mellow light
    We sit at Delmonico’s.
    Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
    Your hair is dark as jet,
    Your years are few, your life is new,
    Your soul untried, and yet —

    Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
    And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
    We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
    And deep in the Coralline crags;
    Our love is old, our lives are old,
    And death shall come amain;
    Should it come today, what man may say
    We shall not live again?

    God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
    And furnish’d them wings to fly;
    He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
    And I know that it shall not die,
    Though cities have sprung above the graves
    Where the crook-bone men made war
    And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves
    Where the mummied mammoths are.

    Then as we linger at luncheon here
    O’er many a dainty dish,
    Let us drink anew to the time when you
    Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 26, 2014 @ 1:20 am

  2. I, too, have left instructions for my ashes to be deposited in “our Ganges”-The Hudson; the lucky person who is saddled with this chore, is instructed to go to Indian Lake, where (the last I knew) one can take a float-plane ride over the Adirondacks. I’m hoping for a site in or near the Hudson’s source, Lake Tear-of -the Clouds.

    Comment by David Bullard — May 27, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

  3. If humans are sometimes immoral it’s only because we can conceptualize and willingly violate morality. Animals have no such ability and aren’t nearly as noble as some would like to pretend. Mainly because animals have no concept of nobility — but also because giving the chance they will crowd out and destroy whole species for food, for prosperity, even for fun.

    Comment by Steve — May 29, 2014 @ 7:51 am

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