Lake Sturgeon

Sean Hill

When you think of fish, if you think of fish,
do you think of this fish? If so, do you think
of a dish of caviar or the Civil War?

                              For me these fish bring
to mind an elbow or knee, places we bend
where touch is close to the bone. Touch
your patella—from the Latin for a “small shallow dish,”
and this one upside down and covered, skin over bone plate—
you get close to the feel of sturgeon with their rows of scutes
(starting more like “skew” than “school” and ending like “boots”),
bony plates under their rough brown skin.

Since these drab late bloomers don’t mate
till their teens or even twenties and then only
every three years or so, do you think stodgy
sturgeon? Did you know our appetites took
their generations before they could be?
                Their roe fed an economy
for a time in the late nineteenth century.

Long-lived fish, these somber bottom feeders
—the males live into our middle-age;
the females can live to be one hundred and fifty or so
—twice our lifetimes.

If fish could talk, I would settle in with one of these
antique Tennesseans and ask
                                         If fish had knees, when you were a fry
at your father’s
how did he explain to you the cries
of men at the Battle of Chattanooga,
the thud of bodies come to rest, the boot-thump
of rough brogans, the report of rifle and cannon fire
—Southern men (not bending the knee to keep others
in their thrall, claiming generations before they could be,
using slave labor to feed the economy) routed on the ridges
above your home?
                              What rippled your sky?
                                                                              Did you hear
cannon fire for thunderclap
and wait for rain?

That’s what I would ask,
if fish could talk,
and I could find one
that survived the last century
in those Southern waters
we dammed and sullied.

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Geoff Wyatt

Sean Hill is the author of two poetry collections, Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014), and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008). Hill has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Hill’s poems and essays have appeared in Callaloo, New England Review, Orion, Poetry, and numerous other journals, and in over two dozen anthologies including Villanelles and Cascadia Field Guide. And a volume of poems selected from Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and Dangerous Goods has been translated and published in Korean. Hill lives in southwestern Montana with his family and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Montana.

Getting acquainted with local flora and fauna is the perfect way to begin to understand the wonder of nature. The natural environment of Southern Appalachia, with habitats that span the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Plateau, is one of the most biodiverse on earth. A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia—a hybrid literary and natural history anthology—showcases sixty of the many species indigenous to the region.

Ecologically, culturally, and artistically, Southern Appalachia is rich in paradox and stereotype-defying complexity. Its species range from the iconic and inveterate—such as the speckled trout, pileated woodpecker, copperhead, and black bear—to the elusive and endangered—such as the American chestnut, Carolina gorge moss, chucky madtom, and lampshade spider. The anthology brings together art and science to help the reader experience this immense ecological wealth.

Stunning images by seven Southern Appalachian artists and conversationally written natural history information complement contemporary poems from writers such as Ellen Bryant Voigt, Wendell Berry, Janisse Ray, Sean Hill, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Deborah A. Miranda, Ron Rash, and Mary Oliver. Their insights illuminate the wonders of the mountain South, fostering intimate connections. The guide is an invitation to get to know Appalachia in the broadest, most poetic sense.

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