some sort of seeming hope. god. why do we do this blank page
Fae Myenne Ng
A friend sent me a stamp from the Berkeley Public Library, which
had to do a retrofit and had a giveaway. I suppose this means they were
replacing the card catalog with computers. The stamp prints FICTION. It reads about this
size. Im going to stamp every page I write, even e-mail.
1. The Salmon
Years ago my friend, who was a fly fisherman, fell
under a disabling illness. The continent separated us and rumors of his condition were
bad; and so I copied out the First Meditation by John Donne, from his Devotions, and
mailed it to him. Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! this minute I
was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surprised with a sudden change, and alteration to
worse, and impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name. We study health, and we
deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew and we polish
every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work:
but in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; a sickness
unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity; nay, undeserved, if
we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant.
O miserable condition of man! - and so on and so forth in fine rant, to equal and
give voice to, surely, my friends grand irk.
Along with this consolation went another, fully
suited to my friends true, piscatorial vocation: THE SPAWNING RUN, by William
Humphrey. No better book about fishing - the book is not about fishing -
exists than that high-humored, graceful essay on an angling holiday in Britain (my friend
knew it well already). William Humphrey opens his meditation with a (more subdued) mutter
of irk. The Itchen, the Test, the Frome: the fabled chalk streams of south England,
where Dame Juliana Berners and Izaak Walton fished - here I am in the middle of them,
its spring, the season has opened, and Id might as well be in the
My friend, also unable to fish just then, lived (and
does still live) in Alaska, where, when we said fish, we meant Salmon. William
Humphrey, on the other hand, was stumped by (uncatchable, by law - English fishing laws
are unfathomable to us) trout. Off he went, therefore, to Wales, after possibility
(The Severn. The Wye. The Usk....)! In lovely Wales, in Thomas Hardys
country, Humphreys possibility was salmon.
Ordinary fish are caught; salmon, king of fish, are
killed. Preferably with a fly; more preferably, with a dry fly; supremely, with a fly tied
by the fisher himself. My afflicted friend was a fly-tier from boyhood. The author of THE
SPAWNING RUN was not; something else caught his attention.
In the spring a salmons fancy also turns
to thoughts of love. Not a young salmons but an old salmons. And not lightly.
With the single-mindedness of a sailor returning home after a four-year cruise without
The salmon is anadromous. That is to say, he
leads a double life, one of them in freshwater, the other in saltwater. His freshwater
life may be said to be his private, or love life; his saltwater life his ordinary, or
workaday life. An historical note: these words were written when public and private
lives were by convention kept separate; indeed, when private lives existed. The book was
published in 1970. Because Humphreys theme is - I will be frank - the varieties
of the spawning run, his subject includes salmo in fresh water. He goes on:
The salmon reverses the common order of human affairs: a lot is known about his private
life but nothing at all about the rest. We get the chance to study him only when the
salmon is making love. For when the salmon, aged two, and called at that stage a parr,
leaves his native river and goes to sea (to be a smolt until he returns to spawn,
whereupon he becomes a grilse), nobody, not even Professor Jones, D.Sc., PhD., Senior
Lecturer in Zoology, University of Liverpool, knows where he goes or how he lives, whether
in the sea he shoals together with his kind or goes his separate way, why some stay there
longer than others or why some return home in the spring and others not until the autumn.
He disappears into the unfished regions, or the unfished depths, or both, of the ocean,
and is not seen again until - it may be as little as one year or as much as four years
later - impelled by the spawning urge, he reenters the coastal waters and the estuaries
and up the rivers to his native stream like some missing person returning after an absence
of years from home.
Nothing of what the salmon does in the sea is known,
only what he does not do: namely, reproduce himself.
That is the wonder and mystery of this noble fish: his and her drive for the home waters
to renew their kind. (Though the author seeks to kill a grilse of his own, he notes that
It is as impossible for a salmon as it is for you or me to tell whether another
salmon is a male or female just by looking. For most of their lives they dont care.
When the time comes to care the salmon have a way of telling whos who, or rather,
whos what. A salmon sidles up to another salmon and quivers. If the other fish
quivers in response then its a male like himself, but if it turns over on its side
and begins flapping its tail on the river bottom, then its a match.) By
perhaps courtly convention, the salmon is referred to as he.
Salmo means the leaper (salire,
to leap); salmon, breasting upstream, do leap over barriers, so great is their urgency.
Since earliest times they have been observed doing this; I myself have seen spawning
salmon, their aging flesh tattered, old jaw hooked, hurl themselves airward upstream over
any impediment. It is a thrilling dance these leapers dance. Izaak Walton, whom Humphrey
naturally consults, wrote (as Piscator): Next, I shall tell you that though they
make very hard shift to get out of the fresh Rivers into the Sea, yet they will make
harder shift to get out of the salt into the fresh Rivers, to spawn or possesse the
pleasures that they have formerly found in them, to which end they will force themselves
through Flood-gates, or over Weires, or hedges, or stops in the water, even beyond common
Piscator, however, doesnt advocate catching
them on the fly, but tells us instead that which may be called a secret: that
Old Oliver Henly, now with God, a noted fisher both for Trout and Salmon,
would take three or four worms and put them in a little box in his pocket; and that in
this box - here is the secret - he put a drop or three of the oil of ivy-berries, for
anointing the worms. Whether this works the author cannot confirm, though he thinks it
probable, and refers his reader to Sir Francis Bacons Natural History, where
he proves fishes may hear, and, doubtless, can more probably smell. Thus the virtue
(odiferous) of the oil of ivy-berries. Oliver Henly, the angler attests, has been
observed, both by others and myself, to catch more fish than I, or any other body that has
ever gone a-fishing with him, could do, and especially Salmons.
Piscators lecture on salmon, by the way, ends
in a familiar purse-mouthed tone, in which he describes the markings of trout and salmon
when first taken, the one with such red spots, and the other with such black or
blackish spots, as [to] give them such an addition of natural beauty as, I think, was
never given to any woman by the artificial paint or patches in which they so much pride
themselves in this age.
2. The Flea
Lately, two young persons, friends of mine, announced
their wedding-date, a cause of much rejoicing in their circle, for their happiness and for
the new hope they gave us all. This sent me to the poetry books for an epithalamium to
match their amazed delight in each other. John Donne answers so nicely to this human
He was born in 1573 in London, of a Roman Catholic
family of good and ancient lineage on both sides; and was educated at home until his
eleventh year, when he was sent to the University of Oxford. He spoke French and Latin
already. After several years of concentrated study he was invited to receive the first
degree, but declined, being unready to swear the required oath of allegiance to the
English church. At about age thirteen he transferred to Cambridge, where he remained four
years and left without taking the degree, for the same reason as before. He then read law.
His father had died, leaving an estate, and his mother continued arranging his education,
including instruction in the Roman church; but he professed no allegiance to any faith
except (reported Izaak Walton, his biographer) that of a Christian. He entered into
serious private study of the body of Divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt
the Reformed and the Roman Church. In his twenties he resolved to travel; entered
the service of the Earl of Essex; and spent several years in Italy and Spain, learning the
languages and observing the customs of those countries. To his disappointment he was not
able to journey to the Holy Land.
Now comes the event that made his life what it was:
in service to the Lord Chancellor of England, who treated him as a friend, he met and fell
in love with Anne, daughter of Sir George More, then Chancellor of the Garter and
Lieutenant of the Tower; and she with him; but her father did not approve. He separated
them. They married in secret. This her father would not bear, and he pressed the Lord
Chancellor, who was his wifes relation, until he dismissed Donne. More then
prosecuted the friend of Donne who had married them, and the brother of that friend, who
had stood up for the bride at the ceremony. The three young men went to prison.
A time of unhappiness followed. Then the men were
freed; the spouses eventually reunited, and went to live with a generous noble kinsman;
and Anne Donnes father became reconciled to the match, and used his influence for
Donnes benefit. The love of this husband and wife for each other moved Izaak Walton,
though he pointed out that Donne had also thought his marriage the remarkable error
of his life; an error which, though he had a wit able and very apt to maintain paradoxes,
yet he was very far from justifying it. Walton believed that Donne would have paid a
heavy repentance if God had not blessed them with so mutual and cordial affections,
as in the midst of their sufferings made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly than
the banquets of dull and low-spirited people.
Donne did later truthfully swear allegiance to the
Church of England and was made a Divine, with a doctorate conferred by Cambridge. He was
given numerous livings and, in his fiftieth year, became Dean of St. Pauls. His
darling wife had died; seven of their twelve children lived, and he promised them never to
marry again (and he did not but remained widowed until his death in 1631). At age
fifty-four he was brought down by a dangerous sickness resembling consumption; upon
recovery he wrote his Devotions: a book that may not unfitly be called a Sacred
Picture of Spiritual Ecstasies. Izaak Walton does, however, give short shrift to
Donnes early poems, being assured, he writes, that Donne himself in his
penitential years regretted the efforts of his youth, though it may
appear by his choice of metaphors that both nature and all the arts joined to assist him
with their utmost skill. But though he was no friend to them, he was not so
fallen out with heavenly poetry, as to forsake that; no, not in his declining age;
witnessed then by many divine sonnets, and other high, holy and harmonious
Here is what I would like to say. The Devotions, the
Holy Sonnets, even certain Hymns, have given strength and elation to many in hard and soft
hours; and a marriage may be seen as an error in opportunistic terms, without being
abandoned or, finally, regretted. We cant know from the outside what such an
espousal is made of, just as we cannot know the making of a poem. Donne wrote some
thrilling love poems, his sharp wit and high fancy infusing carnal desire with
the highest, gravest, lightest intention. And it is wonderful that Izaak Walton, angler,
would report the life of John Donne, poet and doctor, with such faith and zeal. I will not
draw a conclusion. Walton did not use the dry fly on a salmon, but William Humphrey, who
did, consulted him anyway. My Alaskan friend, in his illness, read Donne and Humphrey and,
though he could not fish, kept tying flies. I who dont tie flies and dont fish
am tickled by a faint echo, an off-rhyme, for when I suggested Donne to the pretty bride,
she answered, with ardor: Read anything by Donne, even The Flea!
And so, I shall read it for them.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou denyst me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou knowest that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered, swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumphst, and sayest that thou
Findst not thyself, nor me, the weaker now.
Tis true, then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honor, when thou yieldst to me,
Will waste, as this fleas death took life from thee.
The Flea was downloaded from the wonderful, funny site Incompetech
Vol. 1 No. 1 Art, Capitalist Relations, and
Publishing on the Web
Vol. 1 No. 2 Hecuba in New York; Déformation
Vol. 1 No. 3 The Devils Dictionnary;
Economics for Poets
Vol. 1 No. 4 Kunderas Music Teacher
Vol. 2 No. 1 Fantasatic Design, With Nooses
Vol. 2 No. 3 On Love