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SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Grabbling for Catfish in Cumberland Lake, Kentucky

by Vivian Shipley

My son Todd and I are stuck on shore. I had returned
the rowboat the night before, even though neither of us
caught a fish. He blames me for my inexperience, for being
born a woman, for not being his father who’d know tricks

like spitting on a worm before throwing it in, and how to bait
hooks with dough balls or offal. It’s useless to explain
half a day’s rental costs almost as much as a full one or
a support check from his father hadn’t come for two months.

My son can scatter blame like blowing heads off dandelions.
Limestone ridges make it easy to forget the day Wolf Creek Dam
was opened. A lodge photo shows a man in a green park shirt
releasing the gate and turning sky loose. Foaming at the mouth,

water swallowed the valley whole. It’s spring. Under the dark
of the lake’s skin, catfish will be holed up to spawn with roots
for cover. I decide, time to teach my son about grabbling,
show him I am not afraid of reaching down into the unknown,

let a catfish grab my hand and hold on for dear life. I find
a stump, settle down, plunge in. I’d learned from my uncle
not to short arm. Explaining grabbling is also called noodling,
I describe wiggling my fingers like wet spaghetti, rippling

my wrist like cooked lasagna. No catfish could resist! Tying
a rope to nail for a stringer to run through gills, I lift whiskers,
blue skin. Way too small for such a big hole, Todd gets to take
it home alive in a bucket. I shaded our trophy by the side door

with canvas from a deck chair but Saturday morning, getting
ready for the dump, I broom handled the body. No rot, no odor,
no wound. To ease my son’s guilt over his promise to keep
the fish alive, I could’ve described death in Cumberland Lake:

mites in pits of lidless eyes; grinning mouth that would eat
anything, a home to leeches; intestines bleached to rubber bands,
swaying with green and bronze flies. Afraid Todd would not
sleep at night, I field questions about the catfish’s soul, if flying

would be like swimming. I resist saying what is awkward in air,
like passion, has a grace in water, but grace can disappear like
his father’s desire for me. I imagine elms rotting at the base
of Wolf Dam, stripped limbs rising like arms lifting to heaven.

What’s gone is gone, like our family. Not mentioning water
moccasins, snapping turtles, I tell Todd to picture catfish big
as men, big as Jaws, that might have been lurking where I went
grabbling. What I do want him to remember is the one day we

floated over the drowned valley under Cumberland Lake, how
driftwood settled. Spelling each other, we rowed at least an hour
to find the right inlet to drop our anchor. My son pointed to water
as it changed color with the shifting of the sun, folded rock, algae

oozing like glue balls, the chimneys of crayfish. I was grateful
for water more accessible than feeder creeks deep in Harlan County
hollows. We could see that when one shore closed, the lake began
to open another one, hinting at yet another one beyond every bend.


—Selected for Honorable Mention in the competition for the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize 2016, and first published in the San Diego Poetry Annual 2016-17 (Garden Oak Press, February 2017); appears here with permissions from both poet and publisher.


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Vivian Shipley

is the author of 10 books and six chapbooks, most recently, The Poet (Louisiana Literature Press, 2015), Perennial (Negative Capability Press, 2015), Greatest Hits: 1974-2010 (Pudding House Publications, 2010), and All of Your Messages Have Been Erased (Southeastern Louisiana University Press, 2010).

Her work appears in numerous anthologies and journals, including An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012), Contemporary American Poetry (Longman Press, 2003), Sunken Garden Poetry: 1992-2011 (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), The Extraordinary Tide (Columbia University Press, 2001), American Scholar, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, among others.

Shipley is a Distinguished Professor at Connecticut State University and Editor Emeritus of Connecticut Review, and teaches at Southern Connecticut University where she was named Faculty Scholar three times. Raised in Kentucky, she holds a PhD from Vanderbilt and is a member of the University of Kentucky’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni. She has received several prizes and awards, including the 2015 Hackney Award for Poetry for her poem, “Foxfire,” and her book, Perennial is the 2016-17 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist. Her ninth book, All of Your Messages Have Been Erased, was awarded the 2011 Sheila Motton Book Prize from NEPC, The Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, and the CT Press Club Award for Best Creative Writing; and was a Finalist for the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize and the CT Poetry Book Prize.

For a complete list of awards and publications, see Dr. Shipley’s Curriculum Vitae.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury