November 25, 2020KR OnlinePoetryTranslation

Ukai: On the Practice of Cormorant Fishing

Translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers

Erhai Lake—literally: ear sea, because of its shape—remains beyond our reach.
the Nagara River, in Gifu Prefecture, too.
but one thing we share with those sweet water deposits are cormorants. there,
they have ukai, a method of fishing.

1. first movement

a bamboo boat slides calmly along the still water. it
moves quite slowly
because we’re witnessing the spectacle through other people’s photographs
—images by professionals and hobbyists,
by tourists who crowd in front of the rafts and drink sake—

if we were to look at Edo-period woodblock prints, we’d see lanterns
hanging from the boats
the artists take some license with the flames
such that the beacons end up looking like Viking manes
suspended above the water.

they light them to attract the fish,
to allow this imperial aliment one last dance.

2. second movement

occasionally, as he pushes off, the fisherman will place a bamboo stalk over his shoulders
—Saint Michael with his scales—
on each end of the stick: a cormorant ready for work.

if they ever waver, our eyes can’t tell. they flout everything we thought we knew about balance.
they erect themselves in representation of justice.

3. third movement

to stop the birds from swallowing the big fish, their
necks are constricted with a hemp tie.

4. fourth movement

the fisherman wraps the bird’s bill in both hands
and extracts the catch

—a carp, a golden catfish—from
the top of its throat.
you must be firm and have relatively strong hands for this maneuver
because in the end, subtraction always implies violence,
and I suppose
that if Ecclesiastes’ silver cord binding body and soul were afforded to small animals, it
would break—pling!—as they were dropped into the fishing basket.
the bird lets it happen
and the scene reminds us of a line by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
all things are taken from us

5. fifth movement

summer comes with a lesson on death.
we weren’t wrong to superimpose the images of Saint Michael and the gaunt fisherman:
both administer time, virtue.
both have a place in the final judgment and a mastery of flame,
could even read a fortune
and say: here is your card, madame, here your trouts (pearls for what were once their eyes, look!)

paused on the shore, anyone could spot the moment of return
from the birds’ monumental poses on the rafts:
the cormorants stretch out to dry
and their massive wingspan joins into the scaffolding of the night

in the shadows, a Pantocrator’s tessellated hand approaches the bird’s throat,
now freed of its snare,
and strokes it.

6. final movement

the rawness is gone from this scene now there’s just water water
and full baskets
a superimposition of fish scales
the strange shapes of love and servitude
Saint Michael adjusting the blindfold over the eyes of justice, a
bird eating its fill.