Literature 3-19-2007

What Light: This Week’s Poem: Elizabeth Oness

"What Light: This Week's Poem" is sponsored by Magers and Quinn Booksellers. We bring you a poem every week by a Minnesota poet, selected by a panel of writers and publishers. Look for the What Light anthology at independent booksellers now!


Water That Feeds the Battenkill River

We had to be quiet, noise
Would scare the fish away.
My line ran out, invisible in shade,

Bright where sun leaked through
And touched it. In my hands
The winding draw of the stream,

Then an angry body pulled
Against my arms, pulled against
The pivoting current.

Out of water, it flapped
And shimmered in the air,
But my fingers weren’t brave enough

To grasp what I’d caught,
And my father twisted the barb
From its mouth. I watched

The heaving gills, useless
In the humid air, imagined water
Rushing in behind my cheeks.

A bloodied rainbow beat
Behind the bloodied gills,
Pale red, green, shifting under light.

I didn’t want to clean it
But I wanted to know how,
My father’s knife making its quick line

Down the belly, wondering then
If he wanted sons
Instead of daughters.

He tried to take a photo –
My finger hooked inside a gill,
But I didn’t want to feel

The inside of its stiffened mouth.
Later, in the night kitchen, I laid
The knives and spoons against

The checks of red and white,
Hungry for the rainbow frying
In a black iron pan, the scent of lemon

Floating in the grassy air.
How delicate the meat
Came away from the bone.


I’m trying to say less, rather than more, these days. In the past year, I’ve returned to my childhood preoccupation, and I’m riding and training horses again. We bought a puppy a year ago, and training a dog reminds me that words matter little to an animal––although tone is very important. Having animals has been a good discipline because I can’t rely on verbal explanation.

Lest all this sound too austere, I’m a professor at Winona State University, so I make my living by talking, explaining, and thinking about words. I simply try to choose them carefully, which is necessary for poetry as well.


Elizabeth Oness’s work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review and other literary magazines. Her stories have received an O. Henry Prize and a Nelson Algren Award. Her collection, Articles of Faith, won the 2000 Iowa Short Fiction Prize and was subsequently selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. Her first novel, Departures, was published by Penguin in 2004. She directs marketing and development for Sutton Hoo Press, a literary fine press, and lives in rural Minnesota.