I Sing the Salmon Home

I SING THE SALMON HOME: POEMS FROM WASHINGTON STATE, edited by Rena Priest. Empty Bowl Press, Chimacum, Washington, 2023, 275 pages, $20 paper,

I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in. Those who learn to listen to the world that sustains them can hear the message brought forth by salmon.

—Billy Frank Jr. (epigraph to I Sing the Salmon Home)

Yesterday’s mail brought this delightful compendium stuffed with salmon poems. Editor Rena Priest (our current Washington State Poet Laureate) has selected 167 poems as varied as wild salmon themselves. The section titles give us a clue to the contents: “Wild, Sacred,” “Sojourn,” “Invisible Thread,” “Fish School,” “Gratitude,” “Choices,” “Vigil,” “What We Owe.” With a preface from Priest herself, and an introduction by Empty Bowl co-publisher Holly Hughes, this anthology is truly a gift.

In the preface (a rich compendium, itself), Priest outlines “the life cycle of this anthology,” and continues:

I am a Lhaq’temish woman—a member of the Lummi Nation. We are salmon people. Lummi is a fishing culture. We invented the reef net—an innovative technology dating back more than ten thousand years….In the cosmology of the reef net, the net symbolizes a womb, and the salmon are the sacred spark of life that will carry the people into another cycle. (xiv)

In the net of this collection, there is so much bounty. This, for instance, the title poem, fittingly by Andrew Shattuck McBride: [note: the last line of each stanza should be indented; if anyone knows how I fix that, please let me know!]

Winter Run, Whatcom Creek

A close friend says she had a fabulous salmon dinner
prepared by her daughter’s spouse. I have questions, ask,
“What kind of salmon?” She smiles. “The good kind.”
I cheer the salmon on.

I am not of this place, forego eating salmon. Others—my
sisters and brothers, and orcas—must have salmon to survive,
to renew their lives, their compact with these lands and waters.
I too sing the salmon home.

By choice I have no permit or pole or lure.
I receive sustenance from watching the lean clocks
of salmons’ bodies pushing against creek waters.
I cheer the salmon on.

Lines and color-infused lures hang entangled in trees’ branches.
A beefy, youngish man with a careful blank expression
sits on a bench. His young do, leashed, lolls nearby.
Beyond, on bloodied grass, two salmon pant
I sing the salmon home.

I have questions, decide finally not to ask. What do I know?
This: Along a short stretch of creek just below the noisy falls,
salmon—so close to home—swim a gauntlet. And this;
Salmon strive to live till they spawn.
I cheer the salmon on.

—Andrew Shattuck McBride

You know McBride’s name as he was one editor of the recent anthology, For Love of Orcas, from Wandering Aengus Press, and he was one of the people who encouraged Priest to do this book.

I Sing the Salmon Home contains so much lush detail, so much praise, so many ripples of words: “sweet water, sun-flecked, flung skyward” (Joanna Thomas); “tease apart the iridescent / infinite in every scale” (Shankar Narayan); “Salmon running the Sultan // River in a long silver link chain with / amethyst and ruby cabochon eggs” (Laura Da’); “Between sparse old shoreland spruce / the moon is a silver wing” (Robert Sund). With 167 poems and poets to choose from, all I can say is that making choices for this review was not easy.

And, yes, lots of poems about eating—and blessing—salmon, or, perhaps I should say, how the salmon blesses and nourishes us. So, one more short poem, this one written as a “nondominational blessing for meals and gatherings” (as we might consider this entire collection):

Water by Salmon

As life is taught by death,
and the Sun by Space,
so Clouds are taught by Land
and Rains by Place.

As Mountains are taught by Plains,
and Rivers by Lakes,
so Trees are taught by Soils,
and Elements by their Weight.

As Deserts are taught by Shores,
and Ocean Waves by Wind,
so Depth is taught by Height,
and Tides by Celestial Spin.

As Sound is taught by Silence,
and Insight by Reason,
so humans are taught by Water
and Water by Salmon.

—Phelps McIlvaine

I hope I’ve inspired you to want to hold this book in your hands. It will be in public libraries, as well as available from Empty Bowl Press’s website and your favorite independent bookstore.

And, yes, it is National Poetry Month, and what better month to be reading a poetry book-a-day? If you’re curious, you can skate back to my earlier Aprils (as I’ve been doing these poetry-book-a-day blog posts for a few years now). I also want to apprise you of the August poetry book challenge, which you can read about here——or here, at Kathleen Kirk’s blog— (or at ANY of her August blogposts).

Holly Hughes & Bethany Reid

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

On Thursday, 15 October 2020, Edmonds Bookshop is hosting a virtual reading with poet Holly Hughes, me, and moderator David Brewster. I would love to have you join us!

Click on the link (above) to go to their Events page, where you’ll be redirected to Facebook.

If you are looking for any of my books, Edmonds Bookshop has signed copies of Sparrow (2012), Body My House (2018),and Ravenna Press’s Triple No. 10 (2020),which includes my chapbook, “The Thing with Feathers.”

Here’s a sample from the chapbook:

Like Emily, She Hears a Buzz

Maybe I did hear a fly buzz
but I hadn’t died.
I wasn’t dressed in white.
I never said “I do.” 

So if a fly buzzed, what
stopped me from buzzing, too,
zipping right out that window?

I don’t think I was a fly–

I was all in black and gold
like a bee or a queen.
Everyone bowed and buzzed
as I passed by. 



My summer of ______________________.

from The Pen and the Bell

As Robert Vivian said in his book The Dignity of Crumbs: “The strings tying us to each other are everywhere.” This sentiment becomes more obvious when in the presence of birth or death, when all the portals are open. – See more at:

I subscribe to The Pen and the Bell, a website (and a splendid book) maintained by poet Holly Hughes and essayist Brenda Miller. As you will see if you drop by there, Brenda recently fostered a young dog who gifted her summer with puppies.  Each letter from Hughes and Miller ends with a writing challenge, and this one was to write for 15 minutes on “My summer of ____________.

The Summer of my Mother’s Stroke

This was, for me, the summer of my mother’s stroke. On July 6, a Sunday, I drove from my home in Edmonds to see Mom in Chehalis and found her not feeling well. It was a record warm day and I thought it might be just the heat. We had planned to go out for dinner; I suggested that she put her feet up, and I go find us some dinner, but she said Nothing doing. She insisted on having our dinner out, one of her great pleasures in life.

Dinner didn’t go well. She did not have as much appetite as usual and, uncharacteristically, spilled food all down the front of her shirt. I finally got her home. I set up the DVD player and put in an episode of Monk to watch (another of Mom’s pleasures being television mysteries). A few minutes into the program she was in distress. She began slurring her words. Her mouth tugged to the left. I said I would call 911 and she insisted that I would not. Well, Mom has always been the boss. After calling my sister, I decided that I couldn’t let Mom call the shots on this one. I got her out to the car and drove to the ER in Centralia. By the time we arrived, however, Mom was 100% recovered. As we talked to the admitting nurse, I felt as though he thought I had made the whole thing up.

So why didn’t we get to go home? It was one o’clock in the morning–MRI, observation–waiting and waiting–before a doctor  sat down with us and explained how TIAs work (Transient Ischemic Attack). I hadn’t imagined the whole thing, and Mom wasn’t going to be sent home. Big strokes often follow a TIA, the doctor explained, but if they could get to the bottom of what caused this one, they could prevent further damages.

Long story short, Mom was put on a blood-thinner, discharged after two days, and back at home (my sister was with her, fortunately), she fell and hit her head. Back to the hospital, she was immediately taken off the blood-thinner, and then, on Thursday morning, she had a major stroke which paralyzed her left side and left her (us, too), reeling mentally. We thought we would lose her then and there. My brother and sister who live farther afield came, and many of Mom’s grandchildren, too. But after a few days in the hospital she was well enough to be discharged into a skilled nursing facility.

Four weeks later, despite physical therapy, Mom remains much the same. She no longer enjoys eating, though she will eat a few bites at each meal. She no longer seems able to concentrate on television. But she has good days as well as bad. Her children have tried to keep her company and she always knows us. She lights up when her grandchildren come. I’ve driven to Olympia (to the skilled nursing and rehab) two to three times each week, often staying overnight in Mom’s apartment so I can see her two days in a row. One of our jobs this summer has, however, been to clean out the apartment (finally accomplished completely as of this past Monday).

Two days ago we moved Mom to an Adult Family Home near my sister’s house on Hood Canal. As the lead caregiver there explained, for Mom, it was like moving from one world to another, and of course it was further disorienting. But they promise that they can deal with whatever Mom brings with her (a catheter for instance and the complete lack of mobility). It’s a large but homelike setting and we love the staff. It is a few minutes from my sister, and (if I catch the ferry at the best of times) only an hour’s drive for me. We are hopeful that this idyllic spot (with deer grazing on the lawn outside and woodpeckers in the trees) will continue to attract visits from grandchildren and from Mom’s nieces and sisters.

In Brenda’s letter she frames her writing challenge with these words:

So, for me, this summer will always be known as the “summer of puppies.” What name would your summer have, if you could name it? What has marked the season? Have you been able to take a real break from your “ordinary life?”

In this article from the NY Times, author Daniel Levitin writes about the importance of hitting the “reset button” in our brains, in whatever ways that might manifest. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a herd of puppies yapping for your attention. It can be as simple as absorbing yourself even for just a few minutes a day in something you love—a book, a craft, a special picnic breakfast outside.

Write for 15 minutes starting with the title “My Summer of _______. ” Capture on paper whatever has been capturing you.

I have had moments, even this summer, when I hit the reset button. Walks with our dog, with one of my daughters and our dog. garden gateReading aloud from an Agatha Christie novel to mom (she napped, but Mom’s roommate enjoyed it and so did I). Watching Mom with her grandchildren. Watching my nephew brush her hair. Spending time with my niece from Arizona and my nephew from D.C. (as well as the ones from Idaho–all visits MUCH appreciated). Sitting at a coffee place in Du Pont or Federal Way (which I did frequently) and writing in my journal. Meeting my friends to write at the public library in Everett or at Caffe Ladro in Edmonds. Kayaking with my sister. Camping at Twanoh State Park with my girls.

Mom isn’t dying, not right now. But this summer with her health issues has, indeed, been a moment in time when, as Brenda put it, all the portals were open.

So what name would your summer have, it you were to name it?